Images of Bush

Seeing the president

The national press corps spent the better part of 1999 and 2000 insisting that George W. Bush was a centrist, because he kept repeating slogans that suggested as much. Reporters could have avoided this misinterpretation had they spent … more time sitting at their desks doing Nexis searches, where they could have unearthed old Bush quotes like this one from 1996: “The Republican party must put a compassionate face on a conservative philosophy.” Surely this would have told them more about how Bush was actually planning to govern than the number of times he described himself as “compassionate” or was filmed with black or Hispanic children. (Jonathan Chait, New Republic)

George W. Bush is a spoiled, arrogant son of privilege who never accomplished anything in his life before getting elected governor of Texas, an act that solidified his connections to some of the most extreme, right-wing political handlers and campaign contributors in America. Ron Reagan Jr., a man who may never get his own entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica but who has the grace not to pretend that he was invited to appear on “Saturday Night Live” or the cover of Vanity Fair for some reason other than that he shared a name with a president of the United States, summed up Bush’s credentials early in 2000 when he pointed out that the proudest achievement to which Bush could lay claim was that he “was no longer an obnoxious drunk.” (Well, not drunk, anyway; candid accounts of the man’s off-mike demeanor are full of stories about him explaining to nobodies that it doesn’t matter what they think because they’re not the ones with the power, so why don’t they stuff it?)

Bush overcame drink at the age of 40 with the help of a born-again experience, which convinced him that God wanted him to be president — and he means it. (Bush has apparently been known to tell people, by way of casual conversation, that he knows for a fact that he was singled out to lead God’s favorite country because that’s the only way to explain how he got through his wild oats period without winding up in a maximum-security prison or dead in a ditch.) Even before surrounding himself with the most single-mindedly ideological staff imaginable, he accepted as his vice-presidential nominee the terrifying Dick Cheney, presumably because Cheney is exactly the kind of person who he’d like to see assume the presidency in the unlikely event that God takes his eye off security detail at the wrong moment. Throughout his 2000 campaign, Bush made it clear that he cared about two things: changing the tax code to gradually phase out taxation of anything but earned income (a change that would shift the burden away from the rich and big corporations to those at the bottom of the pile to a Dickensian degree), and something called “faith-based initiatives,” an obvious code for sucking up to the religious right on things like abortion and science policy in general. (It was also an acknowledgement that by giving the rich the kind of tax break he had in mind, government would essentially cede any kind of social safety net to the churches and other private charity services.)

This is who Bush was, what he believed, what he promised before he ever took office; it was all common knowledge. It was a formula for the most radical, hard-right administration of the modern era, if not all time, and being promised, it was what Bush delivered. The only time he seemed to go against what he’d promised on the campaign trail was when he seemed to be indulging in “nation-building” in Afghanistan and Iraq, precisely the kind of endeavor he went out of his way to denounce in 2000. But after plowing both countries under, Bush has under-funded and under-controlled the postwar missions to the point that what sounded like a promise to shore those countries up after the bombing ended was just guff. Whether or not Bush’s Iraq war, the larger of the two projects and by far the more inessential, could have been predicted, it clearly was an outgrowth not of 9/11 but an itch that both Bush (“He tried to kill my dad!”) and his neocon advisers had been chaffing at for a dozen years. If 9/11 hadn’t happened, he would have found another excuse for the invasion of Iraq, just as he went from insisting that tax cuts were needed because things were going so great that we could afford them to arguing (after the recession began seven months into his term and it became clear that the surplus wouldn’t last) that the same tax cuts were now needed because things were suddenly looking so bad.

The mysterious thing is, even though Bush is obviously what he seems to be, the discovery that he isn’t a moderate, easy-going guy seems to have shocked a lot of people. It was part of the common wisdom (and a boon for the Naderites) in the 2000 campaign that Bush was so “centrist” that it made no difference who won — the rock-stupid oil whore who liked to make fun of death row inmates and could barely string three words together and the populist-minded author of thick environmentalist tracts were obviously pretty much the same guy, don’t you see? After the Supreme Court decision that bestowed upon Bush the presidency, everyone on CNN was falling over themselves to explain that since he was already a mild-mannered get-along kind of guy with no strong convictions either way, Bush would no doubt address the uncomfortable electoral situation by going out of his way to “govern from the center” and possibly even give Paul Krassner a cabinet post. Unfortunately, Bush must have been watching ESPN that day. Even after he took office and started hammering away on his tax cuts (just as he’d said he would), people like David Broder spent months chuckling indulgently that Bush was just humoring his “base” and would of course pull an Emily Littella and drop his alarming plans at any minute. There’s even a popular notion nowadays that Bush would have governed like Ward Cleaver if only 9/11 hadn’t “changed everything.”

