While Iraq unravels before everyone’s eyes, the White House administration devolves into incoherence under the weight of indictments (both actualized and pending) of its senior members, and finger pointing and blame for the debacle starts being spread around, it is time to look more closely at the curious role of George W. Bush in all this.
As I have said before, I do not feel that it is a very useful exercise to try and find out what public figures are ‘really’ like in private. One should simply judge them by their public actions and consequences and their official role in it. And when it comes to Iraq, the picture is clear, even if the image of the person behind the decision is not. The policy was flawed, the attack on Iraq was based on lies and deception, and since he was the President and had to authorize all the decisions, he has to be held responsible for the results and be taken to task. For any substantive purpose, it does not matter what Bush is ‘really’ like.
Having said that, there is always some residual fascination with the ‘real’ character of people who are so public (witness the public’s endless fascination with celebrity news, gossip, and interviews), and George Bush is a particularly enigmatic and intriguing person, since he has been at the center of a turbulent and short period that has seen one debacle after another.
There are several conflicting public images of Bush. It is interesting that in some quarters he is perceived as a somewhat minor player in the whole matter. This plays into the image that he is a stupid man, a buffoon, the butt of jokes by television comedians, made fun of in the White House parody website, easily pushed around by those around him, who has to be told what to do, where to go, what to say. This is the The Pet Goat-reading, Michael Moore Fahrenheit 9/11 image of Bush. In this image, he is just a front man for other interests, a marionette, with the strings being pulled by Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld. This image is undoubtedly helped by Bush’s famous verbal slips and gaffes, his seeming inability to think on his feet, and his reluctance to engage in any forum that is not tightly scripted and surrounded by supporters. (See, for example, this Saturday Night Live sketch which pokes fun at the much-ridiculed scripted Q&A that Bush had with troops in Iraq last week. The sketch takes swipes at Brit Hume and Fox News as well.)
But contrasting this is the fact that, during the first presidential campaign and especially during his earlier campaign for governor of Texas, one would have seen an articulate and coherent Bush who rattled off long, complex, grammatically correct sentences and seemed to know what he was talking about.
The second image is the “official” one, that of the affable, simple, straight talker, a regular guy, someone who speaks his mind in plain words, and likes nothing better than to wear blue jeans, drive his pickup around his ranch, and find brush to clear. (Given the amount of brush clearing he has done during his long periods at his ranch, his must be either the most brush-infested ranch in the nation or one that actually cultivates brush as a crop.) But this image is undermined by the fact that he is the son of extreme privilege, born to a very wealthy and well-connected family who has gone to expensive and exclusive private boarding schools and then to Ivy League colleges. He has spent his whole life amongst wealthy people.
Then there is the third image that is whispered about by insiders, that of the autocratic, bullying, vindictive, ruthless, stubborn, petulant, and petty person, a typical spoiled child who wants people to be obsequious towards him, who holds grudges and lets loose profanity-filled tirades against those who cross him. This is the image of a man who, once he decides what he wants to do, does not want to even hear anything that challenges his beliefs, a person who always wants to get his way whatever the cost to others or the nation. This is the man whom the BBC reports as saying that god told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the man who enjoys the trappings of power, taking every opportunity to dress up in uniform and surround himself with saluting troops. (See the report of Bush interview with an Irish reporter who was not willing to play the obsequious game that the Washington press corps does. She reports that at one point during the interview she was so irritated at his attitude that she felt like slapping him.)
Then there is the fourth image of a shrewd and cunning leader who knows how to use people to advance his agenda, and who understands politics better than most people and is able to appeal to the visceral response of people to emotional appeals to patriotism, god, and strength, even if the resulting policies make no sense. This is the man who repeatedly in his public utterances tries to link the events of September 11, 2001 and terrorism as the justification for the invasion of Iraq (although knowledgeable observers have long concluded that there are no such links and there never were) because he knows that if you repeat emotional appeals often enough, there are enough people in the media who are cowed by people in high office who will obligingly support you and repeat your claims, thus giving them some credibility. In this image, Bush is the master puppeteer, making other people do what he wants so that he can achieve his goals.
These kinds of multiple images of a US President are nothing new. Having more than one face serves some useful purposes and for this reason one should be wary of taking any one of them seriously. One of the prime goals of those surrounding the President is to maintain deniability for the President so that whatever goes wrong does not reflect badly on him. The out-of-the-loop figure of fun is sometimes useful when things go wrong, because it can be used to point to others as the culprits who did things without the President knowing. This was the strategy employed by former Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush during the Iran-Contra fiasco. Richard M. Nixon purposefully tried to convey an image of irrationality, of being a “madman” during the Vietnam war, hoping that it would cause the North Vietnamese to negotiate terms more palatable to the US because of fears that he would do something stupid and extreme, such as use a nuclear weapon.
But having so many contrasting images, as George W. Bush does, is unusual. So which image of Bush is ‘real’? As I said before, it really does not matter. But journalist Patrick Cockburn writing in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter has a quote that I think is particularly revealing:
One Iraqi leader, who has met frequently with President George W. Bush, attributes many of the bizarre events of the last three years to him. “What a strange man,” he exclaimed. “Not stupid, but very, very strange.”
I could not put it better myself.
POST SCRIPT: Revisiting Katrina and race
Tim Wise provides a long but cogent analysis of the way race framed the Katrina news coverage.