Like Father, Like Son

George H.W. Bush: "Listen to this now, two days after Congress followed my lead [and authorized the first Gulf War], my opponent said this, and I quote directly: 'I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made.' Now sounds to me like his policy can be summed up by a road sign he's probably seen on his bus tour: 'slippery when wet.'"

Compare to George W. Bush, the Younger: "My opponent and his running mate voted against this money for bullets, and fuel, and vehicles, and body armor. When asked to explain his vote, the Senator said, 'I actually did vote for the 87 billion dollars before I
voted against it.'"

One more time. The Elder: “Then he said that America was . . . being ‘ridiculed' everywhere . . . . Ridiculed? Tell that to the men and women of Desert Storm.”

The Younger: “In the midst of war, he has called America's allies, quote, a "coalition of the coerced and the bribed." That would be nations like Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, El Salvador, Australia, and others -- allies that deserve the respect of all Americans, not the scorn of a politician.”

Perhaps the Bushes' speechwriters are genetically engineered. It's also possible that we are in the presence of a genuine conviction of the Bush family -- that they see themselves as unique men of character in a world of political opportunists.

Bush's attacks on Kerry were mild by comparison with Zell Miller's, but they mark a sharp break with history. For the first 150 years, it was considered unseemly for a nominee even to attend his party's convention, much less give a partisan speech. His operatives, of course, were full of personal invective as they wheeled and dealed their way to the nomination. But the candidate himself stayed modestly at home and received the news, brought to him by a small delegation on his porch, with a few humble words.

Franklin Roosevelt broke the mold, flying from Albany to Chicago to proclaim his New Deal to a cheering convention in 1932. But his speech was strictly policy and vision, without personal attacks on Herbert Hoover. And once he gained the presidency, his restraint set a precedent.

Like George W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1972 were also re-nominated in time of war, but their re-nomination speeches did not impugn their rivals' personal fitness to serve as commander in chief.

This tradition of rhetorical restraint, stretching over two centuries, was a response to a deeper constitutional dilemma. In contrast to the leaders of most other nations, our president is both the head of state and the leader of government. In his first capacity, he is a symbol of the entire country; in the second, he is the leader of his party. By allowing the candidates to appear above the fray, the 19th-century solution permitted the winner to take his position as head of state despite the pervasiveness of passionate partisanship. Once Franklin Roosevelt broke with old-fashioned notions of republican modesty, he cleared the way for his successors to unleash an escalating cycle of incivility.

Get real, I hear you say: American politics has always been full of personal abuse. But that is precisely why rhetorical restraint by the sitting president is so precious. It has stood as a striking reminder that, even at our most partisan moments, he is something more than a party leader. Some time soon, the president may be obliged to present himself as a spokesman for all Americans. How will he engineer this 180-degree turn?

This is a moment that future historians will long remember. Bush Senior's embrace of the attack-presidency was an act of desperation, suggesting his impending defeat; Bill Clinton returned to the presidential norm in his re-nomination speech of 1996, pledging, “I will not attack them personally, or permit others do it in this party if I can prevent it.” If the present effort fails, perhaps our political wizards will conclude that there are better ways to defend the presidency than to degrade it?

Bruce Ackerman, a professor at Yale, is the author of a constitutional
history, We the People.