This past weekend, I caught the last fifteen minutes of what looked like a long interview with President Bush by Bill O’Reilly on Fox.
This was a different president from what I’ve seen before. He was with one of his own: a fellow far-right conservative. He smiled a lot. He spoke in an unbuttoned, less guarded way than usual, although he was still the typically defensive politician who refused to be drawn into any controversy not of his own making. He ducked a few questions – “what interrogation methods are we talking about?” and “is waterboarding torture?” – but this was all part of the expected cat-and-mouse pantomime of a politician playing the media. He was enjoying himself. His answers shot out easily. Conveniently, all his answers were rote. One had heard them before. (This habit gives Bush the quality of a wind-up doll. It can also make him a total bore. Question: has America become as boring as our president?)
Nevertheless, what I saw changed my whole view of Bush and his presidency.
For one, I’d never seen him this real before. Here at last he was appearing as himself. The actual Oz. Authentic. What you saw was who he was. All natural, relaxed and friendly, shooting the breeze with a confidant. In this informal atmosphere, one big difference stood out between him and any other current politician of a similar standing — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, John Edwards, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair.
A Big Bang difference. A cosmic gulf.
Bush was a gulf away from them because of one big quality, or lack thereof: he came across as utterly unsophisticated. He was to a different manor — nay, universe — born. So much so, he bordered on the simple-minded. He conversed on the level of a high-school C student. My companion was so disgusted by what she called this “low-end” quality that she left the room.
Maybe it was because Bill O’Reilly ain’t all that sophisticated himself. Still, O’Reilly looked like the smarter guy, which was pretty bizarre, given that Bush is the president.
There is literally no intellectual depth or curiosity or layers to Bush. The man is perfectly uncultured. He said he had read three biographies of Washington, but he said it as if he was reporting on assigned high-school homework. He didn’t make any interesting remarks about Washington, as you’d get from a Clinton or a Gore or a Blair. He merely said historians are still arguing over Washington’s legacy, like they will one day over his. Washington was not a separate figure; no more than a measure. For the rest, Bush’s level of language and thought was as low and flat and empty as a denuded prairie.
I thought to myself: how can this unsophisticated man come from the Bush family? His father is sophisticated. The family is a blue-blood, Yale-bred, upper-class lot.
Yet W comes across as some kind of simple-pieties-type above-his-station yokel. Why? My companion pointed out that Bush was rebelling against the sophistication of his dad.
Then I wondered: how does such an unsophisticated man manage to boss around a sophisticated man like Tony Blair? How does he lead others? What is it about him that makes people follow him? On the evidence of the interview, if he worked in the same company as me, my co-workers would never single him out as our leader, because he’d be the most unsophisticated fella among us – a candidate for a low-level job that suited his level of intellect. Yet plainly, people follow Bush. He became our President. How? How come? I would like to attempt a couple of tentative answers.
Answer One: Bush makes it as a leader by acting like the main man in a frathouse. You enter his sphere, the sphere of the good old boys, the lads full of BS, the guys who pray before they drink, joke and shoot — and you are on fratboy territory. Only fratboy talk and rules apply. On that terrain, Tony Blair cannot compete. It’s a tight circle of men born to privilege, plus some lesser creatures seigneurially allowed in. The court of a mocking King Texas Oil Failure. Of course, it goes along with another sphere – the more burnished side of the fratboy coin, the inside of a church. In these two spheres, Bush is the only fratboy who stays sober, because he doesn’t drink. He makes the rest of them feel a little guilty.
Answer Two: Bush made it to the presidency because Karl Rove marketed Mr. Top Frat as a brush-clearing, good-man-to-have-a-beer-with, Mr. God-Fearing Regular Guy. Rove camouflaged the privileged fratboy all the way to world leader.
Not that Bush started leading the country when he became President. Cheney ran things. Someone had to do it while our president sat immobilized for seven minutes after hearing the news about 9/11. But now it’s pretty clear that Bush has become the decider. What happened?
Answer Three: Sometime after Bush’s re-election there was a power shift. How did that come about? How could anyone from Cheney and Rumsfeld on down trust Bush to make decisions?
Well, in a way, Bush doesn’t have to make decisions. They’ve all been made. All he has to do is “stay the course.” A nod will do. After 2004, Cheney and Rumsfeld relaxed and let Bush run the country, because they’d already set the course (and maybe they didn’t want to be held accountable anymore.)
Yet there is still an enigma in this Mystery of the MIA But Still There President – a veil hiding a ghost in the machine, a drape cloaking the revelatory somewhere behind the clarity of unsophistication.
The vacuity itself is mysterious: asked about Iraq, what did Bush say? The same old: “There are good things happening there, thirty million of them voted.”
How can it be? Such a congenital divide: we, the people, see a failed war, the waste of “reconstruction,” the growing pile of the dead; he, the president, sees the liberty of an imaginary country.
Answer Four: Bush’s lack of sophistication breeds a bizarre and brazen ignorance of the real. This ignorance is thoroughly grounded in and Teflon-backed by a hard-core belief in the idea (ideal, ideology, religion, superstition) of the justice of his cause. That how Bush sees Iraq — as an artifact of his faith.
