“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, February 11, 2004


It was bound to happen eventually…

The George Bush who won the electoral college in 2000 had run as a rather wealthy, rather conservative suburban dad. While he wasn’t exactly approving of gays and feminists, he was tolerant. He had African-American buddies – not in the neighborhood, but at work. Sure, like any suburban dad, he harbored a few crackpot theories – his were about evolution and economics – but these seemed harmless. With his Texas accent and Crawford ranch, Bush seemed not so much like John Wayne as like a guy who had purchased the complete John Wayne video library and stacked them up on the video shelf, there to accumulate the dust of non-use.

9/11 changed that. Three years later, 9/11 doesn’t seem like the Battle of Hastings or Stalingrad – a historical turning point. It is a much referred to event, but that reference is a substitute for memory, since real memory is still too painful. Read Gail Sheehy’s remarkable report on the evidence that has accumulated for what happened that day, and the visceral panic pain comes back.

9/11 might not have changed everything, but it did change Bush, in two stages. Sheehy’s article reminds us of the first stage. For a crucial twelve hours, Bush pretty much lost control.

This isn’t to disparage him in particular. Karl Weick, a well known psychologist, has made a study of disasters. In a famous paper about a fire that killed several firefighters in Montana, he tracked the unfolding disarray that led to their deaths, and gave it a name: the collapse of sensemaking. Those routines by which we usually organize and manage events (the official procedures, the instruments, the tacit knowledge, the interpersonal trust) all seem to fall apart simultaneously. When Atta’s group took over the plane in the first twenty minutes out of Boston, the effect of that information seems to have produced a rapidly transmitted and magnified shock all along the system that connects the power establishment with the instruments of control. One has only to notice Bush’s response to the first crash, registered by Sheehy through one of her witnesses, the wife of one of the pilots: "I can’t get over what Bush said when he was called about the first plane hitting the tower: ‘That’s some bad pilot.’" Like any other mook that day, Bush didn't know what to make of the information.

The response to the infliction of such trauma on a system of power can move in several ways. It can produce surrender, resistance, regroupment, etc. etc. In Bush’s case, it became of crucial importance to overcome the initial evidence of panic. He did that, in the next week, by acting with a fortified coolness. The power system regrouped. The attack, while symbolically painful, actually changed nothing about the real balance of power. In order to overcome that moment of weakness we all saw on 9/11, Bush and his constituency – the whole nation, at the time – colluded in a little pretence that it hadn’t happened. We re-edited the past. Bush, in the meantime, reached some compact with his inner John Wayne to get himself – and us – over the hump.

This worked all too well to satisfy two desires – the public’s, for a narrative that included a hero to get us out of this horrible situation, and Bush’s, to measure up to the man he wanted to be. As Bush metamorphosed into John Wayne, he erased his earlier fumbles; as he erased those fumbles, he gained popularity; as he gained popularity, he armed himself against those – the press, the opposition – who might have a motive to point to those fumbles. And, as importantly, the D.C. court system began to exert its influence on him, stroking his vanity with the flattery he obviously craved -- that he actually was some avatar of the Duke.

In 2000, nobody, including Bush, would have bought that story. There has always been a vagueness in Bush’s background, and it has always been connected to the sometimes inappropriate fervor with which he publicly embraces Jesus. Sophisticates who think of that as political gesturing are not sophisticated enough – Bush’s need for salvation is palpably real. William James called it the Will to Believe. George Bush would certainly have gone down the road so shoddily essayed by his brother Neal, of Silverado S and L fame, if he hadn’t, as A.A. puts it, accepted a higher power. The need to do so wasn’t held against him by the electorate in 2000. Who among us, after all, hasn’t felt that need? And who can really make a virtue out of resisting it? Rather, the resistance turns on finding substitutes for it – higher powers, after all, can be history, can be art, can be all the Godheads in the pantheon. Atheistic monkeys haven’t yet evolved.

Unfortunately for Bush and his political advisors, they have forgotten this. They have sold themselves on the John Wayne persona. The Bush who once needed Jesus has reversed that formula : now Jesus needs him. Even discounting as exaggerated reports that Bush has talked about himself as some important figure in God’s plan for the world, something did click in his head after 9/11 that corresponds with that kind of arrogance. Why? Let me suggest that the weakness he showed on 9/11 was all too reminiscent, to Bush himself, of certain inglorious episodes in his past. His subsequent arrogance fills in the blanks that Bush has willed into his own biography.

I think we can date exactly when the John Wayne schtick started to fall apart: May 1, 2003. The famous, or infamous, Mission Accomplished speech marked, I think, a fatal moment for Bush, when image began to diverge too far from reality to be recuperable. To understand that, one has to understand how the John Wayne persona acted to legitimate the War against Iraq.

That Bush lied and hyped about the threat Saddam presented is, I think, undeniable. However, I think that Bush’s defenders are right to point out that we didn’t go to war to counter an imminent threat. Rather, we went to war because we trusted the John Wayne persona. We went to war on faith. And, I think, so did Bush. He was gulled by his advisors, who wanted this war, he used the build-up to it for political ends against the Dems. But, ultimately, there has always been something a little irrational about this war. It isn’t that there aren’t motives for it a-plenty – it is that none of those motives quite fit the reason we went to war – or even the reason that Bush wanted to go to war. That is because the reason was, in a way, the change in Bush wrought by 9/11. We went to war because Bush decided to trust his instincts. The irony is that those instincts are implants, Bush’s own psychological Botox. We saw the naked man on 9/11. We saw the instincts in action. Stripped down to fight or flight, Bush flew and flew until the fight came reassuringly back. His new instincts were virtual ones – the instincts of the movie Wayne. But the old instincts were still there – the old Bush was still lurking.

