On National Public Radio last week, there was a journalist roundtable discussion where one of the guests described President Bush's recent speech as an expression of "Wilsonian idealism."
It's not the first time I've heard a political analyst compare Bush Jr. with Woodrow Wilson. And it's not the first time my brow wrinkled in confused amusement at the comparison.
More than a few readers of this column have written to me to label me a "young idealist." I've received e-mails from self-declared conservatives who apparently enjoy reminding me of the following witticism: a young person who is not an idealist has no heart and a old person who is not a conservative has no head.
In other words, idealism amounts to youthful ignorance compounded by excessive egoism, while conservatism equals wisdom based on experience; and is not the political perspective that is brought on by the second law of thermodynamics in which a world-weary elder has lost much of the moral and intellectual vigor of his youth.
My less-than-friendly response to this kind of pseudo-psychology has been to repeat something that J.S. Mill once said: "Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that all stupid people are conservative."
If it is wholly accurate that the wisdom of old age embraces conservative ideology, then what do we make of old idealists like the Dalai Lama or the late Dorothy Day?
Clearly, Bush's idealism and mine are world's apart. But, not being a psychologist, I won't delve into trying to make sense of the differences. The question I find more illuminating: Is President Bush a Wilsonian idealist?
Wilson: "No one can worship God or love his neighbor on an empty stomach." Yet, in facing an economic crisis, Bush is not sending states the extra they want, some of which would pay for needed food stamps to help help feed hungry kids.
Wilson: "American free enterprise is not free...Why? Because the laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak." Yet, President Bush is trying to ram a tax cut through Congress that includes a provision to permanently eliminate the estate tax, which will surely exacerbate the palpable sense in this prosperous nation that the strong continue to crush the weak.
Wilson: "The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of their bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy."
Under the guise of "Homeland Defense," the Bush administration has increased the power of secret government. And, since Bush Jr. was elected, 37 top defense industry execs raked up $1.35 billion in salary and bonuses while, as columnist Derrick Jackson points out, the average Army private in Iraq earns about $20,000 a year.
Support our troops? Which ones - the troops on the battlefield or the troops in the boardroom?
Wilson: "Why, my fellow Americans, is there any man here or any woman - let me say, is there any child here - who does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is commercial and industrial rivalry."
Yet, according to Bush, the invasion of Iraq was not about oil. The motive was supposed to be primarily about Iraq's weapons violation, which hawk revisionists are now trying to insist was always about "liberating" the Iraqi people - an understandable, though dishonest, white-washing of the war, given that weapons inspectors from Scott Ritter to Hans Blix have proven to be right in their assessment that Saddam's Iraq did not pose a WMD threat.
But, in the end, so what if someone is an idealist. After all, G.K. Chesterton, whose "muscular Christianity" and fine British writing have made him one of the most revered figures in American conservatism, once said: "To say that a man is an idealist is merely to say that he is a man."
So I say, if it looks like a PR gimmick and smells like a PR gimmick, then....well, you know the rest.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. His column runs on Tuesdays. Call him at 508-775-1200, ext. 719, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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