I'm sorry, Mr. President. I saw you on television yesterday. And with all due respect, sir, you should be ashamed of yourself.
I am referring, President Bush, to some of the comments you made at your press conference held in the aftermath of Sunday's capture of Saddam Hussein. Your demeanor at that event -- where you swaggered and smirked like some kind of twenty-first century political version of Don Corleone -- was embarassing to me as an American. And I think I am not alone in feeling this way.
I suppose there might be occasions when Presidents should carry themselves like Mafia dons, but I can't think of any just now. And yesterday certainly wasn't one of them. We as a nation were celebrating the "end of an era," as you correctly pointed out, the final destruction of a symbol of tyranny. But the person we actually captured was a broken-down fugitive, for god's sake, not a rival ganglord.
Acting and talking like a mafioso, sir, was singularly inappropriate. In case you need reminding, you are the President of the United States. The office deserves way more dignity than you are giving it.
Granted, like the rest of us, you have every right to be pleased with the capture of one of the world's more bloodthirsty thugs, a guy who doesn't stand much chance of ever getting into Mother Teresa's section of heaven. And yes, your trash-talking no doubt plays well with certain segments of the American population, and especially the segment you're counting upon to deliver the votes you'll need for re-election next fall.
But stop and think about all this for a minute. When you were growing up, did you ever learn anything about the concept of dignity? Of accepting good fortune with grace? Why then, while I was watching you, sir, was I reminded of how and why the NFL instituted an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for spiking the football after a touchdown?
Maybe that's because, Mr. President, you were spiking the football. Just listen to what you had to say when asked what message you would send your famous prisoner. "Good riddance," you replied. "The world is better off without you, Mr. Saddam Hussein. I find it very interesting that when the heat got on, you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in it."
Ah, now that's the kind of trash-talk that would do an NBA bad-boy proud. But I wonder, though, what your father thinks of remarks like that? Does he find them "presidential"? Maybe we should ask Jimmy Carter, Gerry Ford and Bill Clinton the same question.
I think all four ex-presidents would consider your remarks disgraceful, sir, as would, I feel equally certain, your purported hero, Ronald Reagan. All of these men understood that the "bully pulpit" of the Presidency (so named by another of your predecessors, Teddy Roosevelt) was no place for petulant bullies. That it was a place, as Shakespeare might say, to temper justice with mercy.
Then again, none of our living former Presidents ever claimed victory in wars that weren't won. Nor did they shout, "Bring 'em on" to the enemy, when their actions placed the lives of American soldiers in jeopardy. They never embraced the concept of pre-emptive war the way you and your Administration has. And most certainly, none of them -- most especially your own father -- would have ever dreamed of making this country some kind of punk nation, an international bully that swaggers when it gets its way, and smirks and flips the bird to the world when it doesn't. Which is the kind of country you've made us, Mr. President. It's not something of which you should be proud.
I understand, sir, how much emotion you've had wrapped up in this hunt for Saddam Hussein; after all, this was a real-live bully, a scumbag who once put a contract out on your daddy. But, seriously, do you think labeling the man an abject coward -- "I find it very interesting that when the heat got on, you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in it" -- serves any real purpose?
Do you think it enhances the image of the Presidency among hundreds of millions of non-Americans around the world who heard you utter this puerile sentence? Or do you think it just might remind them of other swaggering, undignified bullies they've seen strut and shuffle across the world stage? Bullies like, say, Saddam Hussein?
I don't expect you to read my comments here, Mr. President; indeed, I don't expect those who do your reading for you -- you recently admitted that you counted upon your closest advisors to perform this obviously unpleasant task -- to bring this commentary to your attention. Why should you and your advisors even care? The polls suggest that you have the beating of us, sir, the tens of millions of Americans who think that you are perhaps the single worst President in the history of our Republic.
But if you don't care what we think -- and why should you, if you've got the votes to win? -- you should at least spare a moment's thought about how your punkish remarks are perceived in the rest of the world. After all, this is a "war on terrorism" we're in (your definition), and by definition, a war on terrorism can only be won, ultimately, by winning over the hearts and minds of those who provide a safe haven for terrorists. Do you honestly think you can win over billions of non-Americans -- over whose political destiny you have no direct control -- by trash talking?
Already, for example, I can imagine that there are more than a few Iraqis who have heard your remarks about Saddam crawling into a hole, and who are now sitting around telling each other that some day, some way, they'll find a way to surround Crawford, Texas with 50,000 of their soldiers screaming for your hide, and laughing about how much fun it would be to find you, sir, shaking with fear and hiding in a little rabbit hole. "Let's see, then, how much of a hero this Bush is!' they're postulating...
Funny, while you were trash-talking, your favorite prisoner was presenting a somewhat different image to the world. TIME magazine reports, according to an official transcript, that, after his capture, Saddam was asked: "How are you?" He said: "I am sad because my people are in bondage". He was offered a glass of water but refused, saying: "If I drink water I will have to go to the bathroom and how can I use the bathroom when my people are in bondage?"
It's a screwball comment, sure, but I wonder whose remarks scored more points today in the vast impressionistic Islamic world: yours, Mr. President, or the broken tyrant's? Think this all helped advance the cause of your "war" on terrorism?
Let me close, Mr. President, by reminding you of an old proverb: "What goes around comes around." Nobody likes a smug, self-absorbed braggart. Nobody. The concept bridges all cultures, sir. Everybody likes to see such a fellow "get what's coming to him."
The only regret millions of black Americans, for example, now have about yesterday's remarkable revelation that Strom Thurmond fathered a black child is that the centenarian did not survive quite long enough to "get his." They would have derived great pleasure from watching the old arch-segregationist -- the man whose actions did so much to impede civil rights in the 1940s and 1950s -- hoist upon his own petard.
So maybe you should lighten up a little, Mr. President. And please, be careful. Truth be told, when "they" come around to give you "yours," they'll unfortunately probably end up giving some of "it" to the rest of "us" as well.
(Kenneth Neill is the publisher/CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., the parent company of
The Memphis Flyer.)