Here are some things that Christopher Nunneley, a conservative activist in Birmingham, Alabama, believes. That some time in June, apparently unnoticed by the world media, George Bush negotiated an end to the civil war in Sudan. That Bill Clinton is “lazy” and Teresa Heinz Kerry is an “African colonialist.” That “we don’t do torture,” and that the School of the Americas manuals showing we do were “just ancient U.S. disinformation designed to make the Soviets think that we didn’t know how to do real interrogations.”
Chris Nunneley also believes something crazy: that George W. Bush is a nice guy.
It’s a rather different conclusion than many liberals would make. When we think of Bush’s character, we’re likely to focus on the administration’s proposed budget cuts for veterans, the children indefinitely detained at Abu Ghraib, maybe the story of how the young lad Bush loaded up live frogs with firecrackers in order to watch them explode.
Conservatives see it differently.
“He’s very compassionate,” says Chris, an intelligent man who’s open-minded enough to make listening to liberals a sort of hobby. “If you look at the way he’s bucked the far right: I mean, $15 billion for AIDS in Africa!” He speaks at the church services of blacks, and “you don’t fake that. That’s not just a photo op.”
Of course, two years after Bush made his pledge, only 2 percent of the AIDS money has been distributed (in any event, it will mainly go to drug companies). And appearing earnest in the presence of African Americans has been a documented Bush strategy for wooing moderate voters since the beginning.
So what does a conservative say when such “nice guy” jazz is challenged? Say, when you ask whether a nice guy would invade a country at the cost of untold innocent lives on the shakiest of pretenses? Or, closer to home, whether he would (as Bush did in late 2000) go on a fishing trip while his daughter was undergoing surgery, and use the world’s media to mockingly order her to clean her room while he was away? Doesn’t signify with Chris. “If you’re in one camp, the idea of being firm, ‘tough love,’ is very popular. If you’re in another, you can say, ‘Well, that’s just mean!’ On my side, well, I like the whole idea of ‘tough love.'”
This is a journey among the “tough love” camp. The people who, even in the face of evidence of his casual cruelty, of his habitual and unchristian contempt for weakness, love George Bush unconditionally: love him when he is tender, love him when he is tough — but who never, ever are tough on him.
On July 15, the Bush-Cheney campaign organized 6,925 “Parties for the President” in supporters’ homes nationwide. I chose to attend in Portland, Oregon. The right love to believe the whole world is against them. In a county where Ralph Nader got a quarter of the votes of George Bush and Al Gore well over double, the sense of martyrdom is especially fragrant: Portland’s conservatives are like others anywhere, only more so. One leader told me that here, it’s the conservatives who are oppressed by the gays.
They certainly love them some George Bush.
Twelve people gather on the houseboat of Bruce Broussard, a perennially failed candidate popular among local conservatives for, well, his race: He is African American. First the group hears Laura Bush on a conference call. (“All of us know what makes George a great president. He has the courage of his convictions, the willingness to make the tough decisions and stick with them.”) Then, they get a bewilderingly disjointed address from their host (he hits some key points from his recent Senate platform: presidential terms of six years instead of four, a cabinet-level Department of Senior Citizens with himself as secretary). Finally, beef-and-cheese dip loading down a plateful of Mrs. Broussard’s homemade tortilla chips, I open the floor to the question of why they personally revere George Bush.
Ponytailed Larry, who wears the stripes of a former marine gunnery sergeant on his floppy hat, bursts into laughter; it’s too obvious to take seriously. “Honesty. Truth. Integrity,” he says upon recovering. “I don’t think there’s any difference between the governor of Texas and the president of the United States.”
Gingerly, I offer one difference: The governor ran for president on a platform of balanced budgets, then ran the federal budget straight into the red.
Responds Larry (of the first president since James Garfield with a Congress compliant enough never to issue a single veto): “Well, it’s interesting that we blame the person who happens to be president for the deficit. As if he has any control over the legislature of the United States.”
Larry’s wife, Tami Mars, the Republican congressional nominee for Oregon’s third district, proposes a Divine Right of Eight-Year Terms: “Let the man finish what he started. Instead of switching out his leadership — because that’s what the terrorists are expecting.”
Larry is asked what he thinks of Bush’s budget cuts for troops in the field. He’s not with Bush on everything: “I hope he reverses himself on that.”
I note that he already has, due to Democratic pressure.
Faced with an existential impossibility — giving the Democrats credit for anything — he retreats into a retort I’ll hear again and again tonight: Nobody’s perfect. “I don’t think we’re going to find a situation in which we find a person with which we’re 100 percent comfortable.”
Then he reels off a litany of complaints about Bush. “Horrible underemployment situation… the big-business aspect of the Republican Party I have some issues with.”
The next thing I hear is the last refuge of the cornered conservative: a non sequitur fulmination against the hippie Democrats.
“Having said that, what’s your option? To have more bike trails?”
The vibe at my next stop is different. None of the people at Kitty and Tom Harmon’s bungalow are stupid. Instead they are the kind of “well-informed” that comes from overlong exposure to conservative media: conservatives who construct towers of impressive intellectual complexity on toothpick-weak foundations. My hosts are Stepford-nice (Mom sports “Hello Kitty!” seat covers in her car and loads me down with shortbread for the flight home; Dad shows off the herb garden he’ll use to season my eggs if I consent to stay the night). But everyone present shows a glint of steel when their man’s character is challenged.
