Failure of the Will

At home and abroad, Bush is limping toward what should have been triumph, with no help in sight.

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By Tom Engelhardt

This was to be a machine for victory and it would be launched like a juggernaut. Powerfully financed, armed with the latest technology, well trained and disciplined. Yes, its proponents claimed, there might be some bumps in the road ahead, but they clearly felt confident. This machine would roll up the opposition. It would be like a liberation for the country, and then they would settle in for a generation, two generations, in power. Think “cakewalk.”

No, actually, I’m not talking about the war in and occupation of Iraq; I’m talking about the juggernaut of an election campaign Karl Rove and friends planned at home against whatever scruffy Democrat might be raised up by that “tax and spend” party of pathos. Their campaign would, as the President likes to say, “test the character” of the Democratic enemy, which would naturally be found wanting. The President would remain way above the fray, resolutely, decisively taking care of the nation’s tasks in difficult times, until he descended from the presidential heavens on New York City, that Big Apple, so badly tarnished on September 11th, 2001, and was renominated in enemy terrain with all the drama of a visit to pacified Baghdad. There, he would naturally replay — and remind the American people of — his triumphs, his victories in the “war on terror” against the greatest backdrop on Earth, better even than the USS Abraham Lincoln on which he landed that jet just after Baghdad was taken. The Republicans, united to a man, would be “on the offensive.” They would turn their individual wills into a cumulative will. And with their collective will to win, they would dominate. They would stomp.

The money was, of course, no problem, though, as in Iraq, it started to flow out far earlier and much faster than anyone in the campaign had ever imagined possible. It flowed in prodigious quantities into advertising in those increasingly aptly named “battleground” states where the fight — not so much against Senator Kerry, as against unknown forces ambushing the President from all sides — had begun all too soon. And despite the multimillions spent and the copious images pixeled onto TV screens, the President’s poll numbers kept dropping, not in relation to Senator Kerry but in relation to himself. He was, it seemed, battling his own past self, and somehow he was losing.

As in Iraq, it was unplanned-for reality that had intervened, mainly but not totally in the form of an ever uglier war rolling downhill as it unraveled; certainly also in the form of gas prices unexpectedly soaring as Americans began to feel the pinch in their pocketbooks (“Wal-Mart, the country’s largest retailer and biggest private employer, warned investors last week its customers will have $7 less a week to spend in its stores.”); and, of course, in the form of jobs heading downstream. Yes, the job figures recently took, as our commanders in Iraq liked to say for a while about enemy ambushes, an “uptick”; but out there in the everyday world, it didn’t necessarily feel that way. This was, in part, because good jobs were being traded in for dreadful ones. As Naomi Klein recently pointed out, “More than 82 per cent of the jobs created in April were in service industries, including restaurants and retail, while the biggest new employers were temp agencies.” In Iraq the transfer of “sovereignty” is still proclaimed to be but weeks away; here, it’s months off. In neither case, did the Bush administration expect to transfer actual sovereignty to anyone. In both cases, they find themselves limping toward what should have been triumph with not much help in sight.

As the President’s poll numbers head south (and not toward Florida either), the “coalition” that he was hoping would help him deal with the issue of “sovereignty” looks like it’s beginning to fragment and peel away as well — and I’m not talking about Iraq here either. While the administration has been giving away the family jewels to Ariel Sharon as part of a desperate search for Jewish votes in small numbers of states where small numbers are believed to matter, they seem to be losing another tiny slice of votes that they had in hand in 2000 — the Arab-American vote — again in a small number of battleground states. Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service reports:

“[I]f current opinions hold through November [according to a Zogby poll], when the election takes place, Bush could suffer a net loss of one-third (170,000) of Arab-American votes in the four [battleground] states compared with the 2000 elections, when he won a solid plurality of those votes. Such a loss could prove decisive in the four states — Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — where Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry are focusing much of their early campaign efforts precisely because the races are expected to be extremely close.”