There is no way to account for this discrepancy in a way that is flattering to the people who did all the jawing about how Bush was anything but what he looked like and would sooner suicide himself on the Senate floor before damaging the country by doing any of those crazy things he said he wanted to do. What happened? Surely nobody ever really fell for that “compassionate conservative” business — it was such an obvious and insulting shuck that it wouldn’t have fooled Margaret Dumont. Maybe the real key can be found in Connie Bruck’s old profile of Newt Gingrich from the time he was being taken for the most powerful man in America. It ended with the suggestion that pundits and colleagues were in denial about Gingrich’s true nature because they simply couldn’t deal with the fact that “so consummate a con man” had risen to such heights. People actually use the word “betrayal” with Bush now, as if he pulled a fast one on them by being the uncaring, reckless, proudly thick-headed creeping shit he’d always appeared to be. I’ve even heard it suggested that, appearances to the contrary, there’s something contrived and insincere about Bush’s religious convictions — which, based on the available empirical evidence, makes exactly as much sense as arguing that appearances to the contrary, Lance Armstrong is a 3'4" 68-year-old Venezuelan woman with a club foot. The only way I can make sense of these claims is to assume that people who hate to give Bush credit for anything think that it would be to his credit to believe that he really loves Jesus (though if, like me, you have no great eagerness to live in a theocracy, you’d think that Bush’s literal-minded, I-am-the-chosen-instrument-of-the-Lord’s-vengeance religious identity was the scariest thing about him, especially if it’s heartfelt).

At a time when more actual information than ever is readily available, including information about politicians and their stated beliefs and past actions, Americans, as if in self-defense, seem desperate to reduce their potential leaders to a cartoon image that can be easily filed away and referenced. The spread of battle-of-the-Beltway TV talk shows and radio blowhards has only exacerbated this process. Bush has benefited from it more than just about anyone; Bill Clinton did too, building on his lovable Bubba image, but he also took his licks (no jokes, please), and Al Gore was buried by it. Both Clinton and Gore are unmistakably smart, which in pop-cultural terms translates as “shifty and untrustworthy” (as it did in Clinton’s case) or “stiff and dull,” as it did for Gore and, more recently, for John Kerry. Bush, on the other hand, is a dumb-ass. It’s now standard procedure to follow a statement like that with a conciliatory remark about how he’s actually very intelligent and about how nobody gets to where Bush is without great political skills, which is a form of intelligence, yada yada yada. Bullshit. A man who dummies up reasons for a war and then charges in without an exit plan because he doesn’t think he needs one — because he thinks the locals will just be so grateful to have tanks in their yards — is a dumb-ass. He may have a knack for making people like him (which is the essence of his “political skills”; he’s only good at getting elected), but so did Benji. In any case, the point is: the essence of Bush’s popular public image is that of a dumb-ass, and it hasn’t cost him anything. The people who respond to this kind of cornball imagery like dumb-asses. Whether we’re talking Forrest Gump or Ronald Reagan or even Gilligan, the dumb-ass in American culture is understood to be good at heart, to have access to more pristine moral states that hoity-toities with book learning have educated themselves too far away from. The Beltway bought into this after Bush’s post-9/11 speech, when it was often written that Bush’s simplemindedness was a godsend because it gave him a “moral clarity” useful in dealing with Absolute Evil (whereas that asshole Perfesser Gore would probably have gotten confused trying to grasp all the nuances of the situation).

We’re Not Laughing at You, We’re Laughing in Your General Direction

The basic prototype for the cartoon image of the current president usually gets stamped out on “Saturday Night Live.” Early in his term, Bush was represented on that show by Will Farrell, the breakout leading man of its late-’90s lineup. Bush acted like he got a big kick out of the impersonation and he probably did. Farrell played Bush as a jocular, giddy, overgrown frat boy in private; when he had to appear in public, Farrell’s Bush would knit his brow and slow down his delivery and turn into a kid’s idea of a grown-up — a silly person being solemn — while rolling out endless malapropisms. The cartoon was notable for what it left out: arrogance and the capacity for self-righteous cruelty that oozes from Bush’s pores. The show’s writers never put Bush into situations where his childish tough-guy act might look callow, rash or reckless; it was the real Bush, not Farrell’s interpretation, who responded to a question about murderous attacks against Americans sweating in the Iraqi desert a million miles away by inviting terrorists to “bring it on,” or who responded to a question (posed as it became clear that Iraq was circling the drain) about which of his mistakes he most regretted by saying that, although he was sure he must have committed a mistake or two in his time, darned if he could remember a single one. Farrell may have rethought the toothlessness of his work on SNL (which was in keeping with a show that started keeping its own teeth in a glass at night a long time ago), because he recently improvised a commercial for an anti-Bush organization in which he plays the president as more ominous in his dopiness, complaining about how there have been reports complaining that things aren’t that great these days, spread by biased, partisan carpers known as “the news.”

