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"A perfect tragedy is the noblest production of human nature," wrote English essayist and dramatist Joseph Addison.
Ordinarily, to fully appreciate this observation one would need to probe complex literary images like Samson, Oedipus, Agamemnon or Hamlet. But ours are no ordinary times, and we need look no further than the White House and consider the years its current tenant has spent there.
To literary purists, the term "tragedy" is often misused, as it is routinely attached to pretty much anything bad that happens to anyone good under whatever circumstances, from the disappearance of a house in an earthquake to the loss of a friend on a battlefield. Yet the perfect tragedy is more than that, as it involves people larger than most others and calamities that are their own doing. At the same time, tragic heroes' flaws are universal and their downfalls unavoidable.
Now, as speculation mounts concerning the next US president's identity, plans and ability to extract America from the black hole where it has arrived, the outgoing presidency's balance sheet can already be written. Sadly, no matter which accountants, historians or dramatists ultimately compose it, its bottom line will always be painted in one color: red.
IN A SENSE, the Bush years are even more tragic than the American presidencies that ended in assassination.
Bush has been anything but a James Garfield, whose several months in the White House were too brief to matter, nor was he a John Kennedy or a William McKinley, whose departures left millions feeling bereaved and their presidencies recalled fondly. And he certainly was no Abraham Lincoln, whose rise to the occasion was among history's most memorable, nor was he even a Richard Nixon, whose legal record was ultimately overshadowed by his geopolitical success.
Bush's drawbacks were slow to surface and, as tragedies go, their full scope emerged only once the size of the challenges he faced, which no one had fully foreseen, became apparent.
The sages said that some win and some lose entire worlds in one moment. Bush lost his in four: 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the '08 crash. In all these he demonstrated profound deficits of knowledge and intuition, without which even the most resolute and charismatic leader cannot deliver the goods.
The 9/11 challenge caught Bush so badly off guard that it took him precious time to just define the enemy, and even that he did in a way that largely defeated the purpose. The enemy was, and remains, Islamism, but Bush defined the enemy as terror. Telling the American people that the enemy was terror was as if Churchill would have told the British that the enemy is the Luftwaffe, not Nazism, and FDR would have told the Americans that their enemy is the Kamikaze pilots, not Japan.
This was not semantics. Beyond it lurked a failure to understand history and read the world that an American president is demanded to lead. All this should not have come as a surprise considering the geopolitical ignorance Bush had already displayed as a candidate. His aides at the time, still deep in the Cold War victors' hangover, thought it was all anecdotal and even funny. In fact, it was about as funny, and fateful, as Jimmy Carter's failure in his time to understand the world in general, and the Islamist threat it produced in particular.
Had Nixon, Churchill or Roosevelt populated the Oval Office at the time, the response to 9/11 would have been different, one that would enlist the people and instill a sense of volunteerism and sacrifice, whether militarily or financially. But Bush was a tragic figure, one who reflected an entire civilization's post-Cold War denial that it still had to fight expensive wars.
THE KATRINA challenge was different, as it had nothing to do with understanding the world. This one was about detecting in advance cracks in America's civil bedrock, and mending them before rather than after catastrophe struck. But Bush was a tragic figure, and as such was almost predestined to preside over an astonishing administrative helplessness that was reminiscent of the dying USSR's impotence in the face of the Armenian earthquake in 1988.
Meanwhile, the soldiers Bush sent to war were facing an enemy Bush had failed to expect. In a speech delivered aboard the - of all names - USS Abraham Lincoln a mere several weeks after the invasion of Iraq, he declared major combat operations there over. As if assembled into one stage by its cruel playwright, the Bush tragedy's hero spoke in front of cameras, to the entire world, from under a glaring sign that proudly, innocently and so utterly ignorantly read "mission accomplished." It took hardly a year for the world to understand that the mission remained hopelessly unaccomplished, that Iraq was no Falklands and that Bush was no Margaret Thatcher.
Now, to top it all, came the market collapse that has altogether undone the thinking with which America elected Bush and Bush led America, an interpretation of the tempers of the time that insisted all was already well in the kingdom and could only get better in the future. In fact, America got caught so unprepared for the market mayhem that its president, who had once been compared with Ronald Reagan, was now being compared with Herbert Hoover, and seeing the British prime minister unwittingly fill the leadership vacuum created by the confused American leader, the same who had once purported to reshape the world.
AS IT draws to a close, the Bush presidency looms ominously as a Greek tragedy, where innocent heroes like Oedipus or Antigone are maneuvered by their ignorance and obligations into crises that invariably end badly; or like a Shakespearean tragedy, where the trials of prominent but imperfect characters like Hamlet or Caesar unwittingly call into question an entire social order.
More broadly, literary tragedies call into question the role of chance, error, fate and destiny in human life, as they pit man against forces hopelessly stronger than him. The forces George Bush met, and stood no chance of confronting, were of historic, even biblical dimensions, from crusading zealots, billowing battlefields and collapsing skyscrapers to rising superpowers, gushing markets and soaring ocean waves. There was nothing in his upscale upbringing, cushioned career, narrow horizons and pedestrian character that could prepare him for any of this.
Bush's original sin, therefore, did not lie in anything he did or didn't do as leader of the free world; it was in his very decision to apply for the job.