Growing up is hard to do

September 12, 2000|By Myriam Miedzian

NEW YORK -- So when he was a kid, George W. enjoyed putting firecrackers into frogs, throwing them in the air, and then watching them blow up. Should this be cause for alarm? How relevant is a man's childhood behavior to what he is like as an adult? And in this case, to what he would be like as president of the United States.

Cruelty to animals is a common precursor to later criminal violence. But in rural West Texas, where George W. grew up, it was not uncommon for some boys to indulge in such cruelty.

His blowing up frogs or shooting them with BB guns with friends does not have the same significance it would have if, for example, a city boy blew up the family cat. In fact, George's childhood friend, Terry Throckmorton, openly and laughingly admits, "We were terrible to animals."

But there were surely many boys in George's hometown of Midland, Texas, who would have been repelled at the thought of blowing up frogs. So how much importance should we attribute to this early behavior?

Is boy George's lack of empathy and cruelty not just childhood insensitivity, but rather a personality trait still present in the man? If so, we have much to be concerned about.

Last year, George W. Bush gave an interview to a Talk magazine reporter about the execution of convicted Texas murderer Karla Faye Tucker, who became a Christian after her incarceration. Mr. Bush chose to mimic the late Karla Faye begging for mercy: "Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me."

Gov. George H. Ryan of Illinois favors the death penalty but has put a temporary moratorium on executions because of recent DNA evidence exonerating a number of prisoners on death rows.

By contrast, Mr. Bush has chosen to go ahead with executions in Texas, including that of Gary Graham, whose court-appointed attorney was judicially admonished for sleeping through much of his trial. Mr. Bush's much-vaunted religious conversion seems to have done little to encourage Christian mercy.

Can this conservative be compassionate?

It takes a certain capacity for empathy for a man born to wealth and social standing to imagine what it is like to live on a $12,000 a year salary and be unable to afford proper medical treatment for an ill child.

As president, Mr. Bush would undoubtedly continue to oppose raising the minimum wage or providing health insurance for all American children.

When it comes to foreign policy, Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project and authors of "Getting to Yes," say that "the ability to see the situation as the other side sees it ... is one of the most important skills a negotiator can possess [because] failing to deal with others sensitively ... can be disastrous a negotiation."

Tragically, few men in political power excel at these qualities and many mistakes have been made in our foreign policy.

I shall never forget former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who played a major role in one of our greatest foreign policy mistakes -- the Vietnam War -- speaking regretfully of errors he and others made during the Cold War. In a 1988 interview, he told me that "the necessity of looking at your actions through the eyes of your opponent -- that is absolutely fundamental, and we don't do that."

Do we really want a man who appears to be emphatically challenged to hold the most powerful position in America?

Myriam Miedzian is the author of "Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Betweeen Masculinity and Violence" (Doubleday, 1991; Anchor, 1992) and numerous articles on preventing violence.

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