Part Four: Jesus Told Him Where to Bomb
Get George Bush in front of a bunch of preachers and his tongue tends to loosen up a bit and occasionally some luminous black pearls spill out. Shortly after the Supremes invested him with the presidency, Bush confided to the Reverend Jim Wallis, head of the Call of Renewal coven of churches, the following: “I don’t understand how poor people think.”
This presidential gem, worthy of Antoinette herself, neatly mirrors a statement made during the darkest trench of the recession by Bush’s director of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson, who deflected criticism of the Bush economic disaster by pronouncing that “being poor is a state of mind, not a condition.”
Jackson’s coarse declaration reflects a kind of economic phenomenology that might even give Milton Friedman the willies. Naturally, Bush doesn’t know the difference between phenomenology and proctology, but he keenly intuits its essential meaning: The suffering of the poor is entirely self-inflicted. They simply lack faith. And the circle of blow-dried Cotton Mathers the president surrounds himself with sanction his cold sense of compassion. Blaming the victim is not only a political device; it’s infused with ecclesiastical authority. The downtrodden must be blamed for their own good.
Bush presided over the loss of more than 2 million jobs, the cruelest blow to working people since the Great Depression. Not his fault. Homeless and poverty rates have soared as a result and thanks to Clinton when this recession hit the social safety net of welfare and food stamps had already been sheared away. Not Bush’s responsibility. The mounting piles of corpses in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others are to blame.
Here you have the prime virtue of being a born-again politician: automatic absolution from responsibility for inflicting even more deprivations on the weakest in society. (For more on Bush and the fundamentalists I highly recommend David Domke’s excellent new book, God Willing: Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the ‘War on Terror’ and the Echoing Press.)
All of this feeds Bush’s stunted capacity for human empathy. His joking about executions. His refusal to comfort the families of the slain in Iraq and Afghanistan. His imperviousness to the plight of the poor. How else can you explain his bizarre remarks at a White House Christmas party in 2001 made in front of Billy Graham and other guardians of the faith. “All in all, 2001 has been a fabulous year for Laura and me,” Bush gushed, even though the ruins of the Twin Towers were still warm to the touch and cruise missiles were cratering hovels in Kandahar.
In the spring of 2001, Bush invited a flock of religious leaders to the White House for tea and a prayer session. The president soon strayed from his prepared script. “I had a drinking problem,” he confessed during the gathering. “Right now, I should be in a bar. Not the Oval Office.” There’s no record of any objection being lodged.
Of course, perhaps the pastors of doom and damnation sensed that the cure had not entirely taken hold. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that Bush continues to nip at the bottle every once in a while-and it’s almost certainly good for the country and the world that he does imbibe. An Austin musician told us of a night in the mid-1990s, a decade after Bush went on the wagon, when he hustled into the bathroom of a bar between sets only to find the Governor face down on the less than spic-and-span floor, mumbling inanities. It was an episode of foreshadowing worthy of O. Henry, for years later Bush would be similarly felled on the floor of the Oval Office by a renegade pretzel.
Some presidents need a blowjob to unwind; others just crave some blow. Save an Iraqi child; get George high.
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Some leaders of state have a hotline to other bigwigs. Like an Old Testament king, George Bush gets operational faxes straight from the Supreme Deity. “God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East,” he told Abu Abbas, the former Palestinian Prime Minister. “If you can help me, I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them.”
He is surrounded by Christian soldiers, the real coalition of the willing. One of them, Gen. Jerry Boykin, proclaimed that God put Bush in office –apparently Jim Baker was merely an unwitting instrument of the Supreme Deity. Boykin also fumed that God had told him that followers of Islam where heathens and it was his duty to smite them. This is the same brand of bracing biblical exegesis that marked the Fifth Monarchists of puritan England, who believed they could hasten the Apocalypse by firing off their blunderbusses in unison inside the Houses of Parliament. Praise the lord and program the cruise missiles.
Bush’s wash-and-wear fundamentalism has revved up liberals into a frenzied panic. But aside from Boykin and Ashcroft, Bush hasn’t surrounded himself with that many more religious fanatics than Reagan or even Carter embedded into their ranks. After all, who is Bush’s guide to God? None other than, good old Billy Graham, the sky pilot for nearly every president since LBJ, who has absolved official villainy for more than 40 years. Is there a more stable fixture of the federal government than Graham? Alan Greenspan is a mere piker compared to Billy G.
