17 March 2004


So this Jimmy Breslin article about our nation's president visiting a New York park brought back a memory.

For days now, the job at Eisenhower Park in Nassau County has been to follow the order from the White House through the Secret Service and down to the park workers:

“The president's feet are not to touch the dirt.”

So all yesterday, large crews drawn from all county parks worked to ensure that, as always in his life, George Bush's feet do not touch the ground when he appears in the big park today.

Bush arrives for a fund-raiser at a restaurant in the park. That is indoors and he doesn't have to worry about his feet there. But he has to go over ground to an administration building where he is to meet with families of 9/11 victims. After that, he has to go over more ground to get to the site of a memorial to the victims.

He doesn't want his feet on the ground and he will be at a groundbreaking ceremony.

Breslin fills us in on the details of the effort to fulfill this bizarre requirement: asphalt, wood chips, and fencing laid on its side by long-suffering public servants. It's entertaining, and Breslin artfully works in the obvious digs against Bush, which I'll confess that I enjoy.

But I'd like to cut Bush a measure of slack here ... in service of criticizing him for something else. I don't imagine that he had some spoiled Marie Antoinette fit about getting his shoes dirty. Most likely there's the germ of a reasonable impulse at work here which had all of these wacky consequences. This is really a story about the passive effects of power, and how the movements of VIPs inevitably create big ripples in the world. It reminds me of a time when I was a long-suffering public servant myself, working for the university in the summers between classes while I was in college. One year, the Regents of the University of California were going to be holding their annual meeting right near where my office was, so they kicked me out for several days.

A couple of weeks before, my boss told me a story, to explain what was about to happen. Her boss had called her into his office, she said, and showed her a purchase order form which had come across his desk: the PO to prepare for the upcoming meeting. She told me that she remarked that the PO was incorrectly prepared, but that her boss had told her that it had a blank cost field on purpose, because it was an “open” PO. Spend whatever it takes.

What it took was an army of workers who descended upon the college like a benign plague of locusts that ate up everything unsightly that the Regents might gaze upon as they walked to and from their meeting room. Peeling paint was repainted. Broken windows were replaced. Most impressive to me: a decade's worth of staples from a decade's worth of flyers were methodically pulled out of kiosks. And so on.

I do not imagine that the Regents told their minions “clean up that college before we get there for our meeting.” No doubt the opposite is true — this happened without the Regents' smallest awareness. It is actually more mind-bending to think that all of this effort was expended without the Regents' request. It puts them in a bubble that gives them a subtle false impression of what the college is like, which in turn misinforms their imagination about the lives of the students who attend the school.

This is hardly a thrilling new revelation to most folks; it's more like an entertaining example of something we all recognize, Bush's visit to the park being another such example. So I don't want to blame Bush for the wood chips strewn everywhere to protect his shoes. But I do want to criticize him, in that I don't think that he knows that these things happen. All of the evidence I have seen is that our president has lived in the bubble all his life, takes it for granted, and neither knows nor cares.

This is an emotional objection to Bush's presidency. I feel not only a political opposition to Bush, but because of this obliviousness I also dislike him on a personal level. In a weird way, it makes me feel a greater sympathy now for all of those folks who hated Bill Clinton so much: I now know how it feels to have your politics reinforced by visceral personal feelings.

The thing that gets under my skin is Bush's smirk. I've seen it on other men before: folks who deny that their life of privilege reflects a turn of fortune, but rather somehow rationalize to themselves that their fortune reflects some innate virtue, as Bad Attitudes suggests.

At Harvard Business School, thirty years ago, George Bush was a student of mine. I still vividly remember him. In my class, he declared that “people are poor because they are lazy.” He was opposed to labor unions, social security, environmental protection, Medicare, and public schools. To him, the antitrust watch dog, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities Exchange Commission were unnecessary hindrances to “free market competition.” To him, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was “socialism.”

And then that this arrogant patrician manages to sell himself to so many Americans as a champion of ordinary folks' values burns me further still ....

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