By odd coincidence (or perhaps not), there are two dramas now playing in Washington theaters that tell the stories of wild young men destined for high office. Each man misspends his youth skulking in the shadow of a powerful father, resentful of the patriarch's success and yet eager for his approval. One drama is the Folger Library's superb production of "Henry IV, Part I," Shakespeare's saga of the errant Prince Hal who, repenting his prodigal ways, promises that when "this loose behavior I throw off … my reformation, glittering o'er my fault, shall show more goodly." Hal does redeem himself in just this way, ultimately becoming (two plays later) the hero of Agincourt, King Henry V.
The other production is "W," Oliver Stone's admirably restrained if fanciful psychodrama about the ne'er-do-well youth of George W. Bush and his equally disastrous presidency. Dubya also sought to redeem himself in midlife, discarding drink and finding religion. But his ultimate attempt to emulate Prince Hal—to impress his father and "in the closing of some glorious day, be bold to tell you that I am your son, when I will wear a garment all of blood … which, washed away, will scour my shame with it"—didn't quite work out. Instead of scouring his shame, W. bloodied the Bush name—and almost certainly ended the family dynasty. As Stone imagines it toward the end of the movie—when it becomes clear that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction and that Bush launched a costly war on false grounds—W. has a nightmare in which his father, the 41st president, appears in a vacated Oval Office and tells him he has "ruined" the 200 years of work it took to build the Bush family's reputation. At another point in the film, the bumptious "Junior" rages to his top aides that he "wasn't told" some basic facts about the Iraq situation, even though he'd never shown much curiosity about planning for them (all mostly true).
With Bush soon to be a true lame duck—a status technically defined as the period between the election of the next president and his Inauguration—it seems appropriate to return to some of the biggest unanswered questions about his tenure. Even at this late date, we all still wonder why Bush changed from a rapscallion youth into Hotspur—a man who started a foolish and unnecessary war—rather than into Henry V. The most obvious reason is still a bit too simplistic in my view: that unlike the clever Hal, the unstudious W. was never equal to the office and the challenge, failing to understood the war against Al Qaeda. The other reason—the one Oliver Stone is taking to the bank—is that Bush's decision to invade Iraq was mainly a matter of playing out the Oedipal drama we have heard so much speculation about, going back to Maureen Dowd's brilliant satirical columns in 2002-2003 on the Bush family dynamics. W., his ego crushed by his father's superior achievements, and having failed even at being a family rebel, sought desperately to surpass "Poppy" by doing what George H.W. Bush could not: taking out Saddam.
This is plausible, too, but it doesn't quite satisfy either. As Bush began his campaign for the presidency, he often seemed a man secure in his own skin, balanced and reasonable, even to many Democrats. During the 2000 campaign he called for a "humble" foreign policy. His first cabinet pick was the judicious Colin Powell as secretary of state, who "believes as I do that we must work closely with our allies and friends," Bush said. He named Donald Rumsfeld, whose arrogance had worried Bush's father, as defense secretary only as an afterthought, on the advice of Dick Cheney. So what happened during his presidency? In an interesting colloquy on Slate last week with three authors of books on the 43rd president—Bob Woodward, Jacob Weisberg and Ron Suskind—Stone discusses why Bush went to war in Iraq. Woodward argues that he's got Iraq all figured out. "I still don't think there is a basic mystery," he writes, telling the others to read "pages 253 to 274" of his second of four books on the Bush presidency, "Plan of Attack," which shows Bush increasingly fed up with Saddam's defiance of the U.N. in December 2002 and January 2003 [in truth, the U.N. inspectors were telling the administration that they had complete access to Saddam's sites, but no one in Washington was listening]. "I don't think there was a single moment when he made the decision, but there was an evolution, and it's in those 21 pages," Woodward says. Weisberg responds: "Bob, with all due respect to your amazing reporting, you haven't yet persuaded me that we really know the when and the where of the decision, let alone the how and the why." Bush, Weisberg accurately points out, gave serious indications well before that he intended to take Saddam out. Suskind then jumps in to defend Weisberg, saying that "it is, to my mind, an American tragedy that this administration will leave the stage with a host of basic questions left unanswered."
It's far more of a tragedy, of course, that tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis have died, been maimed or suffered other terrible trauma because of a war whose true genesis remains unknown. But even if we can't answer these questions about Bush's motivations, the gravity of his errors should lead us to ask whether there are Oedipal surprises in store for us with a McCain or an Obama presidency, as well.
Like Bush, both candidates come burdened with vivid father-son dramas. McCain, a generation older than Obama, is the scion of a famous Navy family, schooled by his father and grandfather—both admirals—in the lessons of war. The younger McCain views Vietnamas as an unnecessary failure attributable to a weak president, Lyndon Johnson. His father, Adm. John McCain Jr., the commander of the Pacific fleet, was a superhawk who urged Johnson to stick it out in Vietnam, and the younger McCain returned home convinced that the war was lost only through political weakness in Washington. Like his forefathers, McCain came of age embracing a traditional American view of a world in which "victory" is usually possible in grand struggles with a clearly defined enemy. He regularly declares Islamist extremism, for example, to be the "transcendent challenge" of the 21st century. And Iraq, many of his closest friends say, is McCain's Vietnam do-over, and he won't rest until he gets it right this time.
So the question presents itself: Is McCain—who, like W., was a rebellious youth who finished fifth from the bottom in his Annapolis class—also still trying to live up to his dead father's expectations to some degree, and to add another chapter to his family saga? It's not unreasonable to think that his decisions on Iraq, or his attitude toward other U.S. enemies, could be affected by this psychology.
Barack Obama grew up without a father he longed to know, and he was so haunted by the experience that he wrote a book about it. As a young man he was ever a stranger in a strange land restlessly searching for his true self, just as his father, Barack Obama Sr., yearned for acceptance in the West. As Obama describes it in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," he cried for a long time over his father's grave in Kenya, understanding at last the pain his father felt in trying, and ultimately failing, to "reinvent" himself as an educated Westerner. His father went too far, Obama wrote, in repudiating his own Kenyan goat-herding background. "For all your gifts—the quick mind, the powers of concentration, the charm—you could never forge yourself into a whole man by leaving those things behind," Obama writes. "I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away … The pain I'd felt was my father's pain."
Obama's sense of self, while unquestionably American, is also a patchwork of distant and in some cases opposing cultures; every family gathering is "like a meeting of the United Nations," he has joked. Will Obama's presidency, then, be in some way a continuation of his search for connectedness between different cultures around the world, his eagerness to empathize? And might that lead him, perhaps, to expect too much of the same desire for good relations from other leaders who don't share it? Will he try to outdo his father in bridging divides that may be unbridgeable?
We don't know, of course. All this may turn out to be mere psychobabble, which is what the Bush crowd dismissively concluded about Oliver Stone's film. But after the trauma of the last eight years, they are questions worth asking.