The Future of the Bush Administration
These past months have been a strange — and no doubt frustrating — time for George W. Bush loyalists. Any two-term presidency has its lame-duck phase eventually, but with most of the second term still to go, Dubya’s party has abruptly gone from a soaring high point of perceived omnipotence to a small dark speck at the bottom of a cliff, as if it were Wile E. Coyote at that moment when he suddenly realizes that he no longer has solid earth beneath his feet. It’s as if the administration, its supporters in the media, and even many of the citizens who voted for it last year had to summon up every last bit of hubris and self-delusion it could muster — in the face of increasing evidence of failure and incompetence — to get itself over the hump last November. Fully spent, it’s been in free fall ever since, with the president and now the twittering children he enjoys placing in positions of grave importance (no doubt because they make him feel like a philosopher-king by comparison) increasingly treated as figures of fun.
Given the princely adulation accorded the most arrogant and stupid of Bushfolk during that Oz-like period in the wake of 9/11, this change in the weather must have some of our nation’s prize simpletons as confused as me on a first date. (Oddly enough, I’ve never had a second one.) Distinguished, much-lauded men and women at the epicenter of world power must feel as if someone stole their lollipop. And now, the truly unthinkable has begun to happen — sandlot buddies of our war president have actually lost their phony-baloney jobs, and not for the customary un-Dubyan sin of ruining the war president’s digestion by letting their devotion to reality intrude on his daydreaming. They must feel like it’s a madhouse, as Charlton Heston so eloquently put it in Planet of the Apes (and as he might well put it today if he weren’t busy installing land mines around his property to keep Michael Moore the hell out).
So their careers in public service are in the process of winding down in catcalls and raspberries. What does that mean for the future of these superb men and women? F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives. In this, as in so many things, the much-loved and justly esteemed creator of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan had his head up his ass. Thanks to America’s love for the spectacle of its heroes and mandarins reduced to performing clown acts, there’s always a way for a pathetic shell of a molder of worlds to make a dishonest buck. But there are gradations for those the gods and Jon Stewart have brought low. Dante once detailed nine of them, but we’ll stick to the big dogs.
Fred Dalton Thompson
By far the happiest instance of a second act has been Thompson’s, which has not prevented him from looking, every second of his public life, like a Chuck Jones bulldog who’s had Sylvester the Cat working his last nerve for as long as he can stand it. Thompson first gained his small measure of national fame as a lawyer representing the White House during the televised Watergate hearings. For the benefit of those whose grasp of twentieth-century American history is shaky, he performed no miracles for his client, and as the Nixon administration sank into the mire, the question on nobody’s lips was “When will Fred Dalton Thompson break into the movies?”
The answer was 1984, when Sissy Spacek starred in Marie, a docudrama about the travails of Marie Ragghianti, a former head of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles who in the late 1970s sued the governor for wrongful dismissal. In her courtroom proceedings, which exposed a patter of corruption in the workings of the Board, she was represented by Fred Dalton Thompson, who director Roger Donaldson sought out as a consultant and then hired to play himself. Thompson gave an engaging performance, and entertainment journalists and reviewers, attracted to the novelty of seeing a lumbering Republican lawyer steal scenes from Sissy Spacek, talked him up to the point that he was able to parlay the role into a full-blown career as a busy character actor especially at home in Washington settings (No Way Out), military uniforms (Fat Man and Little Boy), and redneck modes (Days of Thunder). He even played a rabble-rousing con man exploiting disenfranchised working-class bitterness by preaching white-supremacist blather in a very special story arc on Wiseguy.
Thompson pulled off quite a trick in 1994 when he rode his newfound fame to a seat in Congress as part of Newt Gingrich’s “Republican revolution.” He might never have gotten there without Hollywood’s help, but by then, voters had seen him doling out sage advice to so many fictional presidents that not sending him to Washington would have seemed like a violation of natural law. But Thompson appeared frustrated at being reduced to showboating and bloviating in an unscripted world where results are mixed and unpredictable. (Talking yellow-peril gibberish as the chairman of hearings on campaign finance abuse, he sounded like his old Wiseguy character reborn on C-SPAN.) Thompson fled the Senate and returned to show business, boring Sam Waterston blind for five minutes every week on Law & Order. His lines on that show often sound like his old campaign speeches with the juice drained out, and he recently played the president in a nuclear terrorism thriller produced for educational purposes. He may not exactly be Ronald Reagan in reverse, but he’s an underappreciated key figure in Reagan’s great crusade to blur the line between politics and entertainment.