But that’s only a start. The administration now faces an angry revolt among influential conservatives, enraged by its distinctly unconservative cut-taxes-and-spend policies, by its assault on American liberties, and, above all, by the ill-planned catastrophe in Iraq. While such figures are unlikely to urge people to vote for Kerry in November, they represent a constituency the President can ill afford to have sit on its hands in November even in small numbers. Iraq (and the Abu Ghraib news) seem as well, reports Reuters, to be causing the first small cracks in the ranks of evangelicals. (“Evangelical Christians are still expected to vote overwhelmingly for Bush, but the erosion of support could reduce their turnout on election day, a potentially ominous development for the incumbent president.”) And then there is the military vote — in recent years pure money in the bank for Republicans — but possibly not this year, given the anger rising in all ranks re: administration policies in Iraq, overextended troop commitments, and an enforced “draft” of those who had already volunteered.

And so it was that our President, that “resolute” figure above the fray (except when it came to almost daily visits to fund-raising events) found himself early in May like any other candidate running for national office on a deluxe bus, traveling the Heartland giving his stump speech, trotting out his wife, trawling for votes, thanking local dignitaries, and making the necessary local references — in the great dairy state of Wisconsin: “Had a little Culver’s ice cream on the way here, too, I want you to know.” Well, let me qualify that a bit. This president hasn’t exactly traveled anywhere like a normal candidate in years. At a stop in Appleton, Wisconsin, he half-jokingly apologized for this. (“Thank you for putting up with my entourage,” he said.) In fact, he arrives not just in state, but like an occupying force. He exists “abroad,” as he does in Washington, Crawford, and Camp David, inside his own bubble. In his rare travels around the world, he’s literally emptied central cities from London to Manila, creating endless Potemkin vistas for himself. As it turns out, on the stump at home he offers a version of the same, traveling essentially with his own Green Zone inside of which only the friendliest of the friendlies are allowed.

John Nichols of the Madison Capital Times caught the passage of the Bush “entourage” this way:

“King George Bush’s bus trip across western Wisconsin closed schools and roads, prevented residents from moving freely in their own communities, and prevented citizens from exercising their free speech rights. All in all, it was a typical George W. Bush visit. But there’s a slight twist. People in western Wisconsin, who hold to the refreshingly naive notion that they live in a republic as opposed to an imperial realm, are objecting…”

“Along the route of the Bush bus trip from Dubuque to La Crosse, the Bush team created a ‘no-free-speech’ zone that excluded any expressions of the dissent that is the lifeblood of democracy. In Platteville, peace activist Frank Van Den Bosch was arrested for holding up a sign that was critical of the president. The sign’s ‘dangerous’ message, ‘FUGW,’ was incomprehensible to children and, no doubt, to many adults. Yet, it was still determined sufficiently unsettling to the royal procession that Van Den Bosch was slapped with a disorderly conduct ticket… other Wisconsinites and Minnesotans who sought to express dissents were videotaped by authorities, told they could not make noise, ordered not to display certain signs and forced to stand out of eyesight of Bush and his entourage. Again and again, they were told that if they expressed themselves in ways that were entirely protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, they would be ‘subject to arrest.'”

But, Nichols adds, John Medinger, the mayor of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, is taking that entourage apology seriously. He’s decided to assess the full costs of the visit and deliver a bill to the Bush campaign.

In his wanderings, George delivered his basic set of messages numerous times in various ways, longer or shorter, more or less religious. Every speech, though, ended with a blessing (“May God bless you all, and may God continue to bless our country. Thank you for coming. Thank you all.”), was coded with biblically resonant lines for his evangelical followers, spoke of a “culture of life” (that is, against abortion), and normally had some version of the following lines — “See, the other thing I believe in, I believe that freedom is not America’s gift to the world. I believe freedom is the Almighty’s gift to each man and woman in this world.” “Freedom,” by the way, was a word, when not associated with the Almighty, which was almost invariably linked to “Iraq.”

The speech itself — and I read several versions carefully — is a fascinating construct, offering a coherent story about our world, a parable of sorts, which defines its terms (and redefines ours) as it goes. It tells a level-playing-field tale in which almost all acts are reduced to the sphere of the private individual. Just about everything is not only under control, but small, local, or like Saddam’s “threats,” in “the neighborhood” (which he “terrorized”). Life is a matter of “character,” of which the President, it turns out, has plenty to spare. What’s at stake, as with Saddam, is grasping “the nature of the man,” or with our own country, being a “witness” to “the character of this nation” (“a nation of deep character”) or of American troops abroad, or of American fathers and mothers.

