Political Hay

Stoic of the Year

President Bush, faults and all, is made of steely stuff.

By 12.29.05

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Time magazine didn't give President Bush its Person of the Year award, even though Bush's accomplishments -- staying the course through three Iraqi votes, presiding over a booming U.S. economy, and preventing a domestic terror attack for the fourth consecutive year -- seem to stack up pretty well against those of the philanthropists who were honored, and whose work would come to nothing if the country Bush leads were to be disabled.

Maybe it's just as well that for 2005 Bush not be given the honor of Person of the Year, with its vaguely P.C. ring. The kind of year he had, and his response to it, seems to warrant an older name: Bush was the year's great stoic. Whether or not he has ever read the ancient Stoic philosophers, he seems to have internalized some of their teachings. Try this one from Epictetus:

"In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind, is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our opinions and the decisions of our will."

It was a pretty trying year for the White House, offering no shortage of death, exile, and pain. Yet from Iraq and Hurricane Katrina to fuel prices, a botched Supreme Court nomination, special prosecutor investigations, and the persistent calls for military withdrawal, Bush's will remained about as close to unbreakable as it gets in American politics. Whatever his errors in judgment -- and 2005 offered those, too -- Bush seems to have a cast iron stomach and a granite chin.

The last two years have provided ample evidence that, contrary to a pronouncement once made by Bush's father, the Vietnam syndrome is alive and well in our politics. Bush's ability to withstand sustained domestic political opposition while prosecuting a difficult war is remarkable. It hasn't been done before, at least not in a post-Vietnam age. There is no guarantee that it will be done successfully. But at even the darkest moments, Bush has steadfastly refused to declare the defeat that so many of his political opponents wish him to declare. When they complain that his Iraq speeches offer "nothing new," that is what they are really complaining about.

Bush had already had a difficult year by late August, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The post-Katrina storm seemed strong enough to bury him. He was flat-footed for a time, not unlike the early days after September 11th. No sooner had he picked up the pieces on the Bayou than he picked Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, and got into a fight with his base. Everything seemed made for the Democrats. They even had some modest successes in the November off-year elections.

Then the Democrats made the same mistake they've made in the past when they had momentum -- they expressed themselves in public. The surrender chorus kicked into gear. First, Congressman Murtha. Then DNC Chairman Dean. Then John Kerry. Then Nancy Pelosi. Harry Reid gloated prematurely about "killing the Patriot Act," a boast that would have been unthinkable a few years ago -- and should still be, since the threat has not changed.

Then Bush began defending his policies, after a political eternity of silence that did enormous damage to his credibility. Even Cheney made an appearance! Americans have been reminded over the last month what the national security differences are between the president and his opposition. It hasn't translated into love and affection -- Bush's approval rating of somewhere in the mid- or high 40s, depending on the poll, is nothing to write home about -- but the spike up in this short period is demonstrative. When explanations for Bush's policies are advanced, and contrasts drawn between his understanding of the conflict and the Democrats', his support improves.

Bush's political instincts remain puzzling. It is not clear why he cedes so much rhetorical ground to his opposition, and for such long periods, before re-entering the fray. We've seen this pattern repeat itself over the years. Fortunately, his instincts as a commander in chief are much steadier. He won't give in, period.

"Who then is the invincible?" Epictetus asked. "It is he whom none of the things disturb which are independent of the will."

No one who watched Bush in 2005 would be deluded about his invincibility, but neither should they forget that he has proven to be extraordinarily difficult to "disturb" on matters of national security. Sooner or later -- probably much later -- more Americans may come to treasure this about him.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.