“One of the reasons I respect this president is that he is honest. I believe that after eight years, the dark years of the Clinton administration, we finally have a man in the White House who respects that office and who speaks honestly.”
The speaker is Christina, an intense, articulate, and passionate publicist.
“Such a refreshing change for the country. People believe in the president.”
I don’t mention recent poll figures suggesting that more Americans believe John Kerry than Bush when it comes to terrorism.
After affirming “I still believe that there are weapons of mass destruction” — the commonplace is beyond challenge — Christina displays another facet of the conservative fantasy: Going into Iraq, she says, “is not the sort of thing one does if one wants to be popular… He doesn’t stick his finger in the wind.” I don’t challenge that point, either — though if I did I might ask why Bush scheduled the divisive debate over the intervention for the height of the 2002 campaign season, more certain of what Andrew Card called “new products” than his father, who held off deliberation on the first Iraq war until after the 1990 congressional elections.
Instead I challenge the grandmotherly lady sitting on the piano bench.
Says Delores: “There is an agenda — to get rid of God in our country.”
Chirps the reporter: Certainly not on the part of John Kerry, who once entertained dreams of entering the priesthood.
I’m almost laughed out of the room.
I ask why Kerry goes to mass every week if he’s trying to get rid of God. “Public relations!” a young man calls out from across the room. “Same reason he does everything else.” Cue for Delores to repeat something a rabbi told her: “We have to stand together, because this is what happened in Europe. You know — once they start taking this right and that right. And you have the Islamic people…”
She trails off. I ask whether she’s referring to the rise of fascism. “We’re losing our rights as Christians: yes. And being persecuted again.”
I ask why so many liberals believe the administration lies, if there might be anything to the suspicions. What about the report of the Los Angeles Times that morning, that the State Department dismissed 28 of the claims the White House demanded Colin Powell bring before the U.N. as without foundation in fact?
Delores: “You make mention of a paper in Los Angeles that made such and such a report; well, that doesn’t mean it’s accurate or complete or unbiased.”
I respond that the report came from a memo reproduced in the recent report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican-dominated. I’m not sure whether she hasn’t heard me or just has decided to change the subject. “John Kerry attended a party in which there was bad language, bad humor, being evidenced in all quarters!” she cries. Kitty chimes in: “And Kerry said it reflects American values!”
I ask Tom what role he sees in America for nonbelievers. “Well, if people are of an opinion that their God is supreme and are willing to burn your house down to prove it or dismantle your car to prove it or make all sorts of loud noises, disturbing the peace, and say that they have a right to do that in the name of God… ” he begins, in his best Mr. Rogers voice. Later I parse out what the hell he was talking about. I was asking about atheists. But Tom understood “nonbeliever” according to the premise that God is exclusively Judeo-Christian. It wasn’t about whether you believe in anything, but whether you dared diverge from his belief.
Walking me to my car (he insisted), Tom, who works for a construction conglomerate, reaches for a favorite metaphor to describe George Bush: linoleum. “You know: Usually you get a microfilm of the color, and if you drop a plate on it you discover it’s an ugly-looking floor. Then linoleum came out — the pattern goes through the entire one-eighth of material. You can drop a plate on it, and the color is true all the way down!”
His face glows. He gets a far-off look in his eyes. That’s his Bush.
It’s like a scene from a John Waters movie.
What all does it mean? The right-wing website Free Republic is infamous for galvanizing harassment campaigns against ideological enemies, but it also has a lighter side: a robust culture of George W. kitsch. “Freepers” display and study the famous photograph of Bush embracing Ashley Faulkner, whose mother perished on 9-11, a woeful, iconic look on his face (“The protective encirclement of her head by President Bush’s arm and hand is the essence of fatherly compassion,” Freeper luvbach1 writes); the ladies exchange snaps of the president in resolute pose, rendering up racy comments about his sexiness; they reference an image of Bush jogging alongside a soldier wounded in Iraq like it’s a Xerox of his very soul. “He’s the kind of guy who’s going to remember to call a soldier who’s lost a leg,” one citizen of the Free Republic reflects, “and go jogging with him when he gets a replacement prosthetic.” Revering Bush has become, for people like this, a defining component of conservative ideology.
Once I interviewed a Freeper who told me he first became a committed conservative after discovering the Federalist Papers. “I absolutely devoured them, recognizing, my God, these things were written hundreds of years ago and they still stand up as some of the most intense political philosophy ever written.”
I happen to agree, so I asked him — after he insisted Bush couldn’t have been lying when he claimed to have witnessed the first plane hit the World Trade Center live on TV, after he said the orders to torture in Iraq couldn’t have possibly come from the top, all because George Bush is too fundamentally decent to lie — what he thinks of the Federalists’ most famous message: that the genius of the Constitution they were defending was that you needn’t base your faith in the country on the fundamental decency of an individual, because no one can be trusted to be fundamentally decent, which was why the Constitution established a government of laws, not personalities.
“If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary…”
Conservatives see something angelic in George Bush. That’s why they excuse, repress, and rationalize away so much.
And that is why conservatism is verging on becoming an un-American creed.