I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bush v. Churchill: like Night & Day

Rick Richman over at JPundit is delighted with yesterday's Iraq speech by Bush, which Richman calls "extraordinary." To prove his point, he compares the speech to one delivered to the House of Commons by Winston Churchill in 1942, when the British war effort was suffering serious setbacks and opposition to Churchill's war management was mounting.

Lauding the "Churchillian echoes" in Bush's speech, Richman quotes a long excerpt from Churchill's speech in order to demonstrate how similar it was in tone and substance to the one Bush gave yesterday. As I pointed out this morning, the highest achievement to which one can aspire in the neocon universe it to be compared to Winston Churchill, so Richman seeks to establish Bush's greatness as a war leader by showing similarities between him and Churchill.

Richman, however, actually achieves the opposite of what he sets out to do. The excerpt he cites from Churchill's speech does indeed illustrate why Churchill was such a powerful political leader -- because it contains exactly the attributes of candor and willingness to admit failure and error which are always absent from Bush's remarks on the war no matter how poorly things are going.

Here's the excerpt from Churchill's speech cited by Richman:

“We have had a great deal of bad news lately . . . and I think we shall have a great deal more. Wrapped up in all this bad news will be many tales of blunders and shortcomings, both in foresight and action. No one will pretend for a moment that disasters like these occur without there having been faults and shortcomings. I see all this rolling towards us like waves in a storm, and that is another reason why I require a formal, solemn Vote of Confidence . . .

We are beginning to see our way through. It looks as if we were in for a very bad time; but provided we all stand together, and provided we throw in the last spasm of our strength, it also looks more than it ever did before as if we were going to win. . . ."

"I have never ventured to predict the future. I stand by my original programme, “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” which is all I have ever offered, to which I added, five months later, “many shortcomings, mistakes, and disappointments.” But it is because I see the light gleaming behind the clouds and broadening on our path that I make so bold now as to demand a declaration of confidence from the House of Commons as an additional weapon in [our] armoury . . .”

Richman recounts the fact that Churchill received an overwhelming Vote of Confidence after this speech, and it's not hard to see why. Churchill was candid about the failures of the British war effort and the "many tales of blunders and shortcomings" for which he was responsible. It was likely easy to believe in the truth of Churchill's victory vows because he was so straightforward and balanced in his assessment. He did not try to deny the truth which everyone could see -- that the British were in serious trouble. Rather than make him a nay-saying failure, his willingness to unabashedly admit these failures and problems formed the basis of his credibility and his ability to lead the British.

The contrast with Bush is both self-evident and fundamental. One could not even imagine Bush speaking of his "blunders and shortcomings." The public stopped trusting Bush and believing in what he says about Iraq precisely because he never once acknowledged the reality which almost everyone could see right in front of their faces -- that the war has been going horribly and almost never according to plan.

Bush never acknowledges "bad news" of any kind. According to him, things in Iraq have been going swimmingly from the very beginning. Things are always improving and never getting worse. At the most, he will preach that the struggle can be "difficult" -- usually as a way of praising his own steadfastness and strength of will for marching forward notwithstanding those difficulties -- but war never entails failures, and certainly none which are his doing.

Optimistic resolve of the type exhibited by Churchill is appropriate and powerful even when things seem to be falling apart, but it will work only if one remains firmly planted in reality, which includes acknowledging the failures, setbacks and mistakes which are readily apparent to those whom one wishes to lead.

But Churchillian optimistic resolve is a universe away from the steady stream of reality-denying, rosey-eyed, self-praising cheerleading which Bush and his enablers continue to mistake for resolute leadership. The Churchill speech which Richman thinks demonstrates how similar Bush is to Churchill actually shows why the British followed Churchill more and more as the war progressed, while Americans are doing exactly the opposite with Bush.

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