The Decider: When a Father Fails a Son

There is no greater crushing experience — or necessary duty — than when a father must tell a son he is not good enough; he does not measure up; he is not the man he was born to be:

FATHER: I know you tried, but you did not make the football team.

SON: But Dad! I went to every practice! I did my best! I did everything you and the coach asked.

FATHER: Yes, you did everything you could but it wasn’t enough, son. There are other boys who play ball better than you. You just don’t have the talent. I’m sorry.

SON: You lied to me! You told me I could do anything I wanted if I only tried!

FATHER: You just aren’t good enough to play football but that doesn’t mean we can’t try something else.

Now imagine that conversation never happening — when a father fails a son — but the world is wagered in its precarious balance; the evaluation is made, but never directly shared; words of truth and experience are withheld from uninterested ears; the hard reality that the son is actually — and always shall be — a shallow shadow of the father as a man… is never expressed. Bob Woodward, in a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace concerning his new book, “State of Denial” — shared his research concerning the relationship between the current President Bush and his father [emphasis added]:

Woodward reports that the first President Bush confided to one of his closest friends how upset he is that his son invaded Iraq. “The former President Bush is said to be in agony, anguished, tormented by the war in Iraq and its aftermath,” Wallace says. “Yes,” Woodward replies.

Asked if the former president conveys that message to his son, Woodward says, “I don’t know the answer to that. He tells it to Brent Scowcroft, his former national security advisor.” “You paint a picture, Bob, of the president as the cheerleader-in-chief. Current reality be damned. He’s convinced that he’s gonna succeed in Iraq, yes?” Wallace asks. “Yes , that’s correct,” Woodward says.

On June 8 of this year, Salon Magazine reported a father’s end-around attempt to correct the bad behavior of a son [emphasis added]:

Former President George H.W. Bush waged a secret campaign over several months early this year to remove Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The elder Bush went so far as to recruit Rumsfeld’s potential replacement, personally asking a retired four-star general if he would accept the position, a reliable source close to the general told me. But the former president’s effort failed, apparently rebuffed by the current president. When seven retired generals who had been commanders in Iraq demanded Rumsfeld’s resignation in April, the younger Bush leapt to his defense.

“I’m the decider and I decide what’s best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain,” he said.His endorsement of Rumsfeld was a rebuke not only to the generals but also to his father. The elder Bush’s intervention was an extraordinary attempt to rescue simultaneously his son, the family legacy and the country. The current president had previously rejected entreaties from party establishment figures to revamp his administration with new appointments. There was no one left to approach him except his father.

This effort to pluck George W. from his troubles is the latest episode in a recurrent drama — from the drunken young man challenging his father to go “mano a mano,” to the father pulling strings to get the son into the Texas Air National Guard and helping salvage his finances from George W.’s mismanagement of Harken Energy.

For the father, parental responsibility never ends. But for the son, rebellion continues. When journalist Bob Woodward asked George W. Bush if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq, he replied, “He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.” The former president, a practitioner of foreign policy realism, was intruding on the president’s parallel reality. But the realist was trying to shake the fantasist in vain.

“The president believes the talking points he’s given and repeats on progress in Iraq,” a Bush administration national security official told me. Bush redoubles his efforts, projects his firmness, in the conviction that the critics lack his deeper understanding of Iraq that allows him to see through the fog of war to the Green Zone as a city on a hill.

What obligation does a father have to a son? Is it ever appropriate for a father to say against a son’s better wishes, “Slow down. Rethink this. Don’t fight the facts.” Or is it better to just to keep quiet even though the truth of the world is known in hard-won experiences?

If a son refuses to listen to wisdom of a father in private — does the father then have a greater responsibility to the salvation of a society and curing its moral, cultural and intellectual future — to go public against the son’s errors in order to rescue the rationality of the free world from radical madness?