The Day of the Jackals

Mythmaking at the Republican convention and getting punk'd on Kudlow and Cramer

"These are dark times," declared MSNBC's Joe Scarborough during last week's Republican convention. I knew what he meant. After all, we live in an era when even a sweaty reactionary like Scarborough—imagine George Wallace impersonating John Wayne—gets to host his own show on national TV. Of course, in evoking this age of darkness, he was hoping to defend Dick Cheney. Although countless Americans find our vice president ominous, Scarborough argued, they still want our own Darth Vader to defeat death-worshipping terrorists who shoot fleeing children in the back.

He could be right. The images of the Beslan slaughter were so heartbreakingly awful—those dead and wounded kids looked pitifully thin—that they will certainly assist George Bush's re-election campaign. If only subliminally, this Russian catastrophe makes Americans feel the vulnerability of their own children and recognize the harsh truth that Walter Laqueur underscored in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times. Modern terrorists haven't the slightest qualm about murdering innocents. If they had a nuclear bomb, they'd happily set it off in Disneyland. What Joan Didion once wrote about wartime El Salvador has become an American anxiety: Terror is the given.

Such pervasive feelings hurt John Kerry. Although there's no evidence that he wouldn't hunt down terrorists at least as effectively as the president, he and the Democrats have proved tone-deaf in dealing with the psychological fallout of September 11. Knowing that the public largely trusts Bush on terrorism, the party often seems too eager to change the subject—hey, what about outsourcing?—while those to Kerry's left too often talk as if Islamic terrorism were simply a White House hoax or the fascist murderers blowing up civilians in Iraq are somehow on the angelic side of history.

The Democrats' fuzzy reaction to the visceral power of 9-11 has let the right ratchet up fear of terrorism, dub the left "weak," and insist on its own unwavering resolve. Indeed, when news of the school shootout emerged, the president quickly stuck a few lines of condolence into a stump speech—unrehearsed, he appeared to be reading the words phonetically. But he used these dire events as a way of flaunting what appears to be his sole selling point. He's a strong, steady commander in chief in the war on terror.

In fact, the ghastly Russian attacks should be sending chills through Bush and Cheney, who, talking to hand-picked crowds of the faithful, boast about their toughness. This is precisely the same tack followed by President Vladimir Putin, who has, notes The New York Times, "a carefully cultivated image as the steely, decisive leader of a country in need." He certainly doesn't hide his iron fist. He could have hardly been more brutal in attempting, despite public opinion back home, to forever crush Chechen independence: The Russians have all but flattened the capital city of Grozny. But after all of Putin's hard words ("Why should we talk to child killers?") and ruthless acts (during the Beslan crisis, the government took the terrorists' families as hostages), the attacks keep coming in shocking numbers. Did you even hear about last week's suicide bomb outside a Moscow subway station? Faced with such disasters, Putin blames Russia's "weakness" and insists he must be even stronger; comically enough, his followers have begun handing out fliers telling citizens, "Let us join the president in saying 'no' to terror" (shades of Nancy Reagan). Despite the Kremlin's control of the mass media, the public's sense of security has been shattered—along with Putin's iron persona. As one Russian pundit pithily remarked, "The great myth has been broken."

Meanwhile, back in Madison Square Garden, the Republican party was busy crafting great new myths of its own. As a piece of televised theater, the convention worked like a charm, from its prime-time gallery of men's men—Rudy, McCain, Duh Gubna, Zell Miller—through Bush's acceptance speech, whose final 15 minutes ranked with Peggy Noonan's great speech for Dubya's dad back in 1988. The whole convention marked the triumph of symbolic thinking, be it the Christian cross embedded (not too obtrusively) in the lectern or Arnold Schwarzenegger vividly recounting, à la Ronald Reagan, memories of events that couldn't possibly have happened. He said he saw Soviet tanks in Austria when he was a boy (they weren't there), claimed to have grown up under Austrian socialism (the Conservatives were in power the whole time), and sneakily implied he'd watched Nixon debate Humphrey. (In his run for governor, he'd been caught explicitly claiming to have witnessed this imaginary debate.) The great beneficiary of all this mythmaking was, of course, George W. Bush, who was portrayed as the Stalwart Defender of Our Homeland and Scourge of Terror. Perhaps that's why so many speakers sounded so weirdly nostalgic for the calamity of 9-11: It let President Bush emerge from his chrysalis and become a Republican immortal (unless he loses).

It's easy to understand why the Republicans were so hot to mythologize Bush. They were hoping to avoid those niggling things called facts. Has a convention that renominated a sitting president ever spoken so little about the concrete details of his record? Bush didn't dare bring up precise economic statistics—the million lost jobs, the largest budget deficits in history, how every single American has spent more than $400 so far on Iraq—and spoke only broadly about the war on terror. He can claim some success in the latter. The administration toppled the Taliban, caught or killed a bunch of al Qaeda operatives, and, through some combination of skill and luck, has so far avoided another major attack on U.S. soil (although this may simply fit the rhythm of al Qaeda, which routinely takes a few years between major attacks on U.S. targets).

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