Who Wears the Pants?
|Illustration by Peter Bennett|
Power-worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.
LONG BEFORE THE REPUBLICANS' VICTORY ON NOVEMBER 5, GEORGE BUSH was already tormenting his opponents. They'd watched him get away with murder -- using "compassionate conservatism" to further enrich the rich and impoverish the government, turning the War on Terror into an instrument of imperial hubris, and feigning outrage at the corporate crimes committed by his fellow crony capitalists while secretly working to dilute any remedy. But the agony came to a head on that Tuesday night when the country was told that Bush's "historic" success in midterm elections was proof of just how popular he is.
Now, you could hardly blame Bush and Co. for gloating about how much they weren't gloating -- after all, they'd won. But during hours of coverage most memorable for James Carville putting a wastebasket over his head, you hoped that at least one of those countless newsfolk would find a moment to inject some skepticism into the triumphalist official storyline. You know, point out that anomalous-seeming midterm results are not unprecedented (at the peak of the Clinton impeachment fever in 1998, Democrats gained House seats), or maybe ponder the unseemliness of a commander in chief who, on the brink of leading his country into war, would set new records for fund-raising and campaigning on behalf of a single party. Dream on.
Of course, Bush has enjoyed a soft ride from the very beginning. You got some inkling why if you watched Journeys With George, Alexandra Pelosi's breezily vacuous behind-the-scenes HBO documentary about traveling on the press plane with Bush's 2000 campaign. If you think the Iraqi parliament is supine . . . Even as George W. demonstrated his skill at joking with media folk he actually disdains (he'd obviously honed his banter in countless frat houses and locker rooms), the press corps revealed itself as a pack of self-described lemmings who weren't about to risk their access by asking the candidate tough questions. They did what they were told, asked Bush for his autograph (!) and fawned like those desperate chicks on The Bachelor each time he strolled back to their area of the plane. Where the reporters on the Democratic plane actively disliked Gore -- turning his coverage negative -- the opposite was clearly true with Bush. As the Financial Times' Richard Wolffe told Pelosi, "He charmed our pants off."
Their pants have stayed off, and Bush has been not so much reported on as robed in mythology. At first, the media failed to unmask the carefully crafted myth that he's a political centrist (his policies may be even more right-wing than Reagan's) and helped perpetuate the tired myth that he's a dope, an idea that, astonishingly, we're still supposed to find screamingly funny: Last week's Saturday Night Live opened with a skit in which Bush keeps getting confused about the number of U.S. senators. You're slaying me, dude.
After 9/11, the press began selling us a third myth -- that Prince Hal Bush was inexorably growing into his job. He was compared to both plainspoken Harry Truman and, once his speechwriters began cribbing from famous speeches, the eloquent Winston Churchill. Yet, he has never been so lionized as he is today, now that the conventional wisdom has him bestriding the narrow world like a colossus. Andrew Sullivan has compared him to JFK, a New York Times article declared "A Bush Dynasty Begins To Look Real," and The Weekly Standard's David Brooks has offered doubters a warning: "Never, ever, ever underestimate George W. Bush. It took me two years of being wrong about Bush before finally I got sick of it. The rest of the pundit class had better catch on. He is a leader of the first order."
Behold the wisdom of the power worshippers. Me, I recall how Papa Bush enjoyed an even better first two years than his son -- overseeing the collapse of communism, "winning" the Gulf War -- and still got the boot after a single term. As Orwell wisely suggests, what's happening now doesn't have to keep happening forever.
SUCH A THOUGHT MAY BE THE ONLY CONSOLATION left for the Democratic Party, which, ever since the Republicans stole the presidency and learned the dark arts of Clintonian triangulation, has been little more than a defeated ooze, like a mollusk that has misplaced its shell. Faced with a hard-line Republican president whose values most Americans don't share, the party has been terrified of standing up to Bush's personal popularity. That job has fallen to liberal-left pundits who've spent the last 22 months wondering why a press corps that obsessively nailed Clinton and Gore for small, private fibs keep failing to point out the president's habitual dishonesty on huge public issues such as taxes and war.