The SNL approach reached some kind of zenith on “That’s My Bush!” a parody sitcom produced by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park.” “That’s My Bush!” aired for eight episodes on Comedy Central early in 2001 and was canceled shortly before 9/11. It’s not Parker and Stone’s proudest moment. The concept pokes fun more at the sitcom form than Bush himself, and Parker and Stone have said that they would have done a version of the show with Gore at its center if he had won — which carries the admirable “a plague on everyone’s houses!” satirical attitude of “South Park” too far, into a cookie-cutter pointlessness. “That’s My Bush!” which starred long-sidelined ’70s survivor Timothy Bottoms as a cutely clueless George as well as Kurt Fuller (who played Werner Klemperer in the Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus) as a pop-eyed, scheming Karl Rove, was based on the idea that it was hysterical to see actors pretending to be the president and his staff and family navigate a White House set, acting out farcical storylines in which Laura mistakenly thinks that George won’t go down on her because no matter what she does to improve matters, he still can’t bear the smell of … well, you get the idea. “That’s My Bush!” may end up being remembered, if anyone proves sufficiently addicted to pop-culture trivia to remember it at all, as the exact point at which real satire (at which Parker and Stone had already proven themselves more than capable) and pointless, envelope-pushing adolescent vulgarity (of which Parker and Stone, etc.) collided, just moments before everything changed.

Call Me Hal

After 9/11, Bush’s life and career were redefined according to the Prince Hal/ Henry V model. Pundits who wouldn’t have known Shakespeare if he’d bitten his thumb in their faces suddenly fell in love with the notion that the Primate-in-Chief had only gone through that dissolute youth (and underwhelming, red-alarm-light-ignoring first eight months in office) so that he could blossom before our eyes. One thing was for sure; smartassery was no longer wanted on the national scene. A few hours after President Kennedy was shot, Lenny Bruce showed up for a scheduled performance, walked out onstage, and brought the shell-shocked, grieving audience to life with the opening line, “Whew — poor Vaughan Meader, huh?” But even respectful humor was not judged acceptable in the solemn days of September 2001; it was as if all the anchors and pundits were afraid that as soon as the first person cracked a smile and shrugged “Hey, life goes on,” we’d all start doing it. “Saturday Night Live” and David Letterman were nervous about returning to the air. Jay Leno, in a prototypical “I’m-sort-of-kidding-but-maybe-I’m-really-not” Leno crack, tested the waters by telling reporters that it was no longer possible to tell jokes about Bush being dumb: “He’s smart now.” Janeane Garafalo, trying to find the right balance between entertainment and proper respect for the moment, could do no better than tell a New York crowd, “On behalf of all the women in this city, I’d just like to say, ‘Helloooo, Mr. Fireman.’” (For a more cutting comment on the mood of the moment, we had to wait until the premiere early in 2004 of the TV series “Rescue Me,” in which New York City firemen were shown complaining that, now that the spell was finally starting to wear off, they were having to work to score pussy again.) The real pain and shock of that moment is nothing to sneer at, of course, but as the weeks and weeks of solemn commentary droned on, you began to get a sense that the newsmen and professional talkers — people who, the day before the attacks, were happily wearing out their lungs polluting the air with babble about Gary Condit and a non-existent plague of shark attacks — were simply so ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with actual traumatic historical events that they weren’t sure what to say and were remaining solemn for as long as they could out of self-defense. Nobody wanted to be the first to say that it was time to move on, because what if it wasn’t?

