This Mardi Gras season, few know the rules of the carnival better than George W. Bush, our Fratboy in Chief. All acts can be plausibly denied. Memories rarely take root. As the room spins, truth and accountability turn on their heads.
It was the story of Bush’s youth, and now, it’s the story of his presidency. You have probably heard Bush-bashers like me rattle off his rap sheet before, from the economy to the environment, Iraq to Afghanistan, energy policy to the war on terror. We continue to indulge ourselves because, like Al Gore ’69 with his imaginary lockbox, we don’t know how else to communicate what seems only too obvious.
Bush is ruining America. If you fly the flag, for instance, you should be shocked by the White House’s outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame and Bush’s missing months with the Texas Air National Guard, where he abused his privilege to get the assignment in the first place, ahead of more than 100,000 others on the waiting list. If you dream of democratic dominos in the Middle East, you should balk at a unilateralism poised to rebuild Iraq in Afghanistan’s chaotic image. And if you’re a fiscal conservative, well, you probably thought already to check your children’s wallets—metaphorically, for the childless—since the burden of deficits approaching half a trillion dollars will be theirs.
Little of this seems to stick to Bush, however, even as desperation sticks to us dissenters. Bush laid low while we inveighed against him for months, and yet his approval rating continues to hover around 50 percent. Indeed, the greatest casualty of the Dean-led denigration this primary season was Dean himself.
To dethrone Bush, insurgents will have to reach out beyond those who screamed at the TV during the State of the Union, their feet resting beside Al Franken’s book on their coffee table. I’m convinced that many who voted for Bush in 2000 have misgivings about the direction he has dragged the Republican Party. After all, his campaign is nervous. Bush attacked Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass. directly at a fundraiser last Monday, earlier in the race than his handlers had originally planned and before the Democrats had even settled on a nominee.
But converting doubt into swing votes will require that the Democrats resolve a fundamental paradox. If Bush is a lying liar, as most of the country has already heard, then who was the gutsy leader who emerged in the aftermath of 9/11? How can Bush voters reconcile their adoration then—when his gravitas inspired comparisons to Churchill during World War II and the Kennedys during the Cuban Missile Crisis—with his recklessness since?
They can’t, fortunately, and Bush’s opponents have the unenviable job of delivering disillusionment. To paraphrase the Clinton campaign, it’s the biography, stupid.
In his rise from high school dolt to Yale alum, from addict governor to born-again president, Bush was rewarded over and over for finding dubious backdoors when misbehavior and mediocrity closed off the front. The once-Skull and Bones, now O’Douls drinker learned early to say things he doesn’t mean and make commitments he has no intention of keeping.
When Bush was failing as an investor, Daddy rescued his sagging share in Harken with a windfall contract for oil drilling in Bahrain, despite Harken’s dismal history and lack of off-shore experience. The Bush pedigree bought Dubya his stake in Texas politics, even though his recklessness, not to mention his dope-dimmed mind, would have denied it to anyone else. Then, as governor, he exploited the University of Texas’s state-funded endowment to funnel investment money to his cronies.
None of this squares with the narrative of Bush immediately after 9/11, of course, but that’s only because Bush’s handlers reinvented him for a few short months. For that brief time, he seemed to share in America’s collective shock and to channel it, without cynicism, into a world coalition against terror.
It wasn’t long, however, before the real Bush reemerged, with all of his opportunistic alchemy. First he converted terrorist hysteria into repressive gold with the USA PATRIOT Act, and then into corporate gold with crass tax cuts and, finally, into neocon gold with a preemptive war in Iraq.
Al Gore dared not attack Bush on his character in 2000 because Gore knew that disgust with Clinton might stain him by association. Kerry has no such baggage. He may be a Skull and Bones like Bush, but his heroism in Vietnam and public service in the Senate give him abundant patriotic currency. Likewise, should John Edwards somehow steal the nomination, he can boast of a working class success story that embodies the American dream.
For Democrats to beat Bush, Americans must realize that they were duped after 9/11. He lies rather than leads by nature, which is obvious in any narrative of his life that links the prodigal son with his prodigal policies as president. As a sound byte, the message is simple. It’s the biography, stupid.
Blake Jennelle ’04 is an social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.