In George W. Bush's presidential campaign, everything has a purpose.
Every night of the convention that nominated him had the
purpose of advertising a purpose: "Opportunity With a Purpose,"
"Strength and Security With a Purpose," "Prosperity With a Purpose,"
"President With a Purpose." Accepting the nomination, Bush
proclaimed that "the presidency ... was made for great purposes."
Bill Clinton's tragedy lay in "so much promise to no great purpose,"
Bush lamented, vowing, "We will renew America's purpose."
There's something peculiar about this obsession. A true
man of purpose does not speak constantly of having a purpose--much
less a series of purposes. "Purpose," like "dignity" or
"confidence," is a word invoked compulsively by those who lack it.
They know they're supposed to have it,
but they don't quite know
what it is. They don't understand that mouthing the word is not
the same as having the thing to which it refers. Nor do they realize
that the more promiscuously they assert it, the less it means.
Clinton has this problem with empathy. Bush has it with purpose.
Not since the Great Depression has the Republican Party
bestowed its presidential nomination on a man of so little substance.
Bush's convention address papered over a lifetime of indifference to
serious work and thought. "The Clinton-Gore administration has
coasted through prosperity," said the man who coasted through his
education and career on family wealth and connections. "An
American president must call upon that character" exemplified by
"paratroopers on D-Day" and "the civil rights movement," said the
man who sat out the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights.
Profiles of Bush always pinpoint a moment when he stopped
partying and developed a purpose: his admission to business school,
his daughters' birth, his religious awakening, his fortieth
birthday, his elevation from baseball-team owner to governor. Yet
always the breezy thoughtlessness returns. As governor, Bush decided
that 30 minutes was too long to spend on a final review of each
death-penalty case prior to execution. He cut it to 15 minutes. On
the presidential campaign trail, he shrugs off the suggestion that
he might learn from his mistakes. "I can't think of anything I'd do
differently," he told The New York Times on July 29, later
adding, "I kind of figure life is going to work its way out somehow."
Finding little to praise in Bush's life, the speakers in
Philadelphia turned to his predecessors. His running mate, Dick
Cheney, likened him to President Reagan, who showed "how one man's
will can set the nation on a new course." General Norman
Schwarzkopf, recalling the Persian Gulf war, asked, "Wouldn't it
be great for our Armed Forces and for America if we could have
another commander-in-chief named George Bush?"
Appearing by satellite from the former home
of President Eisenhower,
Bush compared himself to Ike, citing his "deep sense of duty to our country."
But Bush knows nothing of the life-and-death duty his father and Eisenhower
shouldered. And his course, unlike Reagan's, is aimless.
Bush's convention organized the nation's "purposes" into three
"tests of leadership": education and aid to the poor, taxes and
Social Security, and defense. What Bush proposed in each case,
however, was to withdraw national leadership and abandon national
purpose. His message was: Get yours and get out. Parents whose
children attend bad public schools "should get the money to make a
different choice," he said. But he neglected, as always, to
explain how much money these parents would get and what choices it would
bring within their reach. To combat poverty, Bush deputized
charities and congregations. "In a responsibility era, each of us
has important tasks, work that only we can do," he preached. In
other words: Your problem, not mine.
The purpose of the Social Security trust fund is to guarantee
decent incomes for the elderly and the disabled. Yet Bush proposed
diverting money from it to personal retirement accounts, explaining
that these accounts offer "a higher return" if you're among the
winners. He didn't explain that these returns are possible largely
because the accounts are outside the insurance pool available to
the losers. Similarly, taxes are supposed to pay the government's
obligations, starting with the national debt, which Bush's father
and Reagan quadrupled. Yet Bush proposed to "reduce tax rates for
everyone," draining projected surpluses. Shouldn't we pay off the
expenses we ran up on the Reagan-Bush credit card first? The Texas
governor decided otherwise. "The surplus is the people's money,"
Bush deserted national purpose most clearly in his discussion
of the military, blaming Clinton for "a steady erosion of American
power.... If called on by the commander-in-chief today, two entire
divisions of the Army would have to report, `Not ready for duty, sir.'"
Bush was wrong: Those divisions are ready. But they weren't
last fall. Why? Because they were keeping the peace in Bosnia and
Kosovo. This is what Bush and other Republicans mean when they say
Clinton has "squandered" our power and "demanded" too much from
the military, sapping its "strength and purpose." They're outraged
that he actually asked the Armed Forces to do something. The only
purpose Republicans deemed fit for American might was sending a battleship
to Philadelphia as a convention prop.
In his speech, Bush reaffirmed his top priority: "When I put my
hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the laws of our
land, I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office."
Cheney boasted that Bush would accomplish this "on the first hour
of the first day." But that's why, as the centerpiece of their
campaign, it's preposterous. The presidency is more than a
one-hour job. Swearing to uphold its honor--which in Bush's view consists
of upholding one's pants--is not, as Bush fatuously asserts, a "high
standard." It is the lowest standard imaginable.
This is why the Republicans nominated Bush. You can't hate him
the way you hated Reagan or Newt Gingrich, because Reagan and
Gingrich stood for something. Bush doesn't. As he boasted in
Philadelphia, "I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last
few years." Having freshly concluded his "Renewing America's
Purpose" tour, he embarked from the convention on his "Change the
Tone" tour. Tone, purpose, leadership, dignity--they have one
thing in common. They're meaningless.
Well, almost. They apparently mean something to Bush. His
campaign, after all, is really about him: his heart, his compassion,
his sense of purpose, "the core of my convictions," "the bosom of
my soul." No true conservative would wallow in such sentimental
vanity. In his acceptance speech, Bush imagined himself wrestling with
Clinton for the conscience of the baby-boomers: "Our generation has
a chance to reclaim some essential values, to show we have grown up....
We discovered that who we are is more than important than
what we have." This is Bush's message: Look at me, I've grown up,
I've become responsible, I'm different from Clinton. But, in this
clash of narcissists, there is no real difference. Except for one:
Clinton has accomplished something.
WILLIAM SALETAN is a senior writer at Slate.com.