The prime mass-culture artifact of this period may be the Showtime movie DC 9/11: A Time of Crisis. Written by Lionel Chetwynd (a Bush appointee to the President’s Council on the Arts and Humanities and the author of many history-minded films, including Heroes of Desert Storm and the 1987 feature Hanoi Hilton, an angry, atrocious rebuke to such anti-Vietnam War movies as Platoon), the script was based on interviews and feedback from White House figures — including Bush, Rove and Donald Rumsfeld — and vetted by conservative pundits such as Fred Barnes and Charles Krauthammer. It also stars, of all people, Timothy Bottoms as George Bush! Did the casting people know about “That’s My Bush!”? How could they not? It may be that, as J. Hoberman argued, “Casting a former Bush travesty in the role of the serious Bush only reinforces the telefilm’s agenda, namely that the events of Sept. 11 served to render divine Bush’s dubious mandate.” (Perhaps for the same reason, Penny Johnson-Herald, the scheming-bitch wife of the president on the TV series “24,” was cast as Bush’s adoring sidekick Condi Rice.) Not surprisingly, DC 9/11 casts Bush as action hero, receiving the news about the World Trade Center with quiet stoicism (and leaving that copy of My Pet Goat well enough alone), and getting off tongue-twisting brag lines expressing his defiance of “tinhorn terrorists.” What the movie, which was prepared during the buildup to the Iraq War and premiered in fall of 2003, really pushes is the notion that 9/11 somehow made it necessary to take out Saddam Hussein. This idea, which the administration and its supporters in the pundit class hammered away at during the 2002 congressional elections, is planted early on when the actor playing Rumsfeld goes off on a mystifying snit about all those weapons of mass destruction he says everyone knows that Saddam is sitting on; the scene has its payoff when Bush, after the attacks, declares that they’ll go after Afghanistan “first.” Today, this propagandistic dramatization of the administration’s now-stale line of horseshit looks both naked and ridiculous — which just goes to show how fast things have been moving in the Bush era.

If DC 9/11 is officially sanctioned propaganda from the high-water mark of the Bush era, then the video documentary Journeys with George, which played the festival circuit and aired on HBO, shows the Bush machine co-opting what was once the last area dominated by fringe truth-tellers. Journeys, a video diary shot on the run with the 2000 campaign by novice director Alexandra Pelosi (the daughter of Democratic congresswoman and House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi), has been acclaimed, as high-profile indie-flavored documentaries always are, for its lovable quirkiness and wacky, “fun” attitude, and touted for its unprecedented all-access look at a presidential campaign. One critic commented on “an immediate and delightful chemistry” between the movie’s on-camera stars, Bush and Pelosi, “a snappy ‘us-them’ repartee spurred by the candidate’s obvious bemusement over all things Pelosi.” Given the open, taunting contempt that Bush has since made clear is his principal attitude towards all things media, it seems a safe bet that the winning repartee was actually spurred by the candidate’s having noticed that she was pointing a camera at his glib ass and thus affording him an opportunity to go into his self-effacing lovable-guy act. In playing along, Pelosi herself got played. Journeys comes on as a candid snapshot of a candidate on the move, but it feels packaged, especially if you’ve read enough candid descriptions of what Bush can be like when there aren’t any cameras to play to that you might wonder: where’s the guy whose real idea of humor is mocking (and misrepresenting) Karla Faye Tucker’s time on Death Row? Where’s the guy who, confronted by a concerned citizen in a receiving line who felt disenfranchised, comforted the fellow by telling him, “Who cares what you think?” Where’s the guy who, at one celebrated moment during the campaign tour, reached out to a middle-aged black reporter wearing a set of headphones and asked which rap group he was listening to? One wonders if Pelosi has considered, in the years since she filmed herself playing Gracie Allen to the candidate’s George Burns, whether that nice, funny man she bonded with is the same guy who subsequently unleashed his attack dogs to accuse her mother of treason, dimwittedness, com-symp tendencies and everything else short of hiding Osama bin-Laden in the laundry hamper.

In its giddy cluelessness, Journeys with George is a careless stumble into the kind of sucking up to power that has become a deliberate strategy nowadays for ratings and status (Bush and his team don’t offer real access in exchange) among what is laughingly called the journalistic community. Whether it’s because they want to catch some of the post-9/11 worship of the great war leader, or because they’re afraid that if they contradict it the public will tear them limb from limb, the same major papers and TV talking heads who called for Clinton’s resignation on grounds of “the appearance of impropriety” every time he was suspected of having eaten something that had fallen on the floor have completely rolled over for Bush. Even Bob Woodward (who during Clinton’s term published a book explaining that, post-Watergate, hounding politicians to death, even for imagined or exaggerated infractions, was just the way it had to be) has published a hagiographic book admiring the president’s war resolve. When Woodward published a second, slightly less worshipful book, he wound up hitting the talk show circuit to encourage people not to get the wrong idea and think that some of the tidbits in that book that got people excited — such as the news that Bush didn’t think there was any point in consulting his earthly father on the subject of waging war against Iraq since he already has his heavenly Father on the case — could be construed as unflattering to Little Caesar. For a sharp and frequently hilarious dissection of the End of Journalism As We Know It during the Bush years, check out James Wolcott’s book Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants. How anybody could watch this much cable news and retain enough functioning brain cells to tap out a book is beyond me.

