“Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” – Robert Kennedy
Presidents and other leaders are often encouraged to “be visionary.” George Herbert Walker Bush found this demand to be intimidating.
As president, Mr. Bush worked long hours and had a penchant for detail. Fred Malek, his campaign manager in 1992, described him as “a guy who wanted to do everything well.” But in stark contrast to his predecessor, Mr. Bush failed to articulate an overarching view of the principles by which he governed.
“The vision thing,” as he called it, eluded him. “Some wanted me to deliver fireside chats to explain things, as Franklin D. Roosevelt had done,” he confided to his diary. “I am not good at that.” He was, he said, a “practical man,” who preferred “what’s real,” not “the airy and abstract.”
Perhaps not surprising! Usual definitionsof “vision” go something like this: the act or power of sensing with the eyes; sight. compare hallucination[!!!]…the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be.
The reference to hallucination, or something like it, may have been what gave Bush pause. In presidents and other leaders this holds particular danger. Emanuel Macron was swept into power in France but today is widely regarded with skepticism because his vision reputedly includes a Jupiterian self view. President Duterte (Philippines) and Xi Jinping (China) and some other world leaders readily come to mind in this group.
While artists (think Samuel Coleridge) may find inspiration or vision in drug use, the vision demanded of leadersis of another sort. Successful leaders don’t introspect and then seek to impose their ideas on a larger public. Rather they tend to listen to that public’s grave (but often vague) concerns, give them focus and voice, and work with that public to develop options and approaches for meeting the challenge.
President Bush was actually rather good at this – especially when it involved the extra measure of making the public interest paramount, even at great personal cost. He’d campaigned for election famously promising read my lips; no new taxes. But national circumstances would soon demand something else:
The line later hurt Bush politically. Although he did oppose the creation of new taxes as president, the Democratic-controlled Congress proposed increases of existing taxes as a way to reduce the national budget deficit. Bush negotiated with Congress for a budget that met his pledge, but was unable to make a deal with a Senate and House that was controlled by the opposing Democrats. Bush agreed to a compromise, which increased several existing taxes as part of a 1990 budget agreement.
The country was the better for it.
Why are we still talking about this former president from years past? Because this particular Bush vignette has special present relevance to the now.
Today a successor weighs the purely personal political cost of walking back a campaign promise against serving the national interest: allowing government workers to return to their service of the American people, opening up a realistic, inclusive discussion on national security, immigration, health care, infrastructure, America’s place and role in the world, and other issues; and charting a course forward.
Weather forecasters may experience an affinity with this bit.
And yet, Bush the Elder delivered perhaps the most visionary political speech of my lifetime – the Thousand Points of Life speech. In this speech, he anticipated much of what social scientists are now telling us is important and is needed to break the partisan impasse – collaboration, men of good will reasoning together humbly recognizing that no one has a monopoly on the truth.