Tragic hero

When the election of Obama was making headlines all across the world it was almost too easy to miss those few retrospects to the two-term tenure of George W. Bush. It seemed that pretty much everyone (not least the americans themselves) were just happy to see him go, finally. In a BBC debate, the question was voiced which must have been on the minds of many people all around the world – “was George W. Bush the worst president of the United States ever”?

I was certainly never among his fans either. For many people, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was something that really captured the essence of what GWB was all about – an arrogant, dumb, cynical and despicable man on a 8-year ego-trip. However, I don’t believe that this view is doing president Bush a full justice.

A few days ago I was reading a book of lectures and essays by a peruvian writer and intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa. It was his essay on Don Quixote that got me thinking. Like the famous protagonist of Cervantes’ masterpiece, George Bush was a man who gave us almost constantly something to laugh at, and for most of the time rather unintentionally at his own part. Like Don Quixote, Bush also saw the world not for what it is, but as a backdrop to an epic struggle between good and evil. And this made him the first true tragic hero of a new millennium.

In his essay, Llosa asks us to consider what exactly does an adjective “quixotic” mean:

It means audacious, effusive, idealistic, visionary, and heroic. But also meddlesome, humourless, and suspicious of reality. /…/

Is this a defect or a virtue? It depends on the prism through which we view it. From a certain standpoint, attacking windmills mistakenly taken for giants could be an admirable undertaking, if we see it as the result of a dissatisfaction with the narrow confines of reality that provokes in nonconformist spirits a desire to enrich life – that is, if we see it as the refusal of the rebellious to yield to a pedestrian existence. However, it is also possible to define that attitude as a form of profound alienation which prevents people from fully judging the world or understanding historical events, making these individuals incapable of distinguishing between reality and non-reality and causing them – rather like children – to act in an imprudent, irresponsible, and catastrophic manner, creating havoc in themselves and their social environment.

If Cervantes’ brave hidalgo was a true believer driven by novels of chivalry – texts defining the concepts of honour and justice of their age – then president Bush was similarly taken in by a contemporary elitist view of the world of the West (and United States in particular) as a bastion of freedom and democracy, ethics of hard work and perseverance that the rest of the world is – or at least should be – aspiring to. And it should be pointed out that this view, in both its extremist as well as more moderate forms, shows very little sign of relenting – it is enough to cast even a cursory glance at books filling the current affairs, history and global politics shelves in any major airport in the world to confirm this.

Although the actual reasons for going into war were certainly closer to American interests rather than ideals, the justification for doing so was firmly related to what president Bush believed he was called to do – to fight the evil and uphold freedom and liberty across the world. In his famous “mission accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, president Bush was saying:

In the images of celebrating Iraqis, we have also seen the ageless appeal of human freedom. Decades of lies and intimidation could not make the Iraqi people love their oppressors or desire their own enslavement. Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food, and water, and air. Everywhere that freedom arrives, humanity rejoices. And everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear.

This is of course another striking parallel: “Don Quixote”, says Llosa,

…  practices freedom in all acts without the least concern for what risks this may entail, convinced that “Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts bestowed by heaven on man; no treasure that earth contains and the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as honour, men can and should risk their lives and, in contrast, captivity is the worst evil that can befall them” (vol 2. chap. 58). /…/ Quixote, unlike the respectful Sancho, who is fearful of authority and the law, believes that justice in this world is not something to be administered by the state – a remote and abstract entity whose existence he does not even notice.

Justice is, rather, the work of idealistic, honest citizens like himself and his kind, the knights errant who set out “for the service of their republic” and take on their shoulders the task of “righting wrongs, offering succor to widows, and protecting damsels” (vol 2. chap. 9), along with defending the needy. His idea of justice is not subordinated to secular or religious law. It obeys strong, personal conception, which he puts into practice even though it sends him on a collision course with the established order.

So, when judging George W. Bush’s presidency it is easy to dismiss it as a complete disaster with monumental blunders and misunderestimatings, a war and foreign policy that wrecked the United States’ position in the world and alienated it from its’ closest allies, plus a financial meltdown on a scale unseen in a whole generation. However, Bush did certainly not fail for the lack of trying and the sheer epic scale of those failures is something that will perhaps, just as with a hidalgo from La Mancha, end up defining his time in the White House more than the fact that he ended with his time in the office with the lowest approval ratings that any American president has ever had.


2 thoughts on “Tragic hero

  1. Right.. and as yet another article pointed out, W. holds a rather unique position among the unpopular American presidents such as Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Hoover by virtue of having served for two terms. If he really was so bad, how come get got elected TWICE? Also, in addition to ending with the lowest approval rating, Bush during his term also held one of the highest.

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