What Happens When a Good Name Goes Bad?


Generally, I find the all-too-common fundraising slogan "now more than ever" offensive. Yet I'm not alone in thinking next week's vote in significant respects is the most consequential off-year election in memory.

Why? Because our nation will be paying the costs of George W. Bush's presidency for generations to come. The sooner we can be done with it, the sooner Bush's recklessness can be tempered (perhaps even blunted), and the sooner our children and grandchildren may be relieved of the burden of his legacy.

I have in mind here not only the deficit, the most obviously measurable element of the Bush profligacy. I have in mind also Bush's incomprehensible indifference to the good name of the nation he leads.

The squandering of that good name is the immediate blot and the lingering blight of our 43rd president and his chosen colleagues. And that is more, much more, than a cosmetic collapse. Muscle goes a long way in the world of international affairs. But the muscular run the risk of becoming muscle-bound.

Being the world's only superpower was seen by the neoconservatives who set the intellectual tone for this administration as an invitation to reshape the world according to their tastes, interests and preferences.

You can argue — and they did — that their tastes were refined, their interests legitimate and their preferences in accord with humankind's most fundamental and enduring values. But the world turns out to be considerably more complicated — stubborn, if you like — than our planners had supposed, and they themselves considerably less competent.

Here, though the intentions may have been honorable, their pursuit begot colossal lies, massive corruption and impolitic arrogance. Our planning was slipshod, our execution bordered on the slapstick. Our words have been louder than they need have been, and our stick smaller than we presumed. And the deaths of this misbegotten war in Iraq go on and on.

But the problem is not just Iraq or Afghanistan. It's also the administration's trashing of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, the anti-ballistic-missile defense scheme and the rejection of an International Criminal Court. It's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton's elbows, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's tongue and Vice President Dick Cheney's vapors. It's our contempt for science and our policies on family planning.

At last, the nation seems to be waking up to all this, hence the predictions for a big Democratic win. The Bush record being what it is, it's difficult to imagine, let alone to understand, anything less than a rout. But Mr. Bush is not on the ballot. Almost all those who are on the ballots in the several states are incumbents, often running in comfortably gerrymandered districts. A rout, however richly deserved, is an improbable outcome.

Let us instead return to this matter of reputation, what our texts call a "good name." The controlling verse in the original is a sweet play on words: Tov shem me'shemen tov — roughly, "a good name is better than fine oil."

That is not a mere moralizing homily; it's a sophisticated reminder that a good name such as that of the United States has substantive, even strategic value. It is not a decoration; it is a resource. It is not to be wasted, much less squandered; it is to be nurtured; it is an ever-renewable energy source. My friends back from visits to diverse European countries tell me it's now quite common for Americans traveling abroad to remove American markings from their luggage, not for fear of terrorists but for fear of embarrassment.

George Bush and his curious congregation of know-nothings and know-everythings have no greater claim to patriotism than we who are passionate about civil rights and civil liberties who will not make peace with an imperial presidency. We who resist the White House's effort to spin reality sometimes become so dizzy we cannot stay focused on their omissions, their commissions and their blunders. But we who believe that the government is ours to have and to hold, and that the nation is ours in sickness and in health, this election belongs to us.

Leonard Fein is a Boston-based columnist.


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