The War President’s New Clothes

Leaving aside the guerrilla raids of such dependable heroes as “The Daily Show” strike force, the staff of The Onion, and such bloggers as Tom Bogg and Bob (The Daily Howler) Somersby, unflattering portraits of Bush — seriously unflattering, meant to draw blood rather than toothlessly tickle in the Jay Leno/“Saturday Night Live” manner — didn’t start creeping into the post-9/11 culture until early 2004. The first strikes were indirect and, in some cases, simply theoretical fancies floated by reviewers desperate to think of something more compelling than the rate at which their Jujubes melt in their mouths. For instance, the would-be blockbuster Troy (a.k.a. Homer For And By Dummies), in which Agamemnon (Brian Cox) is shown using the abduction of Helen as a transparently cynical ploy to rile up the unwashed masses and use their rage at a “violation” of their national security to float a land grab disguised as a war of self-defense, set many critics to stroking their chins and musing that something about this seemed miiiiighty familiar. A more convoluted jab at Bush may be hidden, also in toga and sandals, in the TV miniseries “Spartacus,” with cow-eyed Goran Visnjic looking weedy in the Kirk Douglas part. In the Stanley Kubrick version, the chief villain, Crassus, was a fascist demagogue played by Laurence Olivier with an elegant bully-boy swagger that occasionally fell away to reveal the insecurity and terror at the core. In the TV version, Crassus (Angus MacFadyen) is a preener eager to stage a military victory to use as his ticket to power but, once out in the field, plainly looks as if he were back home with his valet. He plays the bully more convincingly when safely in Rome, where he can show the public he’s bad by staging a gesture designed to prod at the rebel slave Spartacus: he has hundreds of slaves rounded up and burned to the death. Catching sight of one of his colleagues gagging on the stench of roasting flesh, Crassus’s chief antagonist, played by the late Alan Bates, tells him, “Breathe deep — that is the smell of Crassus’s new world order.” If the echo of contemporary political verbiage is deliberate, and I’d hate to think that it isn’t, the screenwriter, Robert Schenkken, has his George Bushes confused. But, even so, ouch.

Classical in name only, David Mamet’s thriller Spartan stars Val Kilmer as a special-ops officer on a mission to rescue the president’s daughter (Kristen Bell), a college-age blonde with a secret life as a party girl, who has been mistaken for any ordinary college-age blonde cutie by white slavers. Kilmer winds up in the Middle East, where he discovers that the abduction was no accident: it was arranged by the president’s handlers, who have gotten tired of having to clean up the girl’s messes and keep her one step ahead of a tabloid TV crew. (The president, who we never really get to meet and who looks like a real jughead on TV, can ill afford to do anything about this, since he wants to keep it a secret that he had used a visit to his daughter as cover for a weekend whoring expedition and borrowed her security detail to boot.) The movie plays a little like a gonzo fantasy about the Bush daughters, and it would be tempting to insist that its extremely dark, paranoid dark vision of modern political handlers was inspired by Karl Rove and the boys, but Mamet could probably have found it in him to write something just as gloomy during the reign of Prez Rickard. Another errant daddy turns up in yet another film (briefly) featuring Timothy Bottoms: Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Bottoms plays a likable misfit kid’s alcoholic father, who, Slate’s David Edelstein notes, “weaves all over the road on the way to school in the movie’s opening.” Edelstein wonders if, given that Bottoms has “lately [been] known for his George W. Bush impersonations … is he meant to evoke Bush — and to suggest that our ship of state has a senseless pilot? Or am I projecting my own politics on the movie?” Maybe, but it’s worth acknowledging that Bottoms, who doesn’t have a lot to do in the movie and doesn’t do it with any degree of flair, still stands out a bit, as he’s the closest thing to a recognizable “name” actor in a cast largely populated by nonprofessional kids. There must be some reason that Van Sant went to the trouble of having him shipped to Portland.

