MANILA, December 21, 2004 (STAR) FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno - Why did Time magazine choose George W. Bush its Man of the Year 2004?

It is a choice that would surely rile the "politically correct" who opposed the war in Iraq, rebelled against his conservative social stance and condemned his "unilateralist" foreign policy. It is a choice that will grate against the sensibi-lities of gays and feminists, peaceniks and appeasers, and the utopian advocates of peace at any cost.

In its preview of the award, released by CNN the other night, Time explained it chose Bush for his unique quality of leadership during a time of intensely divided opinion and deep uncertainty.

Bush, after all, did win a highly polarized election against the odds.

It is unusual, in American elections, for an incumbent to win elections when the domestic economy is down. The American economy was down this election year and Democratic contender John Kerry tried to capitalize on rising unemployment to win votes.

Bush did not apologize for his economic policies. He did not follow the populist instinct and did not allow himself, as Kerry did, to yield to the patently wrong demand to retreat to protectionism.

Instead, Bush remained consistent with his policy framework. He not only maintained his position on liberalizing trade and investments, he even went further and proposed the privatization of social security.

The economists agreed with Bush that this was the way to go. The broader public had an inferior grasp of the final consequences of standing down on liberalization. Bush did not compromise with the broader public’s inferior grasp of the economic policy options.

America’s competitiveness rested on the immense capacity of its economy to quickly adjust to new trends, to lead the way in innovation and design, and to remain at the cutting edge of finance and invention. True, lower grade jobs will likely be outsourced and this will lead to greater unemployment of the unskilled – as we saw in the "rustbelt" states of Ohio and Wisconsin. But America will lead the way in productivity and higher value jobs will continue to be generated in this economy faster than in any other.

John Kerry, while he mounted his campaign on the theme of hope, actually built his program on the lower expectations of the complacent. He won heavily among the bureaucrats, the non-profit organizations and the already rich. Bush took his votes from the lean and mean, the competitive and the devout.

The war in Iraq deeply divided American opinion. Over the past few months, a greater number opposed the war than supported it.

But Bush did not apologize for that war, did not soften his stance about bringing the war to the sanctuaries of terrorism and tyranny. He was going to drag Iraq, kicking and screaming, into the realm of the democracies and the mainstream of civility no matter the cost to America.

Bush stared the opinion polls in the face, rejected the counsel of his more conventional advisers and remained headstrong on the matter of Iraq. It might be correct to call him a modern Crusader. But it will also be correct to say he was the last thread on which modern civilization, and the freedoms it nurtured, hung in the face of a fanatical horde.

And so how did Bush win an election where in the two issues – the economy and Iraq – that conventional wisdom said electoral decisions would be based, he was in the minority?

To win the elections, Bush plumbed deeper into the sensibility of his public than his opponent did. The incumbent took his campaign to the small towns and the back roads, appealing for votes on the basis of core moral values.

Bush did seem strangely pre-modern when he chose to raise the issue of gay marriages as a central campaign concern. He even promised a constitutional amendment strictly defining marriage as a heterosexual contract.

The denizens of New York and the kibitzers of Paris scoffed at him, called him a hillbilly and a cowboy, a throwback to the age of the Prohibition. They did not fully understand what Bush was doing.

In the end, the majority of American voters chose Bush over Kerry because, regardless of whether they agreed with this or that policy, the man simply demonstrated awesome leadership.

Like Ronald Reagan, Bush is a man confident in what he believes in. That confidence shines through the clutter of daily issues that plague every leader. It is a beam of light that is inspiring across the entire range of micro-constituencies that characterize modern societies.

Time celebrated Bush for the strength and clarity he brought to American politics. You may accuse Bush of many things, but never for waffling on his core beliefs and never for flip-flopping on the policy options he chose.

That indescribable element Bush brought to American politics will influence at least the next generation, Time’s editors conclude. This is especially true, if I may add, because this generation is seriously impoverished for leaders.

Something happened to democratic leadership lately. The endless roll of opinion polls encouraged leaders to pander to the fleeting inclinations of their publics. The decomposition of constituencies into smaller, more specialized groups discouraged visionary leadership. The death of the grand ideologies inherited from the 19th century took its toll on leadership with clear convictions.

It seems that modern democracies have fallen to the curse of mediocre and lackluster leadership. They are governed by deal-makers, panderers and populists. Or they elect faux heroes to high public office.

Liberals in America and the impossibly liberal Europeans think that the re-election of George W. Bush opens a Pandora’s box where pig-headedness brings forth many tragedies. On the contrary, I think the re-election of Bush proves that the apparent curse of mediocrity in democratic leadership is, comfortingly, not an absolute one.

The fact that Bush is there tells us that democracies need not be condemned to lackluster leaders who submit to the whims of short-sighted constituencies and who hold no conviction except to conserve themselves in power. Look at the terrain of democratic politics: it is littered with unremarkable leaders who are there because they stand for nothing and try to represent everything.

For being such a refreshing exception, Bush deserves to be Man of the Year.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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