Back when LBJ and then Richard Nixon were presidents, their nationally televised speeches were must-see events for me and millions of other folks opposed to their policies. Even when I was living in Germany during the early 1970s, I would stay up late and listen to Nixon making things perfectly clear over Armed Forces Network Radio. After all, one never knew what country he might be invading or–as the walls began to crumble because of Watergate–what outrageous things he might say or do. These speeches and press conferences were genuine theater.
Since Mr. Nixon gave that final wave from the White House lawn back in 1974, however, I have not been a regular viewer or listener of presidential speeches or conferences. When Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter sat in the Oval Office, I was just plain tired and cynical. Sure, I was politically active but that activity essentially ignored the halls of power, having realized that the personalities of Ford and Carter were not only less dynamic than Nixon and LBJ, they also seemed to have less to do with the way the country was going. By the time Ronnie Reagan moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it was clear that the guy in the White House was not a truly independent or even conscious individual. The president was just an actor on the payroll of the rich playing a part he barely understood and, as time went by and he remained in office, he could not even remember his lines.
Then came George Bush the Elder and Bill Clinton. Bush the Elder was such an obvious CIA plant that there was no point in listening to his lies on television. In fact, given his inability to form a correct sentence, it was much easier to understand his speeches by reading the version released to the press in the next day’s paper. As for Mr. Clinton, let me put it this way: the man was (and is) a clever speaker and his press conferences exhibited his great ability to think on his feet, as they say. However, this man not only spoke out of both sides of his mouth, he spoke untruths out of those two sides. And at the same time! Not being a person who likes to be lied to, I stopped watching his speeches and appearances long before he claimed that he didn’t have sex with “that woman.”
Now we are up to the present inhabitant of the White House–Bush the Younger. I have never watched or listened to an entire speech by this man. His inability to express himself is but one reason. Another is that face. I can’t decide if its a sneer or a grin, but I know I hate looking at it, especially when he’s talking about the death, poverty, repression, and hatred that hallmark his administration. So, I was a bit surprised to find myself anticipating Bush the Younger’s speech the night of December 18, 2005. I kept getting flashbacks to Richard Nixon’s April 30, 1970 speech where he announced the incursion (this is not an invasion, he insisted) into Cambodia. Hoping against hope that this speech would not be akin to that one, but would be instead another propaganda exercise attempting to once again sell the war in Iraq to the people of the United States, I turned the TV on.
As I waited around doing various household and pre-holiday chores, one of the things I was thinking about was the recent announcement by one of the national organizations in today’s antiwar movement-United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). In essence, the leadership of this huge organization representing several hundred smaller antiwar groups just disassociated itself (again) from working with the other national group that has organized most of the national antiwar protests of the last five years–ANSWER. While this split is not necessarily a bad thing and is probably irrelevant to many folks opposed to the US war on the world, the underlying politics of the split are disturbingly reminiscent of that period when LBJ and Nixon used to give those speeches. The reasoning provided by the UFPJ leadership for its announcement was that they wanted to continue reaching the largest numbers of people. In their minds, this means that the antiwar movement must slip backwards into the fold of the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party (an oxymoron for sure).
In short, the leadership of UFPJ seems to be convinced that the Democratic Party is going to quickly withdraw US troops and allow the Iraqis to have their country back on the Iraqis own terms. Or, even worse, perhaps this leadership agrees with what appears to be the Democratic true party line–the troops should only come home when the US-installed Iraqi government can hold its own and do more or less what Washington wants it to do. This is the sovereignty that George Bush and most of Congress wants for Iraq–how can it be what a movement opposed to that war and occupation wants?