As if the spirit of Robert Flaherty, or at least Emile de Antonio, had risen up to shake his finger and go “tsk-tsk” to Alexandra Pelosi, the months leading up to the 2004 election also saw a steady stream of angry, committed (and in some cases, committable) left-wing documentaries, such as the Karl Rove rap sheet Bush’s Brain, the media screeds Outfoxed and Orwell Rolls in His Grave, and The Corporation, which uses the legal definition of a corporation as a “person” as an excuse to examine what kind of a person a corporation tends to be and quickly comes to the conclusion that he’s the kind of person who winds up getting led to a patrol car in handcuffs while the police exhume body after body from his crawlspace and the neighbors tell a TV reporter “He seemed so quiet.” The great spangled rolling Fourth of July picnic and turkey shoot among these documentaries is, of course, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, said to be the only movie ever made to defend an Academy Award acceptance speech. Considering how iffy Moore’s reputation used to be, I knew how far the pendulum had swung in favor of a consensus that his brand of agit-prop is badly needed when I saw reputable critics announce that, not only do they like the movie, but also, on second thought, his Bowling for Columbine Oscar speech itself wasn’t that bad. Though I know it will make me no friends at this late date, I’m afraid that I continue to find Moore’s films of little value journalistically, and the sanctimony that is an ever-growing part of his act makes me puke. (Never mind his famous and much-debated use of the grieving mother here; doesn’t anyone else gag a little when Moore, over footage of black members of Congress failing to get any traction with their attempts to stop the Florida election debacle, adopts a story-time narrator tone of voice as he sadly laments, “But none of the Congressmen would help the African-Americans”?) Having been spanked in some (but hardly all) quarters for jiggering the facts in his first movie, Roger & Me, Moore now mostly avoids making factual statements in his movies at all, preferring to make wild-eyed implications or simply throw shit together and underscore it with “Twilight Zone” riffs and other music cues to tip you off that it all seems mighty suspicious somehow. He scores some good quick points here and there — such as when he mentions Bush having evaded medical testing for some reason during his time in the National Guard, while playing a short, readily identifiable snatch of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” — but much of the first half of Fahrenheit 9/11, which pounds away at the sinister nature of the relationship of the Bush family’s Texas oil men and several rich, dusky men in burnooses, would get condemned as an exercise in racial profiling if it came from the other side of the street.

Moore’s insistence that the bin-Laden family must know something because they’re Osama bin-Laden’s family and they didn’t spend enough time under FBI truncheons sounds a lot like the thinking that’s described by the unfortunate victims of racist panic and police harassment in another new documentary, People of Interest. Furthermore, had John Kerry won the election, some of Moore’s new fans might have been in for a surprise, given that Moore (who, in Bowling for Columbine not only denounced one of President Clinton’s proudest moments — the bombing campaign that thwarted the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo — as an example of pure bloodthirsty American Evil, but also maintained that it had somehow provoked the Columbine shootings) once said things every bit as vicious about the Clintons and Al Gore as he now says about Bush, and will say them about whoever has the mixed fortune to wake up one morning and find themselves in a position of power. Moore can’t help it; as the scorpion said of itself, “It’s my nature.” But he is to be richly congratulated on at least one thing: he’s proven to a mysteriously disbelieving corporate culture that there really is an audience out there for leftist argument, just as there is for what passes for argument on Fox News — and that there’s a solid buck to made chasing it. For this alone he deserves a statue in Union Square (over there by the tree with all the pigeons). The fact that he made Michael Eisner look like a raving ass in the process is gravy.

If Moore doesn’t make you appreciate the radical-gonzo spirit, then exposure to John Sayles will probably do the trick. Sayles, once tagged by the late Pauline Kael as “the thinking man’s shallow writer-director,” hasn’t learned much about where to put the camera or how to build a living atmosphere or pace a movie or stage action in his quarter-century of trying, but he has gotten more and more ambitious, a quality that’s manifested itself by his movies growing talkier and talkier. I’m a sucker for a good talkathon myself, but Sayles seems to decide how many characters he needs in his movies based on how many great articles from The Nation he wants to summarize and pass along to the viewer. Silver City, Sayles’s latest attempt at a sprawling, multi-character slice of American life (see also City of Hope, Lone Star, and Sunshine State), features Chris Cooper — who got his first break in movies when Sayles cast him as a union organizer in Matewan, probably because Cooper’s worn, homely face seemed to echo those photos of downtrodden Depression folk by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans — as “Dickie Pilager” (har-de-har, John), a dim-witted politician who’s bought and paid for by Big Interests (Kris Kristofferson is the Richard Mellon Scaife figure) and handled by cynical media-savvy manipulators such as Richard Dreyfuss, doing the Karl Rove waddle. “The nut doesn’t fall far from the Bush,” reads a line from the advertising, which strikes me as typical Sayles, even if he didn’t invent it: it’s a catch phrase that isn’t funny, doesn’t make sense, and has the added benefit of not being catchy. Dickie is both the most explicit and the lamest of recent Bush stand-ins, and his Bushness turns out to be so peripheral to what Silver City wants to be about that, for once, I’m tempted to accuse the pure-hearted St. John of doing something just for the commercially remunerative publicity value. (The main benefit of having a Bush clone in the movie is that Dickie is so dumb that his masters have to keep explaining stuff to him, which gives Sayles an excuse to cram the movie with speeches that double as his chance to explain stuff to us. Everyone in the cast should have his own podium.)

