Things Fall Apart

There was a time when making fun of our president was funny. When he stepped in front of camera and microphone, it was easy to picture impressionists, impersonators, and general comedians salivating at the prospect of another executive gaffe. Whether is was mispronunciations (“nucular” for “nuclear”), run-on sentences, general mangling of the English language, such as creating words (e.g. “misunderestimating”), or something subtle like espousing the benefits of obstetricians being “able to practice their love with women,” our fair leader could always be counted on to provide a sound byte ripe for ridicule.

President Bush’s unintended vocal contortions became the stuff of legend not only because of what he said, but also because of his manner. Like a driver who slams the brakes a moment too late, the look on Bush’s face betrayed a mind that knew it was about to slide down the slippery slopes of abominable vernacularity, but was powerless to prevent it. He was amusing in these situations because the struggle was apparent to all. It was funny to watch him try and fail, because in the end, no one got hurt.

Last week comedian Steve Bridges was on the Tonight Show in character as President Bush. He has made a successful career of his light-hearted mocking of the Commander-In-Chief. Bridges was at it again, with Jay Leno as the comic foil, but although the jokes were there, the situation had shifted. Making fun of President Bush these days has all the appeal of picking on a disfigured burn victim who insists there is nothing wrong with his face. It has become impossible to see the humor in the man through the prism of Iraq.

The deadly seriousness of the war, the region, and the general disaster of the Bush years has obliterated any lightheartedness that existed around the White House. President Bush’s casual dismissal of the Iraq Study Group is yet another proof of the astringency of his disposition.

Yesterday, as poll after poll showed the American public overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the situation in Iraq and the Oval Office (a majority now say the war was not worth fighting at all), Bush was meeting with handpicked opposites of the Iraq Study Group who were recommending an escalation of the war. An increase of as many as 40,000 troops can be expected in the next month or two.

President Bush was obviously displeased with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. There is no surprise there. The group articulated in as diplomatic a manner possible what options remain for us in Baghdad. Unlike what some hawks have publicly said, the group’s report does not advocate defeat, rather, it recognizes that defeat has already happened. Any attempt to pretend otherwise does nothing but extend our folly.

President Bush was reportedly excited to brisk note taking whenever someone in yesterday’s meeting mentioned the word “victory.” The president is still hung up on the unattainable. Anything less than victory is anathema to his character. And what a complicated character he presents.

The picture of President Bush as a downhome simpleton swiveling back and forth in his daddy’s chair may have worked for comedians as easily as the vocal gaffes, but it’s not true. He is a man who still holds all the same truths he thought were so evident the day he first took the oath of office, despite how much they have been tested these past six years. He has shown a stubbornness of epic proportions. His response to adversity is to refuse to adapt. The few times someone in his administration has taken the fall for him have not been followed by a corresponding shift in policy. When heads do roll, the only casualty is personnel, not policy.

When the voters sent the president a clear message about their unhappiness with their votes last month, Bush seemed to take their refutation personally. He has wrapped his ideology so tightly around his personal sense of self that he seems boggled by the American public’s failure to stick with a path he sees so clearly leading to success. The more and more Americans lose confidence in his administration, the more and more it will do to shut itself off and alienate the people. He has taken on the role of the stern father who brooks no dissent. He has been entrusted with the stewardship of the nation, and should not have to either explain or defend his policies. He possibly feels that anything less is an unforgivable breach of trust by the American public.

President Bush’s state of denial has invaded his press conferences, those fertile breeding grounds for the hilarity touched upon earlier. His easy-going manner has been replaced by a countenance of fierce annoyance. He is impatient with questions that contain little or no praise. He has created an atmosphere of tension when he is held to account by the press that is uncomfortable to sit through.

It’s also become clear that Bush is aware of his place in history. He has fended off enough questions about his legacy in press conferences and one-on-ones to know that his long-term reputation is in jeopardy. How much this affects his decision-making process regarding Iraq is a mystery, but he has been known to mutter that future historians, after he is dead, will “get it right.”

Worst of all, though, is the constant lying. The most important aspect of the Iraq Study Group’s report was its assessment of the situation in Iraq. This section contained no recommendations for further policy in Iraq. It merely described the situation on the ground. What is contained in the assessment is a ringing endorsement of the quality of reporting coming out of Iraq. For years we have heard the administration denounce the war’s reporters as being defeatist, outright fabricators, or even traitorous collaborators. The report’s assessment contained nothing new or shocking to anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention to the war these past years. It mirrored the reporting, and that itself is the testament to how well the press corps has performed.

The report therefore acts as yet another indictment of the Bush administration’s public face, the one that has steadfastly refused to admit to the full extant of the calamity in Iraq. The majority of the public that now supports the report has moved into the role of brooking no dissent. America wants this war over, now.

Because of the report, President Bush has one less route of disinformation available to him. He and his administration must become more candid about the deteriorating condition of Iraq. The idea that being forced to be truthful about the war’s regress and consequences is distasteful to President Bush is the height of offense. When all is said and done, years hence, it is very possible that President Bush will have set in motion events that will be responsible for the deaths of a million or more persons. Somehow, him struggling with “nuclear” just doesn’t cause chuckles the way it used to.