The Day of the Jackals
|Illustration by Peter Bennett|
These are dark times, declared MSNBCs Joe Scarborough during last weeks Republican convention. I knew what he meant. After all, we live in an era when even a sweaty reactionary like Scarborough imagine George Wallace impersonating John Wayne gets to host his own show on national TV. Of course, in evoking this age of darkness, he was hoping to defend Dick Cheney. Although countless Americans find our vice president ominous, Scarborough argued, they still want our own Darth Vader to defeat death-worshipping terrorists who shoot fleeing children in the back.
He could be right. The images of the Beslan slaughter were so heartbreakingly awful those dead and wounded kids looked pitifully thin that they will certainly assist George Bushs re-election campaign. If only subliminally, this Russian catastrophe makes Americans feel the vulnerability of their own children and recognize the harsh truth that Walter Laqueur underscored in last Sundays Los Angeles Times. Modern terrorists havent the slightest qualm about murdering innocents. If they had a nuclear bomb, theyd happily set it off in Disneyland. What Joan Didion once wrote about wartime El Salvador has become an American anxiety: Terror is the given.
Such pervasive feelings hurt John Kerry. Although theres no evidence that he wouldnt hunt down terrorists at least as effectively as the president, he and the Democrats have proved tone-deaf in dealing with the psychological fallout of September 11. Knowing that the public largely trusts Bush on terrorism, the party often seems too eager to change the subject hey, what about outsourcing? while those to Kerrys left too often talk as if Islamic terrorism were simply a White House hoax or the fascist murderers blowing up civilians in Iraq are somehow on the angelic side of history.
The Democrats fuzzy reaction to the visceral power of 9/11 has let the right ratchet up fear of terrorism, dub the left weak and insist on its own unwavering resolve. Indeed, when news of the school shootout emerged, the president quickly stuck a few lines of condolence into a stump speech unrehearsed, he appeared to be reading the words phonetically. But he used these dire events as a way of flaunting his sole selling point. Hes supposedly a strong, steady commander in chief in the war on terror.
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In fact, the ghastly Russian attacks should be sending chills through Bush and Cheney, who, talking to hand-picked crowds of the faithful, boast about their toughness. This is precisely the same tack followed by President Vladimir Putin, who has, notes The New York Times, a carefully cultivated image as the steely, decisive leader of a country in need. He certainly doesnt hide his iron fist. He could have hardly been more brutal in attempting, despite public opinion back home, to crush Chechnyan independence: The Russians have all but flattened the capital city of Grozny. But after all of Putins hard words (Why should we talk to child killers?) and ruthless acts (during the Beslan crisis, the government took the terrorists families as hostages), the attacks keep coming in shocking numbers. Did you even hear about last weeks suicide bomb outside a Moscow subway station? Faced with such disasters, Putin blames Russias weakness and insists he must be even stronger; comically enough, his followers have begun handing out fliers telling citizens, Let us join the president in saying no to terror (shades of Nancy Reagan). Despite the Kremlins control of the mass media, the publics sense of security has been shattered along with Putins iron persona. As one Russian pundit pithily remarked, The great myth has been broken.
Meanwhile, back in Madison Square Garden, the Republican Party was busy crafting great new myths of its own. As a piece of televised theater, the convention worked like a charm, from its prime-time gallery of mens men Rudy, McCain, Duh Gubna, Zell Miller through Bushs acceptance speech, whose final 15 minutes ranked with Peggy Noonans great speech for Dubyas dad back in 1988. The whole convention marked the triumph of symbolic thinking, be it the Christian cross embedded (not too obtrusively) in the lectern or Arnold Schwarzenegger vividly recounting, à la Ronald Reagan, memories of events that couldnt possibly have happened. He said he saw Soviet tanks in Austria when he was a boy (they werent there), claimed to have grown up under Austrian socialism (the Conservatives were in power the whole time) and sneakily implied hed watched Nixon debate Humphrey. (In his run for governor, hed been caught explicitly claiming to have witnessed this imaginary debate.) The great beneficiary of all this mythmaking was, of course, George W. Bush, who was portrayed as the Stalwart Defender of Our Homeland and Scourge of Terror. Perhaps thats why so many speakers sounded so weirdly nostalgic for the calamity of 9/11: It let President Bush emerge from his chrysalis and become a Republican immortal (unless he loses).
Its easy to understand why the Republicans were so hot to mythologize Bush. They were hoping to avoid those niggling things called facts. Has a convention that renominated a sitting president ever spoken so little about the concrete details of his record? Bush didnt dare bring up precise economic statistics the million lost jobs, the largest budget deficits in history, how every single American has spent more than $400 so far on Iraq and spoke only broadly about the war on terror. He can claim some success in the latter. The administration toppled the Taliban, caught or killed a bunch of al Qaeda operatives and, through some combination of skill and luck, has so far avoided another major attack on U.S. soil (although this may simply fit the rhythm of al Qaeda, which routinely takes a few years between major attacks on U.S. targets).
Still, Bush dared not talk about life on the ground in todays unstable Afghanistan, where the Taliban is coming back (and spreading into Pakistan). He didnt utter the name Osama bin Laden. And he skimmed over realities of the Iraq war: the failure to find WMD; the human-rights violations at Abu Ghraib; a reconstruction plan so bungling that, 16 months in, the coalition has barely begun rebuilding the country; the loss of control in areas like Fallujah, which may have to skip the forthcoming elections; the ongoing insurgency that wounded more U.S. soldiers, 1,100, in August than in any month since the war began. Predictably, Bush forgot to mention that he had budgeted $10 billion to pay for that corporate boondoggle, the Star Wars system, yet couldnt find enough money to scan the cargo on passenger planes, secure fissionable material in the former Soviet Union, or make sure New York City cops and firemen slavishly evoked during the convention were properly equipped for future attacks.
