Dissent Of The Day

by Will Wilkinson

A reader rebuts me:

Wilkinson’s argument amounts to saying that a president with personal connections in government (via a dynasty for example) would be a good counter to overly independent, unaccountable bureaucracies such as the CIA. The Bush dynasty is the perfect example of the reverse. George HW Bush was the director of the CIA. Before Dick Cheney was George W. Bush’s vice-president and man behind the curtain, he worked in the White House under Nixon and was GWHB’s Secretary of Defense. Does Wilkinson think that Dubya’s personal connections made the CIA more accountable? Probably not. And Dubya would be one more personal connection between Jeb and war crimes. All that would make torture and CIA unaccountability more likely, not less.

He closes with the glib pontification, “And the enormous, deadly, often malign power of the sprawling American security state makes it worth asking whether a decent president who isn’t really in charge is better than an odious one who is.” To which the answer is yes. Of course. I’ll take things not getting better over things actively getting worse any day. As depressing as a Jeb vs. Hillary race may be, the personal connections to the CIA are one of the best reasons there is to vote for anybody but Bush.

At best, Wilkinson could argue that personal connections in government amount to more power (but if that’s what he meant, it’s so obvious it’s trivial). But that only makes it more important to critically examine what those connections are.

These are all great points. As I said, these were speculative thoughts, and I’m not at all happy about where they lead. But I think the possible strengths of dynastic presidents are worth taking seriously.

It had occurred to me that George W. Bush puts a hitch in the argument. With W., I think we have a case of a president who is somewhat oddly idealistic and ideological, given his father’s very realpolitik background, who really believes his own airy nonsense about the axis of evil and the universal desire for democracy, that America really is an agent of providence in history. In his case, I think his starry-eyed softness was exploited by flinty Bush-machine consiglieri, such as Cheney. So it may well be that a slightly oblivious dynastic president, by bringing with him so many well-connected Machiavellian old hands, is more likely than an inexperienced but shrewd newbie, such as Obama, to get played by his team. But Jeb is the smart Bush, right?

And what about Obama’s dismal failure to make good on his campaign promises about Guantanamo and the wars and transparency and torture and on and on and on? I don’t think Obama was insincere in those promises. I think he got into office without much of an independent network in place and the doyens of the security state were able to scare him into believing that the only responsible thing to do was what they wanted to do. Now, it may well be that Hillary or Jeb would want to do what the generals and spies want, anyway. But if they don’t, they’ll be in a better position to do it.