Alexis de Tocqueville And George Bush

Monday, March 14, 2005

Alexis de Tocqueville

March 14, 2005


Bush Finds Affirmation in a Frenchman’s Words



President Bush quoted the French existentialist Albert Camus in Brussels last month, and in the same speech breezily noted that Benjamin Franklin had arrived on the continent to such acclaim two centuries before that his reputation was deemed even greater than that of Voltaire’s.

In snuggling up to Europe in his second term, and with the defeat of the Francophile Senator John Kerry, behind him, Mr. Bush has made it de rigueur to drop the names of famous French intellectuals. How else to explain his mention of one of America’s favorite Frenchmen, Alexis de Tocqueville, twice in a recent week?

Or is something else going on?

The story begins on March 1, when a president who prides himself on his unpretentious Texas style mentioned Tocqueville in a speech to 300 leaders of charitable religious organizations at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington. In off-the-cuff and slightly confusing remarks, Mr. Bush said that "de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who came to America in the early 1800’s, really figured out America in a unique way" because he saw that "Americans form association in order to channel the individualistic inputs of our society to enable people to serve a cause greater than themselves."

On March 7, in unprepared remarks introducing his wife at an event to help troubled children in Pittsburgh, Mr. Bush again mentioned Tocqueville, this time saying that the Frenchman had written about Americans who were able "to associate in a voluntary way to kind of transcend individualism."

Before going further, it must be said that Mr. Bush’s comments may have been rare for him, but not for the collective occupants of his office. Modern American presidents of both parties have always quoted Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who landed on these shores in 1831 at the age of 25, spent nine months traveling from New York to the Great Lakes to New Orleans and back, then produced the classic "Democracy in America." The work is still lauded, in the most recent English translation by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, as "the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America."

Mr. Mansfield and Ms. Winthrop point out in their introduction that politicians of the left and of the right have long looked to Tocqueville for affirmation of contrary policies. Liberals like his warnings about the dangers of industrial aristocracy and American materialism; conservatives like his concerns about big government and, these days, his admiration for the ability of Americans to unite in what Tocqueville called "associations," which in the early 19th century meant all manner of temperance clubs, religious organizations and community groups.

It should also be noted that Mr. Mansfield – a professor of government at Harvard and a translator of Machiavelli – is a well-known conservative who has shaped the thinking of a conservative generation, including William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

Which brings us back to Mr. Bush.

If his words about "association" perplexed some in his audience, authorities on Tocqueville knew where the president was headed. He was using Tocqueville, they said, to underscore the philosophy behind his religion-based initiative, the expanding $2 billion program that makes it easier for religious groups to get government money for social programs.

"Tocqueville latched right on to the idea that you can have a limited government that really works as long as you’ve got healthy institutions of civil society which perform character-shaping functions," said Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at the university, and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

"This is the idea behind the faith-based initiative," Mr. George said. "Bush wants to be an exponent of limited government but at the same time a compassionate conservative, because he’s interested in escaping the dilemma that links limited government with radical individualism. So Bush says that government just can’t retreat from the social sphere altogether; government must cooperate with the institutions of civil society in a kind of partnership that brings compassion to people in need."

Not surprisingly, a rock star of a modern French intellectual, Bernard-Henri Levy (pictured in the current issue of Vanity Fair as a member of its 2005 International Best Dressed List) takes a dim view of the president’s embrace of Tocqueville. Mr. Levy has just completed a five-part series, to begin in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly, that retraces Tocqueville’s trip across America, but adds stops at last year’s political conventions and a presidential debate.

"There are many other points in Tocqueville’s observations that President Bush does not quote, and we know perfectly well why," Mr. Levy said in a telephone interview on Friday from Mauritius. "These are the points that go against the world vision of President Bush. For example, Tocqueville insisted on the importance of religion in America, but he always added that religion should be separated from politics. This is a point that I think George Bush should be well inspired to look at."

Meanwhile, no one at the White House could or would say last week if Mr. Bush was reading "Democracy in America," although he has told friends in the past that he has.

Maybe Jean-Paul Sartre is next.

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