Yes We Can

This little video is a perfect example of multimedia reporting. A great summary intro which narrates the civil rights precedents to the Obama victory which combines historic footage intercut with Obama’s victory speech and contemporary commentary is followed by an interview with the perfectly chosen Maya Angelou. She concludes with a recitation of her poem “I rise” which resonates with the type of rhetorical speech making of Obama and other black leaders from the opening report. It also has an accompanying text feature

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Good Mother Bad Mother Politics

It is hard to imagine what the impeccably dressed Condoleezza Rice feels when she has to defend a President that she must now know deep down is a tremendous disappointment. She endured hours of Senate grilling including a bravura performance from Senator Barbara Boxer :

BOXER: October 19th ’05, you came before this committee to discuss, in your words, how we assure victory in Iraq, and you said the following. In answer to Senator Feingold, “I have no doubt that as the Iraqi security forces get better — and they are getting better and are holding territory, and they are doing the things with minimal help — we are going to be able to bring down the level of our forces. I have no doubt” — I want to reiterate — “I have no doubt that that’s going to happen in a reasonable time frame.” You had no doubt, not a doubt. And last night, the president’s announcement of an escalation is a total rebuke of your confident pronouncement.

Now, the issue is who pays the price, who pays the price? I’m not going to pay a personal price. My kids are too old, and my grandchild is too young. You’re not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, within immediate family. So who pays the price? The American military and their families, and I just want to bring us back to that fact.

NPR has done a series of interviews with families who have lost kids. And the announcer said to one family in the Midwest, “What’s changed in your life since your son’s death?” The answer comes back, “Everything. You can’t begin to imagine how even the little things change, how you go through the day, how you celebrate Christmas”…

RICE: And let me just say, you know, I fully understand the sacrifice that the American people are making, and especially the sacrifice that our soldiers are making, men and women in uniform. I visit them. I know what they’re going through. I talk to their families. I see it.

I could never — and I can never — do anything to replace any of those lost men and women in uniform, or the diplomats, some of whom –

BOXER: Madame Secretary, please, I know you feel terrible about it. That’s not the point. I was making the case as to who pays the price for your decisions. And the fact that this administration would move forward with this escalation with no clue as to the further price that we’re going to pay militarily — we certainly know the numbers, billions of dollars, that we can’t spend here in this country.

The exchange has been called a “flash point” by the NYT and has been the talk of the blogsphere with many like Rush Limbaugh accusing Boxer of “hitting below the ovaries”. Rice said in a later interview that Boxer has “set back feminism” with her comments:

“I thought it was okay to be single,” Ms. Rice said. “I thought it was okay to not have children, and I thought you could still make good decisions on behalf of the country if you were single and didn’t have children.”

The anti-feminist line is of course a furphy. Boxer’s emotionalism highlights something essential that is missing from the public debate. The orchestration of the war and Rice’s own quibbling over words – such as whether Bush’s new plan is a “surge” “escalation” or her latest obfuscation: “an augmentation” – abstracts the reality of war’s mortality. That Bush and Rice are put under personal notice of their complicity in the deaths of not just US troops but of thousands of Iraqis is only right in what has become their personal crusade. A crusade where they have repeatedly ignored the advice of their own experts. Bush and Rice have no option but to continue to defend the fantasy and it is up to people like Boxer to puncture the plausibility this fantasy with the real stories of those being affected.

Andrew Sullivan says that Boxer’s statement “was the kind of cheap shot that makes substantive discourse impossible. Boxer was questioning Rice as a senator questioning a secretary of state. Their family relationships are utterly irrelevant to the point at hand, i.e. the current Iraq strategy.” This is typical of those that imagine that “substantive discourse” must remain in a Habermassian rational mode. Neither Bush nor Rice produce “substantive discourse” on Iraq their statements are littered with emotional appeals very similar to Boxer’s. This is merely a clash of stories and sits uncomfortably because it is clearly emotive where as Bush and Rice’s rhetoric is often cloaked more carefully.

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Naming the Civil War

As GWB steadfastly resists calling the conflict in Iraq a “civil war” despite the pronouncements of many of his own current and ex-military advisers, media outlets also grapple with the nomenclature. E&P reports that starting Monday The Los Angeles Times, NBC and MSNBC, will all be using that troublesome phrase to describe what is going on in Iraq. More interestingly the Washington Post seems to be stuck in a precautionary loop. Leonard Downie, Jr., the Post’s executive editor told E&P:

“We just describe what goes on everyday. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.”

This is typical disingenuous strategic objectivity. The obvious question is how and when does ‘close to civil war’ become simply ‘civil war’? How can a media outlet make ‘very precise’ judgments about such matters? The Post’s top reporter Dana Priest is more revealing:

“Well, I think one of the reasons the President resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy. I will say for the Washington Post, we have not labeled it a civil war. I have asked around to see why not or see what’s the thinking on that — and really our reporters have not filed that. We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly — and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this — absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”

Priest’s comments reveal that the Post’s caution derives not from some grand commitment to journalistic objectivity it is in fact a text book example of “official source” theory and Stuart Hall’s argument that one of the subtle but highly influential ways official sources hold power over media portrayals is that they are usually the ones that define the language that is used. Hall argues that it is incredibly difficult for other “secondary definers” to move through this initial textual definition of the issue. A classic quote from Hall:

“The more one accepts that how people act will depend in part on how the situations in which they act are defined, and the less one assumes either a natural meaning for things or a universal consensus on what things mean, then the more socially and politically important becomes the process by means of which certain events get recurrently signified in certain ways.” (Rediscovery of Ideology 1982)

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Huffington in fine form on Woodward

The Blog | Arianna Huffington: Woodward as Journalistic Hero: the Real State of Denial | The Huffington Post:

Talk about being in a state of denial: praising Woodward for his very-late-to-the-party Iraq pile-on is like a music critic writing a rave of “Let It Be” and getting credit for discovering The Beatles. ….

Then there was the revelation, breathlessly delivered by Wallace in his intro, that after two years and more than 200 interviews, including “most of the top officials in the administration,” Woodward has come to “a damning conclusion: That for the last three years, the White House has not been honest with the American public.” Stop the presses, hold the front page! And burn all the copies of “Fiasco,” “Cobra II,” “The One Percent Doctrine,” “Hubris” — plus 99.9 percent of the blog posts on Iraq that have appeared on HuffPost since we launched — that have previously come to exactly the same “damning conclusion.” Why fork over $30 for much-older-than-yesterday’s news?

In her New York Times review of “State of Denial,” Michiko Kakutani says that Woodward paints a portrait of President Bush as “a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war.”

To which I say: “Welcome to 2002, Bob.” I can only hold my breath in anticipation of what headline grabbing insights “the best excavator of inside stories” will “unearth” for his next book: “Paris Hilton: Shallow Party Girl,” or, perhaps, “Islamic Fundamentalism: Could be a Problem in the Future.”

A China moment?

0214_bush_460x276_1Stanley Fish says that it’s time for Bush to go to China.

I don’t mean that literally, but metaphorically. It’s time for George Bush to do what Richard Nixon did – perform an act whose effectiveness is a function of the fact that he is the last man anyone would have expected to do it. What would that act be? It won’t be – and shouldn’t be – agreeing to a face-to-face, one-on-one debate with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, if only because when you accept the other guy’s invitation you cede him the initiative and the position of leadership, and we all know that George Bush will never willingly do that. No, it has to be something that a) makes clear that he is the one in charge, and b) is so surprising and (apparently) out of character that its very announcement alters the geopolitical landscape and disarms criticism in advance.

