It's like that joke about the guy who calls the doctor about his wife suffering a terrible pain in her appendix.
"But I took out your wife's appendix just last year. I have never heard of someone having a second appendix."
"Have you heard of someone having a second wife?"
Here we just fixed the economy a week ago by getting all the anatine members of Congress to quack in symphony, and suddenly the whole accipitrine choir is back cawing overhead, hoping to divvy the carcass. After a massive commitment of resources to effect a realignment of assets and risk, the patient is still ringing loudly for the nurse. Trying to conduct campaigns for the presidency in the midst of this cacophony is like trying to get a good corned-beef sandwich at a PETA convention.
A fascinating sidelight to all this is the price we are paying for tearing down a President. It would take a genius actuary to put a price on it, but let's call it an even trillion. That's right, I am saying that the practice of casually badmouthing President George W. Bush, deservedly or not, is turning out to be a very expensive hobby.
As I wrote in my previous column, none of us understands all the elements in the toxic pie that Fate has slapped into our face (and John McCain's) these last weeks. We each have some expertise in parts of the equation and tend to extrapolate views from there, using the time-dishonored blind-men-and-the-elephant method of analyzing complex matters. The one thing we can all see is that the psychological and emotional factor is weighing very heavily to the detriment of the world's markets. The New York Post ran an extraordinary front-page headline-qua-editorial saying There is Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself, and that is a fair summation of the truth.
This degree of trepidation is somewhat surprising, considering the President's admirably consistent level of engagement. He has been active at every stage trying to promote solutions â€" right, wrong or indifferent â€" and he has been addressing the common man as well as the businessman. Reporters are seeing more of him in seven weeks than they have in seven years. He says all the right things, and in the right way. This could have been a historical moment in which a leader eclipses the calendar, invigorating the waning days of his term, similar to Rudolph Giuliani on Sept. 11,2001.
Sadly that has not happened. He is talking to the wall, not to Wall Street. His image has been so thoroughly attenuated that he simply does not have the power to cheer America. Leaving office with 35 percent approval makes the duck more than lame, it makes him paralyzed.
Those who believe that George W. Bush has really performed that badly may feel justified in diminishing his authority through ridicule. All I will say is they had best be sure of their facts. Because if he has basically been a nice guy pursuing relatively bland policies, and most of the trouble we face cannot be laid at his door, then viciously scapegoating him until he has been stripped of the power to inspire has been more pernicious than anything he has committed or omitted.
This is one of the reasons conservative societies continue to venerate their leaders even after they mess up a time or two. The aura of the presidency has a value that accrues to all of our benefit. Diminishing the dignity of the office makes all of us poorer, in this case financially.
Sometimes being a nice guy and chuckling when folks put you down is not a virtue. The President has to learn to somehow overcome the lambasting and the spoofing, to reach the hearts of the people. Whether Bush is guilty of all his accused faults I cannot say, but he is guilty of allowing himself to be defined negatively. If you won't hit back, people come to believe that you can't.
Like the joke about the Soviet citizen whose wife sends him to the market, where he finds nothing for sale. He approaches a shady-looking character standing near the store and asks if he knows where he might find some contraband goods. The man pulls a gun, flashes his KGB identification, and says: "Go on home before I change my mind and shoot you."
"So," his wife asks. "Are they really out of food?"
"Even worse," he replies. "They are already out of bullets."