13 February 2004


The Perfesser wonders, in a persuasive series of posts up to yesterday, what the point of criticizing Bush's military record might be. I am afraid, Perfesser, that your intellectual honesty is preventing you from understanding the deviousness behind this. It has, as usual with anything inside the Beltway, more to do with appearances than with substance.

The potential attacks on Bush's military record—and I remain amazed that nobody has gone after the single most-important set of records—might seem somewhat satisfying to Democrats still fuming at the attacks on Clinton's change of heart over becoming an officer. (Frankly, I think Clinton did the right thing, presuming the truthfulness of his change of heart; I didn't want as colleagues people who questioned their very purposes as officers.) As the Perfesser points out, no retroactivity is involved. It is, instead, a preemptive strike to keep the issue from being used against any Democratic candidate. The only reason that the attack on Clinton had any real legs at all is that he faced an individual (George II) who did not have problems with his own military record. The issue is not "youthful indiscretions"; again, as the Perfesser points out, what matters is current character. At worst, George III did something that a lot of children of privilege did during the Vietnam era; and that privilege goes down a lot farther from the top than one might think. The point of attacking Bush's military record is to prevent his campaign from doing the same to others by making plausible some same-brush tarring.

What I find much more disturbing (and, again, far from unique to this administration) is not the substance of the complaint, but the pretty clear dissimulation and pretty wishywashy possibilities of a "cover-up" by the staff. As Jack Balkin notes, George III is not exactly an idiot. The problem is that, somewhat like his father—and, more to the point, disturbingly like Emperor Ronald I—he gathers people around him of dubious trustworthiness and "leaves the details to them." It's not the delegation that's the problem, as proper delegation is essential to good leadership. It's the choice of to whom to delegate tasks. For example, the decision to delegate a major effort on forming energy policy to Vice President Cheney was remarkably unwise, because there was a clear appearance of a conflict of interest. It now appears that the issues surrounding the President's military records were also unwisely delegated. It's part of a pattern; it's far from unique to any administration of either party (anybody remember Bert Lance? I sure do); and it is nonetheless deeply, deeply disturbing.

I have no reason to believe that John Kerry, or whoever becomes the Democratic candidate, will necessarily be better than the last five administrations at proper delegation to the right people. On the evidence that is emerging, however, it is hard to believe that Kerry would be worse.