Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Boy in the Bubble

The Lynch Mob Meme 4

The Boy in the Bubble: George W. Bush

Many Americans, even his political adversaries, in their misguided niceness, have been much too kind to George W. Bush. They have regarded him as a sincere, regular guy, probably a good guy to play golf with. And it is of course axiomatic that millions of ordinary, decent, Americans, especially those of the white working class, regard W. as a straight-shooter, an all-too-human good fellow, with, like themselves, a reliably commonsensical mind unclouded by the dizzying sophistries of science or culture. Perhaps W. has some unsavory episodes in his past (Who doesn’t?), but he’s pretty much sorta owned up to these, and besides who wants to hear anyone go on about such stuff like some Recovering something or other on Oprah.

George W. Bush, with a lot of input from his handlers, has carefully cultivated this image of regular guy, most effectively by posing with the accessories of American guyness, the shotguns, fishing tackle, golf clubs, brush cutters, and an aircraft carrier. But Bush is no more a regular guy than are the Ralph Lauren models who help their boss conjure a High-Wasp (though somehow also multicultural) world of wealth, ease and sport in the pages of the slickest magazines. Indeed, there is a strange overlap between Lauren-land and the world Bush seems to inhabit; in both, the leisure and discretionary income never seem devoted to anything at all intellectual or cultural, as they would, in fact, often be in the better neighborhoods of England and New England. Bizarrely like the Laurentian stills come to life, the Bush family, as a whole, sometimes seems an odd experiment in elevation of the irredeemably déclassé, something like the Clampetts of Kennebunkport – although, in fairness, the Clampetts still had an endearing capacity for curiosity and wonder. Transparent as W’s pose is, the reporters for years dutifully “report,” that Bush is a straight-shooting cowboy, albeit a “blueblooded” one. And many American regular guys and gals take this as Truth. They believe in W. (naively, slightly desperately) as tots believe in Santa Claus, as Michael Jackson’s fans believe he is a gentle, misunderstood soul.

But George Bush is not and never has been a nice enough guy to play golf with. He is, in his own projective words, "a major-league asshole.” To put it in regular guy terms: He’s the kind of guy whose big, stupid mouth gets his buddies in a fight, from which he then runs away. He’s the kind of guy who writes a check to the poker pot – and stops payment in the morning. The kind of guy who gets you to invest the kids’ college fund in a sure thing, which then goes belly up, as he may explain to you with a shrug in the TV room of his new, entirely unattachable mansion. He’s the kind of guy who used to stun the clubhouse with jokes too purely (and so unfunnily) racist, misogynist or coprophiliac, but now also stuns them with his simpleminded born-again pieties. Given his background, all this is not surprising.

Although, revealingly, Bush’s people ran his presidential campaign on the “character issue,” (that is, against the flawed characters of the philandering Bill Clinton and “prevaricating” Al Gore), promising to restore “integrity” and “accountability” to the White House, we should wonder where Bush’s admirers thought his putative character had come from. The sages of the editorial pages are quick to pontificate, when some black athlete misbehaves, about how the jock's pampered upbringing has spoiled his character development, but somehow they can't export that pyschological insight to a white, ex-cheerleader's case.

Bush himself assumes that he just has character through birthright, like his admission to Yale and his tap for Skull and Bones. But most of us usually, even reflexively, assume that character comes from life-experience of a particular kind: hardship endured, challenge mastered, adversity overcome, especially through action based in sound values. George W. Bush has no real claim to any such life experience. It should be apparent to anyone who pays the slightest attention to Bush’s biography, that he has been insulated to his detriment from virtually all life’s hard knocks, by his family’s wealth and his father’s power, and his own cunning at shifting blame. Although George W. Bush was academically oblivious, used illegal drugs, drank often to excess, was AWOL from his reserve duty, incompetent on his every job, unethically exploitive and even larcenous in his performance at Carlyle Group, Harken Energy, and the Texas Rangers, he has never been held accountable for any of these lapses. They have been utterly without consequence. He is history’s quintessential example of “social promotion.” Despite his repeated and obvious omissions, inadequacies and offenses, George W. Bush has failed spectacularly upward his entire life. He has been insulated from all, as artificially as a boy in a bubble is from contagion. Bush’s life of total immunity from consequences has produced no character whatsoever. Aeschylus tells us that wisdom comes from suffering; Bush has suffered virtually nothing, and it shows.

