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Bush in Oz

The hurricane that de -stroyed New Orleans blew apart the image of Bush as the powerful leader who keeps us safe in a dangerous world. The wonder is that this gigantic hollow construction of newspaper-mâché and television sound bites, this doltish figure from a Mardi Gras parade, lasted as long as it did.

The make-believe started back in 2000 when candidate Bush made his first run for the presidency. He and his confederates knew he could never get elected if he displayed his reactionary social agenda or his childish fantasy of world domination. So he masqueraded as a “compassionate conservative,” a rather simple man with a simple political philosophy very much like other mainstream Republicans. As for the world beyond our borders, candidate Bush said, “If we are an arrogant nation, they will resent us; but if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.”

In office, Bush tossed off his disguise and revealed himself as an ultraconservative bent on privatizing Social Security, handing military work to private contractors and deprecating government in general. As for his humble foreign policy, his intellectual henchmen called it “benevolent hegemony.” Or, as the cartoon Brain says in Pinky and the Brain when asked by Pinky what they’re going to do tonight: “Try to take over the world!”

The White House poets are brilliant in using language to mislead the public as to what George Bush is actually doing. The Sierra Club points out that the president’s “Clear Skies” initiative actually results in more pollution than if he had simply enforced the previous Clean Air Act. And, of course, there’s the “No Child Left Behind” Act. The phrase is beautiful, but the administration underfunded it by about $27 billion and has been sued by the NEA and by impoverished school districts from Texas to Vermont.

Bush has had opportunities to be the man he pretends to be, most notably on Sept. 11, 2001. Shortly after receiving the terrible news, the president, passive as the king on a chessboard, was flown across the country and dropped into a protective bunker. All through that long, terrible day, Bush was offered his moment of greatness and let it pass.

Not until Sept. 14 did the president arrive at the site of the Twin Towers. There he stood on a pile of rubble, a bullhorn in his hand and his arm around the shoulder of a fireman. He made only a brief address—but the scene made a spectacular photo. Here was the image of George W. Bush who was brave (he was at Ground Zero!) and protective (he had his arm around the fireman) and a leader (he had a bullhorn in his other hand).

Disoriented and in pain, the nation had no recourse but to believe—with a mingling of hope and pretense—that President Bush was, or would become, that leader. And here Bush was lucky. Our military’s quick invasion of Afghanistan and their rapid victory over the Taliban gave glory to the president. There wasn’t any need for the White House to fake. Our military, along with the British and the locals, had demolished the Taliban militias and sent the remnants fleeing.

But the reality of simple triumph in Afghanistan wasn’t enough. The president, inebriated by the military power at his command, gave up the dull business of pursuing the last of the Taliban and unveiled his glorious plan to knock out the Iraqi regime, while putting Iran and South Korea on his to-do list. The Iraq war, said the administration, would be waged by a small number of volunteer soldiers and would be paid for by revenue from Iraq’s oil wells. The United States would transform that menacing country with its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction into a peaceful free- market democracy. Iraq would become a beacon of freedom and surrounding nations would become market-oriented democracies friendly to the United States.

Even when he thought he had won the Iraq war, George W. Bush wasn’t satisfied with reality. He wasn’t satisfied with being Commander in Chief of the strongest nation on earth. To improve on reality he dressed himself as an S-3B Viking pilot and had himself landed on the aircraft carrier Lincoln so he could stride to the microphones under the banner of “Mission Accomplished” and announce the end of major combat in Iraq.

All this has been revealed as a hallucinatory mirage, but that makes no difference to the White House. Bush still believes that an image and a phrase can reform reality. His trip to the rubble of the Twin Towers made a good photo, so when he decided, at last, to speak to the nation about the hurricane disaster, he chose to speak from the dark empty streets of an abandoned New Orleans. Unfortunately, that scene looked simply weird, so he has since got himself photographed hammering nails into a house frame to show he really truly cares about rebuilding that city.

Last month the president made his loyal political advisor Karen Hughes undersecretary for “public diplomacy,” and sent her to three Muslim countries in an effort to improve public perception of the United States and its Middle East policy. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey she was told the same hard truth: No one there is interested in the U.S. image; what is needed is a change of U.S. policy.

Last week Bush had a public video teleconference with some U.S. troops in Iraq in which he asked how things were going over there. Unfortunately for the president and his image makers, the meticulous rehearsal of the carefully scripted question-and-answer session was picked up by the TV cameras and broadcast on the evening news the same day. It had to happen sooner or later. Toto was bound to poke his nose under the draperies and Dorothy was bound to look behind the curtains. There was no grand Wizard of Oz at all, only a little man turning knobs and pulling levers to project a big bogus image of himself.

—Gene Mirabelli

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