"Fools and the wise are equally harmless. It is the half-fools and the half-wise that are dangerous."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Like millions of others here and around the world, I've been riveted to my television, unable to look away from the devastation caused first by Hurricane Katrina and now Rita.
Like others, I was surprised and angered when, during the Katrina disaster, the Bush administration responded both belatedly and with befuddlement. Now, as the consequences of Hurricane Rita are just being felt, Mr. Bush seems to be everywhere, determined, it seems, to prove to the American people that in this crisis at least, he is in command.
Watching these oddly disparate responses has made me ponder the nature of leadership. Throughout the history of this country, our presidents have been, for the most part, great men with great faults. There were Kennedy and Clinton with their women, L.B.J's legendary temper, and Lincoln's melancholia.
Sometimes it was those very faults that helped forge our connection with these men and reassured us of their humanity - they fought with their wives and unruly siblings, suffered from insomnia, ate junk food.
But despite their foibles, they were possessed of something extraordinary - a personal vision inextricably linked to their vision for this country and its place in the world. They had the ability to plot a clear course and steer the country, even in times of great upheaval.
Certainly during the Civil War, the Great Depression and the world wars, some feared for the future of the United States and opposed decisions made by Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt. But those people were not led by a "half-fool," a man with a provincial, simplistic world view whose vision for the United States seems derived from Sunday school lessons and fiction. He "plays" president as if he were an actor in an old Western movie.
Thus I was stunned by the 2004 presidential election. It was inconceivable that a man could be re-elected whose first acts after the prior election had been to cut family planning funding for Third World countries and to relax the restrictions on arsenic in drinking water. Until Mr. Bush's re-election, I had always taken on faith that the leader of the free world would be a person of great intellect, of political if not personal integrity, whose vision for the future would include a strategy for how to get there.
It is clear that President George W. Bush is not that person.
Very few men have had the good fortune to inherit the nation when it has been both prosperous and peaceful. Mr. Bush assumed power when the United States was at peace, enjoying strong ties to its historic allies, with an unprecedented budget surplus and low unemployment.
But in four short years, in the wake of Sept. 11, Mr. Bush has managed to unravel our gains at home and to spend most of our political capital abroad. We are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, teetering on the brink of one with North Korea, sinking under an irresponsible deficit, and facing unprecedented environmental disasters.
Do I blame Mr. Bush for the hole in the ozone layer? No.
Do I blame him for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? No.
Do I blame him for the catastrophic hurricanes that have laid waste to the Gulf Coast? Of course not.
I blame Mr. Bush for his xenophobic, self righteous, "John Wayne" style policies that have left the United States isolated and vulnerable. I blame him for dismissing civilized agreements like the Geneva Convention and the Kyoto Agreement.
I blame him for telling lies of such magnitude that he has condemned thousands of American men and women to death in the un-quagmire of Iraq.
And I am afraid.
I am afraid that on this president's watch a cure for cancers or Alzheimer's will disappear along with the world's rainforests; that my children's children will never see a glacier because they will have melted; that Americans will accept as normal the worsening droughts, increasingly deadly hurricanes and dangerously declining air quality. But mostly, I am afraid that my president's refusal to join the rest of the world in trying to save the planet, while our country uses a grossly disproportionate amount of the world's resources, will result in a planet that cannot be saved.
Our president is not a great man with great vision and human flaws. He is an average man with great power. He does not shape events and lead the country toward a great vision; he is instead shaped by events and led by popular opinion and corporate cronies.
But Americans do great things. I know that we will repair our tattered image in the court of world opinion, refill our drained coffers, rebuild our devastated coastline, and bring our soldiers home. We have survived wars, natural disasters, civil unrest and economic upheaval.
I just don't know if we can survive our current president.
Rita D. Woods is a physician and writer ("The Color of Clouds," Publish America, 2003) who lives in suburban Chicago with her husband and two sons. She is filling in this week for regular Fresh Ideas columnist Marilee Swirczek.