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Where Have You Gone, Mr President?


Last week, in the wake of mass murder on the campus of Virginia Tech, President George W. Bush addressed a grieving community. The president’s heartfelt words offered comfort to friends, family, and others affected by the events of April 16, when deranged student gunman Seung-Hui Cho inexplicably slaughtered 32 innocent lives before committing suicide.

Whatever your opinion of President Bush, he managed to deliver the right words at a time when the entire nation stood in shock. He has that knack, and it causes me to wonder, “Where have you been, Mr. President?”

When George Bush was elected in 2000 it was largely because of his regular-guyness. Eight years of a slick-talking Bill Clinton White House and the numerous scandals, semi-scandals, and rumors of scandal that dogged Mr. Clinton during his time in office set the stage for Bush’s election. (And hold off on the stolen election manifestoes, hanging chad conspiracies, or other black helicopter/Trilateral Commission scenarios; been there, read that, not impressed.) Americans wanted someone we could imagine sharing coffee with mornings at the local diner. We wanted someone without pretense, without a silver tongue, and without the usual better-than-thou attitude that politicians of high rank often exude.

George W. Bush was that guy, and more. He spoke sincerely of his faith, acknowledged his personal failings, laughed along with us at his frequent verbal foibles, and reminded us that America is still a country where all citizens are considered equal under law.

Nine months after taking the oath of office, George W. Bush stood atop a pile of smoking rubble in New York City and ad libbed a rousing speech that helped America find its bearings and bravely look forward after a heinous act of terrorist cowardice. It’s clear to everyone when the president is working off of a script, or reading from a teleprompter, but that day, speaking from the heart, he touched us – deeply and effectively, as a leader of men should do – with the right words at the right time.

Looking back at those brief remarks and their power, I ask again: “Where have you been, Mr. President?”

In 2004, running against Senator John Kerry, we weren’t so far removed from that moment or so deep into a mismanaged war in Iraq that we’d forgotten about the regular guy we elected. We’re an optimistic people and we wanted to believe the optimistic accounts of the conflict overseas. Afghanistan was largely under control, and we’d swept into Baghdad with ease. We were certain that the continuing violence would soon be overcome and that the president’s promise would be kept in short order.

It’s been all downhill for President Bush since November of 2004, illustrated most clearly in the results of the 2006 midterm elections when the Democrats won a decisive victory in capturing a majority in both houses of Congress. The atmosphere in Washington has grown increasingly contentious in the few months since, as retribution and campaigning for 2008 seem to be priorities for both parties.

Yet, when reports of tragedy in Blacksburg, Va. broke through the static of April 16 and the president stepped behind the lectern to offer the deepest sympathies of a man and a nation, we had a brief reminder of why we twice elected him to our highest office. For those six minutes a mismanaged war, a troubled attorney general, spiking gasoline prices, global warming, and a host of other problems dimmed.

No one doubted whether the president meant what he said, and when he spoke of prayer and quoted from the Bible there was no bristling over the appropriateness of religion and state.

Even the president’s sharpest critics – those that know him – admit that George W. Bush is a genuinely good guy. When he goes fishing for striped bass in the waters of Kennebunkport, Me., tees up a golf ball, or drives around his Crawford, Tex., ranch in a pickup truck, you know he’s doing it for himself and not for the cameras. When he is not being prompted by a host of political strategists, he has the ability to transcend the gap between the rarefied air of Washington, D.C. and Middle America.

Where have you been, Mr. President? The hurt we’re feeling right now started before April 16, and it’ll be with us after classes wrap up for the summer. We need you to stick around, sir. And we need you for more than six minutes.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 4:15 PM | Permalink

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