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The Deciderator | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

The Deciderator

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"I hear the voices, and I read the front page and I know the speculation. But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the Secretary of Defense."   --President Bush, April 18

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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I wish I could stop over-analyzing everything Presi­dent Bush says, but since his pronouncements so often require deciphering, I just can't seem to stop myself at plain meanings. For instance: What on earth's going on with his self-inflicted depiction as our fearless "decider"? A preference for Germanic rather than French suffixes? A penchant for verb-lers rather than noun-atives?

Aside from the odd, archaic locution of Bush's latest positioning of himself as a verb wrapped in noun's clothing, his anointing himself "the decider" is as grating to my ears as was the coinage of "Homeland Security." It's as goofily unmoored in American diction as were he to call himself "the choose-maker." Maybe it's a subtle point, but why would the President wish to be a decider rather than a decision-maker (or given the generative syntactical logic at work here, a "decisionizer")? I suppose "decider" has an energetically active ring to it, like "the liberator," or perhaps a (marvelously misplaced) little thrust of aspiration, like "the great communicator." But it also has an absurdly blowhard-y corona about it, like "The Terminator."

In any event, "the decider" doesn't sound as though it means the same thing as "The buck stops here." Nor does it sound like it means anything like "Commander in Chief," which would have sounded positively constrained by comparison, to say nothing of impressively constitutional. Lord High Decider has a kind of folksy yet foreign force to it, as though a cumbersome little husk of deliberativeness had been removed from the job description to reveal a sleek Presider rather than a President. A head execute-er rather than our chief executive.

My worry is not solely about language. This Administration has circumvented the thoughtful, the consultative, the diplomatic with phraseology so twisted that one indulges the temptation to laugh at it as meaningless rather than to unpackage the purpose behind the mangled mots. During the third presidential debate with Al Gore, for example, Bush was asked where he stood on affirmative action. He responded by ringingly endorsing what he called "affirmative access." One supposes that affirmative access could encompass some of the same notions as affirmative action, but it is not an existing legal remedy, it is not a known judicial concept, and it certainly is not a political notion with anything like a discernible consensus behind it. It was more than an artful dodge, I think; it was a refusal to engage as well as a refusal to commit.

That maneuver has in it the ingredients of so much of what I find troubling about this Administration: There's a whole lot of decideration and precious little consideration. This is an Administration that has leaped without looking, that has prized efficiency (or the idea of it anyway) over equity and enshrined secrecy over communication at every turn. Competence is un­­questionably sacrificed in that kind of bunkered, blinkered governance. And accountability--which is, after all, what we should be debating when it comes to Rumsfeld's performance--is not even on the table.

The substantive disasters of the Bush Administration are one thing, whether the war or Katrina or the economy. But what worries me even more is this habit of blithe deflection, the peculiar colloquialisms that consistently stand in for colloquy and ultimately for process. I don't suppose I'll get to test the hypothesis anytime soon, but I would hope that even if I agreed with every goal that Bush and his Cabinet were striving for, I would remain cognizant of a deeper principle at stake in the way they pursue those goals. It used to be a cautionary cliché about the excesses of power: "The ends don't justify the means." No longer, in an age of sanctioned torture.

I believe that what we call due process is the mechanism that mediates between the letter of the law and the delivery of justice. Process is the institutionalized courtesy that allows us to listen when we don't particularly feel like it. Ideally, it is the structured communing of ideas or data that can keep even the most rigid hierarchies informed, responsive. Bush tends to pit the substance of his decisions against any notion of process. Don't you want safety? Then stop complaining about a few broken rules. Don't you want victory? Then stop whining about a little broken pottery or a few broken eggs or a bunch of broken bones. Whether the concern comes from the Dixie Chicks or General Zinni, the Administration's response is always made in terms that are frankly irrelevant to the question of justice: Don't you love me? Trust our soldiers? Respect hierarchy? Believe in your country? Have faith in God?

Bush got mileage in the last election by arguing that you can't change horses in midstream. Then as now, Rumsfeld was part of the "team" that can't be so much as questioned because they, umm, because they, errr... well, just because. It's been decided, after all. However laudable as values in and of themselves, hard work, blind faith, purity of motivation and even "good results" (assuming we had any) do not address the crisis of transparency that afflicts our executive branch right now. If we are to remain engaged in the collective project of democracy, the procedures for insuring responsibility to the duties of office must be monitored by us, the people. If Bush is Rumsfeld's commander, then there is a clear chain of accountability that implicates Bush in the unfolding conflagration in the Middle East. While it is easy to see why he might want to finesse that reality in an election year, reducing one's office to that of "decider" cuts off any sense of consequence. It is an inflection that vastly misundermalappropriates the democratic calling of his position. It's what a parent might tell a child: I've made up my mind, end of discussion. At a subliminally persuasive rhetorical level, it disallows as irrelevant whatever contribution to the executive's making of decisions that public discourse might otherwise offer. Translation: It disuses input, disenables meaning, de-noun-ciates the subject of citizenry, and duncifies us all.

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