Get Me Rewrite!

Stories make the world go around. So how come liberals can?t tell one?

| Fri May 14, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

George W. Bush has stationed 135,000 troops in harm’s way for a cause that seems increasingly hopeless and he’s presided over one of the worst economies of the century. He ran promising to be a centrist, lost the popular vote, and went on to govern from the radical right. He used a terrorist attack he might have stopped to justify a war that he already wanted to start.

So how come Kerry is running no better than even with Bush--this after a month of battering news from Iraq, from the 9/11 comission, and from Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack? Why is it that even the sickening revelations of abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison, while certainly hurting Bush’s numbers, have not translated into a decisive gain for Kerry?

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The answer is that Bush and his party know how to tell a good story and their opponents do not.

The right wing has an elemental and appealing narrative--the ideological equivalent of a Jerry Bruckheimer film or a Tom Clancy novel, the sort that’s hard to turn away from, even if you suspect you’re being suckered. Stories operate on our primitive, reptilian brains. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote. This isn’t just a pretty line but an artful statement of neuropsychological reality.

According to Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, & Co., the president of the United States of America is a great gentle warrior, the scion of a noble line: He’s a Texas cowboy descended from George Washington descended from the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. He’s a man of God and family. Truly, the story goes, he’s a simple man--wanting only to care for his own, tend to his plot of land, and go to church on Sunday.

But this man is besieged--on all sides--by the rabid armies of the Godless and the cowardly. By terrorists and evil-doers. By bureaucrats who want to run his life. By liberals who want to tax him. By drug dealers, welfare mothers, and atheists.

What is he to do? He would dearly love not to fight. But his enemies are climbing the walls of his castle. The killer has got a knife to his little girl’s throat. Not fight? Fight he must.

It’s plain why this story works as well as it does. It presents a classic hero and a journey that reaches down through the brain into the gut. And Republicans can translate it into simple, clear lines of action: Wage war and don’t stop. Cut taxes. Put bad guys in jail, or to death.

Many on the left harbor the delusion that Republicans can be dislodged by criticism of this story. There are two main styles of critique. The first is ironic and humorous (see Al Franken). The second style is serious and raging, bordering on caustic (see Tim Robbins' “Embedded.”)

But, by definition, critics are at the margins. However loud they shout from the sidelines, they’ll never get in the game. The game is for those who can tell a story.

Rush Limbaugh knows this. He’s no critic. Sure, he rips into Democrats and liberals, but his point is always to describe the enemy — cowardly and pessimistic — in order clarify the attributes of his hero — courageous and optimistic. Every anecdote, every opinion, feeds into his story. That’s why he convinces so many people and that’s why he makes so much money. And that’s why he has helped engineer a profound change in the culture of the country’s government.

On the other hand, the advent of “Air America” illustrates the left’s deluded love affair with criticism. The debut ad campaign features photographs of right-wing bugaboos, with smart-ass lines plastered over their faces (“We Pump Irony” over Schwarzenegger and “All the Caffeine and None of the Oxycontin” over Limbaugh). These are clever, but 100% content-free. The most revealing of the ads is a picture of Ralph Nader. “Mocking the Far Right and When We’re Tired of that The Far Left.”

The network is all criticism, all the time. Franken’s show is hilarious and brilliant. But it’s one thing to convince me that the right is full of big fat idiot liars. It’s quite another task to articulate the character of a movement, which can show itself in times of opposition, and in times of leadership.

The effect of the narrative vacuum in liberalism can be seen in the campaign of John Kerry, who has taken his story straight from the tattered old book written by Bob Shrum. Shrum, you may remember, is the political consultant who quit the Carter campaign in 1976 because it wasn’t enough like the McGovern campaign, which he had helped lose in 1972. Shrum went on to help Ted Kennedy lose in 1980. Then Dukakis in 1988. Then Al Gore in 2000.

