Wayne M. O'Leary

The Madness of President George

I've reached the reluctant conclusion that President George W. Bush is exhibiting definite signs of becoming detached from reality. Like the British King George III, who was immortalized cinematically a few years ago, his bizarre behavior and questionable mental state are disrupting both his government and his country. In a word, he's making us crazy, too.

The evidence, admittedly circumstantial, of an unbalanced mind, is tied to (what else?) Iraq. Since the verdict of the November elections that his war policy was a failure and had to change, "the Decider" has shown no inclination whatever to alter course. The Congress says he's wrong. He doesn't care. The public says he's wrong. He doesn't care. Large portions of his own party, including former members of the administration, say he's wrong. He doesn't care. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, most of the foreign-policy establishment, and many of his generals say he's wrong. He doesn't care.

Some people would call this great leadership, a steadfast adherence to principle by a visionary following the light of truth. Others would call it a classic manifestation of George W. stubbornness, an inability to admit mistakes. But it obviously goes beyond these definitions. Rasputin was a visionary; he was also borderline insane. Many presidents have been stubborn. Woodrow Wilson was uncompromisingly obstinate about the League of Nations, but he was a sick man; his contemporary counterpart never fails a physical.

The president reads only opinions that support his positions and listens only to people who agree with him. He fires subordinates, including commanders in the field, who express policy differences. He's increasingly surrounded by sycophantic staffers who share his narrow world view and offer no contradictions. His White House is more and more a fortress under siege that repels outsiders, including a press corps that is regarded as traitorous.

We've seen this before in modern times. Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have been put on history's couch. Each of them, consumed by Vietnam, developed streaks of paranoia, moods of depression, and instances of obsessive behavior. They saw themselves surrounded by enemies, some real, most imagined. They trusted only a small coterie of advisors who had the sense of self-preservation not to inform the emperor he had no clothes.

There are differences, of course, between the current occupant of the White House and his predecessors. Nixon was overwhelmed by self-pity and victimhood; the world just didn't understand poor Dick. LBJ, on the other hand, wracked by guilt, was physically and emotionally destroyed by Vietnam; he aged prematurely in office, identifying personally with each death his policies caused. In marked contrast, George W. Bush exhibits delusions that border on megalomania, not unlike his late nemesis Saddam Hussein. His self-assured certitude of purpose permits him a serenity Johnson and Nixon lacked. After all, God wants him to pursue the course he's following, so any onus is on God.

At this juncture, the president is a leader without followers. Yet, the Constitution makes him commander-in-chief for two more years. Legally, he has carte blanche (given Congress' abdication of responsibility) to carry out his war on terror as he sees fit, escalating the present Iraq conflict and starting news ones (Somalia? Syria? Iran?) on a whim. In the past, even strongminded presidents would have been sobered and restrained by an overwhelming election defeat and opinion polls showing them mired in the 30% popularity range. Bill Clinton would have done a full-scale *mea culpa* by now.

For George W. Bush, however, it's full-steam ahead, as if nothing had happened. His attitude, echoing President Andrew Jackson's reputed response to a Supreme Court reversal, is "the voters have made their decision, now let them enforce it." Members of his staff have transmitted the presidential view that since he knows more about the Iraq situation than the public, he can and should ignore public opinion. This suggests a chief executive who believes he's an elected monarch, not the leader of a democratic republic serving at the public's sufferance.

The question therefore becomes, can the president be stopped in carrying out a policy the majority of his countrymen have decided is criminally wrongheaded, and if so, how? Short of cutting off war funding, something Congress is loath to do because of its perceived negative impact on American troops, there remains only removal from office. For months the dreaded word "impeachment" has been bandied about, mostly in the far-left reaches of the Democratic party. Two general categories of impeachable offenses have been raised: (1) presidential violations of civil liberties (warrantless wiretapping, imprisonment without due process, and the like), and (2) presidential prosecution of an illegal war under false pretenses (lying, bypassing Congress, and so on). Cautious to a fault, the new congressional leadership has said it will seek no bill of impeachment on either of those grounds.

There is another rationale for removing the president that has not been considered, however: gross violation of the will of the people and of Congress by the executive. This would seem to fall under the "other high crimes and misdemeanors" impeachment clause of the Constitution. The word "misdemeanors" is vague enough, intentionally so, to accommodate unforeseen constitutional crises that arise from our system's lack of parliamentary votes of confidence. And it's been pointed out by scholars of the process that in the last analysis, impeachable offenses are whatever the Congress of the time decides they are. A decade ago, sexual impropriety was considered sufficient.

At the moment, it appears doubtful the present Congress would impeach the president under any circumstances; it's gun shy because of the way the Clinton impeachment backfired politically on the Republicans. Besides, no one really wants Dick Cheney to become president and take us from the frying pan into the fire. Nevertheless, impeachment is Congress' ace in the hole, and subtle (or not so subtle) hints that the card might be played could do wonders for George W. Bush's attitude and mental state -- a kind of electroshock therapy shaking him back to reality. This presupposes, of course, that the president has a treatable psychosis and not a permanently incapacitating disorder. If he's totally unhinged, nothing Congress says or does will matter. Fortunately -- or, perhaps, unfortunately -- we have two long years to diagnose the patient.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2007

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