Friday, August 20, 2004

PUNK IN CHIEF: Dahlia Lithwick had a guest column in the New York Times yesterday, in which she cautions opponents of Bush against "infantilizing" him. She gives a number of examples. The effect of the "My Pet Goat" scene in Fahrenheit 9/11, she writes, was to make the President appear childish, unsophisticated, and even dumb. Al Gore made a mistake by sighing and rolling his eyes during a debate with Bush:

Everything about Mr. Gore's demeanor signaled that he felt he was giving a punk kid a much-needed scolding. Which missed the point: a lot of very smart people voted for Mr. Bush in 2000 because to them, he represented a return to honesty and morality. Dismissing him as a stupid child, and these voters as stupid-children-by-association, is no way to win them back.

It's been said before, and I agree, that calling Bush stupid is poor strategy, for the reason Lithwick gives: insulting Bush insults the Bush voter. But surely there's room, without resorting to schoolyard insults, to contradict Bush's claims of honesty, morality, and strong character.

Let's think about the "My Pet Goat" episode on the morning of 9/11. I don't think Bush looked like a five-year-old--he looked like a grown man sitting awkwardly in a room full of five-year-olds. It was a photo op, one of those dull, awkward events politicians endure all the time. The question is, when told the U.S. was under attack, why didn't the President quickly excuse himself from the photo op, drop the role of politician and assume the role of Commander in Chief?

Because the role of politician, of face man, is more natural to him, and in a moment of stress he did what was most comfortable.

Oh, soon enough he got into the limo with his aides, and I imagine he made some tough talk about how he was going to stick a rocket up Osama's ass. But the mature, responsible crisis manager, Dick Cheney, diverted Air Force One to Nebraska. It took the better part of the day for the brain trust to realize the President looked like a damn fool and yellow besides huddling in a bunker in Nebraska.

So they brought Bush back to Washington so he could talk tough on national TV. Tough talk is all he's good at. On camera it's "Defeat the evildoers," but back in the office, when figuring out HOW to defeat them, it's "Whatever you say, guys."

(While I'm on a roll, do you know why Al Gore rolled his eyes at Bush during their debate? It's the same reason Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler on "the West Wing" roll their eyes at most people they meet. It's a very exclusive league they play in. And Bush had just given a soundbite about ending affirmative action, and Gore's rebuttal exposed that Bush had no fucking idea what he meant in terms of policy. In Gore's mind Bush had no business being on that stage, not because he's dumb but because he's unserious.)

Bush is all attitude. His mouth is constantly writing checks that the 82nd Airborne can't cash. He's mastered some of the motions and mannerisms of a responsible adult, but none of the wisdom or patience or inner fortitude. He's bluffing his way along. Frankly, I DO think Bush is dim and unsophisticated. But not childish exactly. (Because children are innocent and charming and serious, in their way.) Bush is stuck in an unattractive smart-assed adolescence, frivolous and dangerously cynical all at the same time.

The Bushian moments that really make my blood boil are moments of petulance or empty bravado. "Who cares what you think?" (To a critic who somehow gained access to a Bush public appearance.) "Bring it on." (Challenging Iraqi insurgent fighters. Bush was safe in Washington when he spoke.) "You should ask them." (When asked by a reporter during a scheduled sit-down interview why Western Europe was not supporting the Iraq invasion.)

Punk is a good word.

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