INSPIRATION FROM THE TOP
Observations on the President Addressing the Nation in the War against Terror
Millions of Americans settle into their couches with bowls of popcorn, bags of potato chips, and diet cola. They enjoy the color pictures on the evening news report of bombs exploding in Afghanistan. Pictures of explosions are always popular in America, no matter what their meaning or origin.
True, news pictures are less impressive than Hollywood special effects, and you generally don’t get to see any blood or bodies – that would be unsuitable for a family show – but these pictures have their own thrilling quality, much like those grainy pictures of violent arrests or sting operations photographed with pin-hole cameras that are so popular. They offer the satisfaction of peeping into the face of horror, into the anguish of others from the complete safety of your living room.
The television pictures do bring a satisfying sense of justice being done, of having witnessed America’s retribution on the godless, or at least on those unlucky enough to have embraced the wrong god. Satisfaction lingers into the evening while families munch their way through the next couple of hours before the big event: The president is going to address the nation.
“Boy, he’ll tell us what we need to know!” flashes through minds as the scene from the Oval Office suddenly snaps on. An objective observer, perhaps a de Tocqueville-like visitor from another planet, might wonder at such thoughts, for here is a provincial politician, a flop at business but with impeccable contacts, who bragged about never reading the international section of the newspaper just before his election to national office. But an objective observer might not be aware that except for enjoying explosions on the evening news, most Americans share the president’s level of interest when it comes to foreign affairs.
The boyish-faced president, his hair suitably graying enough to suggest the heavy burden of office, with a perfectly-knotted, thick silk tie and an obviously expensive suit whose shoulders look a little over-padded, seems just slightly uncomfortable at his desk, like a home-town actor playing his first big role in the amateur-theater group, but it is a look generally interpreted as humility or decency rather than ineptitude or fear.
If he were a better actor, a few gulps to tug at his Adam’s apple and a suggestive bit of moisture at the corners of his eyes might evoke images of Jimmy Stewart speaking on behalf of the little man. But Jimmy Stewart through the lens of Frank Capra is as outdated in America as the stirring tones of Franklin Roosevelt re-assuring people with ideas like fear itself being the only fear they need have. And, as for the little man, well, that’s just not a topic of discussion any more, suggesting, as it does, the existence of class in America.
Heavens! America long ago abolished class by declaring everyone a consumer. No bleeding-heart garbage about class and society, no boring stuff about citizenship and responsibilities – just a nation of open mouths with differing abilities to fill them. Inspiring.
Indeed, ideas themselves are pretty much outdated in a place totally immersed in the shallow fantasies of advertising, self-help books, television series, and vacations in Disneyland – the only exceptions being ideas about how to make lots of money.
And besides, this president is a man who actually works for the likes of Claude Rains’ and Raymond Massey’s most memorably villainous characters. Nothing he says, nothing he does, is not first carefully scrutinized and sniffed by teams of mole-like eyes and noses. He went through a few hundred million dollars of their money getting elected, and he’s not about to let them down now.
As always, he is surrounded by flags, beautifully-sewn flags, as thickly textured and elegantly draped as the president’s custom-made clothes, undoubtedly provided fresh from a supportive manufacturer hoping to receive the much-coveted White House letter on elegant stationery suitable for framing and showroom display. In fact, it is known that this president goes nowhere without two fresh, four-hundred square foot flags, one just for backup. Rumor has it that the labels, “Made in China,” are carefully snipped before shipment.
The excessive use of flags and patriotic slogans has always been suggestive of the tyrant’s temperament, even when soft words are used (after all, Hitler, who never went anywhere without scores of monster flags, made one of the most effective speeches about peace ever heard). But this man could not possibly be confused with a tyrant. First off, he’s just too gawky and ordinary.
Yes, there is an underlying sense of meanness that pokes through his words, here or there, like elbows protruding from the frayed fabric of a comfortable jacket, especially when he talks about death-row inmates or terrorists dying. His harsh, almost adolescent sense of humor, displayed on a number of occasions during the campaign, betrays something fairly mean in his make-up. Maybe, Mama Bush wasn’t all that warm and loving after all.
