I’ll start by confessing I didn’t watch Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Generally, the thing that interests me most about the address is the fact that a single well-placed missile could kill more than 99 percent of this country’s top 500 political leaders. It’s a high potential price to hear George Bush tell us that “we’re united in the goal of victory” and once again be unable to define “victory” in any meaningful way.
Most of this year’s State of the Union seemed no different, at least from the transcript. The president’s speech is more humble but no more meaningful than it was three years ago. He described the need for success in Iraq without presenting any policy beyond a reiteration of his request for a troop surge. Anyone reading this speech would gain no more understanding of what, exactly, 20,000 troops can accomplish in the face of many hundreds of years of sectarian tensions. Bush seems to have lost none of his grandiosity, even in the face of an opposition willing to demand a policy that reinforces his vision. In short, most of the speech left me feeling like I didn’t miss much.
I wish I had tuned in for the last five minutes or so of Bush’s speech to hear the president welcome Dikembe Mutombo as a guest. The name Mutombo always evokes an image of the former Denver Nuggets center clutching the basketball immediately after pulling down the rebound that propelled the Nuggets past the first-seeded Seattle Supersonics and into the second round of the playoffs. My parents let me stay up late to watch that game. I remember Dikembe’s angular frame sprawled in the paint, the look of raw joy on his face as he and the Nuggets defied expectation and made sports history.
That was 13 years ago. Since that day, Mutombo’s career has continued to follow an arc almost unheard of for an athlete in his position. He’s now the oldest player in the NBA, an astonishing feat considering his position. There aren’t a whole lot of lanky, 41-year-old, seven-foot-plus centers who can spend 20 minutes a night crashing into 300-pounders. Mutombo might be the only one. He’s the rare athlete who left his team for a bigger contract elsewhere and drew limited resentment from fans, teammates or the media. Why? As George Bush mentioned two nights ago, Mutombo needed the money to build a hospital in his hometown in Africa.
George W. Bush has a lot to learn from Dikembe Mutombo — and not just about finding some money to take care of an urgent health-care crisis. Mutombo remained popular and effective as a basketball player even as his role on the court changed: He began his career as a scoring center but was willing to learn the role of intimidating shotblocker and rebounder as circumstances around him shifted. He thrived in difficult circumstances thanks to his perseverance and creativity.
America faces difficult circumstances today, many of them caused by the errors and miscalculations of its current president. Bush seems to have realized — finally — that the rhetoric of “stay the course” is no longer appropriate or warranted. But he seems unable to transcend the mindset that leads to meaningless rhetoric about “victory” and “unity” shortly after one of the bloodiest days in Iraq for American soldiers. Bush may have shown a more humble side in the face of (at least for now) moderately courageous and unified opposition. A show of humility, however, isn’t going to be enough to fix the mess we’ve made of Iraq. Bush needs to become the sort of leader that uses his humility constructively in order to transcend the expectations of the public, the media and even his own party. He needs to be willing to take a risk instead of hiding behind the same stream of catchphrases that have defined his presidency.
Dikembe Mutombo helped change the mold of a typical NBA center. In doing so, he has led his teams to some successful seasons. It may be too late for Bush to salvage success in Iraq, but it’s not too late for him to take a risk and change the way the game of politics is played in this country.
Xan White is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.