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
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