The president of the United States, wrote Henry Adams, the most brilliant of American historians, "resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek."
The Constitution awards presidents the helm, but creative presidents must possess and communicate the direction in which they propose to take the country. The port they seek is what the first President Bush dismissively called "the vision thing."
Let us interview another president on this point. Franklin D. Roosevelt was by common consent one of the great presidents of the United States. The presidency, FDR said, "is not merely an administrative office. That's the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is predominantly a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified." In other words, they were possessed by their visions.
So, FDR continued, Washington personified the idea of federal union. Jefferson typified the theory of democracy, which Jackson reaffirmed. Lincoln, by condemning slavery and secession, put two great principles of government forever beyond question. Cleveland embodied rugged honesty in a corrupt age. Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson were both moral leaders using the presidency as a pulpit. "Without leadership alert and sensitive to change," FDR wrote, "we are bogged up or lose our way,"
But a vision per se is not necessarily a good thing. Adolf Hitler had a vision. Josef Stalin had a vision. Especially when visions harden into dogmatic ideologies, they become inhuman, cruel and dangerous. Bush the elder was generally held to have a vision deficit, but that's not the same as having a defective vision. Bush the elder was a moderate as president, and he did not harm the republic.
Bush the younger is another matter. In his State of the Union address, he presented a medley of visions. Is it reasonable to suppose that the son feels that his father committed two fatal errors, which he is determined not to repeat? One might be the folly of alienating the ideological right. The other — the absence of a vision.
Born again, Bush the younger has a messianic tinge about him. He thinks big and wants to make his mark on history. Four hours of interviews left Bob Woodward with the impression, as he wrote in "Bush at War," that "the president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's master plan."
His grand vision told Bush that American troops invading Iraq would be hailed as liberators, not hated as occupiers, and that the transformation of Iraq under American sponsorship into a Jeffersonian democracy would have a domino effect in democratizing the entire Islamic world.
That dream has waned, and so has the vision that lies behind it. It turns out that the president's vision-free father had a much more accurate forecast of what an American war against Iraq would bring. Bush the elder wrote, defending (with Gen. Brent Scowcroft) his decision not to advance to Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War, "Trying to eliminate Saddam would have incurred incalculable human and political costs…. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land."
The United States is today an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. In a couple of years, Bush the younger has succeeded in turning the international wave of sympathy that engulfed the U.S. after 9/11 into worldwide dislike, distrust and even hatred. With his Iraq vision collapsing around him, Bush is trying to dump his self-created mess on the United Nations, heretofore an object of contempt in his administration. And he is trying out a new vision — the moon and Mars.
In this respect he is following the example of President Kennedy, who sought to repair American self-confidence after the Bay of Pigs by proposing to send men to the moon and return them safely to Earth "before this decade is out." A difference is that the preventive war against Iraq was an essential part of the Bush vision, but the Bay of Pigs was not part of the JFK vision. It was a CIA vision inherited from the Eisenhower administration.
I was appalled by Bush's preventive war against Iraq, as I was appalled in the Kennedy White House by the Bay of Pigs. And as I applauded JFK's vision of landing men on the moon, so I applaud Bush's vision of landing men on Mars.
It has been almost a third of a century since human beings took a step on the moon — rather as if no intrepid mariner had bothered after 1492 to follow up on Christopher Columbus. Yet 500 years from now (if humans have not blown up the planet), the 20th century will be remembered, if at all, as the century in which man began the exploration of space.
Some visions are intelligent and benign. Other visions are stupid and malevolent. "Where there is no vision … the people perish," the Good Book says. Where there is a defective vision, people perish too. In a democracy, it is up to the people themselves to make the fateful choice.
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a special assistant to the president in the Kennedy White House, has twice won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His most recent book is "A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings" (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times