In such a world of character, “responsibility” and “accountability” are local matters too, involving purely voluntary acts of individual “compassion.” (On how the White House website defines compassion, check out Lawrence Weschler’s recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, He’s the Picture of Racial Compassion) Responsibility and accountability are acts of choice in a “culture of responsibility” the President urges on his audience. They are acts of the private or of community life, but distinctly not of any imaginable governmental one. As the President commented in Appleton: “Speaking about responsibility, I do think one of the interesting things that’s happening in America is we are ushering in a period of personal responsibility, which stands in stark contrast to kind of an old culture which said if it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else.”

In LaCrosse he said that he stands for “a culture in which each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life. If you’re a mom or a dad — if you’re lucky enough to be a mom or a dad, you’re responsible for loving your child with all your heart. (Applause.) If you’re worried about the quality of the education in the community in which you live, you’re responsible for doing something about it. If you’re a CEO in corporate America, you are responsible for telling the truth to your shareholders and your employees.”

For an opponent of the President, the very phrasing of this may seem ludicrous. In one speech, for instance, he managed in a state of non-responsibility to implicitly blame all his administration’s woes indiscriminately on the acts of the Clinton administration or al-Qaeda. In the same context, the President’s only discriminated-against minority turns out to be “faith-based groups,” who represent the public face of that non-governmental culture of responsibility. (“We stand for the fair treatment of faith-based groups, so they can receive federal support for their works of compassion and healing. We will not stand for government discrimination against people of faith.”)

In such a universe, each of us, CEO and worker alike, faces a similar set of choices about what exactly we are responsible for. “Fairness” simply involves making sure that if, for instance, you cut taxes, you do it for everyone, leaving money in the pockets of rich and poor alike. In other words, fairness rights wrongs directed at another implicitly discriminated-against group, the well-to-do.

In such a universe of individual “choice” and “personal responsibility,” “hurdles” are overcome by the “will.” The will trumps all and expresses itself in “the act” — and in the story he’s sharing with his listeners, our President proclaims his personal will to be supreme, implacable, and triumphant. This tale is, even in its word choice, remarkably self-contained. But like many coherent systems, once you take that first step in, it undoubtedly feels quite convincing and even uplifting.

In the tale George tells on the stump, he is represented by a relatively limited set of words. They tend to be short, almost all upbeat, and are repeated many times over. They give the speech powerful directionality — forward and upward. The President presides over “progress” as we head towards the “future.” He doesn’t want to spend a lot of time looking over his shoulder or second-guessing. “A recession,” as he said at one point, “means we’re going backwards, not forwards.” The world according to George is filled with “challenges” like those recessions (invariably inherited from someone else), but challenges are only there to be “overcome,” thanks to “absolute determination,” of which the President has a ton. After that, things are always “growing” and “increasing”; “positive,” “productive,” and “optimistic.”

Though we’re all aware that this administration mobilized the country around not just a fearsome event, but fear itself, George’s speeches are essentially sunny. Like eggs that are large, extra large, and jumbo, everything is “good,” “better,” “best”; “great,” greater,” “greatest,” “fabulous,” not to speak of “amazing.” No wonder the “best days lie ahead.”

“Confident” is what Americans should be and “confidence” is what the President has. “Strength” is a crucial quality (along with “resolve”). At day’s end, “strength” nestles in with “safety.” The president’s stump speech is in this sense almost untrammeled in its affirmative nature. Here, for instance, are informal counts of some of the words that commonly stud his speeches — the first list from a shorter stump speech in Lacrosse, Wisconsin; the second from a longer one in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Lacrosse, Wisconsin (May 7):

good: 6
better: 9

best: 3
great/greater/greatest: 14
future: 6
confident/confidence: 4
positive: 1
strong/strength: 19
grow/growth: 6
challenge: 4
free/freedom: 22

Appleton, Wisconsin (March 30):

good: 28
better: 10
best: 5
great: 8

future: 6

confident/confidence: 7
positive: 5
overcome: 10
strong/strength: 10
grow/growing/growth: 12
challenge: 10
free/freedom: 10

Much of what the President says is in a comparative vein (and not just because of all those “er”s and “est”s either). After all, there are threatening elements in our world, though these days George doesn’t dwell unnecessarily on them — for the Satanic side of all this you have to turn to the speeches of his vice president where terrorists abound, things are “destroyed,” and threats close in from all sides. Dick Cheney is the Judge Dredd of Bush’s simplified world. For Dick there are only “threats”; for George (though he uses the word “threat” as well), there are mainly “challenges,” “tests,” and “hurdles.” The bad guys, for instance, are likely to “test our will.” But such challenges are invariably “overcome.” They may “threaten,” but we issue “ultimatums” or “demands.” We “teach them lessons.”

