President Job - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
President Job
by

He stood there Saturday afternoon at the lectern in the White House cabinet room, with another crushing announcement to make to the American people. For George W. Bush, this kind of scenario has become almost as familiar as breathing. Where once a nation wondered how he would react to bad news, it now seems that bad news and Bush are on intimate terms.

Last week, Matt Drudge ran side-by-side photos of Bush from 2000 and Bush from this year. The men in the pictures look at least 10 years apart in age. It wasn’t just the gray; it was the transformation of the face, from the brightness of a man who seemed to spend a lot of time outdoors to the sunken severity of a man with the gravest of cares. In the later picture, the presence of joy on the face of one who has found much of it in life was absent. Suffering has replaced it.

Those who dislike this president will scoff at that idea. George W. Bush, suffering? He is too shallow to suffer. He will always be Frat Boy Bush to them, or Cowboy Bush, or any number of variations.

Not all the variations are so cartoonish. Some are more cultivated, even flattering. The most common and well-worn by now casts Bush as Prince Hal from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the playboy prince who shrugs off his birthright and duties to the kingdom, preferring to drink and carouse with the Elizabethan equivalents of frat boys and slackers. That is, until the moment of truth beckons him to rise to his obligations and meet the challenges of his father’s world. “I shall hereafter…be more myself,” he tells the king. And so he is.

This metaphor for George W. Bush — the carefree son of a powerful father who spent most of his life shrugging off seriousness — was given considerable play after September 11, and it made some sense. For many, Bush’s impromptu talk at Ground Zero, or his speech before Congress on September 20, 2001, or any number of other episodes, qualified as his “Prince Hal moment.” And the Prince Hal analogy had meaning for Bush critics as well; they could use it to measure his progress and assess whether he had really risen to the point where such a comparison was warranted. Needless to say, most of them still feel he hasn’t.

But after the Columbia disaster, the Prince Hal analogy seems increasingly irrelevant, even small. Bush’s presidential trials have moved far beyond mid-life crises or belated coming of age stories. His is a presidency filled almost entirely with darkness and foreboding. It’s gotten to the point where his emergencies only pull him from one dark subject to another. When the news hit on September 11, he was still in the Clinton era, reading to schoolchildren; when the news came Saturday, he was working on Iraq.

The longer it proceeds along this course, the most fitting analogue for Bush’s presidency may not be in Shakespeare but in a source closer to the president’s heart: the Bible. On Saturday, he quoted from Isaiah: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” The words were appropriate to the event, but Bush’s experiences in the Oval Office seem less akin to Isaiah and closer to those of Job, one of the darkest and most mysterious figures in all of literature.

Job, the faithful servant of God, has property, prosperity, and a beautiful family. His is the story of a complete reversal of fortune at the hands of God, and his own efforts to understand his predicament. From a position of safety and comfort, he travels to the darkest depths of sorrow and despair: “I have no peace nor ease; I have no rest, for trouble comes!” And no matter how deeply he desires to understand what has happened, explanations are denied him. God’s only response to Job’s pleas is to remind him that he is mortal and cannot understand the ways of the almighty.

TO BE SURE, BUSH SHOWS NO SIGNS of despairing, and his faith appears to have only deepened in the crucible of his presidency. He has not had his wealth and possessions and children taken from him, as Job did; he has not been afflicted with diseases, as Job was. If Prince Hal has become too small for Bush, Job is probably still too large.

But then look again — look at the sense of personal ease that Bush brought with him into the White House; look, too, at the ease most Americans felt just two years ago. Bush has not lost his self-confidence, but his demeanor is a far cry from the lightness he once carried. Gone too, is the easy optimism of Americans, replaced with a most unfamiliar question: “My God, what next?”

Over the last two years, our comfortable illusions of safety have come crashing down around us. Sitting in the White House as the sky has fallen is a man who was once as comfortable — and many say, as cocky — as prosperity could warrant. His life before the White House was something of a shrine to safety. Even when he took risks, like going into the oil business, he was buttressed by family fortune and connections. He was never going to be on the outside looking in. For many, his life of privilege was reason enough to vote against him (Al Gore’s life of privilege didn’t figure in their calculus). When he reached the White House, it seemed the culmination of a life in which everything had been handed to him.

Except for one thing: the presidency isn’t a sinecure, and it isn’t the place to be if one wants safety. Now, George W. Bush is as alone as any president of recent times. In Bob Woodward’s Bush at War , Laura Bush tells of waking up in the middle of the night in the White House and knowing, without looking over, that her husband is awake beside her. This is the kind of confession, of course, that her husband would never make himself, but there it is. Most of us have some experience with jobs that keep us staring at the ceiling at 3 AM; but none of us has Bush’s job.

Bush has become an eloquent, powerful conveyor of loss and the fragility that is at the core of life. People wondered if he had the intellect to be president; others wondered whether he had the character. He has proven to have both, but the hinge of his presidency is spirit. He has become deeply acquainted with sorrow, wearing it now in his face, weighing it in his words.

One of the great mysteries about loss is how it often acts to buttress faith, when one might expect it to do the opposite. Among the many mysteries at the heart of the Job story is Job’s deepened faith in God at the end, after he has been so cruelly punished. Having gotten no satisfactory answer to his questions, only a reminder that God is immense and inscrutable, Job finds strange consolation in God’s power:

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; Things too wonderful for me, Which I cannot know. I had heard of you by word of mouth, But now my eye has seen you.

Watching the man in the cabinet room last Saturday, one couldn’t help but compare his steadiness, his almost eerie calm, to the shaken and uncertain president in the immediate hours after September 11. Somewhere between then and now, perhaps, George W. Bush found his own consolations.

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