G. Gordon Liddy
Another footnote figure in the Watergate saga, but less reputable and more openly deranged, Liddy is also the possessor of a more scattershot and gaudy second act. Liddy has always been something of a drama queen; reviewing his 1981 memoir Will, Nicholas Von Hoffman, discussing Liddy’s early go-nowhere career in law enforcement, wrote that “being a small-time FBI bureaucrat might have driven a man with a less richly detailed imagination” to bored frustration, “but wherever Liddy is, as far as Liddy is concerned, is the center of action.” His charismatic nuttiness gave him a self-made cartoon quality that, during the early Reagan years, made him a popular figure on the campus lecture circuit. (For a while, he toured with Sixties relic Timothy Leary in a debating show — as recorded in the Alan Rudolph documentary Return Engagement — that provided the public service of demonstrating what political differences would be like in a parallel universe where people cared what G. Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary thought about anything.)
Liddy, a convicted felon and outright fascist, has no place in legitimate politics, so he seemed to have little choice but to go into show business, since a quiet useful unoffending life just wasn’t an option for him. Since there seemed to be something funny about the guy, some people decided that he must be a comedian, a misconception that led to his debating Moon Unit Zappa on Steve Martin’s Twilight Theater and delivering a pitch for the Society to Stamp Out Jerry Lewis in the Troma “comedy” When Nature Calls. His major dramatic breakthrough came when fellow over-employed fruitcake Don Johnson recruited him for a recurring role on Miami Vice, where he played a Vietnam vet who had smuggled a fortune in heroin out of Saigon in the body bags of dead servicemen, and who wound up, in the era of Reagan’s proxy wars, rampaging around Central America wearing a necklace of “Sandinista ears” to show he meant business. The Emmy committee managed to contain its enthusiasm, and James Wolcott complained that Liddy “lacked an actor’s ability to conceal his own dull brainwaves.” Since then, he’s settled into the role of a professional psycho/right-wing commentator with his own talk radio show, sensitively advising militia group members and survivalist nut-balls that his former brothers in arms in federal law enforcement wear body armor so the listeners should take care to go for head shots. In his rich and varied career, he typifies the defining trait of the modern celebrity conservative blowhard: his eagerness to turn everything he claims to believe into a stupid jokes in exchange for a few bucks and a little attention.
Once reviled for excessive meanness in the mid-’70s, Dole grew to be viewed by the media as a fairly classy guy, at least by comparison, as the Republican Party around him came to fully embrace its inner primate. One of his earliest show business credits, from the Paul Newman movie Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, reads “Shakespeare Advisor to Mr. Newman.” In 1996, Dole gave up the senatorial career that had been his whole life for one of the most hopeless and foredoomed presidential campaigns of modern times. It didn’t exactly leave him scandal-tainted, but he must have felt lonely. His subsequent career as a couch-side TV comedian on such programs as The Daily Show, and as a pitchman for erectile dysfunction treatments, seems as much as anything a way to cheer himself up in his dotage, to keep his name alive as he inches gracefully to the door marked “EXIT” (as Gore Vidal once put it). Though some think he went overboard by appearing in a television commercial whose message seemed to be that enjoyment of a certain brand of soft drink might be a man’s best consolation for the fact that he and his dog would never enjoy full carnal knowledge of Britney Spears, he still remains a well-liked, much-respected elder statesman. (Less happy is the case of Susan Molinari, another star of the 1994 Gingrich Congress, who heard herself described as “cute” by one reporter too many until she quit politics to take a job on network TV. She soon found out the hard way that standards of star-level cuteness are much higher on television than they are at anti-abortion rallies.)
