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?

21 comments

  • Hi David,

    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?

    I think a father has a duty to let his son know if he thinks his son is making a mistake. It is also a duty of the son to take into consideration what the father says because dads — for the most part — have the experience and knowledge to make suggestions that can help guide the son.
    Going public with ones misgivings about a son’s action is difficult whether its a regular father and son in a business dispute or an ex-president going after the current sitting president. I wonder if the elder Bush going public would just cause he son to futher dig in his heels?
    Maybe all of the dysfunction across the world is a sign of something larger?
    The world seems to be caught up in some cycle of radical madness that would have engulfed whoever was in the office during the 2000s.
    The pre-9/11 world was relatively quiet as the radical forces were gathering strength and testing us at Lockerbie, the WTC in 1993, and various other terror incidents we saw during the ’90s and that continue on in Europe in Spain and England in the post 9/11 era.
    The Iranians, some suggest, began their radical course back in the Carter era when they overthrew the Shah of Iran and put their radical clerics into power with visions of reclaiming the Persian power of days past. The Islamic radicals were always up to no good as far back as the 1960s when they were attacking Israel. Osama and his crowd were getting revved up in the 1980s in the battle against the USSR in Afghanistan where they weren’t necessarily fighting for us even though they liked our weaponry.
    The way Iraq has been handled might have been a mistake.
    Saddam, no friend to the little people he killed with delight and glee and who probably deserves everything he’s going to get after his trial, was probably lying about his chemical and nuclear weapons to keep Iran at bay. Remember that getting Babylon would be a nice prize for a country hoping to restore it’s ancient glory.
    I wonder if we jumped the gun by taking the macro approach, when we should have taken more surgical steps to eliminating sources of the radical threat to our way of life?
    Maybe Bush needs to listen to his father and reevaluate the middle eastern situation and to make plans so that the vacuum in Iraq isn’t filled by the radical Iranian interests?
    Maybe if we had “pruned” some of the rotten tree branches years ago, we wouldn’t have them “falling on our house” during today’s storms.

  • Hi Chris —
    Yes, I think pruning is the path we should have pursued. When Tenet and Black told Rice in July 2001 that Bin Laden was ready to strike — and she and Rumsfeld brushed them off instead of getting them the $500 million they requested to kill Bin Laden (t that time we had a pretty good idea where he was) you see how one surgical move could have avoided 9/11 and the entire mess we are in now.
    I think a public Bush, Sr. repudiation of his son’s war — done in Sr.’s name in many ways — would help energize the moderate Republicans and allow them to stand up and say we need to finish our work in Iraq right now.
    Without the father rebuking the son, we get this kind of language from the current office holder:

    STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) – President Bush, on a campaign swing in the West, is telling voters that the Democratic Party is weak-kneed on national security and shouldn’t be trusted to hold the reins of Congress.
    “If you listen closely to some of the leaders of the Democratic Party, it sounds like – it sounds like – they think the best way to protect the American people is, wait until we’re attacked again,” Bush said Monday at a $360,000 fundraiser in Reno, Nev., for state Secretary of State Dean Heller’s congressional campaign.

    http://apnews.myway.com/article/20061003/D8KH5TL80.html
    The only way to defeat a bully and a name-caller is to fight back twice as hard and be twice as bloody and I fear the only way to get the message home that we’re on the wrong track in Iraq is for the father to stop failing the son by providing a public correction.

  • I’d support the elder Bush publically correcting his son if that helps make our country safer.
    We need to have leaders who realize that we can’t leave a vacuum in Iraq because it will mean that we’ll be fighting an Iraq War III one of these days when Iran invades the weakened country.
    At this point, the war on terrorism is bigger than the two political parties because the radicals who want all infidels dead don’t care if an American is Democrat or Republican.
    If Pakistan falls to the radicals, the terrorist build or buy a bomb, or are given one by the Iranians, we’ll be in huge trouble — even if they don’t attack the U.S. and instead just go after Jerusalem.
    We can’t vote just by party labels.
    We need to look at the policies and plans our aspiring leaders offer and choose the best. We can’t be so committed to a plan that we can’t change it to reflect updated information. We also have to be careful of prematurely pulling our of Iraq, sticking our heads in the sand and hoping nothing bad happens to us as the vacuum left in middle east is filled in with radicals chanting “Death to America.”

