Plain Old Cowboy's Winning Ways

James E. McWilliams is an assistant professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos and a contributing writer at Texas Observer.

Call the man dim, call him corrupt, but call him president until 2008. George W. Bush certainly has vulnerabilities, but he's been smart enough to model himself on a man who pioneered the fine art of political image-making: Andrew Jackson. Democrats, as a result, are doomed.

In 1819, as the dust settled from his bloodthirsty and blatantly unconstitutional attack on the Seminole Indians, Jackson, then one of the nation's most revered generals, found himself on the congressional hot seat. Didn't he know, John Quincy Adams lectured with great pomposity, that his usurpation of military authority would have been better explained on the high ground of national and international law -- laws codified for the ages by the like of Grotius, Pufendorf and Vattell?

Jackson, a man of dubious literacy, paused for a moment and then remarked for the ages, "Damn Grotius! Damn Pufendorf! Damn Vattell!"

It was a strategic retort, designed to show that he was not the kind of man who would let the law get in the way of a war. He was a man who acted first and thought later. Here was a man for America.

Sure enough, Adams notwithstanding, the United States couldn't have identified more with Jackson's instinctual, as opposed to reasoned, justification for slaughtering the Seminoles -- and it helped ensure his election.

We haven't matured much. There's something eerily Jacksonian about our current commander in chief, a man who also favors instinct over principle.

Bush embroiled the country in a war based on a series of false assumptions. His genius has been to recognize that, politically, it doesn't matter. Saddam Hussein has been ousted and if anyone is still nagging us about those pesky weapons of mass destruction, it's just sour grapes.

Of course, thoughtful (if elaborate) justifications against the war have been articulated. But we don't necessarily want our leaders to be thoughtful. Bush has had the finest education a man can buy or inherit, but the only time he mentions it is when he brags that he was a C student at Yale. He's more likely to be photographed holding an ax than a book.

He plays up his Texas heritage (we're all kinda slow in Texas) at the expense of his Connecticut connections (people there, of course, are smarter). Hacking away at mesquite grub on his Crawford ranchette, he convincingly puts forth the image of a rugged individualist, a doer, a true frontiersman, a man who's never quoted a law in his life but has made laws to suit his base urges, a plowman rather than a professor.

Who knows why we lap it up, but lap it up we do. Those of us so bold as to call ourselves intellectuals read the journals, write the books, construct the carefully detailed and, yes, objective arguments against the war in Iraq. We know, deep in our principled hearts, that we are right in both a rational and moral sense. But so what?

The nation has no patience for long-winded justifications. In fact, it is suspicious of them. Until someone figures out that the house of cards the administration has built must be crumbled by a yeoman with a sledgehammer and not a smarty-pants with a book, King George's manifest destiny will be to reign as the favored son of King Andrew.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World