But for the most part, the look and sound are what Americans like to call family: it’s kind of a code word for a set of qualities that might be summed as three-car-garage Christian.
There is something in his character much like the hamburger oases that dot the American landscape, so beloved by suburban families on shopping safaris in air-conditioned Jeeps – safe-and-cheerful way stations replicated beyond counting across a continent, offering the assurance today in Wichita of exactly what you had last year in Greensboro. Of course, these are the very qualities for which he had his pockets stuffed with cash to play leader of a party actually run by people whose faces won’t bear much direct exposure without revealing the hard lines and ugly attitudes of lives spent in predatory behavior.
And when you have nothing to say, flags help a lot. It is almost impossible for any crowd to boo when flags are present in a country whose Congress has passed an anti-flag-burning amendment to the Constitution 437 times. Only the ponderously slow, complex, and costly provisions of an 18th century constitution have prevented this glorious measure from taking its rightful place with freedom of speech.
This president is Disney’s version of Fred McMurray giving calm, fatherly advice about joining Neighborhood Watch or coaching Little League as a helpful public response to terrorists crashing airliners into skyscrapers.
This is Fred McMurray without the cigarettes and booze of his early film-noir career. There is an aura in his tone and looks of redemption, of having moved on from drunken midnight pranks and naked table-dancing to bowing in prayer and dispensing the Lord’s justice as Governor of Texas. Some might say his manner of dispensing justice in Texas, or in Afghanistan for that matter, reflects the self-hatred characteristic of alcoholic personalities.
And redemption is a favorite with Americans who just never tire of the tales of country-and-western singers who hit bottom and live to strum and strut with a wireless mike once again. Only celebrity beats redemption in the admiration of America. And anyone, anyone, who gets to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to put his benignly smiling face on television, no matter how wooly and slurred his words, no matter how banal his thoughts, no matter how unexceptional his achievements, is a celebrity in America.
For some sentences the president manages to keep a carefully-coached cadence, but too often his words take on the urgency of a nervous teen-ager trying to speed through a recitation without missing a line. You almost expect to hear him to say, “Whew, Miss Jones, I did it!” at the end of tough passages. He arouses the same kind of anxiety you feel about watching a kid wobble down the street on a bicycle for the first time – eliciting the indulgence of viewers brought up on The Little Engine That Could and winning the same kind of unearned praise that a cute child receives for a charmingly bad performance in a school pageant.
It is very important for politicians in class-less America, even when they come from wealthy, privileged families and hold offices in which they serve almost exclusively the interests of other wealthy, privileged families, to assume a tone of ordinariness, with no high-falutin’ airs. And this president excels at doing so. He is the best since Richard Nixon talking about his wife’s cloth coat.
His accent is a disconcerting blend of slightly ineffectual, preppy kid who never did his own homework and the corn-husk intonations of the land of armadillos, rattlesnakes, stolen elections, and Confederate battle flags on pick-up trucks – a place that has blessed the country with a vastly-disproportionate share of its more lunatic politicians.
And tent-preachers – yes, there is the unmistakable cadence, however subdued for a national audience, of innumerable, heads-bowed invitations under the sweltery fabric of tents filled with damp white shirts stuck to the backs of folding chairs and mosquitoes droning between the notes of electric organs.
It is difficult to reconcile this man in this office with the Founding Fathers’ vision of the nation. What an immense distance for a people to have traveled in just two centuries under the influence of a feverish consumerism, of a selfish, grasping, child-centered culture in which the children are the adults, of entitlements with no sense of responsibility or citizenship, of unspoken imperialistic attitudes that color all foreign policy under the guise of freedom, and of the influence of a section of the country that supposedly lost the Civil War but now dominates the nation’s political culture and imbues it with stagnant, backwater values.