Fish’s idea is that Bush should announce a personal fact finding mission to the Middle East. An intriguing idea but I am not so sure it’s a China moment or would have the far reaching effects – symbolic or actual – that Fish proposes it might. What’s interesting are the comments at NYT.com. Here’s a typical comment:

Dear Mr. Fish: Indeed, the Grand Tour is an excellent idea (It is also clear you were enjoying yourself, tongue-in-cheek-or-otherwise, while you were composing this piece.) Here’s why it won’t happen: 1) George Bush does not expose himself to criticism; 2) George Bush does not expose himself to possible harm (Vietnam); 3) Mostly, George Bush does not do anything anyone else thought of first, unless that person’s last name is Cheney or Rove. You last name is Fish. Nice try anyway.

Both Fish and the commenter think they know who Bush is and how he thinks. They want him to act outside the square, jump out of his box because they are convinced they know exactly what box he’s in at the moment.

There’s a lot written about and a lot of evidence to support the incurious, man on a mission, black and white Bush – so much so the very idea of a China moment seems pretty preposterous. But more fundamental then any character flaws that we may or may not be able to identify is Bush’s sense of history. Bush and Nixon have very different notions of their own relationship to the world and to history. Nixon for all his flaws fundamentally saw himself as a statesman that’s what made China possible. Nixon prepared his whole life for that China moment, he not only wanted to be president, he wanted to be a historically significant President. He spent the last twenty years of his life ensuring that legacy. Bush is an accidental president. I suspect he would not have run again had he lost in 2000.

Nixon had both a domestic and a foreign policy agenda that had evolved and matured over time. He was an archetypal politician who for all his paranoia and self-aggrandizement knew – from bitter experience – that politics, real politics occurred over time. Bush has not set out to achieve anything because he believes he has been given a mission.

Bush believes – and in some senses he is right – that he has had his China moment. For Bush the transformation came early on: grabbing the megaphone in the rubble of ground zero, addressing the memorial at the National Cathedral and addressing the joint session of Congress in the weeks after 9/1, Bush unexpectedly declared himself to be a real leader – a war president. The puppet from Texas began to take hold of the strings. Sure his speeches were being written for him but what was new was a deeply personal sesne of mission that animated those speeches like never before.

Bob Woodward has been rightly criticised for giving Bush a free ride in Bush at War and Plan of Attack but what emerges clearly is Bush’s own conception of who he was and how he reacted and Bush believes himself to be a man called and transformed.

According to Woodward’s book, in the lead up to the joint session speech Bush had been insistent that it include a strong sense of his personal dedication to this new moment in American history. He hammered Mike Gerson and his coms team for a set of words that matched how he said he felt:

“I will not forget this wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.”

Gerson waited anxiously for a call from his boss following the speech. When the call came, according to Woodward, they both remember what the President said:

“I have never felt more comfortable in my life.”

After he made that declaration, the Presidency of George W. Bush jumped outside its box. Bush grabbed at the power of the “war time president” he quickly declared himself to be. Bush believes quite resolutely he has already been to China. Bush maybe worried about the short term prospects of his party in the mid-terms but I don’t think he worries about his role in history.

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TIME.com on the NIE

TIME.com: Why the Fight Over the NIE Report May Be a Wash:

Mark M. Lowenthal, president of the Intelligence & Security Academy, in Arlington, Va., supervised the preparation of National Intelligence Estimates from 2002 to 2005, when he was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Lowenthal tells TIME that such estimate always allow people “to pick and choose to find whatever you want.”

“The Administration is smartly pointing out that there has not been another major attack in five years,” Lowenthal said. “You can argue whether that’s an accurate portrayal of how much progress we’ve made. But it’s more likely to resonate with people than something in the sixth paragraph of an NIE.”

The President’s friends and advisers say that his most critical mission is to leave his successors the tools to fight and win a multigenerational war on terror. If the trends described by the report materialize, that fight may be at least as harrowing for them as it has been for him.

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Condi the true believer

President Bush Returns To White House
Media Matters has a great analysis of the Katie and Condi show that aired recently on US 60 Minutes. The interview was pure Couric and pure 60 Minutes and represents what is best and worst about both those brands. Couric sits with that intense look that somehow manages to convey admiration and slight approbation at the same time but doesn’t convey the import of either emotion. She asks how you ask the Secretary of State out on a date (Rice: “I’m not going to go there”) and uses a quote from her daughter “Who made us the boss of them” as a question about American intervention in the Middle East. There are moments when she pulls Rice up: “But that’s not the question…” but she basically gives her a free ride and doesn’t challenge her on any substantive point. Significantly for Couric who’s move to CBS was wrapped up in the rhetoric of wanting to do serious journalism she never comes back at Rice or argues a a single question based on research.

But the show does what it sets out to do brilliantly, it produces a powerful piece of television which appears to grant the viewer unique and intimate access to the most powerful women in America. And just as the segment title proclaims, Rice is a “True Believer”. This is the myth of Rice that we see played out again and again. The girl who rose from Bombingham and emerged with determination and ambition. The loyalist who selflessly serves her president. The woman of conviction who wants to change the world. This is summed up in a little set piece Rice delivers early in the interview:

“I probably have at one level, a better understanding, or perhaps, let me say a more personal understanding of what the dark side of human beings can look like. I remember very well in 1963 when Birmingham was so violent. When it acquired the name ”Bomb-ingham. That even with my wonderfully protective family, you had to wonder why are they doing this to us? And on the other hand, I have a great faith in the ability of people to triumph over the dark side of human beings.“

She also uses her experience growing up in the pre-civil rights south to great effect to counter criticisms of the Bush administration’s push to ”spread democracy“ in the Middle East:

”And so when I look around the world and I hear people say, ‘Well, you know, they’re just not ready for democracy,’ it really does resonate. I hear echoes of, well, you know, blacks are kind of childlike. They really can’t handle the vote. Or they really can’t take care of themselves. It really does roil me. It makes me so angry because I think there are those echoes of what people once thought about black Americans.“

Many profiles of Rice draw comparisons between her and the President: sport, faith, fitness and steely conviction. As Nicholas Leeman once wrote: ”When you hear Rice speaking, that is what Bush would sound like if he was as articulate as she was.“

 

Rice and Bush are an intermingled myth she is always by his side, always whispering in his ear. Of all his advisers Rice is the one that is most visibly by the side of the decider. There has been speculation about the extent or power of her actual influence at different points but her most powerful role of being the other Bush – the same but different – has not changed. It can’t change without fundamentally altering the whole script: she’s a true believer.

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Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terror Threat

Finally what was bleeding obvious is now official. The New York Times reports on a new US Intelligence Estimate that comes to terms with the other effect of the Iraq war:

A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The classified National Intelligence Estimate attributes a more direct role to the Iraq war in fueling radicalism than that presented either in recent White House documents or in a report released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, according to several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document.

The intelligence estimate, completed in April, is the first formal appraisal of global terrorism by United States intelligence agencies since the Iraq war began, and represents a consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services inside government. Titled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,’’ it asserts that Islamic radicalism, rather than being in retreat, has metastasized and spread across the globe.

An opening section of the report, ”Indicators of the Spread of the Global Jihadist Movement,“ cites the Iraq war as a reason for the diffusion of jihad ideology.

