An Essay on Death and President Bush
by E.L Doctorow
I fault this president (George W. Bush) for not knowing what death is.
He does not suffer the death of our twenty-one year olds who wanted to
be what they could be.
On the eve of D-day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the
lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what
death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of
necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower
But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for
it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the
WMDs he can't seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the
stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd,
smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man. He does not mourn. He doesn't
understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a
speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the
brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their
But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an
emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he
has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for
the thousand dead young men and women who wanted be what they could be.
They come to his desk not as youngsters with mothers and fathers or
wives and children who will suffer to the end of their days a terribly
torn fabric of familial relationships and the inconsolable remembrance
of aborted life.... They come to his desk as a political liability
which is why the press is not permitted to photograph the arrival of
their coffins from Iraq.
How then can he mourn? To mourn is to express regret and he regrets
nothing. He does not regret that his reason for going to war was, as he
knew, unsubstantiated by the facts. He does not regret that his bungled
plan for the war's aftermath has made of his mission-accomplished a
disaster. He does not regret that rather than controlling terrorism his
war in Iraq has licensed it.
So he never mourns for the dead and crippled youngsters who have fought
this war of his choice. He wanted to go to war and he did. He had not
the mind to perceive the costs of war, or to listen to those who knew
those costs. He did not understand that you do not go to war when it is
one of the options, but when it is the only option; you go not because
you want to but because you have to.
This president knew it would be difficult for Americans not to cheer
the overthrow of a foreign dictator. He knew that much. This president
and his supporters would seem to have a mind for only one thing --- to
take power, to remain in power, and to use that power for the sake of
themselves and their friends. A war will do that as well as anything.
You become a wartime leader. The country gets behind you. Dissent
becomes inappropriate. And so he does not drop to his knees, he is not
contrite, he does not sit in the church with the grieving parents and
wives and children.
He is the President who does not feel. He does not feel for the
families of the dead; he does not feel for the thirty five million of
us who live in poverty; he does not feel for the forty percent who
cannot afford health insurance; he does not feel for the miners whose
lungs are turning black or for the working people he has deprived of
the chance to work overtime at time-and-a-half to pay their bills ---
it is amazing for how many people in this country this President does
But he will dissemble feeling. He will say in all sincerity he is
relieving the wealthiest one percent of the population of their tax
burden for the sake of the rest of us, and that he is polluting the air
we breathe for the sake of our economy, and that he is decreasing the
safety regulations for coal mines to save the coal miners' jobs, and
that he is depriving workers of their time-and-a- half benefits for
overtime because this is actually a way to honor them by raising them
into the professional class.
And this litany of lies he will versify with reverences for God and the
flag and democracy, when just what he and his party are doing to our
democracy is choking the life out of it.
But there is one more terribly sad thing about all of this. I remember
the millions of people here and around the world who marched against
the war. It was extraordinary, that spontaneously aroused oversoul of
alarm and protest that transcended national borders. Why did it happen?
After all, this was not the only war anyone had ever seen coming. There
are little wars all over the world most of the time.
But the cry of protest was the appalled understanding of millions of
people that America was ceding its role as the last best hope of
mankind. It was their perception that the classic archetype of
democracy was morphing into a rogue nation. The greatest democratic
republic in history was turning its back on the future, using its
extraordinary power and standing not to advance the ideal of a
concordance of civilizations but to endorse the kind of tribal combat
that originated with the Neanderthals, a people, now extinct, who could
imagine ensuring their survival by no other means than pre-emptive war.
The president we get is the country we get. With each president the
nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable
national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of
lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. The people
he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into and get us
into, is his characteristic trouble.
Finally the media amplify his character into our moral weather report.
He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail: How can we
sustain ourselves as the United States of America given the stupid and
ineffective warmaking, the constitutionally insensitive lawgiving, and
the monarchal economics of this president? He cannot mourn but is a
figure of such moral vacancy as to make us mourn for ourselves.