A sad example of what my old Shakespeare advisor, referring to Hamlet, would call the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind. North’s life-saving, self-serving performance during the televised Iran-Contra hearings was widely reviewed in terms of movie and TV stars — James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Howdy Doody — but he’s been unable to turn his celebrity into a fake acting career on the scale of a G. Gordon Liddy, because he apparently can’t shake the feeling that he might yet be of real service to the nation. Playing a recurring role as a Deep Throat figure named Oliver on the ten-hut TV series JAG, he didn’t seem to be having any fun; that was also true of him in his only movie role to date — in A Perfect Candidate, the documentary detailing how perilously close he came to winning a congressional seat. (In the film, North comes across as an empty suit with an empty head, a supporting character compared to his Satanic campaign manager, who’s last seen telling reporters at a post-defeat press conference that he’s learned his lesson about turning voters off with too much negative campaigning — then walking away by himself spewing red-hot bile about how in future campaigns he’ll never let up, he’ll accuse his opponent of being a bed-wetter, a child molester, a werewolf, anything.) North has likewise gone the professional right-wing gasbag route, the last refuge of any untrustworthy grease stain with a working tongue; but even there, he gives poor entertainment value. The cow-eyed sincerity that saved his tin ass from prison just makes him a drag now. He’s so stupid he actually thinks he’s one of the good guys, so even an audience that enjoys the ravings of a Liddy or a Michael Savage as camp just feels embarrassed for him.
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Not every stained survivor of the Bush administration will be able to break through to show biz success, but many could show real potential with just a little careful guidance to make sure they pursue the right roles. So in the first installment of what we hope will be a long-running and award-winning regular feature — one that will be every bit as successful as the “Peckinpah Supporting Players Paper Doll Cut-out” feature, Steve Hicken and Gus Sheridan’s “Ten New One-Act Operas Based on Jim Thompson Paperback Covers,” and parts 17-31 of Scott Von Doviak’s “How I Lost That Job” — we offer these suggestions from the High Hat Casting Couch.
Just a few years ago, Rumsfeld was recognized as the designated dream date and most-wanted centerfold star of the Bush administration. Neo-con soul sister Midge Decter, from whom the editors of Sassy and Cosmopolitan get all their best ideas, has written eloquently (and frighteningly) of how his secure, manly style makes her all swoony. (When you consider that Decter is in a position to see Norman Podhoretz in his underwear any time she likes, you have to marvel that any other man invades her fantasy life.) Alas, since the scandal of Abu Ghraib and the draining off of support for the Iraq misadventure, Rumsfeld has undergone a serious image rewrite. Called on the carpet over the torture of Iraqi prisoners, Rumsfeld failed to comport himself the way Decter must have imagined he would — swaggering into the congressional hearing room and tossing aside his serape, sneering a challenge to John McCain that they decide how the U.S. should treat the Geneva Accords like men: by unzipping and breaking out the measuring tape — instead sputtering, double-talking and making with the high blink rate, just like any mortal political hack with his hand caught in a cookie jar. His pathetic performance reminded me of something Pauline Kael once wrote about Kirk Douglas: “Actors who strut the stage with such supreme confidence in their own virility make the best cuckolds.” If they were shooting a remake of Shampoo, I’d recommend Rumsfeld for the Jack Warden role in a second. The cruel, clueless smile, the beady eyes that dart everywhere and take in nothing, the misguidedly confident straight-backed waddle — all of it calls for Rumsfeld to come home early from work, walk into the bedroom where his wife is lying supine and satisfied, and stroll over to give the pool boy who’s quickly zipping up his pants a big friendly slap on the back. (“I thought you were just here on Wednesdays, Pablo! I appreciate your dedication.”) Can Blake Edwards be coached out of retirement? It would be worth it just for the big party scene at the end where Rumsfeld keeps getting knocked, fully clothed, into the swimming pool.
In a photo published in Vanity Fair during the neo-cons’ glory days, Perle sits facing the camera, his bright eyes aglitter, his smile gleaming and wicked; all he lacks are talons and a skull-headed walking stick. Here is the man Decter thought Rumsfeld was — unwavering, strong, undoubting, self-satisfied, convinced that if some utopian fantasy of his is carried out and thousands of people he predicted would benefit from it wind up murdered instead, it’s the dead people who must have screwed up. (Christopher Hitchens, taking up the Decter role, proclaimed the picture “very sexy,” resulting in some fantasies that I wish I could dig out of my brain with a spork.)