The report ”says that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,“ said one American intelligence official.

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The Greatest Story Ever Sold – By Frank Rich – Books – Review – New York Times

In a review of NYT Columnist Frank Rich’s new book, The Greatest Story Never Told, writer and now Bard professor Ian Buruma sums up some of the general problems with current journalism – not startlingly original but neatly expressed:

THERE may be one other reason for the fumbling (over WMD and Bush-critical jounrnalsim): the conventional methods of American journalism, marked by an obsession with access and quotes. A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused. The problem is that there are not always two sides to a story. Someone reporting on the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 would not have added “balance” by quoting Joseph Goebbels. And besides, as Judith Miller found out, what is the good of quotes if they are based on false information?

Bob Woodward, one of Rich’s chief bêtes noires, has more access in Washington than any journalist, but the weakness of his work is that he never seems to be better than his sources. As Rich rightly observes, “reporters who did not have Woodward’s or Miller’s top-level access within the administration not only got the Iraq story right but got it into newspapers early by seeking out what John Walcott, the Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, called ‘the blue collar’ sources further down the hierarchy.” This used to be Woodward’s modus operandi, too, in his better days. Fearing the loss of access at the top and overrating the importance of quotes from powerful people, as well as an unjustified terror of being accused of liberal bias, have crippled the press at a time when it is needed more than ever. Frank Rich is an excellent product of that press, and if it ever recovers its high reputation, it will be partly thanks to one man who couldn’t take it anymore.

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Bush’s Black and White Ball – he’s threatening to take it on home.

A lot of stuff in the press – news, analysis and opinion – about opposition to Bush’s wiretap and torture plans from leading Republicans like Colin Powell. It is interesting though that even when these pieces seek to address substantive issues they nearly always end up analysing policy as posture rather than policy as content: Bush as defiant or Bush as backed into a corner.

Bush Untethered – New York Times Editorial:

Watching the president on Friday in the Rose Garden as he threatened to quit interrogating terrorists if Congress did not approve his detainee bill, we were struck by how often he acts as though there were not two sides to a debate. We have lost count of the number of times he has said Americans have to choose between protecting the nation precisely the way he wants, and not protecting it at all.

On Friday, President Bush posed a choice between ignoring the law on wiretaps, and simply not keeping tabs on terrorists. Then he said the United States could rewrite the Geneva Conventions, or just stop questioning terrorists. To some degree, he is following a script for the elections: terrify Americans into voting Republican. But behind that seems to be a deeply seated conviction that under his leadership, America is right and does not need the discipline of rules. He does not seem to understand that the rules are what makes this nation as good as it can be.

Analysis: Bush Sees Fewer Policy Options – Washingtonpost.com:

WASHINGTON — When President Bush addresses world leaders at the United Nations this week, he will have fewer options and lower expectations on almost every major foreign policy front than a year ago.

The United States is relying more readily on international institutions and alliances for help in Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Sudan and elsewhere. Yet, according to analysts, the Bush administration has less room to maneuver. Bush and his foreign policy advisers have tried with some success to dispel the caricature of Bush abroad as a Texas cowboy riding alone and herding the U.S. into an unpopular war in Iraq.But the war, now in its fourth year, devours resources and energy for other global objectives and feeds mistrust about U.S. intentions, experts say.

“I’m not sure they have changed their mind about to what extent to proceed unilaterally and how much to use military force so much as they have run out of options,” said Richard Stoll, a political science professor at Rice University who studies foreign policy and national security.

With Bush nearly halfway through his final term, time is dwindling for him to accomplish his signature goals of confronting terrorism and spreading democracy, and he faces more distractions at home, said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University.

When the president speaks to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, he plans to carry a strong message, “based upon hope, and my belief that the civilized world must stand with moderate, reformist-minded people and help them realize their dreams.

”I believe that’s the call of the 21st century,“ Bush told reporters Friday.

ABC News: Bush and Congress Butt Heads

In the Rose Garden Friday, President Bush was loud and clear: If Congress doesn’t agree with him, the hunt for terrorist plots will be crippled.

”The bottom line is simple,“ he said. ”If Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules, if they do not do that, the program is not going forward.“…

”The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,“ Powell wrote to lawmakers. Redefining the Geneva Conventions ”would add to those doubts“ and ”put our own troops at risk.“

The president dismissed that argument — and some attempts from reporters to ask him about it.

”But sir, this is an important point,“ NBC’s David Gregory said in one exchange.

”The point I just made is the most important point,“ Bush replied.

President Bush was feisty and confident. Experts say his attitude is sure to bolster the mood at the White House.

Ana Marie Cox, Time.com’s Washington editor, commented on the White House’s strategy.

”I think they’re banking on the American public liking to see that strong president, liking to see someone be decisive,“ she said.

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In Latest Push, Bush Cites Risk in Quitting Iraq – New York Times

In Latest Push, Bush Cites Risk in Quitting Iraq – New York Times:

“The war we fight today is more than a military conflict,’’ Mr. Bush said in a speech to veterans at an American Legion convention here. ”It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century.’’…..

At the same time, he placed various factions of terrorists — Sunnis who swear allegiance to Al Qaeda, Shiite radicals who join groups like Hezbollah and so-called homegrown terrorists — under one umbrella.

Experts said that might be overstating the facts.

“ ‘Network of radicals’ suggests they are actually connected in some practical fashion, and that’s obviously not the case,’’ said Steven Simon, a State Department official in the administrations of President Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush’s father.

But the comparison is central to Mr. Bush’s message, said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the National Republican Committee, who has played an integral role in developing Republican strategy for the midterm elections.

”I thought linking together the different elements of this ideological movement was important to do, and was effective,’’ Mr. Mehlman said.

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Fundamentally adversarial

Maybe my post yesterday was too pessimistic. Perhaps the controversy over the Pulitzers will round support for a press that is taking itself more seriously. As the NYT reports:

Some observers on the press side saw the awards as a recognition that the split between the government and the press, which many thought had been papered over during the first Bush administration, had widened again.

“I think that there is a renewed recognition that the relationship with government is fundamentally adversarial,” said William L. Israel, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I have not seen the kind of unanimity from the Pulitzer board for some time. Over and over, they endorsed work that held the government to account.”…

But Eugene L. Roberts Jr., a former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, said that the press policies of the administration in power were always worse than those of the administration that went before it.

“I think every generation of journalist thinks they are more put-upon and aggrieved than the one that came before it,” he said. “I worked in the 50′s and 60′s at Southern papers, and there was plenty of pressure back then.”

Still, the press likes to cite its moral authority, especially in the face of an administration that has reflexively invoked executive privilege, a tool that was used 4 times between 1953 and 1974 at the height of the cold war and 23 times between 2001 and 2004.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Bush has made it clear that he does not buy the industry’s widely held conceit that it serves as a proxy for the American people. That, he has suggested over the course of his two terms, is his job.

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It just keeps seeping out

Yet another piece of the Bush WMD jigsaw has emerged, this time from the former head of the CIA in Europe, Tyler Drumheller. He tells 60 Minutes this week:

Drumheller, who retired last year, says the White House ignored crucial information from a high and credible source. The source was Iraq’s foreign minister, Naji Sabri, with whom U.S. spies had made a deal.

When CIA Director George Tenet delivered this news to the president, the vice president and other high ranking officials, they were excited — but not for long.