The president's ongoing success clearly drives these Bush bashers crazy, and their rhetoric has grown progressively more aggressive and frantic; suddenly, everyone's starting to sound like the barking dogs at Media Whores Online, the shrill, Gore-loving blog that never stops shrieking about the Bush administration's duplicity and the media's complicity in helping it thrive. The Nation's Eric Alterman asked why reporters can't flat out call Bush a liar, Salon's Brendan Nyhan wrote an article called "Making Bush Tell the Truth About Iraq" (bring out the thumbscrews!), and over on PBS, Bill Moyers raved, "If you liked the Supreme Court that put George W. Bush in the White House, you will swoon over what's coming. And if you like God in government, get ready for the Rapture." The hysteria is infectious, and each time I turn on The Capital Gang, I half expect chipper Mark Shields to start braying like Chris Matthews.
From the beginning, the president's most effective establishment critic has been New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who neatly characterizes the Bush administration as "an extremely elitist clique trying to maintain a populist façade." Because he's a renowned Princeton economist who actually understands markets and finance, nobody has more forcefully exposed Bush's lies about his tax plan, Social Security and corporate reform. Naturally, this has made him a bête noire of the right, subject to frequent intellectual and personal attacks by The Wall Street Journal and sleepless Andrew Sullivan, possibly the world's most richly sponsored blogger, who's obviously far more concerned about Krugman's integrity than about his own.
These days, part of the drama of Krugman's writing is seeing just how nuts the Bush presidency will finally make him. When he began writing for the Times, he was clearly not accustomed to the mud-wrestling that's become part of political journalism, but over the nearly two years since Bush took office Krugman's measured Ivy League cool has gradually turned to a boil. His charges have grown more sulfurous -- he accuses the White House of smear campaigns against its critics -- and his rhetoric more openly populist. Writing after the election, he declared, "we're going to have an extended sojourn in the political wilderness" (and he never really stuck me as a "we" guy). Krugman's even begun chiding the rest of the press for its feebleness in exposing Bush's lies. Little by little, he's becoming the Angriest Economist in the World, bound so tightly with tension and anger -- and competitiveness -- that he's even begun lashing out weirdly at allies. A few weeks ago, he mocked Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley for his tardiness in noticing Bush's lies, when all along Kinsley has actually been one of Krugman's key rivals at exposing the president's dishonesty.
Still, such minor eruptions look positively healthy compared to what Bush has done to Gore Vidal's head. In a long, sneery 7,000-word piece for London's Observer that's been widely distributed on the Internet, Vidal describes the Bush-Cheney "junta" as "Hitlerian" and says the president deliberately didn't stop the 9/11 terror attacks so that he would have an excuse to conquer Afghanistan, partly in the service of Unocal's oil plans. Now it's easy to see why such a theory appeals to Vidal's aristocratic narcissism. After all, his interpretation of American history has always focused on the very elite that he himself was born into, thereby putting him (unlike the rest of us slobs) at the center of our national history. This is his own version of power worship.
Trouble is, Vidal's explanation of 9/11 is unconvincingly loony -- a grab bag of anti-American insults, self-contradictions and bogus pieces of "evidence." (To think he had the gall to insult Oliver Stone for distorting history!) While it's possible that Vidal thinks he's being amusingly provocative -- this has always been one of his vices -- such rubbish from a famous writer actually helps Bush by making his critics seem not merely unserious but unhinged. Indeed, like nearly all conspiracy theories, Vidal's account of our president's diabolically hidden schemes is actually bad politics -- it distracts us from all the hideous policies that are being enacted in plain sight. After all, we hardly need to inflate George Bush into a 007-level archvillain in order to make him worth bashing. He's plenty bad enough just as he is.
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