In the interview, Bush kept saying that what keeps him going, and what keeps criticism in check, is that “I believe in what I’m doing.”
He doesn’t have to actually think about what he’s doing. So it’s not that Bush WON’T change his mind; he CAN’T. We’re talking totally inflexible. Completely non-adaptive. The survival of the unfittest.
Bush said he had pity for those who attacked him. Imagine being patronized by Bush. Well, you are. Meet us — the American people — victims of the sublime smugness of sublime ignorance.
It boggles the mind, to be patronized by the likes of Bush – by someone so unsophisticated.
Answer Five: The mystery may reveal itself in the psychology of the man. Look at it this way: Bush has the mind of an ex-alcoholic. To keep himself on the wagon, he has to exercise iron self-control. There can be no going back. That’s why it’s so hard for him to change his mind about Iraq. Changing his mind about anything is tantamount to falling off the wagon. It would be like forsaking Christ. He can’t allow himself to let that happen. He has Dry Drunk Pathology.
And he has passed it on to his followers. We don’t want to fall off the wagon either. We need to protect ourselves from ourselves.
This man, who promises to protect us, can easily lead us over a cliff. Ironically, he appears to have done so. He thinks he’s saving our economy with tax cuts, yet he spends us into crushing debt. He thinks he’s keeping the country safe by viewing terrorism as a war in Iraq — instead of tackling it as a challenging police matter.
And this is not just any old war. Answer Six: We’re in a titanic clash of civilizations. Good vs. evil. God vs. Satan. Bush has taken the reality of a bunch of terrorists, no more than a few thousand Muslim fanatics, and blown them up into the fantasy of some Cosmic Threat, the Klingons of the 21st century.
This Imaginary War totally dominates the man, as though that’s what he gains importance from, not from having to solve actual problems like healthcare. It makes him self-important. Unfortunately for us, it makes America self-important. Now we can stick our chests out big – hey, we’re leading the fight in the global war on terror. How’s that for importance? The proper stance of a military giant who also happens to be a diplomatic pygmy. That’s us, all right — strutting our cojones in the vanguard of our Imaginary War, while the world looks on aghast, and these days, with a little pity, too.
Bush, our president: the war feeds his faith, and his faith feeds the war. He’s called by a higher power. That’s part of Dry Drunk Pathology (DDP). Religion keeps him sober and drives his politics. Ideology reigns supreme over all reality.
Bush’s war posture — sorry, war faith — recalls a cold-war mentality, the knee-jerk paranoia-style conservatism that needs an enemy for it to exist, and needs to blow up this enemy to some massive fantasy of a Hegelian antithesis to give his own life and presidency meaning. God forbid there should be any pragmatism. Or objectivity. Here we have a man so unsophisticated, he can’t see the world for what it is — a man less sophisticated than the world.
As you ought to guess by now, I’ve been processing wildly ever since I saw the interview. Frankly, I’m still dealing with being stunned. It’s not that this interview confirmed my worst fears. It’s that it added new ones.
Answer Seven: A recasting of a Hannah Arendt label springs to mind. To coin a phrase, Bush exemplifies “the banality of harm.” What does this mean? For a start, Bush has no idea what harm he’s caused. He thinks he’s doing good. He cannot count the 100,000 to 700,000 we have killed … he has killed … he and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Rove have killed. He doesn’t have the sophistication for it. You have to be literally thoughtless – have little thought, besides being monstrously inconsiderate – to cause so much harm.
It’s very different from “the banality of evil;” it operates on a lesser moral plane. Bush is far from evil, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He thinks he is spreading good. He doesn’t knowingly do bad. What he’s doing is all a matter of definition: Wittgenstein word games.
Such is the banality of harm.
And it stands between us and reality. It throws down a wall between the American people and the acknowledgement of our actions. Between consequences and accountability.
The Bush Dry Drunk Pathology — the Bush Ideological Supremacy — the Bush Messenger Of God Complex – all these hallmarks of unsophistication — they are not of this world. George Bush has no sympathy for reality; he’s intolerant of it, he rejects it, like an evangelical rejects a homosexual. Reality is something that happens so far outside his belief system, it doesn’t affect him.
Bush stands firm, because he stands on his head. And so he stands in the way of America adapting to changing circumstances. He positions himself between us and an intelligent debate about the issues. Like a fierce midget-martinet, he towers between us and any sophistication. Like a fat rock, he stands steadfast between America and its destiny.
Where does that leave our nation? Pretty much nowhere. If we have the President we deserve, what can we say: that we deserve very little?
Do we? Goddamn it, America is not this unsophisticated. Or are we? This man we have as our President, he might never come to his senses — but will we? The answer, my friend, is still blowing in the wind. The answer might arrive as a howling tempest on November 7, when our nation goes to the polls to tick an OK next to the fantasies of the past – or to cross out the past and insert the future.
Let’s see what choice we make. Let’s see if, as a nation, we’re at least more sophisticated — and less dangerous — than George Bush.