When Bush talks religion, it’s a surefire sign that’s he’s in trouble. His public utterances of piety serve as a distress call to the stalwarts, the base that never wavers. Hence the fervid imprecations against gay marriage issued in Bush’s darkest hour.
Bush’s stop-and-go pursuit of a religious agenda has been perfunctory at best, backfiring deliriously more often than not. Indeed, John DiIulio, the arch zealot in the Bush inner circle, quit in a huff and denounced the administration as sellouts and frauds, more interested in Moab bombs and tax cuts than state-coerced conversions to Christ.
“There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus,” DiIulio told Ron Suskind, writing for Esquire. “What you’ve got is everything-and I mean everything-being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”
One of those Mayberry Machiavellians is John Ashcroft, the Savonarola of the Potomac. Ashcroft, the singing senator who lost his reelection to a dead man, is an unapologetic bigot, who launches weekly sorties against the Bill of Rights. (Apparently, no one informed Ashcroft that his raids on the Constitution are the equivilent of a saturation bombing strike on a Potemkin village– Madison’s carta of liberty having been hollowed out by more fiendish minds, long, long ago.) But the censorious Missourian, who sought and received three draft deferrments during the Vietnam war, rumbles on, rummaging through the private corners of our lives, like one of Moliere’s pious buffoons, draping the breasts of Lady Justice one day and condemning homosexuality as “a sin” the next. In The Bush Betrayal, the libertarian writer James Bovard’s pitiless dismantling of the Bush era, Bovard quips that the Persecutor General wants to “repeal 1776.”
Whether or not anyone has briefed the president to this fact remains unclear, but Ashcroft has become an oozing liability to the Bush crowd, ridiculed even by Republican ultras such as Bob Barr and Dick Armey and repudiated by federal judges in nearly every circuit. Ashcroft has overreached so far that he begins to make Ed Meese seem like Ramsey Clark.
There’s nothing spiritual about Ashcroft’s jihad and that’s why, ultimately, his vindictive crusade will flounder on its own rectitude and rigidity; he offers only persecution and purges, no transcendence. Frail Billy Graham could teach the Reverend Prosecutor a thing or two about how to con a congregation into compliance.
That’s not to say that the Patriot Act (and its odious offspring) doesn’t qualify as one of the spookiest legislative incursions on civil liberties since the McCarran Act. But Ashcroft can’t be saddled with all the blame for that inquisitorial bill. After all, he didn’t write it. He merely plucked it fully-formed from one of Janet Reno’s shelves, dusted it off and dumped it on a complicit Congress, which passed it nearly unanimously. Only Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin progressive, and Ron Paul, the Texas libertarian, spoke out as prophetic voices of dissent, warning that we were slipping into a culture of official suspicion and interrogation. And so it came to pass: warrantless searches and wiretaps, governments snoops in libraries, infiltration of dissident groups, immigrants rounded up and sent to detention camps without legal redress, prosecution of lawyers who work too sedulously in the defense their clients, and on and on. Paranoia as federal policy.
The maintenance of this creepy state of affairs depends on the mainlining of anxiety, inculcating an ever-tender sense of trauma in the psyche of the populace. Thus, the color-coded terror alerts, issued with the precision of a metronome. But here Bush faces his most puzzling problem: keeping the whole thing knotted up tight. Unless he, by some miraculous heresy, legalizes pot, there’s no way this condition of perpetual paranoia can be sustained. The republic is too diverse, too innately averse to prosecutorial probings (memo to K. Starr), too unwieldy and restless to be kept sedate under the looking glass for long before minor rebellions begin to erupt, sending out little fuck-yous to the system.
Bush began to lose ground in the winter of 2004: from Janet Jackson flashing her right tit at a scandalized Michael Powell to US soldiers refusing to serve in Iraq to John Dean calling for the impeachment of the president to the exposure of the Sadean circus at Abu Ghraib to the punch-drunk economy, seemingly face-down for the count. It had begun to unravel. By early summer, the once unsinkable Bush was listing, desperate for any life-ring in the sucking maelstrom.
Of course, that’s where the Democrats come in.
Part Five: The House Rules
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and, with Alexander Cockburn, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.