  • Chris —
    I agree we need to do a lot of fence building in the Middle East but we could start by at least speaking to Syria again:

    WASHINGTON — July 27, 2006 — Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, has not had a single meeting with any senior Bush administration official in a year and half. Even in the current crisis, his phone does not ring.
    The Bush administration may explicitly state that Syria can rein in Hezbollah, whose fighters in Lebanon captured two Israeli soldiers and ignited the fighting that now threatens a wider conflict. But the White House has made no calls to start any kind of dialogue with Syria on resolving the crisis, Moustapha said, nor has the State Department.

    http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/07/27/news/envoy.php
    I heard some interesting analysis the other day claiming the best way to get out of Iraq fast is to “Go to War to Win” right now — no waiting — our entire country must suffer to support a massive influx of troops on the ground to get Afghanistan and Iraq under control and to put down the sniping and the attacks. Then, let the Iraqi military and police force — currently 300,000 strong — do their jobs so we can be on our way.

  • I’d support a “Go to War to Win” strategy.
    I wonder why we didn’t go in with overwhelming superiority and take care of things quickly in the beginning?
    I thought that was the lesson of the Vietnam War — go in and win the war instead of taking land, then giving it back, then repeating over and over until everyone is worn out.
    The same thing is taking place in Iraq. We fight, then the insurgents run away, we leave, then they attack again. It’s a never-ending treadmill. We need to take out the insurgents the first time so that they can’t plant IEDs and make car bombs.
    The Iraqis will support getting rid of the outside agitators if they know that we won’t fail them as we did during the first round over there. The terrorists are terrorizing Iraqis as much as they are fighting us.
    Right now, if there’s a chance we will bail out and leave the people there to fend for themselves, it won’t win over any help from the local population. Why risk helping, then get left behind when the last helicopter flies away? After all, they’ll have to face the sword if we fail them again.

  • Chris —
    Colin Powell wanted to hit Afghanistan and Iraq with overwhelming force and this strategy of combat is called “The Powell Doctrine.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powell_Doctrine
    In April 2006, the AP reported:

    Former Secretary of State Colin Powell advised President Bush before the Iraq war to send more troops to the country, but the administration did not follow his recommendation, Powell said in an interview broadcast Sunday.
    Critics accuse Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of failing to send enough soldiers to secure the peace in Iraq after the invasion three years ago.
    With Henry Kissinger still advising the President and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice during a monthly visit you can quickly see we are reliving the ghosts and the errors of Vietnam again in real time with no lessons learned and an outdated worldview that has plunged us once again headlong and deep into a war landscape we still do not comprehend.

  • Isn’t there something to be said about the quote in your article about the father always bailing out the son as he grew up? If there hasn’t been a direct attempt to bail him out again, wouldn’t the son think all is fine?

  • I don’t think most people understand that the people riled up in the middle east are patient and have been harboring their ill-will against the west for ages.
    The “Death to America” stuff comes from our dealings in the colonial powers and the puppets we installed in the 1950s.
    Of course, I think they probably also shout “Death to Russia and China and Spain” and other places as well because they’re filled with infidels.
    A program that aired recently on the Iran-Iraq War showed how devoted the Iranians are to fighting and why we need to think about employing a “Win the War” strategy since the insurgents are probably backed by Iranian interests or have Iranian sympathy.
    When Iran’s clerics took over, they allowed the western style military — which we had heavily armed with our best weaponry — to lose discipline and disintegrate for a time being.
    Iraq saw this developing weakness and attacked. Because Sadam’s military used poor strategy, they weren’t able to capture Iran and seize victory as had been predicted, causing a long and drawn out war of attrition that included the use of chemical weapons.
    Iran responded with the suicide fighters — often young boys — who didn’t even have weapons but had the numerical superiority so even if hundreds died, they’d be able to overrun the Iraqis when their bullets ran out.
    This is something for us to think about. We can’t hang out and hope people’s minds are won through the passage of time when people over there still think about glorious things that their society was doing when most of the other parts of the world were still stuck in darkness. See Iran’s History in Wikipedia for more information.
    Any country that can whip its people into frenzy, then send them out to walk into the path of bullets to die so that eventually an enemy position can be overrun has to be dealt with quickly and firmly.
    We’ll run into the same problem the Iraqis faced when they didn’t finish the job quickly during their war with Iran.

