By Gary Younge (THE GUARDIAN, 04/09/06):
The appeal of any presidential candidate is based on a “gut reaction, unarticulated, non-analytical, a product of the particular chemistry between the voter and the image of the candidate”, argued Richard Nixon’s speechwriter Raymond Price. “[It’s] not what’s there that counts, it’s what’s projected.” And that projection, he continued, “depends more on the medium and its use than it does on the candidate himself”. In other words, the American presidency is not just a political role but a performative one.
Over the past six years, George Bush’s performance, both in office and on the campaign trail, has often been less than stellar. But his packaging has, for the most part, been exemplary. He has been projected as a man of the people and a man of action. Never mind that he did precious little for the first 40 years of his life and that most of what he did achieve came courtesy of his father’s connections. Image was everything. This was the MBA candidate who would take care of business – literally and metaphorically; the blue-blood whose folksy affectations turned blue states red; the affable jock who created a softball team called Nads in college just so that he could make banners saying “Go Nads”.
Liberals ridiculed Bush for being ignorant about the rest of the world, but what many of them failed to grasp is that this is precisely what so many of their fellow countrymen liked about him. He didn’t know the name of the president of Pakistan, and nor did they. The fact that he mangled his syntax was taken not as evidence that he had squandered an expensive education but as a sign of his unrehearsed folksiness. His supporters like the fact that he doesn’t think too much. He’s not a ditherer but, in his own words, “the decider”.
Only twice did reality intrude on this meticulously constructed and carefully choreographed image: first after the terrorist attacks of September 11, and then almost exactly four years later, following Hurricane Katrina. Those two events represent the zenith and the nadir of Bush’s presidency. In the wake of September 11, 69% of Americans believed he was a president who “cared about people like them”, and 75% thought he was “a strong and decisive leader”. After Katrina, those numbers were 42% and 49% respectively. Within a month of 9/11, Bush’s approval ratings had hit a giddy 92%; within a month of Katrina, they were down to 40%.
Today he stands between the two anniversaries that have come to define his tenure. Last week marked a year since Katrina flooded New Orleans, exposing his administration as aloof and incompetent – an impression from which he has never recovered. Next week will revive memories of a commander in chief who was tough and resolute – an image he is desperate to resurrect.
On both anniversaries the dead will be commemorated. But the public discussion of why they died and what should be done to prevent more similar deaths reflects two very different notions of what kind of superpower America aspires to be. They are, if not contradictory, at the very least in conflict. A period of doleful introspection last week over how the world’s wealthiest nation could treat its poor so shabbily will now be followed by a flag-waving orgy hailing patriotic resilience in the face of a vicious attack. If these anniversaries reveal a lot about Bush, they also tell us a great deal about America.
On both occasions Bush displayed not a commanding presence but a conspicuous absence. On hearing of the terrorist attacks he finished reading My Pet Goat to schoolchildren in Florida before zigzagging around the country for fear that he too would become a target. This did little to inspire confidence in the nation in its hour of need.
William Bennett, who was the drug tsar in Bush Sr’s administration, said: “This is not 1812. It cannot look as if the president has run off, or it will look like we can’t defend our most important institutions.” The late Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory concluded: “Bush said the attack was a ‘test’ for the country. It was also one for him. He flunked.” He did not arrive in New York for four days. In New York, Newsday’s Ellis Henican pleaded: “I know we’re all rallying round the president now, and here I’ve been, rallying like everybody else. But the hours are passing. The body count is rising. The question can’t wait much longer. New York has a right to know. Where are you, Mr President?”
The fact that, after just five years, this is remembered as his finest hour is a triumph of image over reality. The nation felt the need for a strong leader. When he was found lacking, his consigliere, Karl Rove, projected one.
When Katrina came Bush was once again missing in action. While the Gulf coast lay in ruins, he remained in southern California trying to sell the Gulf war. Too scared to go to New Orleans, where the black and poor pleaded for help, he headed for Alabama and Mississippi. In Mississippi he threw his arm around the Republican senator Trent Lott, who had lost his job as Senate leader a few years earlier for publicly mourning the end of segregation, and said he “looked forward to sitting on the porch” with him.
When it came to contempt for a national crisis, his administration took its cue from the boss. Several days into the crisis, Dick Cheney remained fly-fishing in Wyoming. Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice went shopping at Salvatore Ferragamo in New York and took in a show. When the lights came up the audience booed her.
With no foreign enemy to deflect attention from its deficiencies this time around, the spotlight remained not only on the administration’s callous indifference but on the nation’s entrenched fault lines of race and poverty.
September 11 highlighted America’s vulnerability as a global superpower; Katrina highlighted how little that superpower status meant to many Americans. The fruits of freedom and opportunity that Bush sought to impose in the Middle East at the barrel of a gun had yet to reach middle America. Black infant mortality in Louisiana is on a par with Sri Lanka; the life expectancy of a black man in Louisiana is roughly the same as that of a man in Kyrgyzstan.
With Osama bin Laden still at large and much of New Orleans still looking like a bomb site, Bush twice failed to seize the moment to accomplish the immediate task at hand or comfort a traumatised nation. But both times he and his party moved quickly to exploit the chaos to advance their own agenda.
As early as November 21 2001 Bush asked Donald Rumsfeld: “What kind of war plan do you have for Iraq?” The president continues to link Iraq to the war on terror – he did so in his radio address two days ago – even though a majority of Americans now reject such a link.
Less than two weeks after Katrina, the Republican congressman Richard Baker reportedly said: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
The causes and the solutions for these two tragedies couldn’t be more different. But they raise the same two central questions: how can America use its superpower status, at home and abroad, to make the world a safer, better place for ordinary working people; and what form of collective intuitive malaise convinced a majority of Americans – albeit a slender one – to check their guts and then choose this man?