Reality has a way of undoing confidence men, even confidence men who trick themselves. When Bush announced Mission Accomplished on May 1, you could see his John Wayne persona being sucked back into the old Bush. This is always the way Bush did business – from Harkin to the tax cuts. Once you’ve won one or two small bets, bet everything.

And always, in these cases, Bush has misread the data. Always he has misplaced the Will to Believe from where it works – as a personal remedy for overcoming bad habits – to where it doesn’t – which is the dimension of reality itself, that big resistant Other that will always, sooner or later, undermine our fondest wish, which is that we not die. The wish that the iron laws of probability will, this one time, yield to our libido.

Think, for a moment, of the Mission that was accomplished:

The war wasn’t paid for;
The enemy we ostensibly fought (Saddam) was unaccounted for;
The territory we occupied was much bigger, and more populous, than the strength of the forces we had to occupy it could manage on anybody's account;
The man we had favored to head Iraq – Chalabi – had gained no traction since we injected him into the area;
The weapons with which to attack American forces were not even partially in our control;

In the John Wayne narrative, the fadeout comes before civilization arrives. The town might be cleansed of bad men, but then comes the work of paying for the police and building the jail. The best Wayne pictures don’t show him as a leader, but as an outlier – an unaccountable force, as in the Searchers. Wayne doesn’t play the Commander in Chief for good reasons – he has no talent for the patient building, dickering and dealing that goes with maintaining leadership.

Between the Mission Accomplished speech and the Bring It on speech, the persona that Bush had crafted in 2002 came unglued. Surely the last year must seem, to Bush, uncannily like other bad years in his life. Like the year that he and his Harkin friends tried to exploit the opportunities supposedly opened up after the Gulf War I. Or the year his father lost the presidency. All those times in which Bush, who is a terrible businessman, refused to hedge his bets – only to have to hedge them hastily and unprofitably at the last moment. This is always the moment when someone else has to help him out. Bush has a talent for not, immediately, being humiliated by this. Baker, for instance, getting him out of a jam in Florida must have, must have made Bush feel small. And there must have been some satisfaction to lending his ear, in the fall of 2002, to those people who talked his Dad’s men down. 2002 was the election W. won on his own. However, it couldn’t last. Bizarrely, the cowboy persona that Bush and his advisors have crafted out of sheer rhetoric is the one that his political operatives are banking on to get him re-elected. For this reason, we think the capture of Osama now looms as Bush’s great chance in this election. It is a chance to reconnect with his own Will to Believe – which has, on the evidence of the MTP interview, degenerated into longwinded, and exculpatory, clichés. This in itself must be a little humiliating. Bush is just not the Ahab type – he’d rather forget the Great White Whale. We don’t really believe that Bush took Saddam so personally that the war was a get even crusade – after all, the one person with whom the war really got even was Bush’s dad. And he has rubbed that in, with talk about lost opportunities and democracy, ever since. But now that Saddam is captured, he has to go out there and manage to get Osama, who he would just as soon forget. Bush hates to be reminded of the past like this, just hates it. The past is so hard to shape to the way he'd like it to be.

Wayne, of course, is always forced, at a certain moment in his movies, to pardon himself – usually to some woman. Bush differs from a lot of conservatives in being quite comfortable with women, just because (in the one trait he actually does share with Wayne) he trusts women to forgive him. This, by the way, is a little but real victory of Bush over his circumstances, if stories of Barbara Bush are true, since one would think that the upbringing by such a harridan would have exactly the opposite effect. But here there are no forgiving women, no Laura's, to bring him home. It is symbolic in more than one way that Bush, at the moment, is calling on his ex girlfriends to remember that he really did go to Guard training in Alabama. After all, he said so...

The public and private images that have been at play over the past three years have a dream logic. No psychoanalyst would be surprised that Bush is now being hit simultaneously with two things: the Kay report and the AWOL charges. Both operate as factors in one complex, one delusion. And both are dangerous to Bush because both are about who he really is. If we went to war on John Wayne’s sayso, Wayne can’t, as the going gets tough, dissolve into a wealthy suburban dad. The superhero’s agon must go on, and on, until we understand what we have always already understood -- there really aren’t any superheros. Caught in the toils of the image that he had to assume in order to go on, we are watching the mask come off, and the skin come with it. The Guard service is a trivial issue, but it resonates not so much because of Kerry’s medals – although those help – but because of the central weakness of trying to run a man on a character that has been fabricated out of an historical instance’s need. We’d still lay odds that Bush, the incumbent, will win this election, but the Democrats have a secret weapon that just might do the trick for them: the real George Bush. If the voters remember the man they didn’t elect in 2000, Bush will be the victim of an odd backlash, based on a deceit that he has talked himself and a great part of the nation into believing. While he richly deserves to fall there is something classically pitiful in the way he has, like a flawed hero in a Thomas Hardy novel, so amply and thoughtlessly contrived the means of his own downfall.

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