Our tone is imperative and personally dominating. The president “acts” and acting has value in itself. It leads you directly into that constellation of virtues: strength, resolve, clarity, certainty, determination (“We came to office with a stock market in decline and an economy headed into a recession. But we acted.”) The President is clear. He says what he “means” and means what he says, and that’s the way America should be. (“The President needs to speak clearly, mean what he says, to step up and make the hard decisions.”) He’s unlike his Democratic opponent, who, as we all know, flip-flops on all issues, and whose traits are the very opposite of everything I’ve described above and are associated with words like “uncertainty,” “weakness,” “doubt,” lack of confidence and so decisiveness.

Let’s face it. This is powerful stuff; perhaps more powerful since 9/11 exactly because that horrific, traumatizing, mobilizing event was also, for most Americans, a TV experience. I don’t want to underplay the power of empathy here, but the fact is that even in New York City people like me, who didn’t live downtown, experienced the September 11th attacks, at least in part, on television (though in New York almost everybody knew someone, or someone who knew someone, who actually died that day). In the last year, though, “threat” has left the TV set and the imagination, and entered the lives of increasing numbers of Americans. This has happened both economically and via the Iraq fiasco. Between the rising numbers of American casualties and the mobilization of the “weekend warriors” of the National Guard and the Reserves, Iraq has reached deeply into the heartland of our country. Bush’s basic speech works powerfully, I suspect, for people traumatized by distant events but secretly hopeful in their own lives. As our situation changes — and not in the direction of sunniness either — so will the effect of the story this administration has been telling.

And here’s the thing: As in Iraq, so at home Bush has backed himself into a strange stump-speech cul de sac. Though from the point of view of many of us, the story in that speech has never had much relationship to reality, there was clearly something deeply convincing and reassuring about it if only you were willing to take that first step inside. In the context of his version of a “culture of responsibility,” it makes a certain sense that the Enron execs were just “wrongdoers” who weren’t raised the right way by their folks.

Bush’s official worldview — and his speech — may always have been divorced from the policies of his advisors and supporters (who had, of course, launched a wholesale assault on every governmental safety net created over the past century.) But now, I suspect, increasing numbers of Americans will experience it as the self-enclosed world it is, a world ever less in touch with their reality.

Right now, like much else for this administration, even the President’s stump speech is delaminating. Already certain lines that have been around forever can no longer be said, or at least heard, so comfortably. Take this line about Saddam that the President has used forever: “He’s the person that tortured people. He’s the person that had rape rooms”; or alternately, “Because our coalition acted, Saddam’s torture chambers are closed.” These now ring oddly and my impression is that they have left his most recent speeches. Here’s another zinger the President loves but that, post-the Abu Ghraib photos, has an eerily confessional feel to it:

“None of us will ever forget that week when one era ended and another began. On September the 14th, 2001, I stood in the ruins of the Twin Towers. I’ll never forget that day. There were policemen and firefighters shouting, ‘Whatever it takes, Mr. President, whatever it takes…’ I took it personally. I have a responsibility that goes on. I will never relent in bringing justice to our enemies.”

Then there are the little paragraphs in his speeches that attempt to deal with recent bad news. Right now, they are awkwardly slipped in like so many alien intrusions. Here’s one for Wisconsin (where the job situation has been bleak indeed). It follows strikingly upbeat paragraphs on “growing” the economy and on “productivity.” It arrives without any transition whatsoever, as if from outer space:

“This is called a period of transition. That’s an economist’s word for things aren’t going too well for you. (Laughter.) And I understand that. I understand that people are worried about the job they have. They’re worried about whether their children can stay close to home where they were raised and find work. A productive society is positive in many ways, but for the worker who needs new skills, it’s not so positive in the short-term. So we have to do something about it. We’ve got to deal with the economy the way it is. Many people are working, and more and more people are working, but there are some who, frankly, feel like they’re being left behind, and that’s not right.”

