September 19, 2001
by Burt Worm
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.