The presidency as foreign-policy theater

George H. W. Bush was far from indifferent to political realities, but he was a politician of an increasingly rare kind: one who was not only a politician. In the Gulf War, he understood what U.S. interests were actually at stake, identified the most direct and convenient means for securing those interests, built a grand coalition that served U.S. military and diplomatic interests, and to a considerable extent trusted — wrongly — that the contrast between his old-school competence and the low-rent shtick of the grabasstical governor of Arkansas would secure his reelection. But by 1992, our presidential politics already had become surreal: George H. W. Bush was denounced as a “wimp” — the editorial cartoonists liked to depict him as an old woman — by the same people who had five minutes ago denounced him as a warmonger, not only for his leadership in the Gulf War but even before that, for his courageous actions as an airman in World War II. (The charge was strafing Japanese lifeboats.) There has always been an element of purely symbolic exchange in our presidential politics, from George Washington on, but by the 1990s that economy of symbols had become almost entirely unyoked from the business of being president. That is the only way to understand the madness of handing power over from the experienced and capable hands of George H. W. Bush to such a man as Bill Clinton.

The symbolic presidency and presidential administration remain disconnected. That makes it impossible for a president to shut up and do nothing — even when that is the best course of action.

The prevalence of symbolism over all else means that presidents are compelled to act — even when the action is pointless or destructive. Sometimes, that is an ill-considered tariff or a ridiculous promise about Mexico paying us to build a border wall. Sometimes, it is showing up at a disaster scene as though the presidential presence brought with it mystical healing powers rather than resource-consuming distraction. Sometimes, it is the mystical laying of presidential hands upon a Skutnik during the State of the Union address.

Sometimes, it’s a carload of kids being burnt on the altar of muscular executive action.