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My Search for the Bushido in George W. Bush

Feb 7, 2008

by Tim


— Whither Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, etc.? —

bush.jpgI’ve spent a lot of time over the past two years researching the extraordinary men who reunited feudal Japan after the century-long Age of Warring Clans. During this time I’ve become intrigued with Bushido, the chivalrous code of samurai conduct, and a doctrine whose lessons still resonate with surprising force. Though the samurai were expert fighters, the definitive Bushido treatise deals only briefly with warfare—but at length with the Eight Virtues of Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor, Loyalty, and Self-Control.bushido.jpg

Two things occurred to me: First, I’m as dismayed as anyone about our current American leadership. Second, in today’s world of “warring clans,” a strong dose of Bushido just might be of some help to our struggling president.

So, I tried to find someone who could shed light on both Bushido and whether George W. Bush can muster the virtues necessary to provide effective leadership in today’s turbulent times. I found an exceptionally qualified commentator: Professor Yoshi Tsurumi of Baruch College, who instructed Bush in an economic policy and international business course at Harvard Business School from the fall of 1973 through the spring of 1974.

sword.jpgAt Harvard, Tsurumi taught that true leaders—both at home and abroad—must demonstrate honesty, compassion, moral courage, sincerity, and noblesse oblige: the belief that privilege entails responsibility. When we spoke, Tsurumi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was quick to emphasize that such leadership qualities, far from being the exclusive province of Bushido, are cornerstones of Judeo-Protestant thought, and underpin both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

How did the future President of the United States respond to these teachings about how leaders should behave? Here’s what Professor Tsurumi said:

George W. Bush showed disdain for such leadership qualities. He was disconnected from accepting moral and social responsibility for his actions.

According to Tsurumi, during class discussions, young Bush referred to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a ‘socialist’ and opposed Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, unemployment insurance and other New Deal innovations because he thought they were ‘bad for business’—though it was precisely those programs that bailed the U.S. out of the Great Depression, achieved victory in World War II, and produced the Golden Age of post-war economic growth. Hmm … so much for Rectitude and Benevolence.

At Harvard, Tsurumi came to know his students well. He remembered two types: “Those with strong social values, whom one feels honored to teach, and those like George W. Bush, who are the polar opposite. What I saw in my students many years ago reliably predicted how they behaved after graduating.”

Tsurumi said that in class, Bush uttered incoherent statements, avoided answering questions, and became petulant when addressing colleagues who questioned his opinions:

He willfully misrepresented reality to fit his prejudices and denied his own statements when challenged. He often indulged himself in delusions similar to current claims of a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 tragedy. But his continuing ignorance of world affairs and lack of knowledge about the real threats to America’s security at home and abroad are far more dangerous today.

Well, then. I guess we can write off Politeness, Sincerity, Courage, and Self-Control.

Today, the president’s former teacher gives his former pupil a resounding “F” for post-graduation performance. Said Tsurumi:

Then, as now, George W. Bush refused to let inconvenient reality interfere with his self-righteous obsessions.

Let’s see: What’s left? Loyalty? At least America’s first “MBA president” has behaved consistently for the past 33 years.

And so ended my search for Bushido virtues, for noblesse oblige, in the world’s most powerful leader. Whither Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor, Self-Control? My conclusion can only echo Processor Tsurumi’s:

George W. Bush was unfit to lead then, and he is unfit to lead today.

american_flag_with_vote.jpgBy the way, I don’t find this amusing. All great writings on leadership—and I’ve read a fair share—say essentially the same thing: When a leader has failed, only his replacement can restore an organization’s credibility.

So, for those who have the power to replace the leadership of our great nation, I offer a final Bushido precept, via Confucius: “Perceiving what is right, and doing it not, argues lack of courage.”

See also:

(Bushido) Eight Difficult, Outdated Ways to Excel

Bushido: The Way of the Armchair Warrior

2 Comments to My Search for the Bushido in George W. Bush

On Feb 7, 2008, Chris commented:

Really enjoyed the post. Wanted to pick a nit with one statement you made.

“When a leader has failed, only his replacement can restore an organization’s credibility.”

This is a non sequitur. Leaders are human and humans by definition make mistakes. We can’t expect perfection in our leaders… well, we can, but we’ll guarantee that our expectations cannot be met.

The eight virtues you cite don’t include perfection among them. They provide a framework for making decisions (things to consider while choosing a course of action) and we as a society generally subscribe to the idea that decisions made out of this virtuous framework will at least be right-intentioned if not right.

I think this might be more accurate:
When a person in a position of leadership has shown that they cannot or will not lead, only his replacement can restore an organization’s credibility.

On Feb 7, 2008, by Tim commented:

Good picking, Chris. Your statement is indeed more accurate (if somewhat less snappy for a self-help tome).

BTW, you will find plenty of history and Japan buffs who will take great exception to Bushido as expounded by Nitobe, citing the book’s lack of historical accuracy, etc.

But I think books can hold great truths even if they aren’t entirely “accurate.” Are the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Bible “accurate”? Maybe not, but they hold great truths—and more important, they’re incredibly useful for a billion people (not that I put Bushido in the same class).

Thanks for the on-target observation! Now I’m going to give him the Japan stuff a rest for awhile …

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