September 19, 2001
R.W. Apple and the New York Times are at it again:
trying to bestow legitimacy on a president whom many people
in the United States and around the world sincerely - and
reasonably - believe was not legitimately elected.
By seeking to "lift the spirits of the American people
- to console the bereaved, comfort the wounded, encourage
the heroic, calm the fearful and, by no means incidentally,
rally the country for the times ahead," Mr. Apple writes
in the Sunday, September 16 Times, George W. Bush "made
significant progress toward easing the doubts about his capacity
for the job and the legitimacy of his election that have clung
stubbornly to him during his eight difficult months in the
Oval Office. You could almost see him growing into the clothes
of the presidency."
From the perspective of this New Yorker - and I'm certain
I'm far from being the only one - Mr. Bush is wearing no clothes.
Mr. Apple seems to think that Mr. Bush's legitimacy depends
largely on his success at handling the responsibilities of
his office, and it is true that should Mr. Bush rise to the
challenges of this crisis and achieve the style of leadership
the occasion demands - which all Americans must hope he will
do - nagging complaints about his irregular accession to the
office will seem almost beside the point.
But these questions will not and cannot ever go away, regardless
of Mr. Bush's performance on the job. His legitimacy cannot
be determined by simple analysis of his actions this week,
last week or ever, or the method of electing our president
will devolve forever into irrelevancy. Ultimately, the resolution
of his legitimacy can rest only on the legality and constitutionality
of the process that landed Mr. Bush in the Oval Office in
the first place.
But even if we judge Mr. Bush only by his performance to
date, Mr. Apple's conferment of legitimacy on him, to me,
seems premature. While Mr. Bush may have sought to do all
that Mr. Apple claims he did in the days following the attacks
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he did not succeed
at any of them but, rather, left these difficult tasks for
other, legitimate leaders like Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Governor
George Pataki and a few persons of character in his administration.
We should be profoundly grateful that so many legitimate
leaders are filling, with such heroic ability, the holes Mr.
Bush has left gaping. To assign him their attributes at this
time when they are wholly unearned is an insult not only to
these true leaders, but to our intelligence and the truth.
Chief among Mr. Bush's many, many failures in this awful
week was his evident inability to raise the level of his game
above P.R. When this city and the nation were suffering the
real consequences of last Tuesday's terror, the Bush administration
was on the defensive, protecting the figurehead at its center
with elaborate excuses for his failures of action and communication.
While New York was digging itself out of the still-smoldering
rubble, the administration was asking us, if we had a moment,
to please consider Mr. Bush's shyness, his overwhelming (literally,
apparently) sense of the awesome responsibility facing him,
and the fear his protectors felt for his life. We were given
more "behind-the-scenes" anecdotes, complete with
direct quotes from Karl Rove's legal pad, of the commander
in chief being, contrary to all appearances, "in charge."
We were being asked to cut yet more slack for a man who has
enjoyed a lifetime of being cut slack.
I never thought I would feel admiration and even affection
for Mayor Giuliani, but after his genuine, unerring performance
last week, I do. His dictatorial tendencies have been forgiven,
if not forgotten. I had hoped I would be able to forgive,
if not forget, Mr. Bush's illegitimacy. I am still waiting
for the opportunity - and, with all due respect to R.W. Apple's
say so, now is not the time.
It may seem churlish, unpatriotic, even seditious to cast
stones at Mr. Bush in this time of great crisis when, after
years of ludicrously petty partisanship, the nation has been
thrust into apparently sincere unity. But I fear that excusing
Mr. Bush - especially in this moment of crisis - from responsibility
for actions that, to my mind, threatened the very life of
American democracy would be a grave error, the consequences
of which could be as devastating to the body politic as the
terrorists' improvised bombs were to the Twin Towers.