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The mistakes of the father. One hears those five words as if theywere an incantation, a mantra, a magical talisman repeated to ward off the spirits that bring down incumbent presidents. But what were the mistakes of the father? In one sense, the answer is easy: the mistake was in not being reelected after making a bid for a second term. A man who is thrown out of office, so unceremoniously, is surely a man who must have made some mistakes.
As such, the logic of those who surround the younger Bush, perhaps even his own internal logic, is clear enough. To understand the mistakes of the father-as they played out in domestic and economic affairs-is to avoid the mistakes, to appease the spirits. On the surface, at least, it much makes sense.
Nonetheless, to study history is one thing, to be haunted by it quite another. And the current Bush administration is an administration all but obsessed by history, though theirs is perhaps a sectarian reading of history. This is frequently dangerous in policy terms, for history contains messages that are, at best, open to multiple interpretations. One may even be partially correct, yet as Michael Oakeshott noted, being partially correct is to be partially incorrect.
A bit of historical humility is clearly in order, and therein is the problem. Historical humility-the sense of appraisal and reappraisal, of consultation and evolving argument according to standards beyond political expediency and the ideological certainties of the moment-are not the strengths of the second Bush White House. Instead of humility, they prefer a brash enunciation of principle with little transparency about the steps leading to the policies taken. None of this is particularly reassuring for policy, which depends on a public understanding of consequences and possible alternatives. Mature and compelling argument-on which the life of a society and even the lives of its citizens ultimately depend-involves more than simply the annoyed dismissal of objections and the frequent delegitimization of opponents, both in the opposite party and (all too frequently) within the party fold.
To suggest as much is not to endorse the arguments of Bush's liberal critics, which seem to be getting louder. One need look no further than simple traditional conservative argument to find a counterpoint to the style of the forty-third president. Indeed, the arguments of temperamental, old-fashioned conservatism stand at sharp variance with those of newly ascendant ideological conservatism-ideas which are of recent vintage even if they have roots that go back half a century or so.
Echoing newer conservatism, the younger Bush tends to place policy argument in terms of a congeries of ideas that suggest conviction-think of the words courage, backbone, certainty. All these variations speak to the normative aspects of leadership. Put in another context, however, the very same words could be clues for obstinacy, myopia, inflexibility, stubbornness, pride, perhaps even hubris. (One wonders if it is even prudent for a president himself to speak of his policies in such inflated terms: might it be more prudent for others to laud the president's policies?) That aside, a selective reading of history, and a devout zeal in carrying through the policy lessons embedded therein, are typically an invitation to paradox. They are the very recipe for bringing on the things one wanted to avoid.