IF LIKELY DEMOCRATIC NOMINEE JOHN KERRY BEATS President Bush in November, it may be because Americans don't watch 1950s Westerns any more. Liberals could agree with that statement and say, "Hurrah, we are more sophisticated." But my guess is that we don't understand what it is to be a tragic hero-and that's what a good president in an age of terrorism has to be.
Here's a note from a student who's not a Kerry fan but is "very disillusioned about the whole Iraq situation. Do you think that the reconstruction is going as planned? Do you think that if it isn't ready, Bush is going to back down from his June 30 deadline?" Good questions, but not the right ones to ask in evaluating decision-making under pressure, which is the test that the tragic hero regularly faces.
Tragic heroism is not just tragedy. Macbeth is the tragedy of king and queen wannabes who resort to murder to achieve their ambitions. King Lear is the tragedy of a father who misunderstands the character of his daughters and acts foolishly. Those who overreach out of pride, or act foolishly and then cast themselves as martyrs, are not heroes.
A tragic hero assesses realistically the available evidence, sees that the only choices available are bad ones, and then chooses the one likely to cause the least damage-in the full knowledge that he'll be blamed for whatever damage does occur. Heroic leadership is not putting off to tomorrow, to someone else's watch, what needs to be done now.
A year ago, before the Iraq War began, I wrote that Europeans and American liberals were attacking President Bush (as they had attacked Ronald Reagan) by calling him a cowboy and saying he had a High Noon mentality. Rather than trying to deflect that attack I suggested that Mr. Bush should embrace it. One reader who is a working cowboy, Bo Bowman of Montana, agreed: "A cowboy is someone who is honorable, and who does the right thing even if it's going to cost him."
The plot of the archetypal 1950s Western, High Noon, has the Miller gang coming to town to shoot the sheriff and, it appears, shoot up the town as well. The sheriff, played by Gary Cooper, searches for citizen support but gets reactions like these: "We're not peace officers. This ain't our job." "This whole thing has been handled wrong." "What are we all getting so excited about? How do we know Miller's on that train anyway?"
The last word in the town debate is the pastor's: "The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here. But if you're asking me to tell my people to go out and kill, and maybe get themselves killed, I'm sorry. I don't know what to say. I'm sorry." The tragic hero, though, cannot say "sorry" and leave it at that. He has to act, realizing that whatever he does will harm tranquility. Eden is not an option.
In High Noon, the sheriff-eventually aided by his pacifist wife, who at the end cannot stick to her principles when it means seeing her husband killed-saves the town by shooting Miller. He then rides off with his wife, their relations with the community destroyed. In my view, cowboy Bush would have evaded responsibility if he had not acted as he did, given the evidence available at the time.
We still don't know whether President Bush blew it on WMDs, but a year ago not only the American intelligence network-see George Tenet's remarks quoted in our cover story-but spies and spooks from every land believed Saddam was armed and dangerous to other countries. And even apart from weapons of mass destruction, look at Saddam's terrorist connections and the way he tortured and murdered his own people.
The president has become a tragic hero. His plan to emphasize "compassionate conservatism" has degenerated into a spending spree. He is now primarily the commander-in-chief in a war against terrorism. Tragic heroism was a dominant theme in Westerns of the 1950s, when the Cold War choices were appeasement of tyrants, mutual destruction, or a long, tough struggle against communism. Those of us now in our 50s hoped that our children would not have to face similar choices, but they do. I'm sorry the world is that way, but maybe it's that way for every generation, since the fall.
The good news is sprinkled through the Bible and recapped in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation: God will eventually wipe away every tear.