The President has taken this country to war and the war has not gone well. He has misjudged the spiritual strength of a militarily inconsequential but profoundly committed enemy. War was not even a distant issue when he first became President, and he is increasingly frustrated that this unsuccessful war is defining his presidency. Testy exchanges with journalists have caused him to almost abandon news conferences, he is openly mocked on television and on the street, and his popularity ratings have plummeted. Never one to seek wide counsel, he increasingly surrounds himself only with advisers who give him good news, who tell him what he wants to hear.
No, his name is not George Bush. His name is Lyndon Johnson.
"I am not going to lose Vietnam," Johnson said. "I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went." It is significant that Johnson thought of the war in the first person"I am not going to lose." Johnson had a famously monumental ego and soaring ambition. Friends, fellow politicians, and historians consistently report that what motivated Johnson from his schoolboy days to his presidency was a pure lust for power and control unusual even for a politician. As Johnson's biographer Robert Caro observes, "Johnson's ambition was uncommonin the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs."
Lyndon Johnson edited reality to suit his needs. Anyone who disagreed with him on Vietnam policy was a "knee-jerk liberal," "crackpot," "nervous Nellie," or "troublemaker." There was no such thing for him as loyal dissent. Lyndon Johnson was as politically competent as any President in history (and he used that competence for good in getting passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act). He lacked, however, the wisdom and moral courage necessary to keep this country from far deeper entanglement in a disastrous war.
Iraq is not Vietnam. George Bush is not Lyndon Johnson. Taking a country to war is not automatically wrong. But grave decisions of war and peace, life and death, prosperity and privationon the domestic and international frontsare made by Presidents during their time in office. At election time, we the people decide who our decision makers will be. And we too often decide poorly, because we ask the wrong questions.
We make the same mistake as one recent grumpy CNN commentator: "What we need from these candidates are details of how they are going to solve our problems. How are they going to stop the slide of the dollar? How are they going to get the troops home from Iraq? How are they going to fix Social Security? That's what we need to know." Grumpy and wrong. There's value in hearing a candidate's plans and proposals, but it's of secondary or even lesser importance. Few if any of those plans and proposals will survive the political process intact. Voting for Obama's health plan or Hillary's economic scheme or McCain's immigration policy is virtual-reality voting, positing an intriguing alternate world, but having little to do with this one. When it comes to picking a President, Gandhi had it right: "The obligation of accepting a position of power is to be, above all else, a good human being."
"You've got to be kidding," one hears our CNN commentator saying. "'Good human being'? Who's to say what constitutes a 'good human being'? I want someone competent to run the country." Wrong again. Competence without virtue is poisonous. It simply makes one more effective at doing wrong. Furthermore, being virtuous is, in itself, an expression of competence. Since virtue is a requirement for leadership, a lack of virtue in a leader is a sign of incompetence and grounds enough for rejecting that leadership. Virtue is a personal matter, but it is never wholly a private one, certainly not in a President.