Of everything I’ve read of his, one essay stands out from the rest. It is the piece he wrote in 2004 called “The Unfeeling President.” It references George W. Bush but never mentions him by name. In it he says: “I fault this president for not knowing what death is.”
I heard the sad news yesterday that E.L. Doctorow has died. I’ve read and loved several of his books, so of course I feel as if I know him personally. I loved Ragtime and The Book of Daniel and Billy Bathgate. I couldn’t get into Loon Lake, but I’ll accept that as my problem and not his. World’s Fair and Homer and Langley are both sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.
His writing is what I would call “luscious with an edge”. It’s stylistic and mesmerizing but you know there is something dark lurking nearby. There is no relaxing with a Doctorow novel, even in the midst of the quiet, beautiful parts. He will grab you and hold you and take you to places unexpected and thrilling. He will force you by sheer word-smithing to accompany him. He will make you stop and read over and over again the same brilliant, awesomely brilliant, passage.
He was, as everybody knows, quite a writer.
But, of everything I’ve read of his, one essay stands out from the rest. It is the piece he wrote in 2004 called “The Unfeeling President”. It references George W. Bush but never mentions him by name. In it he says:
“I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be. On the eve of D-Day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.
“But this president does not know what death is. He hasn’t the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the weapons of mass destruction he can’t seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man.
“He does not mourn. He doesn’t understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country
“But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the 1,000 dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be.
This was near the beginning of the Iraq War, when, as noted, the death toll was still around a thousand–less than a quarter of the final toll. When I read this essay, right around the time it was first published, I was new to fighting online for passionate causes. I was feeling emotionally battered, never before having experienced the kind of ruthless, hateful vitriol that comes of arguments where attackers can hide behind a safe cloak of anonymity.
I was against that war and I was at a loss: How could so many people back a war that had been built on lies, a war that had put America in a position where, for the first time, we had invaded a country that had done nothing to us, a war that was bankrupting us, both morally and monetarily?
And then I read Doctorow’s assessment of George W. Bush and I knew when I woke up in the morning I would put on my battle gear (no name tags, of course) and go at it again. And again. and again.
It wasn’t the first time he had managed to annoy the Republican establishment by outing the real George Bush. Earlier that year Peggy Noonan went after him in the Wall Street Journal after Doctorow railed against Bush and the Iraq war at his May commencement address to the graduates at Hofstra:
“Fast Eddy Doctorow told a story at the commencement all right, and it is a story about the boorishness of the aging liberal. An old ’60s radical who feels he is entitled to impose his views on this audience on this day because he’s so gifted, so smart, so insightful, so very above the normal rules, agreements and traditions. And for this he will get to call himself besieged and heroic–a hero about whom stories are told!–when in fact all he did was guarantee positive personal press in the elite media, at the cost of the long suffering patience of normal people who wanted to move the tassel and throw the hat in the air.”
Okay, she’s no Doctorow but the gal does have a way with words, right?
I’m only guessing, of course, but I’ll bet E.L. Doctorow got a huge kick out of her piece. Probably even used it as a jumping-off point for another go at trying to stop that dishonest, unnecessary, murderous war. We know now that it couldn’t be stopped. We didn’t have the power. But writers like Doctorow used words to energize us and gave us reason to keep trying. We understood from them that in the right hands words can be formidable weapons.
Doctorow may no longer be with us but he left a legacy that can’t be ignored. To some of us that’s more than just comforting.
Rest in peace, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow. You are a true American.
Ramona Grigg is a freelance columnist and blogger living on a remote island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.. She owns the liberal-leaning blog, Ramona’s Voices, and is a regular contributor at Liberaland and Dagblog. She was a charter subscriber to Ms Magazine and wishes she had hung onto that first issue.