Such a shortfall might give another man pause. Not so the Defender of the Homeland, who, during one of his speechs emotional crests, declared, I will never relent in defending America whatever it takes. (For some reason, this prompted an eerie chant of USA! USA! USA! He was talking about terrorism, folks, not mens gymnastics.)
Nor would Bushs party relent in demonizing his Democratic opponent. Now, Im no great fan of the orotund Kerry, whos a dreary candidate and, if anything, too close to Bush in much of his thinking. Still, it was repellent to witness the glee with which the Republicans portrayed him as a coward, peacenik, serial waffler (the $10 flip-flops sold at the RNC were a nice touch), bogus war hero, Chiracs butt-boy and, quite possibly, a traitor. As MSNBCs Chris Matthews rightly noted, the GOP didnt stop at saying Kerry was wrong. They suggested he should not be. Here was convention-floor terrorism mythology as liquidation.
After the swift-boat smears and the Republican convention, many people I know have begun turning their anger against Kerry rather than the character assassins whove been slurring him. His timid campaign proves the point hes timid, fatuously claimed New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Although Kerry should have been better prepared for the Republican hit squads, its easy to be knocked back by the sheer moral and intellectual thuggishness of the right.
Last Thursday, I received my own farcical initiation into that arena. To publicize my book, the publisher lined up a spot on Kudlow and Cramer, one of those CNBC shows whose hosts desperately compete with the stock-market ticker tape endlessly crawling across the bottom of the screen. Like most of America, I barely knew the show existed, let alone ever considered watching it. But I had a book to sell, so I dutifully made my way to CNBCs Burbank studio.
There, I was put in a chair that found me staring into the blank eye of a TV camera. Although I could hear the program the monitor was on the wall over my shoulder I couldnt see the shows hosts, Larry Kudlow and Jim Cramer. But I knew theyd be able to see me. (Such are the power relationships on live TV.) I listened to fawning interviews with Karen Hughes and the head of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain.
Finally, my turn came. Welcome to your maiden voyage on Kudlow and Cramer, Kudlow said, then smirked: I notice your book is 9,056 on the Amazon list. Ouch! It had been ranked a little over 1,000 for most of the previous week, and I wondered if he was lying. But not for long. Kudlow was already suggesting that I was some sort of Bolshevik: You dont like capitalism and markets and ownership, do you, sir, a representative of the left?
I replied that I was perfectly fine with capitalism; I didnt like run-amok capitalism, and soon heard myself chiding Zell Millers keynote address for implying theres something unpatriotic about even running against Bush.
The problem with that, said Kudlow, is that Zell Miller just gave us factual information that Mr. John Kerry in the last 20 years has voted against the 15 or 20 weapons systems that we are using to protect our country . . . I assume, Mr. Powers, that you wish to defend the United States.
Now my patriotism was at issue. They were treating me as the rabid right treats Kerry. I pointed out that when Kerry voted against those weapons systems, Dick Cheney also opposed them.
Kudlow (outraged): That is simply not true!
Powers: That is simply true. In 1990, Dick Cheney
Kudlow: Not true!
Powers: Oh, it is true. I want you to come back on the air and prove that thats not true.
Kudlow: Dick Cheney was the defense secretary of the United States . . .
Powers: He was and
Kudlow: He was running the Defense Department.
Powers: Of course. And he was boasting how he was cutting the Defense Department.
And he was. As CNN, Slate and the Washington Post all carefully explained, Kerrys votes against these weapons systems were part of a Washington-wide attempt to shrink the Defense Department as part of the so-called peace dividend; in fact, Secretary of Defense Cheney had boasted how he was cutting the Pentagons budget. Kudlow either didnt know these facts or, more likely, didnt give a damn. In a clownish parody of a real terrorist, he merely wanted to produce an on-air explosion. Thats how these shows work.
Which is why, after I praised Ahnolds speech for being a gas, Cramer insisted that it was negative of me to belittle a substantive man, and Kudlow favorably compared Schwarzenegger, who worked himself up from nothing, to the liberal elitist Kerry, who went to St. Pauls and Yale and had a diplomatic background.
When I noted that George W. Bush wasnt exactly what anyone would call a self-made man, Kudlow snapped, Listen. Bush went to Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School. Hes the best-educated guy ever to be president of the United States.
Whoa! I was about to mention Thomas Jefferson, when Cramer announced that the hour was up. As the show faded out, the argument lost, Kudlow scoffed, 9,000 on the list. With a cackle, he triumphantly knocked fists with his sidekick (or so I was later told).
Although the segment lasted only five minutes, I was surprisingly exhausted from trying to talk rationally with people whose shtick is to mock, cut off or misrepresent anyone who disagrees with them even before theyve disagreed with them. I was also a bit abashed. After years of watching conservative gangsters pull this kind of crap, I should have known better than to get punkd into thinking I was going on a serious program. I understood how Kerry and his people, for all their experience, might still be stunned by his opponents utter shamelessness in telling bald-faced lies. But Id also learned a fundamental truth: If you dont fight back hard, youre dead.
John Powers Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bushs America is available in bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at www.sorewinners.com.
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