What a couple of weeks it has been for politics as performance: the AG, AG (i.e., the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales) instead of carrying out whatever duties make the AG-ship an important cabinet post, has been spending the week rehearsing for his upcoming appearances before Congressional Committees; President Bush, appearing before the National Cattlemen’s Association vowed again to veto the money bills for the Iraq escalation and pretended that Congress’s second-guessing him on Iraq was akin to Congress interfering with the details of Normandy landings in WWII; in Iraq itself, Senator McCain visited a market in a flak jacket surrounded by 100 paratroopers and two helicopters, and pronounced it safe; and in Guantanamo, David Hicks, an Australian convert to Islam, somehow caught in Afghanistan, was allowed to go nearly free provided he promises not to press charges of torture against the military nor speak to reporters for a year.
Yet, despite the current President’s seemingly deep involvement in staged presentation, such as dancing on the aircraft carrier with the “Mission Accomplished sign” in 2003, or his bragging “Bring it on!” challenge to Iraqi resistance shortly later, in some familial way, he just doesn’t get it. In the terms of my last blog entry, they both mistake the new power of attention to a star for the old power of authority. This then is a tale of the two Bushes, who seem to have mastered the intricacies of campaigning, but deeply misunderstand how post-industrial leadership actually can work, along with how it can’t.
Let me start with a personal vignette. In 1985, when Reagan was in office, I gritted my teeth and went to the White House to see my father receive a medal from that “acting President.” There was Reagan, large as life, giving a good reading from his teleprompter. About 8 feet behind him, on a diagonal, was the Vice, George H. W. Bush, squinting to read the teleprompter as well. I had the distinct impression he was prepared to leap in should Reagan suddenly drop dead so as to continue the speech without missing a beat. Later, though, another thought occurred to me: Bush was following Reagan around like a puppy dog because he wanted to learn how to be so popular.
In 1988, the Republicans nominated Bush père to succeed his unwitting acting teacher. Using his lessons, the new candidate got one of Ronnie’s best speechwriters, Peggy Noonan, to write his acceptance speech, and he rehearsed it well. It included a couple of key lines: the modified Clint Eastwood-Dirty Harry of “Read my lips — no new taxes,” and the altogether discordant wish for “A kinder, gentler nation.” In the event, coming from behind, H.W. ran an unkind, ungentle campaign and won. Once in office, though, he assumed that the need to perform was over., and the acting lessons were out the window. He was going to run the country as any Wall Street executive would, with— he assumed— little need to play a role anymore. “Read my lips” would not be necessary; that line about taxes had just been campaign verbiage, as forgettable as all that “kinder, gentler” goo.
After a couple of years, Bush I decided he was going to use force to get Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait — which Saddam had probably thought Bush had given him a green light to invade in the first place. Congress insisted on a vote, so suddenly the managerial Bush once again had to try to appeal to the nation. He or his writers came up with the ridiculous line that Saddam was as bad as Hitler, thus invoking the feelings of justification for World War II. He also encouraged Shiites and Kurds to revolt from Saddam’s Sunni Arab rule. Then, after American forces (along with numerous allies) had easily pushed the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait, Bush turned off the rhetoric and stopped the fighting, leaving Shiites and Kurds to be massacred for their efforts. The idea that Saddam was Hitler, having done its work, was retired and never heard from again.
In short, Bush I acted with the arrogance of a ruler, ruling almost by divine right, with the right to say whatever he wanted, but whose words were just tools to achieve effects. Since he had the right to rule — in his mind, anyway— there was nothing wrong with issuing statements he didn’t mean.
Do you see the pattern? Bush I was swept aside by Clinton I, who never promised much but, despite his cavils on the copula “is,” basically was sincere, whatever he said, and saw himself in a love affair with his audience. But then came Bush II, with his disappearing “compassionate conservatism,” and his subsequent use of the terror of terrorism to attain electoral victory through wars — victories which he thought he could then use for whatever he wanted. Immediately upon being “re-elected” in 2004, Bush minor announced he was going to spend the “political capital” that thought he had won on something he had hardly mentioned before — redoing Social Security. He did not really understand the need to persuade and perform , to do what it takes, in the permanent campaign to stay popular and entertaining, which means grasping what his audiences wants or else lead them to want something else. Bush II , like Bush I, rules (or tries to) in a now archaic way —by divine right, as “the decider.” It does not bother him that the reasons given for invading Iraq were never valid and that the public has caught on at last that they were not. The words worked when they were supposed to; that was all that mattered.
The one “lesson” George the lesser possibly learned from his father’s failure to win re-election was rigidity: never withdraw; never admit mistakes; never apologize for inadequacies such as revealed by Katrina. Bush II, more than Bush I has adopted the basic “acting President” mode of Ronald Reagan, except that he doesn’t really bother to act particularly sincere, probably because he isn’t. He tries to play the same role always, but he fails to grasp the need to check that the audience is eating it up.
By now, you or I, with his horrible record and the huge number or scandals and inadequacies connected with his administration, would probably be cowering in a fetal position, resigning, or trying very hard to change course, but Bush doesn’t even seem to notice he has lost his touch. On the one hand shielded by a motley, still loyal entourage of right-wing kooks, Bush doesn’t look beyond it; he is as cosseted from reality as any big star. But on the other hand, he takes the Presidency to be a kingship that is his, not a stage on which to perform. This is a basic misunderstanding of the direction of history.
Bush II and Cheney represent the old economy, in fact one of the oldest parts of it, the extractive industries — even though Shrub’s only real financial success came not through oil but baseball — an attention –centered industry, highly dependent on the players as well as the fans. But being of the Bush dynasty, he has not noticed this. To be sure, Reagan and Clinton I probably didn’t consciously realize they were Attention-Economy presidents either, but instinctively they knew it. My guess is from now on, we shall have Presidents more fully conscious of the stagey aspects of their essential roles for this era.