At the opposite extreme is Richard Foreman’s play King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe, which enjoyed a too-brief run off Broadway last year. The central figure, Rufus, is a Bush cartoon unlike any other — a swaggering would-be conqueror who exults in controlling the stage space (and invading the audience) so as to demonstrate his power and mastery, and who loves posing as a cowboy-hatted maverick and blasting his six-guns to the skies. A pose is what it is, though; Rufus is actually an English gentleman who doesn’t always keep on his toes and has a tendency to let the mask slip and begin talking like Ronald Firbank. This imaginative leap, which violates the standard rules of Bush caricature, is a fresh way of getting at the essential phoniness of a war president who (to quote James Wolcott) “pretends to be a cowboy in order to remind us of Reagan as a popular president. Bush represents a Hollywood afterbirth, the TV spin-off of the hit movie.” Unlike Sayles, Foreman is willing both to be daringly strange and to risk actually caring about — even identifying with — his creation, which results in Rufus’s emerging as an oddly poignant, sadly comic figure, much like the actual Bush will no doubt be as he waits out his last decades at Elba. This is no mean feat, since most of the artists lining up to take a whack at Bush would rather sign an endorsement deal with NAMBLA (“And I’m also a client!”) than admit to feeling any degree of kinship with Bush. It’s this reluctance to transfer feeling to the page that sinks Nicholas Baker’s Checkpoint, a novel that consists of a dialogue between two friends, one a raving nut-job who wants to assassinate Bush and the other a leafy-green liberal attempting to dissuade him. Baker, a genuinely controversial writer whose erotic novel Vox is a modern classic, might have hit paydirt here if he’d made the would-be assassin’s arguments hot enough to excite the reader and suck him into the psycho’s way of seeing; he might have at least gotten a genuine conversation going. But the book is too namby-pamby soft from beginning to end, and resolutely unscary — the guy who wants to kill Bush seems so clearly harmless that you wonder why the guy trying to talk him out of it is wasting so much precious breath. In return for having turned tail and run from exploring the implications of his own premise, Baker got — you guessed it — pilloried right alongside Michael Moore in the pundit’s stockade, chastised for having committed “hate literature” for having dared to suggest in print that there may be people who can’t stand the thought of George Bush living to ruin another day. Which just goes to show you how little there is to gain by trying to be reasonable with the assholes playing advance guard around the president.

One movie that turned out a lot better than anyone had reason to expect (and still be planted firmly in the cultural moment) was the Jonathan Demme remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Demme’s previous feature, The Truth About Charlie, was a remake of Charade with a sprightly pointlessness — and Charade itself is no more than a classic trifle. The 1962 Manchurian Candidate is one of the greatest American movies, sui generis in its mix of wild flashy satirical ideas, gimmickry, casual goofy digressions and, in the end, real pride and pain. The sacrificial last gesture of the brainwashed assassin Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and the depth of grief by Ben Marko (Frank Sinatra), Raymond’s best friend who never really liked him, are moving and startling in a way that not only make you believe in things like patriotic heroism but make it seem part and parcel of a film that sees the value in cynicism and sarcasm and doubt, all the things that the Bush cabal would file away as un-American. Demme’s movie is nowhere near as much fun; it isn’t as dazzling a thriller, either — there are long talky scenes and dead spaces. Even worse, coming from the man who in his prime made Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and Married to the Mob, it’s strikingly humorless. But it’s a haunted movie. It was made during those months when Bush seemed not just unbeatable but undentable, and maybe because of that, its air of hopelessness eats into your bones. Like Brian de Palma’s conspiracy-freak classic Blow Out, it shows unappreciated, lowly heroes stumbling along and terrible acts being committed against an enormous, willfully stupid backdrop of celebratory, patriotic inanity; but here, the backdrop consists of a nonstop orgy of empty media feed that threatens to take over everyone’s dreams and drive them mad — as mad as the possessed derelict with the unlikely sense of dignity played in the early scenes by Jeffrey Wright, and finally as mad as the hero (Denzel Washington) who begins to believe that Wright might not be so crazy. It’s a movie that, no matter what it says or shows you, really doesn’t believe that things will work out. Which makes it sort of sui generis for Hollywood, too.

