Monday, February 19, 2007

Confidence and Bravado:
A President's Day Reflection

"The difference between the almost right word & the right word," Mark Twain wrote in 1888, " is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

I thought of this quote last week while reading an entry on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish about Abraham Lincoln. It's a letter from Lincoln to Ulysses Grant in which he admits a mistake:

My dear General,

I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did -- march the troups across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake.

I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.

Yours very truly
A. Lincoln

What is the one single quality a man would have to have to write such a letter? The word I came up with was "confident." Lincoln is a man who is smart and secure enough to be able to rationally admit a mistake.

But isn't George Bush -- who is pictured above in his 2009 Halloween costume aboard the ship the USS Abraham Lincoln -- a confident man, too?

The answer is "not quite." The word is not quite the right one. Rather, Bush demonstrates what you'd call "bravado," a foolishly unyielding confidence.

George Bush, unlike war hero John Kerry, is certainly no flip-flopper, so he certainly could have never written a letter like the Lincoln letter. But at least he has a liberal dosing of bravado to complement his swagger and his Andrew Johnson-like stubbornness.

Bush likes to compare himself to former presidents, like Harry S Truman and Abraham Lincoln. The comparisons are rubbish. Truman was our last true liberal president, advocating national health care and civil rights.

The comparisons turn into contrasts when you scratch the Bush-Truman surface a little:
  • Truman founded the United Nations. Bush lied to the United Nations.
  • Truman fought a limited war in Korea that was truly an international effort. Bush's Iraq fiasco was largely a U.S. effort, involving only an additional 24 non-combat Laundry Corps soldiers from Poland, a country that has since withdrawn not only all its troops but also all its fabric softener.
  • Truman was instrumental in international efforts such as the founding of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; Bush shows contempt for such globalism, opposing the Kyoto accords and showing absolutely no interest in international cooperation whatsoever prior to 9/11.
  • Truman opposed generals for the right reasons; for example, he had the audacity (and the vision and good judgment) of disagreeing with the very popular (and possibly manic) Gen. Douglas MacArthur by refusing to use dozens of atomic weapons against China and Manchuria. Bush opposed generals, too, but the problem is that these generals, unlike MacArthur, turned out not to be insane.
  • Truman demonstrated confidence and certitude; Bush demonstrates ... bravado and stubbornness.

From all of us here at The Cup of Joe, and by all of us I mean "me," here's wishing a Happy President's Day to you and all you hold dear. As you head off for a night of partying and celebrating the holiday with loved ones, remember that the difference between the right word and the wrong word, and the difference between a good president and a dreadful president, is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. May your lights shine brightly, my friends.



Bobby M. said...

Well organized point...but you did leave out one of Bush's more positive qualities...he makes decisions...he is "The Decider."

Ted said...

Bravo Joe!

1) Insightful and incisive. Not always the easiest to compose. Do it again!

2) Can you forward this to the oval office as someone there needs a language lesson.

jercwe said...

Can't wait for your next posting on the do-nothing, dreadfully corrupt United Nations. I am sure it will be as well-written as this post.

Frenchie said...

Joe this was an excellent piece of writing. It was more interesting and original than most of the opinion pieces in the Post. It's the kind of thing I look forward to reading in TCOJ.