One of the few redeeming pleasures of the Clinton presidency was watching morality czar Bill Bennett galumph onto the talk shows and bray, ”Where‘s the outrage?“ I guess I shouldn’t have laughed at him. Only seven months into the Bush Era, I‘ve started braying the same thing.
Last week, the L.A. Times ran a piece by Judy Pasternak that paints a damning portrait of our new administration. Titled ”Bush’s Energy Plan Bares Industry Clout,“ this devastating expose demonstrates that the White House energy task force, headed by Dick Cheney, was little more than a game preserve for Republican donors and lobbyists. Pasternak reveals levels of logrolling, back scratching and legalistic pussyfooting that might lead an uninformed soul to believe he was reading a dispatch from Mobutu‘s Zaire or Suharto’s Indonesia.
If revelations like this had come out about Clinton, everyone from Drudge and Fox News to The Wall Street Journal would‘ve pounded the war drums 247 until we begged for mercy. But this story of Bush administration corruption sank as quickly and surely as a Soviet sub, ignored by the mainstream media (isn’t it supposed to be liberal?) and unmentioned by Democratic congressmen who were eagerly hopping on camera to talk about Gary Condit (whose real crime was supporting Bush‘s tax cut).
Now this abject lack of attention to a major piece obviously reflects badly on the L.A. Times’ precise standing in the national media hierarchy and the East Coast bias of news media in general. Had Jeff Gerth broken exactly the same story in The New York Times, it would‘ve gotten a lot more play. But this failure to pick up on Pasternak’s story also underscores another, larger truth: The media have been giving Bush an easy ride. Never was this more obvious than during his recent vacation at his 1,600-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas, a trip that his press staff officially termed ”Home to the Heartland“ (which sounds a bit like a tour by Eddie Rabbit).
Like nearly everything presidents do these days, Bush‘s holiday was all about symbolism, with each dawn sprouting a carefully calibrated new piece of iconography for Today or the Nightly News. Here was virile Dubya clearing a path, playing the Reaganesque rancher; there he was toting around that fat bio of John Adams, to display his inquiring mind. One day, he flaunted his blue-jeaned decency by pounding some nails (and bloodying his finger) with Habitat for Humanity; another he proved that he’s an ordinary guy by sitting in the snack bar at Target. Hoping to shore up support in swing states, he flew off to Albuquerque and read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to schoolchildren and stood before a location-scouted Colorado Rockies vista waxing Green for a crowd as stocked with Republicans as the tourist fishing streams are stocked with trout.
Naturally, the reporters who follow any president know such events are PR fictions — they exist only to be put on TV — and they talk about such meaningless photo-ops with the weary cynicism of streetwalkers discussing a lovestruck john. I‘m still haunted by the image of the honorable old CBS veteran Bill Plante standing in front of a barn and some bales of hay, while the dust whipped around in the background. His mouth may have been talking about the president, but his tired eyes were saying, ”What the hell am I doing here?“
The answer, of course, is that he was helping create the official version of the Bush presidency. Year after year, the networks and big papers still cover these pseudo-events as if they were actual news. They never show the messy or unscripted stuff you get on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, where you can see the unguarded Dubya picking sod from his golf-shoe cleats with arrogant disdain as he babbles to reporters about the Middle East. No, showing such a thing on the news would be considered disrespectful, a sneaky form of editorializing. The closest any real reporter got to revealing the truth of Bush‘s vacation was Frank Bruni in The New York Times, who described how those New Mexico schoolchildren wouldn’t let Bush get away with saying he came from the Heartland. Each time he asked them where he was from, they shrieked, ”Washington, D.C.“
Meanwhile, back at the ranch — er, Washington, D.C. — Bush‘s cowhands were showing how little compassion and conservation actually fit into compassionate conservatism. Even as the president’s road show led the newscasts, the back pages of daily papers carried what was really going on. How his administration has zapped its plans to provide medical aid for uninsured children. How his nominee for director of the Bureau of Land Management, Kathleen Burton Clarke from Utah, is gung-ho for opening public land to energy companies. How his secretary of health and human services wants rollbacks on Clinton‘s policy of Medicaid for the poor and the disabled.
And the front-page vacation headlines were far worse. Not only did Bush announce his desire for a $33 billion increase in defense spending — the biggest since Reagan sought to topple the evil empire with his arms buildup — he termed it ”incredibly positive news“ that his $1.35 trillion tax cut had completely wiped out this year’s budget surplus. As one who opposes government programs (unless they assist corporations), he was delighted that there will be no extra money for such suspect activities as building schools, honoring his promise to provide medicine for the elderly or getting up-to-date radar systems into our airport towers.
It wasn‘t supposed to be this way. When Bush took office in January, he was viewed as an unqualified lightweight, whose ascent to the presidency was somewhere between a fluke and a crime. I expected that from the moment the Supreme Court anointed him the liberal media would sic the bloodhounds on him as the right had on Clinton. I thought Gerth would be looking into his dodgy National Guard record or the sweetheart deals that made him his millions. I thought the Washington Post would be crying foul each time a contributor entered the Oval Office. But this scrutiny never materialized. The media got distracted by Clinton’s pardons and jaunts in Harlem — ol‘ Bill was always a juicier story, anyway — and just about the hardest-hitting piece on the Bushes was that tacky article in Talk that nailed his daughters for being party-girls.
As for the president himself, the coverage has long centered on the most cartoonish aspects of his personality, and it’s easy to understand why. The very qualities that made him a perfect consensus candidate for the Republicans — his loyalty, wariness and lack of curiosity — are precisely the things that make him the very nightmare of dullness for the media, especially in the wake of the garrulous, promiscuous Clinton, whose name could ”open“ an episode of Hardball the way Cruise can open the first weekend of Mission: Impossible. The only way Bush could be made colorful was by being made to look foolish.
And so the media have done him the great favor they once did Ronald Reagan: They‘ve refused to take him quite seriously. Bush has been cast as a clown — Dick Cheney’s stooge, the Christian Right‘s finger puppet, Ernest Goes to Washington — whose most memorable moments come not when he announces a policy but when he serves up another deliriously fatuous Bushism. Did you hear that he said ”Brie and cheese“? Haw, haw.
But Bush has made a career of being underestimated, and since assuming office he’s quietly done a superb job in the role that his backers cast him for. Unfettered by principle, he‘s played the overgrown frat boy to scary perfection — hiding his viciousness with self-deprecating jokes, keeping on-message with a shark’s single-minded tenacity, and not giving a damn whether the elite media think him a dope. Bush knows that, like Clinton‘s taste for doughnuts and big-haired women, his own garbled language helps to humanize him. It also provides a handy smoke screen. As Mark Crispin Miller points out in The Bush Dyslexicon, Bush’s inarticulateness is far from innocent: It helps mask the meaning of what he‘s actually saying.
While the country’s had fun laughing at George W., it‘s finally begun to dawn on people that the joke’s really on us — the guy we thought was Jim Varney is actually J.R. Ewing. Talk about cunning. Without ever once seeming intelligent, he‘s pushed through a tax cut that will shape America for the rest of the decade. He’s unilaterally changed our foreign policy (and kneecapped potential rival Colin Powell to boot). He‘s managed to triangulate so perfectly on an issue like stem-cell research that The New York Times’ Frank Rich only half-jokingly spoke of him as a ”genius.“ And though he‘s done all of this against the will of the majority, his approval rating remains solidly in the 50s.
Could we be witnessing the advent of Teflon II?