The bravest and strongest of the recent attempts to mount a counter-version of the Bush image may be Philip Roth’s new novel, The Plot Against America, set in the United States of Roth’s boyhood — except that, on the eve of World War II, President Roosevelt has been replaced by President Charles Lindbergh, authentic American pop hero, dashing man of action, matinee idol and anti-Semitic Nazi admirer. Like Richard Foreman, Roth is too much of an artist to settle for making things too obvious or too easy, and of course, the book isn’t really about Bush, any more than, say, The Anatomy Lesson, which was set against the backdrop of the Watergate hearings, was really about Nixon. But its carefully measured, harrowing depiction of an American pogrom is, among other things, about the evil that the all-American boy, who seems so pure because he’s so reassuringly simple, can do in the name of what he thinks is best for everyone — everyone who’s normal, who’s regular, who matters, because they’re just like him. (When Lindbergh decides to offer himself for the presidential nomination, he flies straight to the deadlocked convention and enters the hall still in his flight gear; it’s as if Roth had imagined the nonexistent “actual historical event” that Bush was imitating with his “Mission Accomplished” stunt.) The title itself, The Plot Against America, is a double-edged phrase, coming at a time when pundits are more likely than ever to refer to “two Americas.”

Which, it turns out, is what you get when you appoint as president somebody who runs around describing himself as “a uniter, not a divider.” (Is it really only in retrospect that it seems obvious that only a natural divider would think to say such a thing, just as a man whose job conduct has been beyond reproach would be unlikely to find himself required to assure a television audience, “I am not a crook”?) Now that Bush has been re-elected, I suspect that he’ll be entering something like his own late-Nixon phase; whatever last strands of credibility he expended on the lies and scare tactics necessary to get him a second term will not grow back, and he may be in for a rude shock as he discovers that he has four more long years ahead of him of putting off cleaning up his mess until some new sucker comes through the door to be handed the mop and pail. That might be gratifying, at least, and there might be some entertainment value in it. If it sounds like I’m rationalizing, well, you get a cookie.

Though it’s cold comfort for those standing in the bread line or mourning lost sons, bad presidents can be good for pop culture; certainly Richard Nixon brought out the best, or at least the angriest and the funniest, in a mixed bag of artists including Paul Conrad, David Levine, Philip Roth, Dan Aykroyd and Robert Altman. Bush hasn’t really set the world on fire in the same way, partly because of the freezing effect of his post-9/11 veneration, and partly because the scale of his cold-bloodedness, pig-ignorance and mendacity, combined with the naked worship he inexplicably inspires in so many, has left few of his enemies in a laughing mood. This is unfortunate, because blatant mockery is one of the best weapons we have against someone like Bush, in both the short term and over the long haul. Whatever efforts were put forward, from his administration to his funeral, to cast Nixon as a statesman and Good Man, future generations will think of him first and foremost as the sweaty, unshaven, beady-eyed bastard of the Herblock cartoons. Of course, there have been great strides in spin, in the art of encasing presidents in a protective wrapping of sheer image, since then. But the biggest shock of the first televised debate between Bush and John Kerry was the reminder that Bush, appearing for the first time in years alongside someone who wasn’t a paid member of his team or a carefully vetted admirer, couldn’t even be bothered to put up a fight. Ronald Reagan may not have seemed like much of an actor back in the day, but he certainly knew that projecting a likable image (even a false one) is serious hard work. So did FDR and JFK, both of whom expended an incredible amount of energy smiling through pain, pretending to be in better physical shape than they were, because they felt that it was part of their job. Americans wouldn’t have considered them fit to serve as President if they knew the degree to which their bodies had turned against them. But Bush is so lazy and stupid that, in the debate, he didn’t even bother trying to incarnate his own image; either he’s silly enough to think that it just naturally fits him, or he expects people to know how they’re supposed to perceive him and to make the connection in their own minds, the way that Ed Wood would cut from a stock shot of a snake hanging from a tree limb somewhere to a woman screaming in a studio and expect the audience to figure out that these isolated phenomena were examples of cause and effect. Afterwards, some of the Bush team could be heard clucking that while Kerry had seemed to “win” the debate by virtue of seeming awake, articulate, in touch and of woman born, this was merely a triumph of “style over substance” which, credit where credit is due, was certainly rich of them. Now that Bush has been re-elected, I suspect that a great flowering will commence, maybe the greatest since Nixon’s second term, of derisive snottiness and mocking disrespect towards the war president. It might seem like a serious case of too little too late. But maybe, as we sit in our dark rooms huddled around the freshest available corpse for warmth, we’ll at least have the consolation of going out chuckling.