GUEST WORDS: By E.L. Doctorow
The Unfeeling President
September 9, 2004 - Easthampton Star
I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not
suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could
be. On the eve of D-Day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for
the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew
what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of
necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower
But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for
it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the
weapons of mass destruction he can't seem to find, you see him at
rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the
carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man.
He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn. He is
satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn
for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the
ultimate sacrifice for their country.
But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an
emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he
has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for
the 1,000 dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be.
They come to his desk not as youngsters with mothers and fathers or
wives and children who will suffer to the end of their days a terribly
torn fabric of familial relationships and the inconsolable remembrance
of aborted life . . . they come to his desk as a political liability,
which is why the press is not permitted to photograph the arrival of
their coffins from Iraq.
How then can he mourn? To mourn is to express regret and he regrets
nothing. He does not regret that his reason for going to war was, as
he knew, unsubstantiated by the facts. He does not regret that his
bungled plan for the war's aftermath has made of his
mission-accomplished a disaster. He does not regret that, rather than
controlling terrorism, his war in Iraq has licensed it. So he never
mourns for the dead and crippled youngsters who have fought this war
of his choice.
He wanted to go to war and he did. He had not the mind to perceive the
costs of war, or to listen to those who knew those costs. He did not
understand that you do not go to war when it is one of the options but
when it is the only option; you go not because you want to but because
you have to.
Yet this president knew it would be difficult for Americans not to
cheer the overthrow of a foreign dictator. He knew that much. This
president and his supporters would seem to have a mind for only one
thing -- to take power, to remain in power, and to use that power for
the sake of themselves and their friends.
A war will do that as well as anything. You become a wartime leader.
The country gets behind you. Dissent becomes inappropriate. And so he
does not drop to his knees, he is not contrite, he does not sit in the
church with the grieving parents and wives and children. He is the
president who does not feel. He does not feel for the families of the
dead, he does not feel for the 35 million of us who live in poverty,
he does not feel for the 40 percent who cannot afford health
insurance, he does not feel for the miners whose lungs are turning
black or for the working people he has deprived of the chance to work
overtime at time-and-a-half to pay their bills - it is amazing for how
many people in this country this president does not feel.
But he will dissemble feeling. He will say in all sincerity he is
relieving the wealthiest 1 percent of the population of their tax
burden for the sake of the rest of us, and that he is polluting the
air we breathe for the sake of our economy, and that he is decreasing
the quality of air in coal mines to save the coal miners' jobs, and
that he is depriving workers of their time-and-a-half benefits for
overtime because this is actually a way to honor them by raising them
into the professional class.
And this litany of lies he will versify with reverences for God and
the flag and democracy, when just what he and his party are doing to
our democracy is choking the life out of it.
But there is one more terribly sad thing about all of this. I remember
the millions of people here and around the world who marched against
the war. It was extraordinary, that spontaneous aroused oversoul of
alarm and protest that transcended national borders. Why did it
happen? After all, this was not the only war anyone had ever seen
coming. There are little wars all over he world most of the time.
But the cry of protest was the appalled understanding of millions of
people that America was ceding its role as the last best hope of
mankind. It was their perception that the classic archetype of
democracy was morphing into a rogue nation. The greatest democratic
republic in history was turning its back on the future, using its
extraordinary power and standing not to advance the ideal of a
concordance of civilizations but to endorse the kind of tribal combat
that originated with the Neanderthals, a people, now extinct, who
could imagine ensuring their survival by no other means than
The president we get is the country we get. With each president the
nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable
national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of
lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. The people
he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into and get
us into, is his characteristic trouble.
Finally, the media amplify his character into our moral weather
report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail.
How can we sustain ourselves as the United States of America given the
stupid and ineffective warmaking, the constitutionally insensitive
lawgiving, and the monarchal economics of this president? He cannot
mourn but is a figure of such moral vacancy as to make us mourn for
The novelist E.L. Doctorow has a house in Sag Harbor, NY.
Doctorow, E. L. (1931-...), is an American novelist. His works are
noted for their mingling of American history and literary imagination
through the interaction of fictional and real-life characters.
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