WHEN "CHARACTER" WAS...

WHEN "CHARACTER" WAS KING: As Donald Rumsfeld is finally thrown under the bus, it seems appropriate to return to Jon Chait's recent account of the Rumsfeld-worship of the early Bush era. (The nadir was probably Midge Decter's book, which seems to have been expanded after Seventeen rejected her initial article because it was too puerile and starry-eyed.) Here's one characteristic example:

To plunge back into the conservative idealization of Rumsfeld, given what we know today, is a bizarre experience. You enter an upside-down world in which the defense secretary is a thoughtful, fair-minded, eminently reasonable man who has been vindicated by history--and his critics utterly repudiated. The pioneering specimen of the genre was a National Review cover story from December 31, 2001, by Jay Nordlinger, cover-lined "The Stud: Don Rumsfeld, America's New Pin-up," with a cartoon portraying the defense secretary as Betty Grable in her iconic World War II image. The central premise of the article was that Rumsfeld epitomized manliness and virility. (This turned out to be a recurring theme in the Rumsfeld iconography.)

Nordlinger's article consisted mostly of the sort of unprovable, impressionistic personal assessments that are the usual grist of the conservative character industry. As one Rumsfeld friend was quoted as saying, "People look for a different kind of person to run Washington--as far away from the Clinton type as you can get." (This was largely a continuation of a conservative theme that President Clinton had surrounded himself with wusses--"pear-shaped" men, as conservative author Gary Aldrich described them, or, as Bob Dole put it in his 1996 presidential nomination acceptance speech, "the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed.")

This kind of silliness makes it doubly appropriate that it was George Allen's defeat which finally put an end to Republican rule in the Senate. You may recall that the National Review ran a similar hagiography of Allen which said little about his substantive merits but a great deal about the character that could be inferred from his football-throwing and tobacco-chewing abilities. I would like to hope that if the spectacular policy and political flameout of Bushism teaches conservatives anything, it's that propping up mediocrities and empty suits based on unfalsifiable attributions of "character" is good in the long run for neither the country nor the Republican Party.

--Scott Lemieux

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