The Magazine

Believe It or Not

Presidents and their convictions.

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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When George W. Bush addresses the nation with his Iraq proposals in early January, a great many people will be disappointed. They will be so because the president is unlikely to change the position he has held all along: that in Iraq victory, or something that looks to the world like victory, is still essential, crucial even.

How could it be otherwise? George W. Bush is not, strictly speaking, a politician; he came, after all, to politics late. He is instead a believer. It may well be in his nature to believe, as witness his midlife conversion to earnest Christianity. But there can be very little doubt that, on the morning of September 11, 2001, he also acquired political religion. He believes American security is being challenged; he believes this challenge must be met directly and with force; and he believes that he knows what is best for the country which he has been chosen to lead. The question of the rightness of his belief may be debated; but about the sincerity of his belief there can't be much question.

Four or so years ago, I heard the comedian Jackie Mason mock George W. Bush's slender rhetorical powers. "He stumbles, he stutters, he mispronounces. He goes arghh, he goes ahhh; he twists himself up in words; it's hopeless. Unlike Bill Clinton, who speaks with never a pause, never a miscue, never a hitch of any kind. You know, when you come to think of it, it's a hell of a lot easier to speak well when you don't believe a word you're saying."

More than merely amusing, this comic bit is provocatively suggestive. What it suggests is that American presidents can be divided into those who are true believers and those who are something else: managers, politicians, operators, men who just wanted the job. While in office, Bill Clinton, who seems to have had as little true belief as any politician in recent decades, sensed that the country wanted to move to the center, so he moved to the center along with it: changing the welfare system, doing nothing radical about health care, rocking no boats, giving the people what the polls told him they wanted.

Belief in itself, in a political figure, is not sufficient to make him either good or bad. Everything of course depends on the content of the belief. I do not know American history well enough to run through all 43 of our presidents, designating the believers and nonbelievers among them. But I think I can do so fairly quickly from the presidency of Harry S. Truman, the first president in my lifetime of whom I had awareness, through the present day in a way that, I hope, is instructive.

Truman wasn't supposed to possess anything resembling belief; when he came to the presidency at the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he was considered a politician of the ward-heeling type, beholden to the Pendergast machine in Kansas City. Yet he was called on to make some of the most significant decisions of the 20th century--including that of dropping atomic bombs on Japan--and it is impossible to imagine him making that decision without deep belief in its rightness. As it happens, the decision was one that every American serviceman, even ardent liberals among them, viewed as the correct decision.

Dwight David Eisenhower had no strong beliefs that I can make out. He was thought to be the right man at the right time, someone who would stabilize the country after the Korean war and becalm the disrupting antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Such at least was the reason that Walter Lippmann gave for endorsing him over Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Eisenhower believed in order, in advancing the interests of business, in adherence to the law of the land (he sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to secure the integration of schools). But his belief was cool; in none of these discrete items did he seem passionate. To be a true believer, passion is required.

John F. Kennedy was a non believer, however much his public-relations minions (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ted Sorensen, and others) wished everyone to think otherwise. He just wanted to be president of the United States; perhaps more important, his father, the egregious Joe Kennedy, wanted a son in the White House, and was willing to pay for it. Had he lived longer, Kennedy might have come to belief, but it is difficult to find clear evidence of strong belief in any of his actions or in his overall approach to governing.

Lyndon Johnson was a believer, alas, to his own detriment. He believed in extending the program of FDR (who may himself not have believed in it), in civil rights, and (disastrously for his political career) in the need for an American victory in Vietnam. The great irony of Johnson's career is that the man everyone considered the operator par excellence until he ascended to the presidency was brought down by his own genuine beliefs.