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Our Most Christian King
March 19, 2003
By Stephen Sacco

Of all the invectives that are hurled at George W. Bush the one that might really hurt and give people pause before supporting him is never used. George W. Bush is human and subject to the same follies and foibles to which you and I are prone.

Ouch! That has to smart. I mean for someone who speaks in terms of good and evil, it must sting to learn that you are prone to folly and are human, all too human.

The traditional view is that God is a better arbiter of moral clarity than George W. Bush. To those who call George W. Bush "God's president" (this title, incidentally, is never objected to by George W. Bush) this must be a disappointment.

There are certain things you can say about Bush that won't hurt him, but this isn't one of them. George W. Bush is used to being called stupid, in fact, he's proud of it. Every person who calls Bush an "idiot" is just affirming that Dubya is able to act decisively unencumbered by intellect.

Indecision has always been the Achilles heel of brain-burdened leaders. (Then again, is that the case? It's so hard to be decisive on this point.) Leaders who are not so burdened can easily dedicate themselves to a course of action, no matter the results.

"Folly," historian Barbara W. Tuchman writes in her book The March of Folly, "is the child of power." She does not mean the children of the powerful are foolish, but that great power can bring about great folly. On both counts, George W. Bush should be careful.

Ms. Tuchman's books covers a multitude of follies, or, as she defines it, the pursuit of policies that are counter to self-interest when feasible alternatives are available.

She begins with Troy. Cassandra warned the Trojans about bringing that big fat Greek horse into the city, and the rest, as they say, is history. Ms. Tuchman gives special attention to the Most Christian King of France, Louis XIV, otherwise known as the Sun King. It seems that old Lou had quite a spin machine and it was not until after his death that the foolishness of his reign erupted in revolution. His relatives were led to the guillotine (cursing the Sun King all the way) and the rest, as they say, is history.

"He [King Lou 14th] had acquired," write Ms. Tuchman, "the disease of divine mission so often disastrous to rulers." In Lou's own words, in which he causally refers to the almighty, "I should be His instrument in bringing back to His ways all who are subject to me."

No one is going to accuse old Lou of lacking "moral clarity." He was morally clear right down to his use of the sword and boot. "His ways" for old Lou, always turned out to be his ways. Folly would be downright hilarious if not so deadly.

Old Lou happily persecuted Protestants, who fled France taking with them much-needed labor, and fought constant wars that almost bankrupted the country. All the while ignoring the needs of the people, in fact, he was unable to see the needs of the people as different than his own. "L'etat c'est moi" (I am the state) he famously sniped.

It's easy to judge old Lou in retrospect. The trick is to spot contemporary foolishness even if it parades around as virtue.

William J. Bennett (conservative writer and activist) who, as far as moral clarity goes, wrote the book (literally!), had no problem taking Americans to task during the impeachment proceeding of President Clinton.

The Clinton administration offered "a temptation to their supporters" Mr. Bennett wrote in his book The Death of Outrage. "The Temptation," Mr. Bennett elaborates, "to see themselves as realists, worldly-wise, sophisticated: in a word, European." Say it isn't so! Those who supported Clinton were secretly French! The implication is that only those who supported impeachment are true Americans.

This sounds bizarre to this American. It sounds like it has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with superiority.

This is snake-oil virtue without introspection, without questioning one's own motives and without compassion. It is akin to fat-burning pills that promise you you'll be thin - without dieting, exercise or work.

"If the mind is open enough" writes Ms. Tuchman, "to perceive that a policy is harming rather than serving self-interest," and this policy is able to be reversed, "that is a summit in the art of government."

In light of American politicians' vulnerability to folly, perhaps we should rethink our current stance of belligerence towards Europe and international institutions. History does not call the thickheaded moral nor does she esteem those who rush off to war when there are feasible alternatives.

We know that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. What is less well known is that those who do know history are forced to watch the reruns. Trouble is, it's a show we'd rather not see again.

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