Some will point to George Bush’s success as evidence that he does, despite the empirical and commonsensical improbability, embody some miraculous, ex nihilo leadership quality, some initiative, some character – but the exact opposite is true. Bush’s utter lack of demonstrable principle, curiosity, insight or courage have fitted him eminently to purposes of cunning and powerful people, and they have seen to it he rose to positions of maximum usefulness to themselves. (You can almost hear Ken Lay and cronies cackling behind the curtain: ‘Junior’s perfect: no ideas. Tell him what to think and he’ll think he thought it up! ’) He is the useful dupe of that criminal overclass which arose in our society when privilege was at last utterly and finally divorced from any sense of noblesse oblige.

George W. Bush is stupid, crafty at times, but fundamentally stupid. Assuming it was George W. and not a ringer who took the test, he is surprisingly stupid, since he got a 1206 on his S.A.T., not the score of an illiterate. And at one time he was reportedly able, if apparently quite reluctant, to fly a plane in the reserves, so he must have had some presence of mind. But W. doesn’t seem to have smartened up at all since those days; quite the contrary. He may not always have been so stupid, but intellect is not an abstract potentiality, residing immutable, in an eternal Platonic soul. Intellect is very much like a muscle, when not exercised it atrophies. And George Bush has not challenged his intellect for decades, if ever he did. During his gubernatorial years he reportedly spent several hours of every working day playing video games, possibly the least enlightening diversion ever devised. And W’s not really a sportsman or a craftsman, so he doesn’t seem to be habitually involved with the physical world in any grounding or enlightening way. And there is no evidence whatsoever, despite Yale and Harvard degrees, that W. is acquainted with even middlebrow culture, no evidence he reads anything for pleasure (or for that matter, reads anything except the teleprompter in the line of duty), no evidence he listens to any but the most banal music or even sees any edgy movies. The Osbornes is reportedly W.’s cultural speed. Doubtless he feels reassured by his superiority over at least one rich fellow whose intellectual atrophy is more obvious even than his own. George Bush’s relationship to the English language, and to ideas of any sort, suggests very strongly that the last thing he learned at school was how to cheat. Moreover, this apparently happened at a depressingly early age – before the vocabulary test that included “nuclear” and “malfeasance.” It hardly helps now, that his sycophantic subordinates and mainstream pundits declare things like ‘the President made a good speech’ and ‘the President showed strong leadership’ with such bizarre and suspicious frequency. The effect on W. has been like that of Bruce Willis’ posse telling the movie star he can also sing.

Back during the 2000 campaign Americans were told that Bush might not have conventional intelligence (even Ken Lay didn’t have the money to put enough lipstick on that pig) but that he had “emotional intelligence.” Apparently then, W’s is a whole new class of intelligence, a kind that doesn’t require study, thought, discipline, or experience of the normal world, and which is definitely unavailable to testing. (It’s revealing and curious that W. is such a tireless advocate of testing kids in school. It invites the obvious question: how would he do on those tests?) Some have less approvingly noted that Bush gets notably more articulate when feeling cruel. He may not be smart, but he’s an adequate smart-ass; what wattage he’s got will quickly focus in service of his mean streak. So maybe there is something to this “emotional intelligence” thing, if by it they mean the peculiar sociopathic knack of schoolyard thugs for finding, as they turn their loser’s self-loathing back on the world, the clear insecurities of their invariably defenseless victims (‘Fatso! Nigger! Faggot!’). This seems to be exactly the sort of intelligence George W. Bush displayed for Tucker Carlson, when as Governor of Texas, he so wittily burlesqued a woman who was pleading to have her death sentence commuted to life without parole (and in Christian contrition). The then-Governor answered the plea unofficially, smirking and putting on a mocking falsetto, “Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me!”

To those who claim Bush really is intelligent (though perhaps unschooled and incurious) I offer the wisdom of another George, George Eliot, who recognized the type, the turn of mind, and gave it the character in Middlemarch, of Raffles, a boozing blowhard and opportunist, an itinerant grifter. Of him Eliot says, ‘… if the cunning which calculates on the meanest feelings in men could be called intellect, he had his share, for under the blurting rallying tone in which he spoke, there was an evident selection of statements, as if they had been so many moves at chess.’ (To be continued.)