Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


For some reason that phrase came into my head as I was reading this George W. Bush speech (in Latvia). The key moment is that Bush apologizes for Yalta:

As we mark a victory of six days ago -- six decades ago, we are mindful of a paradox. For much of Germany, defeat led to freedom. For much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.

The end of World War II raised unavoidable questions for my country: Had we fought and sacrificed only to achieve the permanent division of Europe into armed camps?

(Hat tip: Belmont Club)

This is at the same time that Putin is refusing to apologize for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and more generally refusing to repudiate, or even reviving the legacy of Stalin. There is something majestic about the way now-- now!-- Bush is challenging our mythologized past, confessing that our hallowed victory in World War II was, as Niall Ferguson puts it, a "tainted triumph."

One commenter at Belmont Club remarks: "This is pretty funny in a poltical sense. After years when Bill Clinton would apologize for just about anything the US had ever done, and the Democrats have spent years moaning about how GWB would never apologize for anything, he's gone and apologized for the actions of an iconic Democrat, FDR." George Bush seems in some ways to be morphing into a Democrat of late. His proposals for progressive indexation of benefits, and his willingness to entertain raising the cap on earnings subject to the payroll tax point in the same direction, as David Brooks notes:

Democrats have been hectoring President Bush in the manner of an overripe Fourth of July orator. The president should be summoning us to make shared sacrifices for the common good. The president should care for the poor, and stop favoring the rich. He should make the hard choices and impose a little fiscal discipline on government...

Over the past few weeks, the president has called their bluff. By embracing the progressive indexing of Social Security benefits, the president has asked us to make a shared sacrifice for the common good. He's asking middle- and upper-class folks to accept benefit cuts so there will be money for the people who are really facing poverty.

He has asked us to redistribute money down the income scale. Why should programs for children and families be strangled so Donald Trump can get bigger benefit checks?

He has made the hard choices. By facing up to the fact that there are going to be benefit cuts, he's offended Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, the supply siders and other important Republican constituencies.

Really, though, it's not that Bush has turned into a Democrat; rather, he has transcended both parties, drawing with him the best strands of each party's traditions; he becomes, at times, the Voice of History. In him I hear the eloquence of the great presidents echoed, and historical analogies with all the great presidents come into my mind. Like Abraham Lincoln, he found himself dragged into a war of dubious legitimacy and found himself forced to articulate a lofty message of freedom, to turn to Providence so as to become greater than himself, to rise to meet the moment history had thrust upon him. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, he saw that the socio-economic foundations of American life had changed, and that deep policy changes were necessary:

The times in which we live and work are changing dramatically. The workers of our parents' generation typically had one job, one skill, one career, often with one company that provided health care and a pension. And most of those workers were men. Today, workers change jobs, even careers, many times during their lives, and in one of the most dramatic shifts our society has seen, two-thirds of all moms also work outside the home. (Applause.)

This changed world can be a time of great opportunity for all Americans to earn a better living, support your family, and have a rewarding career. And government must take your side. Many of our most fundamental systems -- the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training -- were created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow. We will transform these systems so that all citizens are equipped, prepared -- and thus truly free -- to make your own choices and pursue your own dreams. (Applause.)

And he has embraced that challenge, and in the process may well build a generational majority for the Republican Party. And like John F. Kennedy, for better or worse, he was a son of privilege, who came to power in an extremely close and even questionably legitimate election, with a tiny majority but expanded it, an expansionist at home and abroad, who swore that his generation would "pay any price, bear any burden" to uphold liberty.

The debate over Iraq has sometimes taken the form of an argument over whether Iraq was like Vietnam (bad) or like World War II (good). But the truth is, we have transcended both paradigms. The fire-bombing of Dresden, the atomic bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are almost unthinkable now; we are far more careful with the lives of enemy civilians. Nor would we resort to forming an alliance with a ruler as evil as Stalin. Our standards have risen.

I don't agree with Bush on everything. One good thing about Clinton is that, perhaps he was from a poor background, he was relatively frugal and less inclined to waste money. Bush's big spending will get us into trouble if the next president is not more restrained. In this respect, Bush is setting a dangerous precedent that will need to be reversed. But that doesn't stop me from admiring the man, and his message.

The public has not necessarily followed Bush. As Bush offers a guest worker program, the snarling Minutemen try to bar the border to brave would-be immigrants. Polls show declining support in Iraq even as the spark of freedom begins to spread through the Middle East. The end of the election year, though a relief, also means that the public is following politics less closely, less available to be inspired. Bush continues speaking, but fewer are listening. The Democrats' successful obstructionism has given them a higher profile than the Republican majority on the domestic scene. Meanwhile in Washington there is only the murky sea of partisan grappling, minds in the gutter, as symbolized most recently by Harry Reid calling Bush a loser. Bush floats above it, oblivious to it, small and faraway somehow.

Dante, in On Monarchy, argued in favor of a monarchical emperor on the grounds that one who has absolute power cannot be corrupted by ambition. I am far from agreeing with this, but looking at Bush, it seems that Dante may have had a bit of the truth. With nothing left to gain or lose except his own satisfaction in having done the right, guided by the inner light of conscience and faith, Bush is a man apart, speaking for, and to, the ages.

It's a privilege to be alive right now.


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