“[The source] told us that there were no active weapons of mass destruction programs,” says Drumheller. “The [White House] group that was dealing with preparation for the Iraq war came back and said they were no longer interested. And we said ‘Well, what about the intel?’ And they said ‘Well, this isn’t about intel anymore. This is about regime change.’ ”

They didn’t want any additional data from Sabri because, says Drumheller: “The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy.”

The White House declined to respond to this charge, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stated that Sabri was just one source and therefore not reliable.

Drumheller says the administration routinely relied on single sources — when those single sources confirmed what the White House wanted to hear.

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Fundamentalist Occultism

From a review of David Kats’ The Occult Tradition from the Renaissance to the Present Day in today’s Australian:

His most provocative claim however, is that “messianic fundamentalist Christianity” belongs firmly within the occult tradition. It is not difficult to see why fundamentalism is significant within the contemporary US political landscape: 91 per cent of Americans believe in God, 71 per cent believe in hell, 34 per cent believe the Bible is inerrant and, Katz estimates, 20 per cent “can be called ‘evangelical Protestants’; that is, fundamentalists”.

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush all embraced evangelical Christianity, yet its “establishment quality … should not exclude fundamentalism from the history of the occult tradition”.

“Fundamentalists predict the future through deciphering a document whose meaning is hidden, occult rather than manifest,” Katz writes. “[They] believe in the imminent … Second Coming of Christ, according to a plan that they have worked out from encoded references in the Bible, with supernatural implications for everyone living today on earth.”

According to this Armageddon theology, true believers will be spared the tribulations of the impending End Times by being bodily removed from the earth in the “rapture of the church”.

When The Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward asked Bush whether he had discussed his planned invasion of Iraq with his father, he replied: “You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength: there is a higher father that I appeal to.”

In one of the most fascinating passages, Katz turns to Bush’s speech announcing air strikes against Afghanistan a month after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. This contains clear allusions to the books of Revelation, Isaiah and Job, which enable Bush to communicate with fellow fundamentalists, “winking at them conspiratorially as partners in a type of Christianity that is based on the careful reading of an esoteric text”.

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The age of spin

This sums it all up. From a Washington Post profile on White House press sec Scott McLellan:

On the Thursday morning after his reelection in November 2004, President Bush bounded unexpectedly into the Roosevelt Room of the White House, where about 15 members of his communications team were celebrating. He just wanted to thank everyone for their hard work on the campaign, he said, before singling someone out.

“Is Scotty here? Where’s Scotty?” Bush asked, half-grinning, according to two people who were in the meeting but asked not to be quoted by name because they were discussing a private event. Bush scanned the room for Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary.

“I want to especially thank Scotty,” the president said, looking at his aide. “I want to thank Scotty for saying” — and he paused for effect. . . .

” Nothing .”

At which point everyone laughed and the president left the room.

This is one of those quips that distill a certain essence of the game. In this era of on-message orthodoxy, the republic has evolved to where the leader of the free world can praise his most visible spokesman for saying nothing.

C.J. he aint!

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God’s wrath on Trent Lott

I was struck that in his first speech on the New Orlean’s crisis the only specific reference to damage and rebuilding by Bush was in his throw-away line about Trent Lott:

We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do. First, we’re going to save lives and stabilize the situation. And then we’re going to help these communities rebuild. The good news is — and it’s hard for some to see it now — that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.

Of course Lott’s house will be rebuilt and of course Bush will again relax on his colleague’s porch. But this image of the resilience of the powerful and their ongoing collusion is hardly a comforting image to those who are much less well connected and much less well resourced.

It is an irony that it is the anti-gay Lott who has suffered. Perhaps Katrina was God’s wrath on the homophobia of the South!

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Bush’s photo-ops

Bush is being criticised for not acting fast enough and for a lack luster, even humorous, speech when he first addressed the plight of New Orleans. The New York Times has become increasingly strident in its editorials over the last few days:

George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday, especially given the level of national distress and the need for words of consolation and wisdom. In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end.

Bush doesn’t seem to have either a natural sense of compassion or even a natural political instinct on these occasions when symbolic leadership is most needed. Either Clinton or Reagan would have acted immediately and made us feel that they were involved personally and politically with the crisis. This symbolic act of the leader is of such importance and has real impact on the course of actual events by creating a buoyant atmosphere for recovery. But there is a difference between a genuine act of symbolic leadership, which requires engagement, reflection and action and a staged media event. Increasingly it is difficult for both politicians and the public to distinguish between the two.

A story has just emerged about how deliberately the Bush team stage managed the tour of the crisis zone. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu has just released a statement:

“But perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment. The good and decent people of southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast – black and white, rich and poor, young and old – deserve far better from their national government.

This has been reported by the wires and some blogs but doesn’t appear to have been picked up by the mainstream press yet.

It is confirmed by at least one report from a viewer of a German news service who says the German account of Bush’s tour differed markedly from the CNN account:

There was a striking dicrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV.

ZDF News reported that the president’s visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and the herd of ‘news people’ had left and that others which were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.

The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF.

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The Vietnamization of Bush’s Vacation – New York Times

In another installment of blistering analysis Frank Rich writes of the Vietnamization of Bush’s Vacation. It’s an astute look at Bush’s stubborn refusal to face the reality of the dismal state of the conflict in Iraq. He’s just going to stay the course with his stay the course line, it would seem. Given he doesn’t have to get re-elected maybe he just intend to wait out the next three years. But as Rich points out the Democrats aren’t doing much better. One striking image stands out:

If there’s a moment that could stand for the Democrats’ irrelevance it came on July 14, the day Americans woke up to learn of the suicide bomber in Baghdad who killed as many as 27 people, nearly all of them children gathered around American troops. In Washington that day, the presumptive presidential candidate Hillary Clinton held a press conference vowing to protect American children from the fantasy violence of video games.

In another collusive fantasy the Pentagon is marketing the memorial of September 11:

The marketing campaign will crescendo in two weeks, on the anniversary of 9/11, when a Defense Department “Freedom Walk” will trek from the site of the Pentagon attack through Arlington National Cemetery to a country music concert on the Mall. There the false linkage of Iraq to 9/11 will be hammered in once more, this time with a beat: Clint Black will sing “I Raq and Roll,” a ditty whose lyrics focus on Saddam, not the Islamic radicals who actually attacked America. Lest any propaganda opportunity be missed, Arlington’s gravestones are being branded with the Pentagon’s slogans for military campaigns, like Operation Iraqi Freedom, The Associated Press reported last week – a historic first. If only the administration had thought of doing the same on the fallen’s coffins, it might have allowed photographs.

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The Bush language program of mass distraction

NYT’s Frank Rich has another great column. This time he looks at some of the issues surrounding the Plame affair. He concludes that the real scandal is the war:

The real crime here remains the sending of American men and women to Iraq on fictitious grounds. Without it, there wouldn’t have been a third-rate smear campaign against an obscure diplomat, a bungled cover-up and a scandal that – like the war itself – has no exit strategy that will not inflict pain.

But what most struck me was his pithy summary of Bush’s changing language to describe the war and its aftermath:

On May 1, 2003, Mr. Bush celebrated “Mission Accomplished.” On May 29, Mr. Bush announced that “we found the weapons of mass destruction.” On July 2, as attacks increased on American troops, Mr. Bush dared the insurgents to “bring ‘em on.” But the mission was not accomplished, the weapons were not found and the enemy kept bringing ‘em on. It was against this backdrop of mounting desperation on July 6 that Mr. Wilson went public with his incriminating claim that the most potent argument for the war in the first place, the administration’s repeated intimations of nuclear Armageddon, involved twisted intelligence.

Mr. Wilson’s charge had such force that just three days after its publication, Mr. Bush radically revised his language about W.M.D.’s. Saddam no longer had W.M.D.’s; he had a W.M.D. “program.” Right after that George Tenet suddenly decided to release a Friday-evening statement saying that the 16 errant words about African uranium “should never have been included” in the January 2003 State of the Union address – even though those 16 words could and should have been retracted months earlier. By the next State of the Union, in January 2004, Mr. Bush would retreat completely, talking not about finding W.M.D.’s or even W.M.D. programs, but about “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.”

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Fascinatingly transperent

The Washington Post’s report of a Bush press conference reports the president absolutely on-message with his chorus of “we will not surrender”. It begins:

President Bush said yesterday that “cold-blooded” killers will fail in their attempt to drive the United States out of Iraq prematurely, as he defended the administration’s war strategy and its policies for secretly detaining hundreds of alleged terrorists around the world.

But the war strategy is not really the subject of the report. As with much political reporting it is a fascinating mix of obsequious stenography, adversarial murmurs and transparent reflection on political process. The key paragraph is not about what is happening in Iraq it is about what is happening in Washington:

The president’s short-term solution to ease the public anxiety is to spend more time talking about the mission and his vision for victory, aides say.

While this seems to carry an implicit criticism, the demands of objective journalism demands that the journalists give him a platform to do exactly that.

The press conference was held after Bush met with a delegation from the European Union and the report moves back and forth between issues relating to the war and issues such as world poverty discussed with the delegation. The final question concerns Guantanamo Bay.

Pressed by a European reporter, Bush showed no signs of backing away from his policy of detaining alleged terrorists at a U.S. military installation in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at secret facilities in other countries. “The fundamental question facing our government is, what do you do with these people?” he said. Bush, who recently raised the possibility of shutting down the prison in Cuba, shifted gears somewhat yesterday when he staunchly defended the detention center and repeatedly urged reporters to view conditions there firsthand.

“We want to learn as much as we can in this new kind of war about the intention, and about the methods, and about how these people operate,” Bush said. “And they’re dangerous, and they’re still around, and they’ll kill in a moment’s notice.”

It is of course instructive that it was a “European reporter” who asked the question. But what is equally instructive is that the report ends just as it began with choice examples of Bush’s dehumanising rhetoric which is undoubtedly a key part of his “short-term solution to ease the public anxiety”.

The report’s lead opens with reference to “cold-blooded killers” and wraps with “these people” who will “kill in a moment’s notice.” Both statements are rhetorically strong and have a natural attraction as “lead” material but the continual reporting of these kind of statements ends up giving Bush a free ride.

It could be argued that the reporter by foregrounding the strategy issue and by noting that Bush is facing criticism has done his best to temper the statements. But in this “new kind of war” where politicians are deft at delivering rhetoric rather than content journalism needs to rethink its rules of engagement.

Bush Season 4

A report from Reuters.com that Bush’s popularity has dropped from 51% to 42% since his election last November, has a summary of recent events that reads like the story arc from a season of West Wing:

Bush began his second term in January with an ambitious plan to overhaul the Social Security retirement program but it has failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill and many Americans are skeptical. The preoccupation over Social Security figured in the delay of his promised attempt to overhaul the tax code.

At the same time, he got caught up — some Republicans say sidetracked — in a battle on Capitol Hill over whether a brain-damaged Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, should be kept alive.

Then came a fight in the Senate over arcane rules about filibusters involving Bush’s judicial nominees, and a protracted fight over his nominee to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton.

Some Republicans believe those issues proved to be a distraction from Bush’s agenda and showed he was out of touch.

The theatrics of the midnight signing of the Terri Schiavo bill show that this is not just because West Wing is a deft imitation of “real” politics but that presidential politics is more like a television serial. In fact it is a television serial or a reality TV program covered live by CNN and Fox News.

It’s the stupidity stupid!

The British Mirror ran with this hilarious and provocative post election headline

bushmirror

Now Bob Herbert at the New York Times has come up with some data to back-up the Mirror’s ballsy headline.

I think a case could be made that ignorance played at least as big a role in the election’s outcome as values. A recent survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that nearly 70 percent of President Bush’s supporters believe the U.S. has come up with “clear evidence” that Saddam Hussein was working closely with Al Qaeda. A third of the president’s supporters believe weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. And more than a third believe that a substantial majority of world opinion supported the U.S.-led invasion.

This is scary. How do you make a rational political pitch to people who have put that part of their brain on hold? No wonder Bush won.

The survey, and an accompanying report, showed that there’s a fair amount of cluelessness in the ranks of the values crowd. The report said, “It is clear that supporters of the president are more likely to have misperceptions than those who oppose him.”

Although Herbert argues that this type of ignorance is more of a factor than “the values” vote, the two are pretty intimately connected. It is the self referential religious rhetoric of fundamentalism that cocoons its adherents in a world view that is impermeable to facts. Herbert goes on to provide a frightening example of just such rhetoric from Frank Pastore, a former major league pitcher who is now a host on the Christian talk-radio station KKLA. In an op-ed for the LA Times he wrote:

“Christians, in politics as in evangelism,” said Mr. Pastore, “are not against people or the world. But we are against false ideas that hold good people captive. On Tuesday, this nation rejected liberalism, primarily because liberalism has been taken captive by the left. Since 1968, the left has taken millions captive, and we must help those Democrats who truly want to be free to actually break free of this evil ideology.”

Mr. Pastore goes on to exhort Christian conservatives to reject any and all voices that might urge them “to compromise with the vanquished.” How’s that for values?

This is not balance or objectivity, it is bizarre, psuedo-mystical, nonsense that has no place in the pages of a paper like the LA Times.

Herbert makes a key point in this debate, which I have not seen made by many others:

All values are not created equal. Some Democrats are casting covetous eyes on voters whose values, in many cases, are frankly repellent. Does it make sense for the progressive elements in our society to undermine their own deeply held beliefs in tolerance, fairness and justice in an effort to embrace those who deliberately seek to divide?

The rhetoric of objectivity in journalism is supposed to ensure debate and the free flow of ideas. What seems to be happening instead is that balance is being turned into a polarising tool by ideologues who have an immovable, faith-based position which they want to impose. They are not interested in balance, objectivity or facts, they will not “compromise with the vanquished,” yet they skillfully turn the rhetoric of objectivity against the “elite liberal media” so they get a chance to preach crap from the op-ed pages.

Evangelical culture/evangelical politics

Interesting explanation from the Washington Post that tries to unpack the poll data on increases in the evangelical turnout in 2004

Exit polls do not permit a direct comparison of how many evangelical and born-again Americans voted in 2000 and 2004 because the way pollsters identified these voters changed. Four years ago voters leaving polls were asked: “Do you consider yourself part of the conservative Christian political movement, also known as the religious right?” In 2004, the question was changed to: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?”

Fourteen percent answered “yes” in 2000 and 23 percent did so in 2004, but polling specialists said the 2004 wording virtually assures more affirmative answers.

The percentage of voters who said they attend church more than once a week grew from 14 to 16 percent, a significant difference in an election decided by three percentage points. These voters backed President Bush over John F. Kerry 64 percent to 35 percent. Similarly, the percent of the electorate that believes abortion should be “illegal in all cases” grew from 13 to 16 percent. These voters backed Bush by 77 percent to 22 percent.

In the two major battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida, exit polls showed Bush substantially improved his support among voters who attend church more than once a week. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that goes to church this often actually fell.

The article also argues that the grassroots evangelicals were not driven by the Bush election team but were actually way ahead of the curve. The interviews with a range of Christian activists support Dana Milbank’s notion (which I posted about yesterday) that we have seen the emergence of a new evangelical politics in this election. Many of the activists interviewed in today’s Post article argue that they were better organised, and campaigning earlier within their christian communities, than the official Bush team. The picture to emerge is of both organised and grassroots action. Certainly the big names like James Dobson and his Focus on the Family were active – and in weekly phone contact with Bush strategists – but local ministers and smaller organisations and individuals were critical to the campaign.

As to the significance of the same sex marriage issue Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council puts it nicely. It was “the hood ornament on the family values wagon that carried the president to a second term.”

But other factors certainly also drove moral values voters:

The Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life” and one of the most influential ministers in the country, sent a letter to 136,000 fellow pastors urging them to compare the candidates’ positions on five “non-negotiable” issues: abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, human cloning and euthanasia.

Many of these activists regard Bush as slow to take up the marriage cause and they were working on a constitutional ban long before Karl Rove started to think of the issue as a voter turn-out technique.

Some Democrats suspected that the ballot initiatives were engineered by Rove and the GOP, but religious activists say otherwise. In Michigan, state Sen. Alan Cropsey (R) introduced a bill to ban same-sex marriage in October 2003 and assumed it would have the support of his party. Instead, the Roman Catholic Church in Michigan became the amendment’s main booster, spending nearly $1 million to secure its passage.

“I couldn’t say anything publicly, because I would have been blasted for it, but the Republican Party was not helpful at all,” Cropsey said. “It’s not like they were the instigators. They were the Johnny-come-latelies, if anything.”

Michael Howden, executive director of Stronger Families for Oregon, said it was a similar situation in his state. “There’s been no contact whatsoever, no coordinating, no pushing” by anyone at the White House or in the Bush campaign, he said.

Dobson sums up what a “values voter” means very clearly and very simply:

A values voter, Dobson said, is someone with “a Christian worldview who begins with the assumption that God is — that he not only exists, but he is the definer of right and wrong, and there are some things that are moral and some things that are immoral, some things that are evil and some things that are good.”

Although liberals may mock Bush for his good-vs.-evil approach to the world, it “is seen by many of us not as a negative but as a positive,” Dobson said. “Here is a man who is simply committed to a system of beliefs.”

This type of world view is not explicitly apocalyptic but is congruent with the type of moral universe that LaHaye and other producers of christian mass culture evoke. This also ties into broader streams of American popular culture as identified by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence’s American Superhero myth.

Cold War Presidential narratives

Two articles in the latest edition of Foreign Policy make essentially the same point: in spite of the rhetoric of the post-September 11 brave new world, the Bush administration is essentially driven by a cold war agenda and more importantly, cold war strategy. This is obviously a point that has been made before but it is made well in these articles. Firstly editor Moisés Naím:

Disappointments in Iraq also dealt a blow to a worldview that, for all its references to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as an epochal event, still hearkens back to the Cold War. Consider the two primary responses to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: Instead of concentrating all energies and resources to fight the strange, stealthy, and stateless network that perpetrated the attacks, the United States launched military assaults against two nation-states. First, it rightly attacked Afghanistan, a country whose government had been the subject of a friendly takeover by such networks. The second was Iraq, a country with a standing army and a dictator evocative of the Cold War era. Iraq offered a target more suited to the mindset of U.S. leaders and military capabilities than the more complicated terrorist networks operating inside powerful states, including the United States itself.

In other words, facing the prospect of waging a new kind of war against a new kind of opponent, the Bush administration chose instead to fight a familiar enemy whose face and address it knew. Yet U.S. troops quickly found themselves fighting not enemy soldiers but what Pentagon lawyers now call “unlawful combatants”—fighters with nationalities as fuzzy as they are irrelevant to determining their leaders, their chains of command, their loyalty, and their lethal willingness to die for their cause.

So much for the certitudes and heroic assumptions about how the United States should deal with the world, as outlined in the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice may have claimed that “September 11 clarified the threats you face in the post-Cold War era.” But while September 11 might have clarified post-Cold War threats, revelations about high-level decision making regarding the war on Iraq suggest that the Cold War instincts that shaped U.S. national security strategy survived the fall of the Berlin Wall. Let’s now hope that they find their final resting place under the rubble of Iraq.

In a much longer piece Melvyn P. Leffler argues that “as controversial as George W. Bush’s policies have been, they are not as radical a departure from his predecessors as both critics and supporters proclaim. Instead, the real weaknesses of the president’s foreign policy lie in its contradictions.” He looks at Bush “innovations” such as preemption and argues that “the preemptive and unilateral use of U.S. military power was widely perceived as necessary prior to Bush’s election, even by those possessing internationalist inclinations. What Bush did after September 11 was translate an option into a national doctrine.”

Leffler’s argument is slightly different to Naim’s although their conclusions are the same. He argues that post September 11 Bush and co moved from a realist model of foreign policy that was about competitive peer states to a rhetorically driven model that ultimately fell back on cold war strategy.

In times of crisis, U.S. political leaders have long asserted values and ideals to evoke public support for the mobilization of power. But this shift in language was more than mere rhetoric. The terrorist attacks against New York and Washington transformed the Bush administration’s sense of danger and impelled offensive strategies. Prior to September 11, the neocons in the administration paid scant attention to terrorism. The emphasis was on preventing the rise of peer competitors, such as China or a resurgent Russia, that could one day challenge U.S. dominance. And though the Bush team plotted regime change in Iraq, they had not committed to a full-scale invasion and nation-building project. September 11 “produced an acute sense of our vulnerability,” said Rice. “The coalition did not act in Iraq,” explained Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of WMD [weapons of mass destruction]; we acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light—through the prism of our experience on 9/11.” Having failed to foresee and prevent a terrorist attack prior to September 11, the administration’s threshold for risk was dramatically lowered, its temptation to use force considerably heightened.

This conflation of both cold war rhetoric and strategy in response to present dangers is seen, Leffler believes, in the rhetorical production of Bush as Reagan’s heir:

Bush and his advisors love to identify themselves with Reagan. Bush, like Reagan, says Rumsfeld, “has not shied from calling evil by its name….” Nor has he been shy about “declaring his intention to defeat its latest incarnation—terrorism.” Moral clarity and military power, Bush believes, emboldened Reagan and enabled him to wrest the initiative from the Kremlin, liberate Eastern Europe, and win the Cold War.

However Leffler, professor of American history at the University of Virginia and a specialist in cold war history, sees this equation differently. He notes that in spite of media and neo-con hype most scholars do not agree that Reagan’s arms buildup and rhetorical pronouncements brought victory in the Cold War.

In fact, the most thoughtful accounts of Reagan’s diplomacy stress that what really mattered was his surprising ability to change course, envision a world without nuclear arms, and deal realistically with a new Soviet leader. And most accounts of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s diplomacy suggest that he was motivated by a desire to reform Communism, reshape Soviet society, and revive its economy, rather than intimidated by U.S. military power. Gorbachev was inspired not by U.S. democratic capitalism but by European social democracy, not by the self-referential ideological fervor of U.S. neoconservatives, but by the careful, thoughtful, tedious work of human rights activists and other nongovernmental organizations.

Bush and his advisors seek to construct a narrative about the end of the Cold War that exalts moral clarity and glorifies the utility of military power. Moral clarity doubtless helps a democratic, pluralistic society like the United States reconcile its differences and conduct policy. Military power, properly configured and effectively deployed, chastens and deters adversaries. But this mindset can lead to arrogance and abuse of power. To be effective, moral clarity and military power must be harnessed to a careful calculation of interest and a shrewd understanding of the adversary. Only when ends are reconciled with means can moral clarity and military power add up to a winning strategy.

In terms of my project what is interesting about all this is the constant interaction between:

- cold war rhetoric
- war on terror rhetoric
- narratives of Bush as leader
- narratives of Reagan as leader

Although these articles do not mention it explicitly the religious/apocalyptic underpinnings of these narratives are critical to their production. But I find it interesting to look at it, as these writers do, purely in political terms for a change. I am beginning to identify three interlocking yet distinct narratives which need tracing:

- the political apocalypse
- the religious apocalypse
- the popular culture apocalypse

These narratives leak into each other constantly but are none the less uniquely identifiable. The political apocalypse of Paul Wolfowitz is different from the religious apocalypse of Jerry Falwell and they are both different from the pop culture apocalypses of X-files fans and Kennedy assassination aficionados. Part of my project is to identify both the unique elements of each of these variations and then to also analyse their interactions as a “meta myth”.

This comes back to my notion of myth as a set of interconnected narrative nodes.

Presidential candidates on faith

Washington > Campaign 2004 > Transcript of Debate Between Bush and Kerry, With Domestic Policy the Topic” href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/13/politics/campaign/14DTEXT-FULL.html?pagewanted=print&position=”>The final debate between Bush and Kerry seems to confirm David Domke’s view that Bush uses religious langauge in a unique prophetic way:

Mr. Schieffer Mr. President, let’s go to a new question. You were asked before the invasion or after the invasion of Iraq if you had checked with your dad. And I believe, I don’t remember the quote exactly, but I believe you said you had checked with a higher authority. I would like to ask you what part does your faith play on your policy decisions?

Mr. Bush First, my faith plays a big part in my life. And when I was answering that question what I was really saying to the person was that I pray a lot. And I do. And my faith is a very, it’s very personal. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm’s way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls.

But I’m mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You’re equally an American if you choose to worship an Almighty and if you choose not to. If you’re a Christian, Jew or Muslim you’re equally an American. That’s the great thing about America is the right to worship the way you see fit. Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, how do you know? I said I just feel it.

Religion is an important part. I never want to impose my religion on anybody else. But when I make decisions I stand on principle. And the principles are derived from who I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself. That’s manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative where we’ve unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt. I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That’s what I believe. And that’s one part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can’t tell you how encouraged how I am to see freedom on the march. And so my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me. And religion is a part of me.

Mr. Schieffer
Senator Kerry?

Mr. Kerry Well, I respect everything that the president has said and certainly respect his faith. I think it’s important and I share it. I think that he just said that freedom is a gift from the Almighty. Everything is a gift from the Almighty. And as I measure the words of the Bible, and we all do, different people measure different things: the Koran, the Torah or, you know, Native Americans who gave me a blessing the other day had their own special sense of connectedness to a higher being. And people all find their ways to express it. I was taught – I went to a church school, and I was taught that the two greatest commandments are: love the Lord your God with all your mind, your body and your soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. And frankly, I think we have a lot more loving of our neighbor to do in this country and on this planet. We have a separate and unequal school system in the United States of America. There’s one for the people who have and there’s one for the people who don’t have. And we’re struggling with that today. The president and I have a difference of opinion about how we live out our sense of our faith. I talked about it earlier when I talked about the works and faith without works being dead. I think we’ve got a lot more work to do. And as president I will always respect everybody’s right to practice religion as they choose or not to practice, because that’s part of America.

The move in this exchnage from Bush’s: “In Afghanistan I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty” (God’s gift comes through the fruits of Bush’s war) to Kerry’s: “Everything is a gift from the Almighty” (general stance of humble greatfulness) is quite stark and revealing.

Howard, Bush, the war, the election

The intertextual reltions between John Howard and George Bush seem a lot more significant from the Australian perspective. The Sydney Morning Herald this morning positions Howard very strongly as an international player:

With strong global interest in the Australian poll as the first of several referenda on the war in Iraq, John Howard and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, hit foreign media outlets to help out partners in the US-led coalition of the willing….

Mr Howard’s son Richard is working for Mr Bush’s re-election campaign and the Prime Minister has a close relationship with his US counterpart, whom he saluted yesterday as consultative, yet decisive.

Certainly Howard’s comments to CNN are glowing about Bush:

“George Bush always sends a very clear cut strong view and, in the end in politics, that is very important,” he told CNN. “People will vote for you because they respect the strength and consistency of your view, even though on a given issue they may not agree with you….

“I respect him very much as an individual and a very strong leader and I think that the strength of his stand against terrorism has been very important.”

I think the relationship between Bush and Howrad is overplayed. After all in the first debate when talking about coalitions in Iraq Bush mentioned Britain and Poland not Australia.

Bush’s comments have not produced major hits in overseas media outlets although the election win was probably covered more thoroughly than usual. One American commentator who gave an extended analysis, John Sullivan at the Chicago Sun Times, provides an interesting analysis of the result and points out that while Hoard’s victory is comforting for Bush a Latham victory would have been much more impactful:

Mark Latham had committed Labor to bring home most Aussie troops in Iraq by Christmas. So if Labor had won, the world would have seen the result as a dramatic erosion of international support for George W. Bush’s Iraq intervention.

That in turn would have seemingly confirmed the international trend set by the Spanish elections that threw out a Bush ally in favor of a left-wing government that immediately withdrew Spanish troops. But it would have been much more important than the Spanish result because Australia has been a faithful U.S. ally in every American war since 1917 without needing (to use John Kerry’s terminology) to be either ”coerced” or ”bribed.” It would have been a splintering of the English-speaking alliance — of America, Australia and Great Britain — that has been the moral and military core of the war on terrorism.

In short, a Howard defeat would have been a disaster for the United States and a catastrophe for Bush (and Tony Blair).

President or Prophet?

David Domke and Kevin Coe point out, in an interesting article for The Revealer, that Bush’s religious language is radically different to the religious language of other presidents:

The key difference is this: Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have spoken as petitioners of God, seeking blessing and guidance; this president positions himself as a prophet, issuing declarations of divine desires for the nation and world. Most fundamentally, Bush’s language suggests that he speaks not only of God and to God, but also for God. Among modern presidents, only Ronald Reagan has spoken in a similar manner — and he did so far less frequently than has Bush.

They have analysed the inaugural speeches of all presidents and found that: “For presidents other than Reagan or Bush, only four of 61 addresses (7%) contained claims linking the wishes of God with freedom or liberty.” While “such claims were present in five of 12 addresses (42%) by Reagan and Bush.”

It is only a short article and I don’t find the examples they give entirely convincing although instinctively I think the distinction is useful. A detailed analysis of concepts of mission, religious destiny, fate and eschatology from the inaugural addressess may be an interesting way forward in my analysis of the intertextual relations between Bush and previous presidential texts.

The big Satan

From Douglas Rushkoff – Weblog:

If the enemy is understood as Satan, himself, then it doesn’t matter which arm of Satan is after you – you respond the same way. See, to Bush it doesn’t matter whether there’s a causal or conspiratorial connection between America’s various enemies. Whether or not our enemies know it, they are heads on the same demon.

One of the reasons why the upcoming elections are so frightening to so many of us is that we’re learning that this is how much of America feels, too. It may even be a majority of Americans who feel safer being able to think of their nation’s struggle as a simple, broad-stroked Holy War against the devil, himself, than a complex and mundane one involving real people. Because in the former, God is on our side.

Bush, the debate and fundamentalism

I must admit that watching the debate between Bush and Kerry confused me a bit. I was struck by both performances. The press accounts seem to concur that Kerry won and gained more from the debate because he suddenly appeared comfortable, concise and presidential. I was mesmerised, in a kind of perverse fascination by, Bush.

He appeared flustered and irritated at times, for sure, but his direct, strong, simple appeal and absolute confidence was remarkable. He shone in his “We will win” and his “I’m gonna get ‘em” moments. It took me back to some remarks by Steve Almond in his KtB feature, The Gospel According to Dubya.

I understand that the events of 9/11 scared our citizens; that we need to protect ourselves, and oppose terrorism. These are, frankly, truisms. What Bush has done is to use 9/11 to mobilize our worst impulses. This was most vividly illustrated in the response of the convention crowd. At any mention of the war in Iraq, they began to boom, U.S.A.! U.S.A.! But the war in Iraq, any war, is not an occasion for celebration. It is an occasion for profound sorrow, an abject failure of humanity.

The public fear instilled by 9/11 (along with the endless terror alerts) has allowed Bush to ignore the most noble of Christ’s teachings, the pleas for mercy and tolerance, and to indulge instead in prophetic grievance. In opposing Islamic fundamentalism, Bush has relied on his own brand of fundamentalism. He has rendered the moral chaos of the world in black and white.

Many find this comforting. It spares us from having to consider why terrorists target us, and how our policies might actually foment hatred. It allows us to believe that affixing a bumper sticker to an SUV is an act of patriotism, or to feel that we are we are receiving the Good News by watching Christ’s life reduced to a slow-motion snuff film.

The crowds that were shouting their indiscriminate approval at the convention were obviously party faithful and the audience that Bush needed to pitch to in the debate had to extend beyond this group. While the faithful’s vision is channelled through Republican or Christian ideology, I suspect there is a broader secular, unaffiliated group to whom this rhetoric also plays well.

Fundamentalism and an apocalyptic viewpoint may be most prevalent amongst born-again Christians and neocon-hawks but I suspect one of the new elements in the political landscape post 9/11 is the growth of a kind of fear based secular fundamentalism.

New doco extols Bush’s faith

Arts > Frank Rich: Now on DVD: The Passion of the Bush” href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/03/arts/03rich.html?oref=login”>Review in today’s Time’s of an extraordinary new doco about Bush’s faith. Produced by pro-Bush forces it is to be released on DVD this week to go up against the DVD version of Farenheit 9/11. As the Time’s Frank Rich notes, its narrative isn’t subtle:

“Will George W. Bush be allowed to finish the battle against the forces of evil that threaten our very existence?” Such is the portentous question posed at the film’s conclusion by its narrator, the religious broadcaster Janet Parshall, beloved by some for her ecumenical generosity in inviting Jews for Jesus onto her radio show during the High Holidays. Anyone who stands in the way of Mr. Bush completing his godly battle, of course, is a heretic. Facts on the ground in Iraq don’t matter. Rational arguments mustered in presidential debates don’t matter. Logic of any kind is a nonstarter. The president – who after 9/11 called the war on terrorism a “crusade,” until protests forced the White House to backpedal – is divine. He may not hear “voices” instructing him on policy, testifies Stephen Mansfield, the author of one of the movie’s source texts, “The Faith of George W. Bush,” but he does act on “promptings” from God. “I think we went into Iraq not so much because there were weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Mansfield has explained elsewhere, “but because Bush had concluded that Saddam Hussein was an evildoer” in the battle “between good and evil.” So why didn’t we go into those other countries in the axis of evil, North Korea or Iran? Never mind. To ask such questions is to be against God and “with the terrorists.”

Rich points out how the Bush brand of Christian apocalypticism ties in with other cultural products and produces a niche or base for Bush to operate from:

It’s not just Mr. Bush’s self-deification that separates him from the likes of Lincoln, however; it’s his chosen fashion of Christianity. The president didn’t revive the word “crusade” idly in the fall of 2001. His view of faith as a Manichaean scheme of blacks and whites to be acted out in a perpetual war against evil is synergistic with the violent poetics of the best-selling “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and Mel Gibson’s cinematic bloodfest. The majority of Christian Americans may not agree with this apocalyptic worldview, but there’s a big market for it. A Newsweek poll shows that 17 percent of Americans expect the world to end in their lifetime. To Karl Rove and company, that 17 percent is otherwise known as “the base.”

And this is a tactical faith, which produces very subtle strategies of inclusion and exclusion, public announcements and backdoor politics:

The pandering to that base has become familiar in countless administration policies, starting with its antipathy to stem-cell research, abortion, condoms for H.I.V. prevention and gay civil rights. But ever since Mr. Bush’s genuflection to Bob Jones University threatened to shoo away moderates in 2000, the Rove ruse is to try to keep the most militant and sectarian tactics of the Bush religious program under the radar. (Mr. Rove even tried to deny that the wooden lectern at the Republican convention was a pulpit embedded with a cross, as if a nation of eyewitnesses could all be mistaken.) The re-election juggernaut has not only rounded up the membership rosters of churches en masse but quietly mounted official Web sites like kerrywrongforcatholics.com as well. (Evangelicals and Mormons have their own Web variants on this same theme, but not the Jews, who are apparently getting in Kerry just what they deserve.) Even the contraband C-word is being revived out of sight of most of the press: Marc Racicot, the Bush-Cheney campaign chairman, lobbed a direct-mail fund-raising letter in March describing Mr. Bush as “leading a global crusade against terrorism.”

Great article. Frightening film.

The Son of Reagan

Another interesting item regarding the symbolic politics of interlocking presidential legacies. AlterNet reports that “an emergency team of former Reagan aides has swooped in during these last months of the re-election campaign to help recast George Bush as the true heir of the Gipper”.

To the glee of his political handlers and supporters in the right wing media – the Reagan-izers – Son of Bush is well on his way to reinventing himself as Son of Reagan, just in time for Election Day.

On the last night of the Republican convention, it was clear that W. had finally caught on to one of “Great Communicator’s” best tricks, reading a speech with emotion, if not always comprehension. There was a newfound pathos in his voice, and a new sincerity in the eye. To complete the picture of Reaganesque mystique, a wife emerged at the end in a bright red suit to gaze at him in silent adoration. The only thing missing was the Gipper’s slicked back do, all Grecian formula and hair oil.

Though revved up in this election year, the process of Reaganizing Bush has been long and ongoing, harking back to 1999 when he bought the ranch in Crawford. W. needed the ranch not just to kick back (he could do that just as well in Kennebunkport), but to have the right backdrop for his upcoming political cameos in the 2000 presidential election.