  • Hi Anne —
    You make quite an excellent point! The younger Bush has often relied on the wisdom of his father to get out of fatty messes and if the father doesn’t offer the help of a correction, why would the son think he isn’t doing the right thing!

  • My last comment isn’t suggesting we go to war with Iran, just to be clear.
    I’m suggesting if we keep fooling around without getting the job done, we may be overrun by invaders from the East …

  • I think it is the responsibility of the father to come forward. He should tell his son in private and then tell everyone in public. That way we’d know it’d stick one way or the other.

  • Chris —
    I am glad you are not suggesting we to go war with Iran. They have 68 million people. Iraq only has 26 million and we have our hands full there alone!
    We must accept Iran will have the bomb and then deal with them on a diplomatic level where Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East will bring them in line with the world community –- by force, if necessary — and not us.
    Iran and Iraq were focused and hating each other until we stepped into the fray and turned 100% attention on us. Now we get all the hate. If we had leapt into Afghanistan, taken our 9/11 revenge and left — no one would have pulled an eye on us or begrudged us — much — for creating our own little insurgency of revenge and payback.
    But we didn’t.
    We moved into Afghanistan and then invaded Iraq on false terms using purposefully bad information and illegal terror tactics. No wonder we are hated so much!
    We need to go in big. Restore order with a big slam. Go home. But I’m afraid it’s too late for any of that… we are living and dying in trickles over there and nothing will change until 2009.

  • Anne!
    I like the shotgun approach — correct in private with one barrel and in public with the other– and leave no one any room to hide. The elder Bush still has respect and goodwill in the Middle East. His stepping forward to share his concern can only help change the tone and tenor of the awful mess we’re in but nobody with any power to fix it wants to confess.

  • The one good thing is that self-interest of other middle eastern states will kick in at some point to counter the Iranians as well. If we can clean-up Iraq and make it strong enough to survive on its own, the Saudis will take care of the rest of the area.
    If the Democrats take Congress in the mid-terms, what do you predict happens with the Iraq war?
    I say they end up ramping things up — it seems to be the only course of action that can result in victory.

  • Chris —
    I agree the Saudis can do a lot to help us but we need to let them lead without us looking pushy.
    If the Democrats get a bit of luck and take Congress — there will need to be some fast action on a predictable schedule with a hard beginning and a harder end. We need to jump into Iraq with overwhelming force. Let the 300,000 Iraqi solders and police stand up and run security while the US rebuilds the infrastructure it destroyed. It’s the only way!

  • did any of you see george sr’s reaction when larry king broached this topic with him recently? of course what he said i did not find at all surprising – being flip, then skirting the issues by drawing all sorts of red herrings into the discussion. etc etc. however … his real answer lies, i think, in his body language, and in all the things he didn’t say.
    regarding the current war in iraq and insurgencies – i think what’s going on is a direct result of incompetence, complacency, arrogance and ignorance. i mean, whoever thought that anything could be solved by removing sadam hussein? clearly, the west has a great great deal to learn about middle east culture, thinking, religions and society. are we headed for another somalia?

  • me again … just read your comment, david ,regarding iraqi soliders and police …
    now that we know death squads and militias have infiltrated the iraqi army, police and just about evey corner of government there it seems we have a big problem don’t we? its absolutely unbelieveable that no one saw this coming. the west has acted quite arrogantly, indeed.

  • Heya velvet!
    I missed the Larry King interview but I agree the body does not lie. What went unsaid is what must be said and the father must step up to correct a son in public and save a nation in the process.
    Invading Iraq was about access to oil. It’s as simple as that. That thirst is what drives every decision being made in the region — on both sides!

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