Here’s another, from the May 7 speech in LaCrosse, following directly on a passage about Iraq that ends, “Because we acted, the world is more free. Because we acted, America is more secure”:

“It’s been tough days in Iraq for the American people, especially those families with soldiers overseas, and those families of a loved one who has sacrificed for our freedom and security. Tough work. And there’s a reason why. There are foreign fighters and remnants of the old tyrant who can’t stand the thought of freedom taking hold in Iraq. That’s what we’re seeing. Freedom scares terrorists. Freedom scares people who hate. Freedom scares people with no conscience.

“What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to shake our will. They want us to leave. They want us to show weakness. They do not understand America. They do not understand this President. No thug or assassin will intimidate America. (Applause.) We will finish the work that we have begun, for our own security. We will finish the work we have begun, for peace and freedom. Free societies do not attack their neighbors. Free societies do not breed hate. Free societies provide hope, so that moms and dads can raise their children in a peaceful world; so their children can aspire what we want our children to aspire to-a good education, and a hopeful life.”

Such passages probably still pass almost unnoticed by the President’s enthusiastic supporters, but on the page they already feel like so many proverbial sore thumbs and read like but the faintest, awkward acknowledgements of an everyday reality that is sweeping his campaign in unexpected directions.

Michael Tomsky suggested recently in the American Prospect magazine on-line that:

“we aren’t witnessing just the disastrous meltdown of Bush administration policy in Iraq… . The meta-story here is that we are watching the total collapse of conservative morality… The packaging of George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000 was nothing less than a conservative morality play. He was a ‘good man’; he’d gotten himself off the sauce and found Jesus; he didn’t, as far as anyone knew, play around on his wife. Meanwhile, as governor of Texas, he’d squelched an investigation into a funeral-home chain run by a friend; he’d stacked the board of the University of Texas Investment Management Company, a huge deal that no major national media ever took a close, sustained look at; he kept starting failing businesses, losing money, and somehow getting richer and richer. But none of these issues, all having directly to do with public morality, mattered. He was a good, strong man who ‘got results’ for Texas and would do the same for America.

“Bush used such language often early in his administration to describe his appointees: They were good people, and the rest of us should trust them…”

The “results” are now in at home and abroad. They are apparent in Ohio, for instance, as Mark Naymik of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported this week:

“When President Bush needed a factory floor to serve as a prop for an economic speech last year, Canton-based Timken Co. opened its doors. But the maker of bearings delivered a symbolic political blow Friday to the president’s re-election bid in Ohio, when it announced plans to close three plants in Canton and eliminate 1,300 jobs.”

And note that the Timken family are Republican contributors. The “results” are also apparent in the Abu Ghraib photos, which will prove ever more difficult to incorporate into such speeches.

The President may soon find himself — may already be — trapped in his own rhetoric. Propaganda, as we all know, works, but not always, not forever. And when it starts to feel more threadbare, when people sense that the interpretation of reality being offered bears ever less relationship to the life they are living, then the problems begin.

The President in other words has tied himself to the tracks; somewhere in the distance even he can probably hear the faint whistling of the next train; and when it comes to rescue, there’s not much help in sight. As Chris Nelson of the Washington insider newsletter the Nelson Report put it the other day, “It is not too soon to suggest that the Bush Administration is imploding on all issues at all levels. Where is the good news coming from? Gas prices at the pump are not going down. The Fed is raising interest rates. Houses, cars and the jobs they create will be curtailed.”

Statements like “If America shows weakness and uncertainty in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch” leave the President very little wiggle room. For anyone reading a presidential stump speech, it’s hard not to feel that he and his advisors have created a world of their own from which there is now no exit strategy whatsoever, no Plan B, because this already represented Plans A through Z in their minds. As with Iraq, though exit strategies might be available to others, they remain out of their reach.

George Bush said what he meant and meant what he said, after all. And anything other than that — well, the next thing you know he’ll find himself looking for all the world like one of those indecisive, uncertain, weak, vacillating types who stumble over the first hurdle, overcome nothing, lose the test of the individual will, fail the challenge, and maybe even cut and run in a world where everything should be clear-cut and getting good/better/best all the time.

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at, a web log of The Nation Institute.


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