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Jane Smiley Headshot

Not Only the Worst President, but the Worst Possible President

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Back in the year 2000, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote and
was shoe-horned into office by the Supreme Court in spite of clear
conflicts of interest on the part of Scalia and Thomas, the psychology
of Little George was known to only a few. To most of us he seemed like
a doofus--a more or less well-meaning guy who enjoyed running things
like baseball teams and the State of Texas if not too much work was
involved. Had been an alcoholic and a drug user, but had apparently
come clean in some hazy, quasi-religious way--that was his personal
history to many Americans (if not to all those who met with Karl Rove
behind closed doors and heard the truth). At any rate, I remember
thinking that Bill Clinton had done such a good job over the years
getting the budget into a surplus and winning good feelings around the
world that it really didn't matter who of the four who were running
(Gore, Bradley, McCain, Bush) might win. They all seemed about the same
in lots of ways. What we really needed was some respite from Clinton's
own penchant for mischief. I liked Clinton. I remember that The New
Yorker
magazine asked me for my take on the Lewinsky scandal, and I
said that on balance, in spite of the brouhaha, I still preferred a
president who would make love, not war. Clinton was a flawed human
being, that was evident, but he knew it. He never didn't know it. And
he was always trying to make amends. But he was exhausting--or the
media made him exhausting. I thought we were due for a rest.

Little did we know, of course, that the neocons thought we were due
for a war. Thinktank gun-jockeys looking for a fight. Do they
personally have some human qualities? Who cares. May they rot. At any
rate, what I think happened is that when the Bush/Scowcroft/Baker
faction decided to use Little George as their presidential poster boy
to expand their Middle-East-based wealth and power, they didn't reckon
with Cheney and Rumsfeld. They thought their boy would be personable
and easy to control. The key moment was when Cheney went looking for a
vice-presidential candidate and found himself. Once they had given him
the opening and he had publicly used it to aggrandize himself and his
agenda, B/S/B realized that for the sake of party solidarity, they had
to live with it. When Baker engineered the coup that was Florida (and I
do think one of the "perks" Bush offered as a candidate was that
Florida was guaranteed ahead of time by Jeb and K. Harris), I think
that B/S/B and C/R found themselves in an uneasy alliance--goals were
the same, but temperaments were different. Right there at the pivot was
Little George.

It's pretty clear that Little George requires a constant stream of
flattery and cajolery to keep him going, and this was to be supplied by
Harriet Miers, Karen Hughes, and Condi Rice. At the same time, his
words (and ideas) were going to be supplied by Michael Gerson, who was
his favorite speech writer for five or six years, a man who hides his
unscrupulous neocon soul beneath a holier-than-thou, falsely modest
self presentation. Christian soldier in every sense of the word, and
someone who has largely escaped the contempt he deserves for the mess
we are in. At the same time, Little George has a hard time with bad
news, so he was never going be told the truth--he can't take the truth,
as Jack Nicholson might say--this is evident in the famous 9/11 film of
Bush reading about his pet goat when he gets news of the WTC. Talk
about dumbstruck and unprepared and feckless and doltish! No, I don't
think Little George planned the Trade Center attacks. If he had, he
would have practiced a smarmy fake reaction, and he didn't.

But he did get a feel, just a little feel, right after the attacks, of
what it might be like to lead the nation. He got a feel and he liked
it, and for the purposes of the neocons, it was a good feel and it gave
them something to build on in their plan to overcome the cautious side
of his nature, represented by B/S/B. The neocons, as we know to our
sorrow, never pay back anything they owe, except perhaps with betrayal,
so even though B/S/B got them into office, they were never going to
listen to B/S/B unless they absolutely had to.

How do you build yourself a madman? Well, first you flatter him, and
then you try never to make him angry, and then you feed him ideas that
flatter him even more by making him seem to himself sentimentally
visionary and powerful and righteous. You appeal to his already evident
mean streak and his hot temper by reminding him all the time that he
has enemies, and you cultivate his religious side so that the sense of
righteous victimization inherent in extreme religion comes out. If he
were not already an ignorant, dependant, fragile, and rigid person, he
would not be susceptible to this sort of conditioning, but by
temperament and practice, he has nothing of his own to counter your
efforts. Then you hire a few shyster-sycophants like John Yoo to tell
him (ignorant as he is, with no actual understanding of the
Constitution), that as president he can do whatever he wants.

So, here he is, Little George, caught between the devil (Cheney) and
the deep blue sea (fifty-some years of being infantilized by B/S/B).
Cheney and Rumsfeld, aided by Rice and Miers and Hughes, convince him
that his masculinity will only be enhanced by doing all the masculine
things he missed out on over the years, especially making war. And
Gerson gives his war a virtuous, godly gloss. And Gerson's words come
out of his mouth so often that he believes them and thinks they are
his. In the meantime, Karl Rove continues to think that he is the
maestro, playing Little George (and his base and the rest of the
nation) like his own personal piano. Playing the president, for Rove,
means enhancing LIttle George's actual dependency while encouraging him
to think that he's the boss (allowing him to call you "Turdblossom",
for example, and isn't it telling that "turd" seems to be Bush's
favorite imprecation, rather than, say, "fuck"?).

Bush is the worst possible president because he is simultaneously
unusually ignorant for a president and unusually shallow, as well as
desperate for a success he can call his own. I can see how in a certain
sort of era--say an era of prosperity and world peace (can you think of
one? I can't) an unusually ignorant and shallow man could bump along in
the presidency for a few years without creating havoc and destruction,
but these years didn't happen to be peaceful and prosperous, they
happened to be delicate and dangerous. Clinton knew that, and he
approached his compromising and self-contradictory foreign policy tasks
with care. But Bush and his fellow boors were so blind that they
adopted as their motto "anything but Clinton", sheer contrarianism and
resentment. It wasn't enough to them for the US to be powerful, as it
was in the Clinton years, or to be generally respected and
appreciated--they wanted something more sensational--power they could
feel, power that was erotic and fetishistic, power that was
uncomfortable for others, power that would make them feel big by making
others feel small, power that would show Clinton up. That's the tit
Little George has been sucking for the last six years--the deluded
propaganda of the neocons, addressed first to him and through him to
the rest of us. What we saw the other night, when he proposed more war
against more "foes" was the madman the last six years have created.
This time, in his war against Iran, he doesn't even feel the need for
minimal PR, as he did before attacking Iraq. All he is bothering with
are signals--ships moving here, admirals moving there, consulates being
raided in this other place. He no longer cares about the opinions of
the voters, the Congress, the generals, the press, and he especially
disdains the opinions of B/S/and B. Thanks to Gerson, he identifies his
own little ideas with God (a blasphemy, of course, but hey, there's
lots of precedent on this), so there's no telling what he will do. We
can tell by the evidence of the last two months that whatever it is, it
will be exactly the thing that the majority of the voters do not want
him to do, exactly the thing that James Baker himself doesn't want him
to do. The propaganda that Bush's sponsors and handlers have poured
forth has ceased to persuade the voters but succeeded beyond all
measure in convincing the man himself. He will tell himself that God is
talking to him, or that he is possessed of an extra measure of courage,
or he that he is simply compelled to do whatever it is. The soldiers
will pay the price in blood. We will pay the price in money. The Iraqis
will pay the price in horror. The Iranians will pay the price,
possibly, in the almost unimaginable terror of nuclear attack.
Probably, the Israelis will pay the price, too.

Little George isn't the same guy he was in 2000, the guy described by
Gail Sheehy in her Vanity Fair profile--hyper-competitive and dyslexic,
prone to cheat at games, always swinging between screwing up and making
up, hating criticism and disagreement, careless of others but often
charming. He is no longer the guy who the Republicans thought they
could control (unlike, say, McCain). The small pathologies of Bush the
candidate have, thanks to the purposes of the neocons and the religious
right, been enhanced and upgraded. We have a bona fide madman now, who
thinks of himself in a grandiose way as single-handedly turning the
tide of history. Some of his Frankensteins have bailed, some haven't
dared to, and others still seem to believe. His actions and his orders,
especially about Iran, seem to be telling us that he will stop at
nothing to prove his dominance. The elder Bush(es), Scrowcroft, Baker,
and their friends, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gerson, and the neocons have made
the monster and in the process endangered the country, the
Constitution, and the world, not to mention the sanity of wretches like
Jose Padilla (for an analysis of the real reason Gitmo continues to
exist, see Dahlia Lithwick's article in Slate, here. Maybe the bums planned this
mess for their own profit, or maybe they planned to profit without
mess; maybe some of them regret what they have wrought. However, they
all share the blame for whatever he does next.

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