Maybe the rationale the UFPJ leadership is using has something to do with the recent ABC poll that showed 57% of those polled want to the US military to stay in Iraq until the country is “stabilized.” Of course, the poll also showed (and this is what the antiwar movement should be looking at) that 36% of those polled want an immediate withdrawal. Furthermore, the numbers favoring staying until the job is done have dropped 15% since the same poll was conducted about twelve months ago. This is substantial progress for the antiwar movement and should be built on. According to contacts in contact with the UFPJ national office, the rightward trend in the UFPJ leadership seems to be propelled by a perception that the US working class is too reactionary to go along with some of ANSWER’s more “leftist” demands. You know, like civil liberties, Palestinian rights, Arab and Muslim rights, etc. Now, as someone who used to work with a left organization that saw the US working class in a similar manner and then tailored its program to that perception (which is when they lost me), let me state that this is a mistake. It is the job of the antiwar movement to make the world a more tolerant place so that people can not be led into wars as easily. As long as any element of the antiwar movement hitches itself to either party of the Empire, they will negate their raison d’etre. Furthermore, as long as any antiwar organization ignores a substantial part of the population they want to organize, that organization will be ineffectual at best, and destructive of the entire movement at worst. The working people in the US and around the world are not any single hue, religion, ethnicity or gender. They are as capable of seeing beyond the propaganda of the warfare state as any antiwar organizer. It is our job to realize this and work with that as a starting point. Liberals who are afraid to take a stand on issues like the Palestinian right to a homeland or the dismantling of the US torture chambers around the world should not be leading an antiwar movement.
Anyhow, with all that in mind, I sat down to watch the speech.
Welcome to Bushworld
That smirk (or grin or whatever it is) that I referred to earlier is still there. Even as Bush the Younger talked about the sacrifices made and the sacrifices to come, it was there. Perhaps because he knows that it won’t be his family or the families of any of his friends who will be making those sacrifices if he can help it. It never went away the entire speech. Talking about terrorism-smirk. Talking about democracy–smirk. Talking about those who oppose the war–smirk. Quoting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–smirk.
The speech itself was a broadcast from Bushworld. The current occupant of the White House described the paranoiac nightmare he lives in. This is a world where all the enemies of US capitalism are part of a giant terrorist conspiracy to take away the riches that he believes his family worked so hard for. It is a world where those who don’t want to draw the enemies of his country on a hill into a fight are no better than the enemies themselves. In Bushworld, the only way to get rid of the terrorists is to bully them into a fight in order to destroy them. Of course, even the leader of Bushworld knows that by doing so he will create enemies of the terrorists’ families. Which means, of course, that the armies of Bushworld must fight and kill them as well.
In Bushworld, it doesn’t matter if the facts don’t match this perception, because in Bushworld, that perception is reality. If it isn’t yet, the policy of “Bring ’em on” will make it so. Bushworld doesn’t want the facts, only a reason, no matter how flimsy, to kill its ever growing list of enemies. The world really is out to get the citizens of Bushworld and none of them can figure out why because the citizens of Bushworld are blameless in their own minds.
The speech contained nothing new. It was a public relations exercise in the style of Ronald Reagan delivered by a man who can’t even contrive the false sincerity that Reagan exuded like a sewer plant exudes methane gas. In a Clintonesque twist, Bush the Younger pretended to reach out to his opponents in the opposition party, asking them to forget their arguments against his bloodthirsty attempt at conquest and accept that they too are in danger and must accept nothing but the total destruction of Bushworld’s enemies and the installation of Bushworld kingdoms around the world. Chances are, this appeal will reach some of these supposed opponents and the president’s poll numbers will show a slight jump. Holiday good will will allow those US residents who aren’t sacrificing a damn thing in this war to give the smirking leader guy another chance. At least until tax time, when only the wealthy will smile.
The most revealing part of the entire speech was the end, when Bush the Younger quoted the US poet Longfellow.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!”
Mr. Longfellow wrote these words in December 1863, in the middle of the War Between the States. He had just learned that his son, a Union soldier, had been seriously wounded in battle. Heavy with sorrow that had accumulated since his wife’s death in 1861 and become greater as the US Civil War exacted a greater and greater toll in human life and the destruction of civil society, Longfellow wrote the poem “Bells on Christmas Day.” It is a poem that wreaks of despair more than hope. Bush’s use of it contradicts Longfellow’s abolitionist sympathies and celebration of the universalist aspects of early US history. In that respect, it’s like Reagan’s misinterpretation of Springsteen’s “Born In the USA.” The only difference is that Longfellow isn’t around to tell us what he really meant.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org