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Filling a suit isn't enough any more

Published November 9, 2003

There is an old Brady Bunch episode in which Greg is plucked out of obscurity by a talent scout who says she is going to make him a rock star. It turns out his singing ability didn't attract her - a production studio would make Greg's voice sound however she wanted - but he had the right physique for the glittering costume.

This is how George Bush got to be president. He was the perfect front man for the corporate interests and right-wing ideologues who were looking for a guy who was both electable and malleable.

Like Greg, he fit the suit.

While it is true that candidate Bush with his "gentleman's C's" suffered from a lack of depth - the man had a startling lack of interest in geopolitics - the oligarchs knew that in the age of sound bites you don't need the ability to explicate at length. The mileage one could get from the meaningless phrase "compassionate conservative" would be worth a wall full of well-digested books by Benjamin Barber, Thomas Friedman and Francis Fukuyama.

Moreover, what Bush had was far more valuable: a gold-card pedigree, giving him nationwide credibility, an outside-the-Beltway Marshal Matt Dillon affectation and, it seemed initially at least, the ability to hide his fierce conservatism within a common touch.

But as the war in Iraq continues to go badly, sending back news of a daily casualty count, Bush's common-touch artifice is beginning to wear thinner than the backside of his Crawford jeans. Showing through is the real Bush, his swaggering arrogance, unidimensional understanding of issues, congenital lack of sympathy and intense pique at challenging questions.

When Bush was asked at a recent news conference whether he could promise that there will be fewer American troops in Iraq in a year, he refused to answer, calling it a "trick question." Bush has no oratorical powers to justify his policies and treats anyone who asks him to do so as his enemy.

Last Sunday, when a missile downed a Chinook helicopter in the deadliest assault on American troops since the Iraqi invasion began in March, Bush declined to comment. He made no public appearance that day, nor did he issue a statement expressing his shared grief with the families. It was explained that the president was taking a "down" day at his ranch in Texas, between campaign appearances. Only the next day, did he refer to the incident obliquely, saying, "We mourn every loss."

The White House has adopted a determined strategy of keeping Bush from being connected to the messy parts of the war. This is a Vietnam lesson misunderstood. The Bush people apparently believe it was the pictures of body bags - not the fact of them - that caused public opinion to shift on the war. But the out-of-sight tactic is showing the commander in chief as callous and indifferent to our deployed soldiers and their stateside families.

Unlike Presidents Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, who all attended memorial ceremonies for troops killed in overseas terrorist attacks, Bush II declines to be present at services for soldiers who have died in Iraq. The pictures wouldn't be helpful.

This tight control over news includes renewed enforcement of a policy closing the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and the air base at Ramstein, Germany, to reporters and cameras when the caskets arrive; and a refusal to give daily accounts of soldiers wounded in clashes where there are no fatalities.

Haven't you noticed how sanitized this war has been? We have seen no pictures of our men and women returning with limbs gone and other disfigurements. The wounded are kept cloistered at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and at Fort Stewart, Ga.

What has been available to the press are identical letters sent to hometown newspapers under the signatures of soldiers speaking in glowing terms about how the war effort is going. Some of the troops apparently had no idea that a letter to the editor had been sent out in their name.

Despite this manipulation, the polls show that the public is growing restive. Bush's distance is looking less presidential and more bumbling; and the oligarchs are getting nervous. They desperately want Bush around another term for more tax breaks, environmental giveaways, federal judges who will ignore the Constitution, and privatization of government. But they might have chosen the wrong titular head. Bush doesn't have the capacity to speak persuasively to the public about anything, never mind the war he and the neocons around him started - a failing that might prove his downfall. When the best Bush can come up with in response to the guerrilla tactics killing American troops by the dozens is "Bring 'em on!" it is clear he lacks any deftness.

As we enter the election year, that suit is starting to hang.

[Last modified November 9, 2003, 01:34:53]

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