Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Lazy writers' crutch alert, but when people look at American democracy, they often express amazement that someone as incompetent and supposedly dumb as George W. Bush could be elected President. When people look at democracy in general, they express surprise that the two most venerable democracies in the world could elect leaders who both thought it was a good idea to invade Iraq. And sometimes this gets blamed on the media, or various elites, or stolen elections and family dynasties in the case of Bush. But the reality is, our system, or the British system, just isn't set up to elect people who are good at governing the nation or developing wise policies. It's set up to elect talented politicians. And we really do a stellar job at it. If you conceive of presidential politics as a sort of NCAA tournament of gifted bullshit artists, where the guy who's better at pushing his bullshit advances, you begin to get a handle on what American democracy really is. Of course, the state of the economy plays a huge role in elections, probably determines most. But even so, this plays out on the bullshit level. It's a lot easier to bullshit about the other party's economy than to, as President, bullshit about why the bad economy's not your fault. So though the economy (and popular/unpopular wars) may be the real causal factor behind electoral outcome, the best bullshitter at any given moment will still almost always win.

To give some examples before I turn to Bush, Jimmy Carter, though we forget it today, was an unbelievably talented politician. A basically unheard of and unpopular one-term Governor of Georgia, he defeated a slew of better-known candidates in the primaries on an incredibly vague platform of change, hope, character, American heartland values, and Washington outsiderism, and then proceeded to knock off the sitting President. Once in office, he proved to be fairly incompetent, but still fended off a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy, who knew vastly more about getting shit done in Washington but much, much less about winning an election. Then, unfortunately, he ran into the most gifted bullshitter of the post-war era in the general election. And that was the end of Carter.

Another example - John McCain, a man who knew absolutely nothing about domestic policy and whose foreign policy instincts were like something out of Dr. Strangelove, was such a fine bullshitter in his day, with his promises of straight talk and sappy ghostwritten memoirs about his admiral father and grandfather, that he nearly up-ended Bush's infinitely better-funded and better-ran campaign in the 2000 primaries. After that, he was, for eight years, probably America's most popular politician. Even David Foster Wallace loved the guy. In 2008, after internal struggles within his operation threatened to torpedo his campaign, he knocked off Rudy Giuliani - 9/11 folk hero, America's Mayor - and Mitt Romney with ease - Mitt Romney, who in his own right is such a talented politician that he managed to get elected Governor in Massachusetts. But then he met Obama, and, like a Federer-Roddick match, the guy with mere one-in-a-million gifts went down to the finest talent of his generation.

The abilities of either man to govern, of course, weren't tested in this match at all; note that, prior to Obama's becoming President, neither had ran anything in their lifetime, and that neither ever passed much significant legislation. Our elections aren't about ability to govern because actual administrative competence is something that would actually take work and research on the part of the voter to assess. Even if voters have the time - many of us watch tons of political news coverage - looking at candidates' actual track records is too boring for many voters to do or for many media outlets to do. Therefore, even politicians who have competence don't campaign on the basis of it. The illusion of competence, on the other hand - an appearance of strength, of decisiveness, of a superficial knowledge of the issues - is something that a politician either succeeds or fails at projecting in a matter of mere seconds, and is terribly crucial.

Getting to Bush, then, Bush got elected because he was a phenomenally gifted politician, one who was able to, for however brief a time, re-brand conservatism in much more appealing terms than those in which the middle of the electorate had perceived it for a decade. At the same time he was also able, and don't underestimate the difficulty of this, unify the conservative base like nobody had been able to do since Reagan. A hard task by itself, but even harder when you're simultaneously winning moderates' votes. He managed to stay in office even though he already had been revealed, by 2004, to be an incompetent President. Some excerpts from a Bush speechwriter's memoir came out today, and it's startling to be reminded in the same piece of how the same man managed to be such a political genius and such an administrative fool.

On the one hand, we learn that our President signed onto the initial bailout even though he had no idea how it worked. That he was excited about the bailout because he thought it would "go [down] in [history] as a big decision." (To which, we're told, some pathetic hanger-on replied, "Definitely, Mr. President. This is a large decision.") That he imagined that we'd be buying up cheap assets and selling them for great profits. And that when he was told that wasn't how the bailout worked,

the president was momentarily speechless. He threw up his hands in frustration.

“Why did I sign on to this proposal if I don’t understand what it does?” he asked.

Then, after finding out how it did work, he went ahead and gave the same speech he was planning to give in the first place.

On the other hand, we learn that while most of the media and certainly the entire Republican Party was celebrating Palin's choice as a game-changer, Bush had the acuity, several days after her choice, to correctly and quite articulately prophesy that she would be a huge bust:

“I’m trying to remember if I’ve met her before. I’m sure I must have.” His eyes twinkled, then he asked, “What is she, the governor of Guam?”

Everyone in the room seemed to look at him in horror, their mouths agape. When Ed told him that conservatives were greeting the choice enthusiastically, he replied, “Look, I’m a team player, I’m on board.” He thought about it for a minute. “She’s interesting,” he said again. “You know, just wait a few days until the bloom is off the rose.” Then he made a very smart assessment.

“This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. “She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.” It was a rare dose of reality in a White House that liked to believe every decision was great, every Republican was a genius, and McCain was the hope of the world because, well, because he chose to be a member of our party.

There's also a rather poignant bit (if you're capable of feeling sorry for George W. Bush) where Bush is supposed to do a rally with McCain in Arizona to show that they don't hate each other, and then the thing gets closed to the press, prompting Bush to ask why it's closed to the press if the point is to show people that they don't hate each other. It turns out that the event is closed because McCain's staff is a bunch of fuck-ups, causing Bush, who probably presided over the best-ran presidential campaigns in our nation's history, to despair:

Eventually, someone informed the president that the reason the event was closed was that McCain was having trouble getting a crowd. Bush was incredulous—and to the point. “He can’t get 500 people to show up for an event in his hometown?” he asked. No one said anything, and we went on to another topic. But the president couldn’t let the matter drop. “He couldn’t get 500 people? I could get that many people to turn out in Crawford.” He shook his head. “This is a five-spiral crash, boys.”

We tried to move on to something else. But the president wouldn’t let go. He was stuck on the Phoenix event. At one point, he looked off into space and said to no one in particular, “What is this—a cruel hoax?”

Sad in a few ways, not least of which is the fact that too often Bush's presidency felt like a cruel hoax. Unfortunately, it's one of the tragedies of our political system that it not only allows for, but encourages the election of men with such huge disparities between their political skills and their abilities to govern.

1 comment:

Badmon3333 said...

That's the Bush I wish we'd have seen in ANY of those eight years: making realistic assessments. Too bad he couldn't have devoted a little more that acumen to his presidency.