GUESTWORDS: By E.L. Doctorow
The Unfeeling President
September 9, 2003 - 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 could bear.
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
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 pre-emptive war.
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 ourselves.
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.