Fool's Gold


I’m coming to you as an optimistic fellow,” George W. Bush announced at the Economics Club of New York on March 14.

Most economists agree the country is already in a recession. Many believe we may be on the precipice of an economic depression, just steps removed from a run on the banking system. At the same time, we’ve just passed a macabre milestone-the five-year mark-in the war in Iraq. Intelligence analysts agree that al-Qaida has regrouped and is growing stronger. These are President Bush’s likeliest legacies.

But the president refuses to blink. This could be because he is steadfast and positive of outlook. Or it could be because, as Oscar Wilde formulated in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” (Thus an optimist, as lexicographer Elbert Hubbard defined it, is nothing more than “a neurotic fellow with gooseflesh and teeth a-chatter, trying hard to be brave.)

“It’s clear our economy has slowed,” the president bucked up and acknowledged on March 7, “but the good news is, we anticipated this and took decisive action to bolster the economy, by passing a growth package that will put money into the hands of American workers and businesses.”

What that means is that sometime in May, many of us will get a $600 check from the government, and if we’re patriotic, we’ll buy ourselves new washing machines or espresso makers. (If we’re smart, we’ll put a down payment on that new, 85-mile-per-gallon Chinese scooter; oil prices spiked to more than $106 a barrel the day the president acknowledged the slowdown.)

That’s the president’s short-term solution: a homeland cash surge built on debt and designed to push a stalled American economy over the speed bumps of a mortgage industry in meltdown, skyrocketing gas prices, a credit crunch, and a belly-flopping dollar.

But don’t be downhearted. The president isn’t. As Bush clarified on March 18 to an audience of dockworkers in Jacksonville, Florida, “… I want people to understand that in the long term we’re going to be just fine. People will still be able to work.”

For example, people might look for jobs with the military-industrial complex, a sector promising almost limitless growth, not to mention glamour. (The president told military personnel in Afghanistan via videoconference on March 13, “It must be exciting for you … in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger.”)

In other ways, of course, soldiers die, which is less exciting, as 4,000 American families and counting have learned the hardest way possible over the last five years. Or soldiers return home physically disfigured or mentally scarred, or both. Even here, there’s apparently cause for optimism, for as Bush asserted in a Pentagon speech on March 19, “The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around-it has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror.”

Unfortunately, we can’t all indulge in Bush’s rosy outlook. That luxury, as F. Scott Fitzgerald knew, “is the content of small men in high places.”

Maybe Bush is already-in his mind’s eye-enjoying a comfy retirement, collecting high-dollar speaking fees or teeing up at a Dallas country club. He will not have any trouble paying the mortgage on his ranch or keeping Crawford’s ATV fleet gassed up. No children of his will die in this war. He can afford the luxury of assuming something good will turn up. For the president, something always has. If it doesn’t, say, for the rest of us, that won’t be his problem for long. It will fall to the unfortunate person who takes the presidential oath of office in January 2009 to try to fix Bush’s mess.