Monday, October 04, 2004

Two Faces. One Public, One Private. One Phony, One Real

Below are several graphs from digsby on the president we saw in the debate. I think he is on target.

Over the last week or so we have seen an edgy, enigmatic black and white image of George W. Bush appear on web-sites and blogs. At first people thought that sites had been hacked, as Eschaton and Kos and Democratic Underground spontaneously erupted with the black and white figure only to have it disappear and randomly return. Within days it linked to a mysterious DNC web-site with cryptic material that only slowly came into focus. Clearly something was up.


I believe that this happened because after 9/11, the media cast Bush in the role of strong, resolute leader, perhaps because the nation needed him to be that, at least for a little while. And the people gratefully laid that mantle on him and he took it because the office demanded no less. The narrative of the nation at war required a warrior leader and George W. Bush was all we had. Karl Rove and others understood that they could use this veil to soothe the American people and flatter the president to take actions that no prudent, thoughtful leader would have taken after our initial successes in Afghanistan. This “man with the bullhorn” image of Bush crystallized in the minds of many Americans and has not been revisited until now.


His handlers wisely kept him under wraps, allowing him face time on television only in the company of world leaders or to give stirring speeches written by his gifted speechwriter, Mark Gerson. He rarely held press conferences and when he took questions, he was aggressively unresponsive, choosing instead to offer canned sound bites and slogans and daring the press corps to call him on it. Few did. The mask stayed in place and he remained a symbol instead of a president --- the symbol of American strength, resilience and fortitude. He was, in many people’s minds, the president they wished they had.

On Thursday night sixty-one million people watched George W. Bush for the first time since 9/11 not as that symbol, but as a man. And for those who had not reassessed their belief in his personal leadership since 9/11, it was quite a shock. Their strong leader was inarticulate, arrogant, confused and immature. They must be wondering who that man was.

The truth is that since George W. Bush entered politics he has always had two faces. In fact, virtually everything you know about his public persona is the opposite of the real person.

He claims to be a compassionate, caring man, often admonishing people to "love your neighbor like you loved to be loved yourself." Yet, going all the way back to Yale, he is quoted as saying he disapproved of his fellow students as "people who felt guilty about their lot in life because others were suffering." His business school professor remembers him saying that poor people are poor because they are lazy. This from a man who was born rich into one of America's leading families and relied on those connections for everything he ever achieved.


He ostentatiously calls himself a committed Christian and yet he rarely attends church unless it’s a campaign stop or a national occasion. The man who claims that Christ is his favorite political philosopher famously and cruelly mocked a condemned prisoner begging for her life. He portrays himself as a man of rectitude yet he pumped his fist and said "feels good!" in the moment before he announced that the Iraq war had begun. (One would have thought that if there was ever a time to utter a prayer it was then.) How many funerals of the fallen has he attended? How many widows has he personally comforted?

He portrays himself as a salt of the earth "hard working" rancher, clearing brush on his land in an artfully sweaty Calvin Klein-style t-shirt. Yet in the first 8 months of his presidency leading up to 9/11, he spent 42% of his time on vacation. His "ranching" didn't begin until he bought his million dollar property just before he ran for president in 1999. He has lived in suburbs and cities since a brief period in his childhood in the 50’s, when he lived in the medium sized boom town of Midland before going to Andover.



George W. Bush is a man with two faces--- a public image of manly strength and a private reality of childish weakness. His verbal miscues and malapropisms are the natural consequence of a man struggling with internal contradictions and a lack of self-knowledge. He can’t keep track of what he is supposed to think and say in public.

There is no doubt that whether it's a cowboy hat or a crotch hugging flightsuit , George W. Bush enjoys wearing the mantle of American archetypal warriors. But when he goes behind the curtain and sheds the costume, a flinty, thin-skinned, immature man who has never taken responsibility for his mistakes emerges. The strong compassionate leader is revealed as a flimsy paper tiger.

On Thursday night, the president forgot himself. After years of being protected from anyone who doesn't flatter and cajole, he let his mask slip when confronted with someone who didn't fear his childish retribution or need anything from him. Many members of the public got a good sharp look at him for the first time in two years and they were stunned. Like that black and white image, the dichotomy of the real Bush vs. the phony Bush is profoundly discomfiting.

Luckily for America and the world, a fully synthesized, mature man stood on the other side of that stage ready to assume the mantle of leadership, not as a theatrical costume but as an adult responsibility for which he is prepared by a lifetime of service, study and dedication. I would imagine that many voters felt a strong sense of relief that he was there.

No comments: