Tales from the Dark Incontinent

Some years ago, I was on a photo safari through East Africa for reasons that don’t concern you little people. This was back when photography involved rolls of actual film, so we were roughing it. Also, there was nothing but blended scotch back in camp. On one occasion (I would say one memorable occasion except I forgot all about it until just now) we decided to fly over the Maasai Mara in a hot-air balloon. Therein lies an extended metaphor.

For those of you that haven’t gone aloft in one of these contraptions, or played polo, for that matter, a hot-air balloon is an arrangement whereby a basket ­ an actual basket, made out of twigs ­ is suspended on strings beneath an enormous cloth bag. Betwixt the two is a burner that generates a tremendous amount of heat, straight up a hole in the bottom of the balloon. The bag, rather than bursting into flames as nature intended, fills up with hot air and begins to rise like an unconvincing marionette of Casper the Ghost. Before long (by glacial standards) the bag has become a balloon, and the basket, rope, sacks full of ballast, burner, fuel cylinders, pilot, tourists, liverwurst sandwiches and champagne all rise up into the air as if suspended in the atmosphere, which of course they are. Off we went in the pre-dawn stillness of that stirring primordial landscape, in a direction chosen entirely by the whim of the morning zephyr. You can’t steer a balloon.

This is what it’s like in Washington, DC. The Bush government (I don’t know what else to call it) spent quite a while after its appointment to office unable to get any hot air into the gas bag of state, which is pretty astounding when you consider that’s all they produce in Washington. They couldn’t achieve lift despite being gasmen. Then the grievous events of September 2001 occurred, and suddenly the balloon filled up as if inspired by some divine flatus. Off the neocons went, hooting with glee as they hacked away at the mooring ropes (rule of law, common decency, etc.) and drifted off in a completely random direction. All well and good. I can think of no more effective way to govern a superpower. However they made a bizarre series of mistakes, historic in proportions: first they announced in no uncertain terms that not only were they able to steer the balloon, they were steering it due rightwards. Then they claimed the wind would favor them forever. Their final mistake is the same one we made up in our basket over the vast smorgasbord of the Mara: imagining there’s an easy way down.

Back to Africa: there was some sort of problem with our balloon. I don’t recall the exact nature of the crisis, except we weren’t out of olives. Nothing serious, unless of course one chanced to be floating along at 40 miles per hour above the bone-strewn, lion-infested wilderness of trackless savannah 500 miles East of Nairobi, which we were. Luckily our pilot was a clear-headed bwana of the old school and knew what to do. He crashed the balloon. This isn’t a straight up-and-down proposition as it is with other types of aircraft. In a balloon, crashing requires several miles of broken terrain. Break it we did, the basket scraping over the grass and bushes like Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel, except scooping up gnu carcasses and juvenile honey badgers instead of dirt.

The Bush ballooning party is in the same sort of trouble. There’s no easy way down. They have, in no particular order, bankrupted the nation, mortgaged its future, enraged our enemies, increased their numbers, unbalanced the intricate mechanisms of culture and politics all around the world in much the same fashion as a rail hammer applied to a Jules Audemars mechanical watch, and finally jettisoned the self-same domestic freedoms they have lately claimed to be promoting abroad. Are they steering rightward? Not at all. They’re tacking between Libertarianism and Stalinism, which is more of a marching cadence, right-left-right-left. Are they steering at all? Not really. They just drift along aimlessly in whatever direction the wind blows, and boy, does it. But now the wind is turning, and it is blowing them astray (something similar happened to Bill Clinton).

My party survived its gassy-enveloped imbroglio unharmed. We crawled out of the basket, laughing and back-slapping, then found some lion-free trees to change our shorts behind. We knew we were at the mercy of hot air. The Bush administration thinks itself immune, but when the hot air stops working, everybody is in the same basket.