Jewish World Review August 16, 2001 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5761
And he may be unaware of it.
He is in the midst of a month-long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas -- the White House is careful to describe the month as a "working vacation" -- and there has been much commentary about how this is a bad thing. The president needs to be in Washington, his critics admonish.
They say that he has spent almost two months of his presidency at the ranch; the Washington Post has estimated that, including travel time, Bush has spent 42 percent of his term in office on what can be construed as vacation, counting trips to Camp David. Who's minding the store, the critics ask -- how can the most powerful man in the world choose not to be where he's supposed to be?
They're living in a different century.
Maybe such questions were appropriate in the days of Dwight Eisenhower, or Woodrow Wilson. But if we -- all of us, not just politicians -- have learned anything in this last dizzying decade, it is that the concept of "being there" now means next to nothing, because there is no such thing as there.
For years, I suggested in the column that a person run for president on a farfetched campaign promise: "If elected, I will not live in Washington." If a candidate were to tell the American people that if he won the presidency, he would just rent a house somewhere in the middle of the country -- I always suggested Tulsa -- he would be awarded a landslide victory.
Politicians have long campaigned against the idea of Washington -- and then moved there and become a part of it. I believed -- and still do -- that a candidate would become immensely popular if he or she were to say to the voters: I'm going to live among you. I will know how you feel and think, because I will remain one of you. Congress and the federal agencies and the Supreme Court can stay in Washington; I'm going to be out here with you.
But technology and the new American way of life have overtaken my idea. No one is really anywhere anymore; e-mail and cell phones and satellite hookups have made it unnecessary for anyone to report to a small desk inside a small office.
You can communicate effectively from just about anywhere in the world; in the time it would take you to fly home to your office, you can get several days' worth of work done. It takes discipline -- it's easier to be lazy when your bosses aren't watching -- but the means are there for you to do your work anywhere if you are serious about doing it.
How serious is Bush about doing his work? Let the political experts argue over that. For the rest of us, his month in Texas is so potentially meaningful because it is the biggest test case so far of our new national way of life.
On his ranch, he is as far away from what we laughingly refer to as civilization as a man can be. Yet does anyone doubt that there is a single piece of important information that can be at his fingertips instantly, and securely? Does anyone doubt that any of his Cabinet members or most trusted advisers can confer with him on a second's notice? Or that he can be in touch with any leader anywhere in the world?
Does anyone doubt that Bush, if he chooses, can be just as up-to-the-minute about breaking news as any person in New York or Chicago or Washington? That he may be isolated by miles from the events of the more crowded world -- but that, in the new sense, he is not isolated at all?
The significance of this is not that, by going to his ranch for a month, the president has chosen to remove himself from the daily life of his country -- the significance is that he can't. No one can. When there is no such place as there, you can't ever get away -- there's nowhere to get away from.
And Bush is really no different from that friend of yours at the office -- the guy who checked his voice mail eight times a day during his vacation, and who had his mail overnighted to him each afternoon. He was away from the office, in a technical sense -- but he was still on his leash.
President Bush addressed the nation last week from Crawford. It might as well
have been from Washington. Same place.