The Character Myth
Past US Presidents of both parties have consistently chosen to evoke collective principles despite commanding overwhelming and dominant military power, carefully avoiding provocative imagery or dominating attitudes. Presidents typically reach for the language of consensus and empowerment in important speeches and addresses, focusing on the word "we" and presenting themselves as leaders of a strong community, whether domestically or internationally, with shared strengths, abilities and responsibilities.
John F. Kennedy, in his commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963, just after the Cuban missile crisis, declared, "Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament--and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude--as individuals and as a nation--for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward--by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home."
Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1981, echoes these collective aims and affirmations of Americans' strength: "And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom. To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment."
George W. Bush's father, in addressing the United Nations on October 1, 1990, before going into war in the Persian Gulf, placed a notable emphasis on consensus: "We have a vision of a new partnership of nations that transcends the cold war: a partnership based on consultation, cooperation and collective action, especially through international and regional organizations; a partnership united by principle and the rule of law and supported by an equitable sharing of both cost and commitment; a partnership whose goals are to increase democracy, increase prosperity, increase the peace and reduce arms.... We stand together, prepared to swim upstream, to march uphill, to tackle the tough challenges as they come not only as the United Nations but as the nations of the world united."
The current President, however, uses the word "I" far more often than the word "we," and usually refers only to the United States, or himself and his party, not the entire world community, when he says "we." This President also tends to undercut his words of inspiration with references to dangers that loom and threaten, hovering vaguely outside our immediate sphere of control. Even as Bush promises action, he fosters a sense of chaos and danger: In his speech to the United Nations on September 12, 2002, he stated, "Above all, our principles and our security are challenged today by outlaw groups and regimes that accept no law of morality and have no limit to their violent ambitions. In the attacks on America a year ago, we saw the destructive intentions of our enemies. This threat hides within many nations, including my own. In cells and camps, terrorists are plotting further destruction, and building new bases for their war against civilization. And our greatest fear is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with the technologies to kill on a massive scale."
Some Americans find a certain comfort in Bush's thoughts, because they feel that dominance implies moral order and establishes God's moral authority in the world. They believe there is a natural hierarchy in which those who enjoy dominance have the right to do so. Just as God has dominion over man and man has dominion over animals, the imagery of the moral order assumes a world in which people dominate those who are below them.
While many Americans feel reassured by the appearance of moral dominance, other nations, even friendly ones, do not find the President's stance reassuring. Non-Westerners tend to view dominance as imperialism. Many nations perceive the President's authoritarian imagery and mythology and are impelled to find ways to fight against American dominance. Because the world already fears US power, other nations are not comforted by Bush's leadership style. They feel only repugnance and fear. Left unchallenged, the character myth could potentially win George W. Bush four more years, but it will cost his nation dearly over a far longer period of time--perhaps stiffening resistance to American hegemony enough to end our current run of dominance.
The Democratic presidential hopefuls have begun to attack the character myth with repeated statements that Bush has lied to the American people. But the character myth is more pernicious than just lying. Often being bold, cocky and sure of yourself, and inflexibly and rigidly adhering to your principles because you are convinced you are right, can lead to catastrophic consequences. In Iraq, for example, it led to an absence of planning for any failure of our military to win a complete victory with the acceptance of a grateful Iraq. The Army consequently was unprepared for any nation-building, so that the country is now plunged into chaos and disorder, and in real danger, like Afghanistan, of becoming a permanent home for terrorists.
To be truly effective to the broader public, the Democratic candidates must present their own vivid, descriptive depiction of how they can make America safe, not merely dominant. Just as George H.W. Bush called for a New World Order and Truman had the Marshall Plan, the Democratic candidate should enunciate a new vision of a safe and secure world. He or she should show how a collaborative world is really safer than a dominating one. This is the prescription for success in 2004.