A consistent loser, Shrum loses consistently: with the “people versus the powerful” message that he scripted in the early 1970s. You would think that the party of David Geffen and Steven Spielberg might ask for a re-write. But apparently John Kerry likes the project as is and has signed on to star. The welcome page on his website uses “special interests” eight times--as in “George Bush has taken America in a radically wrong direction with a Presidency that serves powerful special interests instead of everyday Americans” and “John has a bold, new vision for America. An America safe from foreign threats and greedy special interests.”

What’s the story here? It puts forth two main characters: There’s this greedy, powerful character named “Special Interest” who has been kicking ass! Special Interest runs the political and corporate worlds. Hell, Special Interest runs the world. S/he has a penthouse in Trump Tower, a chalet on Aspen Mountain and a ranch in Montana. S/he spends the morning on the phone with Wall Street, making a few billion, and the afternoon on the phone with Washington, making the money tax-free. Then, at night …

Up against “Special Interest” is a perennial loser called “Everyday American.” Loser has a nagging spouse and impeccably average kids and a long commute to and from a cubicle. At home, the toilet leaks but it’s hard to find a decent plumber. The cell phone keeps blinking out, but the new ones are so expensive. But then again, Loser thinks, “I’m worth it.” So s/he logs onto to Internet — wants to save the sales tax — and goes to bed excited, wondering whether UPS will take two or three days, and whether there will be someone at home to sign for the package, and whether s/he is as truly, deeply pathetic as it seems.

Which of these characters would you rather be? John Kerry and Bob Shrum don’t condescend to give you the choice. They tell you, “You’re Loser.” You secretly hate them for this. You may hate their opponents more, and vote for Kerry with clenched teeth. Or you may vote for Nader (at five points in the May Gallup poll). Or you may (like huge chunks of the core Democratic constituency) just not vote.

Whereas the right-wing has a good story that they believe, liberals have a lame story--and they don’t even believe it. One of the highlights from Bob Shrum’s reel is when he dressed up former Senator Bob Kerrey in a uniform of a hockey goalie and had him say that he was going to defend America from foreign imports. Kerrey went along with it, then later said that he hadn’t believed a word of what he said in the campaign.

The same must be true for John Kerry. This wealthy Washington insider may tell us--but surely he doesn’t believe--that he’s going to lead us in a fight against “Special Interest.” Anyway, even if Kerry gets elected telling this story, who will want to follow him? Americans don’t want to fight the rich and the powerful. They want to be rich and powerful. (Decent, too. They want to be rich, powerful, and decent.)

Perhaps the fundamental problem for the left is that it has long defined itself in opposition to the powerful. But it needs a story that is consistent with exercising power, and taking action. And it does have a powerful, true story to tell. The hero came over on the Mayflower in the 17th and after the Irish potato famine in the 19th and on a plane from Islamabad to JFK in the 21st. The hero left an old world of oppression, stagnation, and violence to live in a land of democracy, opportunity, and security. The hero willfully pays the dues for such a land--dues of hard work, dues of service, dues of taxes.

But in the same land, there are people who have forgotten where they came from. They’ve so lost faith with the covenant that they have begun to lie with abandon. They led us into a war by lying to us about Iraq, thus making us less secure. They wrecked the economy by lying to us about the effect of tax cuts, thus eroding the social fabric for opportunity.

Maybe, in this present regime, the hero has gotten richer, or maybe poorer. But it doesn’t matter. Rich or poor, black or white, “Special” or “Ordinary,” the benefits of the present regime are as vulnerable as a wood house in a hurricane. The future--the reason the hero came here, and the reason s/he works to stay--depends on the ground beneath all of our feet.

From George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Ike and JFK, breakout political leaders in this country have drawn on their personal story, and let it merge with the story they want to tell about the country. John Kerry needs to do the same. He dedicated himself to the service of his country, but when his leaders broke faith with him, he stood up and spoke the truth. “We are here,” he said April 1971 to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country?”

Many now turn to him with the same question. To answer, he needs to know the fundamental lessons of storytelling. Identify the hero and the journey and the prize. Articulate the threat. And show how the prize will be won.

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