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Bushism as Greek Drama:
"Hubris" and "Tragic Flaws"

By Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers

April 25, 2006

The world of theatre that I've swum in for decades as a drama critic provides a useful prism through which to view today's political events and players.

This is especially true when thinking about drama from ancient Greece and Europe's Renaissance. Those periods remind us how often human tragedy repeats itself over the centuries. (Which is why many modern directors return so often to the wisdom of these ancient plays, often staging them with contemporary conceits so as to make the connections overt for their audiences.)

Much of ancient Greek drama focuses on the disastrous results of "hubris," an overweening pride and arrogance that can lead rulers to go outside the ethical/legal boundaries. (See "Oedipus Rex," "Antigone," "The Orestia.") Almost invariably, because their reckless attitude upsets the delicate balance required for proper rule, punishment or even tragedy results -- and not just personal, but for society as a whole.


Nixon, coming off a landslide GOP victory in 1972, committed "hubris" by thinking himself immune from normal laws ("When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal," he claimed) by authorizing secret wiretapping, breaking & entering, bribing of witnesses, etc. -- the felonies that came to be subsumed under the rubric "Watergate." To avoid his imminent impeachment, Nixon resigned, the only President to do so in American history.

Reagan, a popular Republican president in the 1980s, had his dip into hubris by engaging in the Iran/Contra scandal (illegally selling arms to enemy Iran in order to secretly finance anti-government guerrillas in Nicaragua), and then claiming the violations of law never happened. Reagan probably avoided later criminal prosecution when GOP President George H.W. Bush sandbagged the scandal by pardoning key participants "pre-emptively," before questioning under oath could begin.

The Democrat Clinton entered the halls of hubris when he, believing a President could get away with anything, lied about having engaged in dubious conduct with a government intern. He was impeached but the Senate did not convict, believing, along with the overwhelming majority of the American people, that lying about sex did not constitute a "high crime" against the country or Constitution.


Now we have Bush Junior, who has attempted to codify his power-grabbing hubris by claiming that the President can do whatever he chooses to do as long as he does so as "commander in chief" during "wartime." Using this dictatorial theory, Bush has authorized torture, illegal spying on U.S. citizens, breaking & entering into citizens' homes and computers without their ever knowing such violations of privacy occurred, leaking classified information to friendly reporters, and on and on.

The scale of Bush's hubris is unprecedented in American history, which may be why, five years into his rule, even friends and conservative supporters are opposed to his unconstitutional grab for power. Many of them recall Bush's predilection for operating outside the laws and traditions of our democratic republic; three times he has expressed an affinity for dictatorship. What may have been Freudian-slip jokes when uttered several years ago -- such as: "it would be much easier if this was a dictatorship, as long as I get to be the dictator" -- now don't seem so funny.


Which brings us to the next theatrical concept from the Greeks, and honed in the works of Shakespeare in the Elizabethan period in England more than 400 years ago: the "tragic flaw."

The essence of this theory is that, by and large, rulers are not brought down only, or even mainly, by external events -- rather, they bring ruin upon themselves because of some significant deficiency in their own character, a "tragic flaw" in their psychic and ethical makeup. They are consumed by overweening lust for power, or don't mind using immoral means in the service of good ends, or can't control their obsessions, etc. Think: "Macbeth," and ambition; "Othello," and jealousy; "Hamlet," and indecision.

Nixon's "tragic flaw" was his paranoia, needing always to know what his political opponents were up to, hence the break-in and wiretapping of the Democratic Party headquarters, the building of his "enemies' list," digging up personal information for his "dirty-trick" operations against political opponents, etc.

Reagan's "tragic flaw" was his simplistic view of the world, divided into "the evil empire" (the Soviet Union) and us good American guys; this stark black-and-white view of reality led him illegally to sell armaments to another enemy (Iran) in order to find ways around Congressional laws that prohibited U.S. funds going to the anti-Communist Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua.

Clinton's tragic flaw, again derived out of a weak aspect at his core, was his need for constant affirmation, which he could assuage by finding a woman who would sexually service him out of adoration.