With the James Bond franchise getting a shot in the arm via the casting of Daniel Craig as 007, surely it’s time to reintroduce the arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, now personified by an actor so born to the role that he could give Donald Pleasance the shivers. Perle will probably only take the job if he thinks Blofeld is the hero, which should be no problem. The thought that it could be otherwise is unlikely to occur to him even if he attends the premiere and gets to see the audience standing on its seats and applauding when his stunt double is decapitated by a helicopter blade.
Some look at Wolfie’s slick black hair and sharp features, and feel and irresistible impulse to see him pulling a black cap up to his nose and saying “Bleah! Bleah!” I feel this discounts the strong intellectual presence of the man. I’d like to see Wolfowitz host a new version of the old Mr. Wizard TV show devoted to proving that scientific theory and logical reasoning, however “politically correct” they may be, are no match for rigorous adherence to ideological predetermination. Each week, Wolfowitz will explain that such-and-such chemicals are traditionally not meant to be mixed together, but that he intends to demonstrate that a new position paper from the Heritage Foundation will cause them to yield delightful results. After the first few episodes end with the lab exploding, the series will gain in dramatic tension as Paul, though still committed to the central idea in theory, begins to show the inevitable Pavlovian conditioning.
“Your old-fashioned, soft-headed member of the reality-based community,” he will say, “would argue that, if I were to stick my Mr. Winky into this steel bear trap, I would not find the experience enjoyable. However, I have it on the authority of Ahmed Chalabi himself that it would in fact be akin to an orgasm by licking at the hands of playful water nymphs. Naturally, I agree whole-heartedly with Mr. Chalabi — so much so that it would be a waste of valuable airtime for me to actually show you ... wait, what are the stage hands doing on camera? Let go of me! You can’t — arrgh!”
Ratings will drop off precipitously after the eleventh episode, when it is revealed that Paul has been reduced to a high-pitched, cracking voice coming out of a cigar box.
For reasons best understood by psychologists specializing in the study of mass hysteria, Powell was once thought to be a man of substance and in some ways, very much worthy of respect. To his credit, Powell contrived to assure the world that his stature was that of a sad and weary joke of a man by staking his “reputation” on claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Such staking of one’s reputation on a moron’s pipe dream is an old, gentlemanly way of renouncing one’s claim of being worthy of any treatment better than scorn and derision; the most recent instance I know of anyone else doing it was Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper’s public declaration, in 1983, that he was ready for the glue factory by “staking (his) reputation” on the validity of the incompetently forged Hitler diaries. It would be a horrible disservice to Powell not to take him at his word and respect his wishes that he be henceforth regarded as, at best, a driveling fool. This new role can be made to work well for him as the star of his own domestic sitcom. As the lovably befuddled “Gramps,” presiding over a house populated by 27 children he accidentally adopted after a slip of the tongue at a benefit for Iraq war orphans, Powell will fit easily into the role of the childrens’ cat’s-paw, slaying the audience week after week by standing up at a parent-teacher conference to “stake (his) reputation” on the validity of his youngest child’s story that extraterrestrials stole her homework, or by “staking (his) reputation” on the fact that his oldest boy couldn’t have gotten the principal’s daughter pregnant, because they never met, and if they did meet they never went out, and if they went out they were never alone, and whenever they were alone ...
Production will be preceded by a highly publicized search for an actor to play the feistiest, most adorable child, whose catchphrase, “Don’t get all spastic, Colin!,” will be emblazoned on t-shirts and coffee mugs and worked into the presidential State of the Union address.
News reports of Rice giddily shopping for shoes and enjoying the shopworn whimsies of Spamalot provided a special look into the soul of this enigmatic woman. Clearly, here is a tightly buttoned career diplomat who longs to cut loose, to strap fuck-me pumps to her tootsies and sit in Taye Diggs’ lap, merrily sashaying through Manhattan with Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha at her side. Too bad nobody else wants to see that. Instead, Condi will be kicking in doors and nailing perps to the sidewalk while her police-dog partner Beans, a trained Army dog mustered out of the service after Abu Ghraib and given a second chance with the LAPD, barks trash and bounds alongside her in the new Stephen J. Cannell cop show, Rice and Beans. Though the breakout hit of the season, the program will be discreetly cancelled in response to protests from animal rights groups following internet speculation regarding the sexual tension between the two leads gets out of hand.
Six words: special guest star, The L Word.