Karl Rove once said that he ran television campaigns as if the people watching had the sound turned off on their TV monitors. In other words, only the visuals matter. Five years ago today, on May 1, 2003, the Bush production company devoured some of America's most powerful national and cultural signifiers, not just for crass political gain, but to inspire and enthrall the populi.
It was a circus without the bread.
Here are a few examples:
1). The aircraft carrier. This mighty vessel evokes the surrender of the Japanese on September 14, 1945 to General Douglas MacArthur. The USS Abraham Lincoln is named after the first GOP president, and Bush sought to capture some of the earthy glow of the Great Emancipator. (The USS John F. Kennedy need not apply.) The enormous ship is also a symbol of America's projection of power in the world, with its connotations of conquering oceans, tackling the frontier, and technological innovation.
2). The flight suit. Bush donned the one-piece jump suit instead of the business suit he normally wears to symbolize adventure, danger, Top Gun, masculinity, and virility. Benito Mussolini wore similar get ups for the same effect. The helmet and the codpiece, the parachute and the dog tags, cast Bush in a Bonapartist light: the General who mixes with his troops, inspiring them with his charismatic leadership. Past presidents who began their careers in the military, such as the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, made it a point never to wear their uniforms out of respect for the civilian nature of the presidency. Not Bush.
3). Bush as the flier. As the "pilot" (or passenger really) Bush is part of the mission, risking his life for the cause. It's tricky business sitting in the cockpit while a jet aircraft lands on such a thin floating platform filled with explosive ordnance. He's our military commander. The costume evokes the patriot, helmet stuffed under his arm, returning from a dangerous mission. He's in charge. He's the Commander-in-Chief. Il Duce also flew planes. This spectacle was not Michael Dukakis in a tank!
4). The jet aircraft. This technological marvel harkens back to the Wright Brothers, and fulfills the dream of flight humans had pondered for centuries. Our leader was soaring like a bird in the sky with the help of American technological know-how. He conquered the air. Most people don't get the opportunity to do that; he must be a hero, a risk-taker. After all, the flyboys are the most glamorous in all of the U.S. military.
5). The adoring crowd. The smiling, waving, hugging, ethnically and racially diverse U.S. sailors aboard the aircraft carrier told America: "Our brave men and women protecting our nation obviously adore Bush, so should we!" Team Bush used these military personnel as cheesy, but effective, stage props.
6). The "Mission Accomplished" banner. Spelling out "Mission Accomplished" behind the president gave America what it loves most: Winners! Bush declared himself a winner. He was a winner over the Congress, over the weak-kneed Democrats, over the "liberal" media, over his doubters from the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the Islamic Conference, the Arab League, the Organization of African Unity, the Non-Aligned Nations, China, Russia, Germany, France, Pope John Paul, and 15 million protesters worldwide. Bush Wins! We are all Winners!
(Later, when we learned the "mission" was not "accomplished," the Bush spinmeisters claimed that it was those stupid, over-excited sailors who were responsible for putting up the banner. The White House subsequently rescinded this false story, but not before the passing of several news cycles.)
7). The deep blue sea background. The watery horizon stretched out over the distance on a stunning California day. The cameras faced out to sea so viewers wouldn't see the San Diego coastline. Adventure and danger loom out in the earth's vast oceans. It takes a strong, courageous man to explore them. (Even though the ship was only about ten nautical miles away from the shore.) "There's our Leader out at sea with the boys!"
8). The invocation of great war presidents of the past. Bush declared: "In the battle for Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." He claimed his "preventive" war on Iraq was akin to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War Two, and that it "affirmed" Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, "asserted" the Truman Doctrine, and evoked "Ronald Reagan's challenge to an evil empire." Not only had the Bush TV producers hijacked the nation's dominant symbols of patriotic duty and sacrifice, but they also wrapped them up in a semiotic package with moments of presidential greatness from our history. The implication was clear: Bush embodied Roosevelt, Truman, and Reagan.
9). The linkage of everything back to 9-11. In his "Mission Accomplished" speech, Bush exploited, as he always does, the trauma the nation experienced with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He tapped into the memory of this generation's Pearl Harbor and the solidarity Americans felt following that day of infamy, as well as our collective thirst for revenge.
10). The control of images. The event itself had more planning than a Superbowl half-time show. The former ABC television producer, Andrew Sforza, who had become Bush's Leni Riefenstahl, arranged all of the details: the multiple camera angles, the lighting, the staging of the sailors, the direction of each shot, the mise en scène. Nothing was left to chance. Sforza had a team of nearly one hundred production technicians on the ship preparing (or "advancing") for the president's triumphal landing.
Sforza, who is famous for contracting expensive lighting rigs from Europe set on barges that bathed the Statue of Liberty in light as a backdrop for Bush's photo-op on the first anniversary of 9-11, hired associate producers, set builders, grips, lighting and sound specialists, assistant directors, and managers who worked with the major television networks to provide direct feeds and other accommodations. Sforza's set designers dictated the specific colors each of the lines of sailors would wear, the colors of the air deck smoke that was used, the monumental music played. They also made sure there were plenty of black, Latino, and female faces in the frame. It was "Triumph of the Will" at sea.
Naturally, the corporate media swooned over their leader's performance. Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball held forth breathless fawning commentary of the event while the caption shot across the screen: "Why are the Democrats raining on Bush's parade?" Said Matthews: "We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as a president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical . . . Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president." Matthews' comments were consistent with other media commentators' enthusiasm across the board.
The astute political observer, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, referred to Bush as "a great man" a half dozen times during the aircraft carrier stunt. Wolf Blitzer, Brian Williams, Bob Schieffer, Joe Klein, David Sanger, and the other dominant voices in the esteemed worlds of mainstream journalism and punditry fell over themselves to honor our hero-leader, Bush the Younger, (Bush the Magnificent!), in his most heroic hour. G. Gordon Liddy couldn't contain his homoerotic male lust while commenting on Bush's codpiece: "It makes the best of his manly characteristic."
I leave you with a quotation from Joe Scarborough that captures the élan of those heady days so long ago when the Iraq war smelled like victory to the mightiest minds of our political discourse. On April 10, 2003, the day after the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Firdos Square, Scarborough remarked: "I'm waiting to hear the words, 'I was wrong,' from some of the world's most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types... Maybe disgraced commentators and politicians alike, like [Tom] Daschle, Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich and all those others, will step forward tonight and show the content of their character by simply admitting what we know already: that their wartime predictions were arrogant, they were misguided and they were dead wrong. Maybe, just maybe, these self-anointed critics will learn from their mistakes. But I doubt it. After all, we don't call them 'elitists' for nothing."
(Note to Readers: I originally posted this piece on May 1, 2006 on the third anniversary of "Mission Accomplished," and then again on the fourth anniversary. I will continue to post this piece each year on May 1st until all U.S. troops are removed from Iraq. If John McCain is elected and we stay in Iraq for 100 years I will pass this task on to my children and grandchildren to carry on this noble tradition.)