Bush is the apotheosis of all those weaknesses into one humonguous Tragic Flaw unlike any that has been seen in American politics, with worldwide consequences that result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and maimings. What is different is that the other leaders, at some level, knew they were misbehaving and tried like the dickens to hide the evidence. These politicians were undone when they came to learn, once again, that the coverup is always worse than the crime.

Bush, of course, has tried to conceal his many mistakes, but when that doesn't work, the Rovian approach for Bush is to loudly assert, in a threatening in-your-face manner, that his worst weaknesses are really his strengths. (For example, he's violating laws and the Constitution in order "to protect Americans.")

As the many violations and scandals begin breaking through the denial dam, the policy is altered to proudly assert a "constitutional right" right to do whatever Bush and his cohorts are doing or planning on doing. In short, a variation of Nixon's claim (a theory knocked down instantly by the Supreme Court in the early 1970s) that whatever the President does is ipso facto legal. Most legal scholars today support the Supreme Court's outright dismissal of that claimed right to abrogate the Constitution and upset the separation of powers structure -- but let us not forget that Bush may well have a working majority on today's Supreme Court.

From where does Bush's tragic flaw derive?


In almost any area of governance you can think of, George Bush is ridden with the fault-lines of his tragic flaws -- and may have borrowed some from earlier leaders.

Bush is so bereft of self-esteem (much of it derived from his upbringing, by constant humiliation by his parents, by a string of personal and business failures, by his inability to admit error and tell the truth), that he can't help himself from over-compensating by displaying a persona of cockiness and belligerent authority. In short, the bully syndrome: deficient on the inside, aggressive on the outside. Bush, let us remember, delighted in blowing up frogs with explosives as a child.

Incompetent by nature and practice, Bush surrounds himself with yes-men and those who likewise are boastful bumblers. Basically ignorant, dogmatic and intellectually incurious, Bush easily is manipulated and swayed by those few insiders he trusts; namely, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the architects of his political ideology and modus operandi.

One can sense that the American people during the past year or so figured out that Bush and his crew are way over their heads when it comes to intelligent leadership -- witness the debacle that is Iraq, the post-Katrina-disaster federal "assistance" they thoroughly botched in New Orleans, the economy which has put future generations trillions of dollars in hock, the Medicare and Social Security messes, Plamegate, domestic spying, torture, etc. etc.

When Bush uncorks another of his deficient media performances these days, a majority of the American people simply don't pay much attention anymore to what he says, since they know it bears only the slightest connection either to what he is doing or to the activities of Rove, Cheney and Rumsfeld behind the curtain.


Many citizens, numb and apprehensive, seem fixated on somehow riding out the next two-and-a-half years of disastrous policies and destructive consequences under Bush. Or perhaps they suspect that something will come along, maybe the Republicans losing the House or Senate in the November midterm election, to finally offer some hope for the future -- including Bush and Cheney resigning rather than to face impeachment. Don't count on it.

These guys will have to have the stake of impeachment and conviction driven through their hearts to get them to vacate the White House -- which is why we have to keep driving this issue this early in the process. We have to make it a viable, mainstream option and reasonable topic for discussion.

Certainly, our immediate future -- the pending attack on Iran, perhaps using "tactical' nuclear weapons -- does not offer the slightest bit of encouragement. On the contrary, I'd say the odds are 50/50 that America will survive that reckless adventurism, which potentially could lead to a World War III-type conflagration.


As we prepare to march and demonstrate Saturday in New York and elsewhere against the war in Iraq, it is essential that we remember there's another war re-flaring in Afghanistan and that Bush&Co. are quite eager to take us into the maelstrom of still more military madness in Iran. A trifecta of dangerous, reckless wrong-headedness.

That's why the generals are speaking up (finally!) in opposition to the Cheney/Rumsfeld war policy, and why we need to crank up our opposition on the civilian side. We did it decades before with regard to the Vietnam debacle, and helped bring that conflict to a close, and we can do it again here with regard to Iraq/Iran. But only if we're ready to do the heavy lifting to build a truly effective oppositional Movement. Let's get to work.

Copyright 2006 by Bernard Weiner

Bernard Weiner, who reviewed films and plays for the San Francisco Chronicle and national publications, has a Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at various universities, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: >> crisispapers@comcast.net  <<.


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances