Politicians are people, too: the tragedies that shaped Biden and Ryan

Tom Bissell

Sometimes I suspect that at least 85 percent of our political gridlock is driven by a failure of empathy, a failure to imagine what it might be like to believe something else. And I mean that for everyone--citizen, candidate, pundit, and office-holder alike.

Like most people on the left, I spent the years 2000 to 2008 in a state of more or less constant indignation. I got mad when I looked at George W. Bush, when I heard George W. Bush, and when I thought about George W. Bush. The conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer coined a phrase to diagnose this liberal malady, Bush Derangement Syndrome, which he described as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency--nay--the very existence of George W. Bush.”

My own personal Bush Derangement Syndrome, while chronic, turned out to be manageable, all things considered. Among my liberal friends, though, things got pretty gnarly. When Bush endorsed the surge in Iraq, I remember listening to a few of my friends dismiss the whole plan as doomed. The glee with which they voiced their alarming predictions disgusted me, because it meant they were tacitly wishing failure on our nation, and more death and pain to our soldiers and the Iraqi people, all because they couldn’t stand to see Bush succeed. I’d been to Iraq as an embedded journalist, and wrote a book about the Vietnam War, and thus had pondered the American responsibility to Iraq quite a bit. My personal view of the Iraq war was that it was a grievous error, but I nevertheless believed that pulling out of Iraq in 2007 would have served only to transform a stupidly, tragically bad call into an even bigger catastrophe.

What allowed me some measure of empathy and compassion for Bush was an apocryphal story widely shared among political journalists. The story went that members of the Bush clan were so stunned that feckless, temperamental George was on the verge of capturing the highest office in the land that they’d barely been able to contain their bafflement when he showed up with his hand on a Bible at an inauguration. The presidency was an office the Bush clan had long assumed the more reasonable and even-keeled Jeb was born to inhabit--and who knows? Maybe he was. George W., intimately familiar with his family’s regard for him, is said to have used this tacit, gentle disdain as one of his chief wellsprings of motivation in the second half of his life. Among other things, this would go some way toward explaining Bush’s decision to finish what his father left unfinished--namely, the continued existence of Saddam Hussein’s odious regime.

Now, I have no idea how true any of this is, but there’s considerable anecdotal evidence to back it up, some of which can be found in Jacob Weisberg’s excellent book, “The Bush Tragedy.” Viewing Bush as a man humanly trapped in a complicated web of family tension and expectation, as someone who spent much of his 20s and 30s prodigiously screwing up, only to assume the most powerful position on the planet ... well, I’ll tell you what: with such a rich lode of psychological material, Shakespeare would have gone to town.

This stuff never made me like or admire Bush, but it certainly--and usefully--kept me from hating him. There is nothing so poisonous to the tree of antipathy than an honest effort to imagine the how and why of another human being. Except for Dick Cheney, since I fail to see how understanding the mindset of the alien Skrull race who carved him from space rocks and rocketed him to planet Earth would in any way enrich my understanding of the former vice president.

We have a new syndrome now, of course, Obama Derangement Syndrome, though, curiously, Dr. Krauthammer has yet to formally diagnose it. I will go out on a limb and say that Bush Derangement Syndrome is to Obama Derangement Syndrome what a sore throat is to the Ebola virus. Judging from their Facebook posts, I have otherwise intelligent, rational family members who appear to believe that Barack Obama dropped out of Satan’s womb at an all night abortion party. And judging from last week’s conservative effort to remind America that it elected a black president, it would appear that there’s literally nothing certain citizens among us will forgive President Obama, not even using a so-called black accent when speaking to a predominantly black audience. (To my conservative pals: That people change or modulate their speaking style depending on the audience and occasion is something you learn in Toastmasters 101, as it’s one of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book. “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” That’s Paul of Tarsus, a man I suspect most conservatives think was an OK dude.)

Believe me, all sorts of things irritate me about President Obama, especially after his snoretastic debate performance last week, but when I imagine him as a young stoner in Hawaii, pining for a father he didn’t know--a father, no less, who appears to have been a notably crummy human being--struggling with his racial identity, struggling with his ambition, struggling with the weirdness that is growing up Hawaiian, struggling his entire sense of self, I see that his careful adulthood modulations and infuriatingly cool temper are the arc of something recognizable and even something grand: the first black American doing his best to survive within the incomparably severe pressure cooker of the modern presidency. Even if you don’t agree with his policies or politics, looking at President Obama as a hateful creature fished from the ponds of a global Islamist-Marxist conspiracy probably suggests more about your basic goodness and humanity than his.

In light of that, I’ll tell you what I’ll be thinking about on the day of our vice-presidential debate: the tragic and cruelly shaping backdrop looming behind both candidates.

One day, a 16-year-old Paul Ryan walked upstairs in his Janesville, Wis., bedroom to tell his father he was late for work. But Ryan’s still-young father was dead of a heart attack. Looking at Congressman Ryan, I’ve often thought about the dreadful moments that followed his 911 call. Did he sit at his father’s bedside? Did he pray? Did he run outside and weep? In thinking about that, I feel closer to him, and less willing to dislike him, and I actually get a little amazed by how clearly I imagine I can trace that heartbroken teenage boy to the fiercely assured and rugged-individualist Midwestern conservative he became.

As for Vice President Joe Biden, in 1972 he suffered what I think we would all accept as one of the most nightmarish turns of fate imaginable. His wife and daughter were killed in a car crash in Delaware only weeks after he was elected to the Senate. And from here, too, I imagine I can trace the growth of Biden’s strange fusion of goofball serious-mindedness, his tendencies toward grandiosity (and carelessness), his apparently sincere concern for the down and out, the lost, and the broken.

It may or may not be true that people are stronger at the broken places, but the broken places are absolutely where people are most compelling. This is true for your accountant, your spouse, your children, and your presidential candidates.

I’m almost 40 years old, and one life truism I’ve discovered is that it’s virtually impossible to hate someone you bother to get to know well. Our national discourse would be far better off if we made an honest effort to think of our politicians as men and women with verifiable histories and complicated humanness rather than as phantasms of ideologies we hate. Doing so might also make us more willing to see the best in one another, which would be nice, seeing that habitually assuming the worst in others remains a fine way to ruin what’s best in oneself.