“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).
Still, Bush dared not talk about life on the ground in today’s unstable Afghanistan, where the Taliban is coming back (and spreading into Pakistan). He didn’t utter the name “Osama bin Laden.” And he skimmed over realities of the Iraq war: the failure to find WMD; the human-rights violations at Abu Ghraib; a reconstruction plan so bungling that, 16 months in, the coalition has barely begun rebuilding the country; the loss of control in areas like Fallujah, which may have to skip the forthcoming elections; the ongoing insurgency that wounded more U.S. soldiers, 1,100, in August than in any month since the war began. Predictably, Bush forgot to mention that he had budgeted $10 billion to pay for that corporate boondoggle, the “Star Wars” system, yet couldn’t find enough money to scan the cargo on passenger planes, secure fissionable material in the former Soviet Union, or make sure New York City cops and firemen—slavishly evoked during the convention—were properly equipped for future attacks.
Such a shortfall might give another man pause. Not so the Defender of the Homeland, who, during one of his speech’s emotional crests, declared, “I will never relent in defending America—whatever it takes.” (For some reason, this prompted an eerie chant of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” He was talking about terrorism, folks, not men’s gymnastics.)
Nor would Bush’s party relent in demonizing his Democratic opponent. Now, I’m no great fan of the orotund Kerry, who’s a dreary candidate and, if anything, too close to Bush in much of his thinking. Still, it was repellent to witness the glee with which the Republicans portrayed him as a coward, peacenik, serial waffler (the $10 flip-flops sold at the RNC were a nice touch), bogus war hero, Chirac’s butt-boy, and, quite possibly, a traitor. As MSNBC’s Chris Matthews rightly noted, the GOP didn’t stop at saying Kerry was wrong. They suggested he should “not be.” Here was convention-floor terrorism—mythology as liquidation.
After the swift-boat smears and the Republican convention, many people I know have begun turning their anger against Kerry rather than the character assassins who’ve been slurring him. “His timid campaign proves the point he’s timid,” fatuously claimed New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Although Kerry should have been better prepared for the Republican hit squads, it’s easy to be knocked back by the sheer moral and intellectual thuggishness of the right.
Last Thursday, I received my own farcical initiation into that arena. To publicize my book, the publisher lined up a spot on Kudlow and Cramer, one of those CNBC shows whose hosts desperately compete with the stock-market ticker tape endlessly crawling across the bottom of the screen. Like most of America, I barely knew the show existed, let alone ever considered watching it. But I had a book to sell, so I dutifully made my way to CNBC’s Burbank studio.
There, I was put in a chair that found me staring into the blank eye of a TV camera. Although I could hear the program—the monitor was on the wall over my shoulder—I couldn’t see the show’s hosts, Larry Kudlow and Jim Cramer. But I knew they’d be able to see me. (Such are the power relationships on live TV.) I listened to fawning interviews with Karen Hughes and the head of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain.
Finally, my turn came. “Welcome to your maiden voyage on Kudlow and Cramer,” Kudlow said, then smirked: “I notice your book is 9,056 on the Amazon list.” Ouch! It had been ranked a little over 1,000 for most of the previous week, and I wondered if he was lying. But not for long. Kudlow was already suggesting that I was some sort of Bolshevik: “You don’t like capitalism and markets and ownership, do you, sir, a representative of the left?”
I replied that I was perfectly fine with capitalism; I didn’t like run-amok capitalism, and soon heard myself chiding Zell Miller’s keynote address for implying there’s something unpatriotic about even running against Bush.
“The problem with that,” said Kudlow, “is that Zell Miller just gave us factual information that Mr. John Kerry in the last 20 years has voted against the 15 or 20 weapons systems that we are using to protect our country . . . I assume, Mr. Powers, that you wish to defend the United States.”
Now my patriotism was at issue. They were treating me as the rabid right treats Kerry. I pointed out that when Kerry voted against those weapons systems, Dick Cheney also opposed them.
KUDLOW: (outraged) That is simply not true!
POWERS: That is simply true. In 1990, Dick Cheney—
KUDLOW: Not true!
POWERS: Oh, it is true. I want you to come back on the air and prove that that’s not true.
KUDLOW: Dick Cheney was the defense secretary of the United States . . .
POWERS: He was and—
KUDLOW: He was running the Defense Department.
POWERS: Of course. And he was boasting how he was cutting the Defense Department.
And he was. As CNN, Slate, and The Washington Post all carefully explained, Kerry’s votes against these weapons systems were part of a Washington-wide attempt to shrink the Defense Department as part of the so-called peace dividend; in fact, Secretary of Defense Cheney had boasted how he was cutting the Pentagon’s budget. Kudlow either didn’t know these facts or, more likely, didn’t give a damn. In a clownish parody of a real terrorist, he merely wanted to produce an on-air explosion. That’s how these shows work.
Which is why, after I praised Ahnold’s speech for being a gas, Cramer insisted that it was “negative” of me to belittle a “substantive” man, and Kudlow favorably compared Schwarzenegger, who “worked himself up from nothing,” to the liberal elitist Kerry, who went to St. Paul’s and Yale and had a diplomatic background.
When I noted that George W. Bush wasn’t exactly what anyone would call a self-made man, Kudlow snapped, “Listen. Bush went to Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School. He’s the best-educated guy ever to be president of the United States.”
Whoa! I was about to mention Thomas Jefferson, when Cramer announced that the hour was up. As the show faded out, the argument lost, Kudlow scoffed, “9,000 on the list.” With a cackle, he triumphantly knocked fists with his sidekick (or so I was later told).
Although the segment lasted only five minutes, I was surprisingly exhausted from trying to talk rationally with people whose shtick is to mock, cut off or misrepresent anyone who disagrees with them—even before they’ve disagreed with them. I was also a bit abashed. After years of watching conservative gangsters pull this kind of crap, I should have known better than to get punk’d into thinking I was going on a serious program. I understood how Kerry and his people, for all their experience, might still be stunned by his opponents’ utter shamelessness in telling bald-faced lies. But I’d also learned a fundamental truth: If you don’t fight back hard, you’re dead.
John Powers’s Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America is available in bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at sorewinners.com.