Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Friday, January 16, 2004  

Society creates its own working history on the fly. It sorts, accepting some facts, rejecting others. The way we regard our president is defined in large part by this self-creation. We accepted the notion that the President is a plainspoken everyman, but also that he's a little dim. The dim part was a later puzzle piece, added in only after the plainspoken fact ran up against the lying fact, which we've also grudgingly accepted.

But other possibly critical facts were dismissed. Outing Valerie Plame was a process too complex and too meanspirited to fit into the picture, so it was discarded. Bush has really tried to advance the "compassionate" label, but in truth, no one's buying. Americans may be stupid, we're just not that stupid. We know that Medicare and immigration reform and faith-based initiatives aren't really for the elderly, foreign, and poor--they're to get votes. But hey, he's a politician and we're cynical, so what the hell.

Into all of this comes the Paul O'Neill narrative. (Stories of which continue to pour out; for an inside look, check out Brad DeLong's blog, where he's reading and excerpting critical passages of the Suskind book.) Whether O'Neill's account will gain currency and become part of the Bush history is an interesting question. Unlike characterizations from the left--which Rove and FOX easily discredit--O'Neill is part of the inner circle. He isn't offering conjecture, either--he was there. And finally, his portrait isn't exactly at odds with the President we already know. Call it the shadow of the image we've created.

Most Presidents have a shadow, and the degree to which that shadow overwhelms the administration depends on interesting circumstances. Clinton's shadow came into Washington with him. But because the economy rallied while he was in office, Americans ignored it. Bush One's weakness was weakness, and his failure to capture Saddam, to hold the line on tax cuts, or to offer bold visions doomed him.

Dubya, on the other hand, was a complete cipher. He had no record, and so he had no baggage--good or bad. By the time he was approaching his first year, the image and the shadow had begun to emerge--and then circumstance intervened and he was saved by 9/11. Add to that the incredible control Bush's administration has maintained over his image (see "Fortress Bush" in this week's New Yorker), and his shadow has been as slight as one cast by the noon sun in Crawford.

The next two weeks will probably decide whether we accept or discard the image of Bush as seen in O'Neill's account. I have no sense of which direction it will go. Watching that play out will itself be an instructive exercise.

posted by Jeff | 8:30 AM |
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