Bush vs. China, and himself

Our president is refreshingly steady, but dismayingly awkward. Plus: Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg insults the first lady and Rush comes to the rescue!

Published May 2, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Polls are up for President George W. Bush after his first 100 days in office, when he achieved notable success in forcing his campaign promise of a massive tax cut on reluctant Democrats. The new administration has already proved itself not to be the fascist disaster forecast last year by campaign ads that demonized Bush as a fat-cat, racist boob.

But despite the refreshing steadiness and lack of ostentation with which Bush is conducting his presidency, doubts linger about his preparation for the job. His conduct of foreign affairs has been at times dismayingly awkward. Reader mail about my mildly stated negative view of the administration's management of last month's China crisis was unprecedented in its virulence and one-sidedness: A majority of conservatives were apoplectic and irrationally, even misogynistically abusive while liberals, who strongly weighed in on cultural issues in the same column, were eerily silent about China. One can only conclude that the extreme right wing is infested with infantile personalities while American liberals, with their sentimental, nanny-state credo, are embarrassingly ill-prepared for the cruel complexities of geopolitics.

In a pressured overnight session one day after publicly resigning himself to a long wait, Bush signed off on an undignified, poorly written, sycophantish letter of apology to China for an accident that was no fault of the American military -- and we still don't have our reconnaissance plane back. What was the big rush, aside from domestic politics, to end the detention of the 24 crew members in China? They're all professionals, and while they were stringently interrogated, there was no evidence they were being mistreated. Making little visible effort to coordinate a response with our allies, the Bush administration seems to have sacrificed the nation's larger strategic interests for immediate political relief.

It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that Communist China is waiting for the optimal moment, in this decade or the next, to snatch back Taiwan, whose status as an independent nation it has never accepted. By hesitating, wavering, and then abruptly caving in to Beijing over the spy plane, the Bush administration may have signaled that the U.S. won't go to war over Taiwan -- a message further muddled by Bush's off-the-cuff remarks about the island last week, which seemed to indicate a change of established American policy but might just have been a slip of the tongue.

While it's true (as Salon readers have tartly observed) that my biases as a humanities professor may be showing, I still maintain that basic command of language -- not at all the same thing as eloquence -- should be a minimal requirement for the presidency. When, in his mid-afternoon formal statement after China agreed to release the crew, Bush simply read a prepared text and took no press questions whatever, he undercut his loyal staff's vigorous claims that he had been deeply involved in every aspect of the negotiations. It certainly looked as if he couldn't trust himself to phrase things right at a delicate moment.

In other matters, I was shocked at last week's news that Cmdr. Scott D. Waddle will not be court-martialed for the February collision of his attack submarine, the USS Greenville, with the Japanese trawler Ehime Maru with the loss of 9 lives. He received only a formal reprimand with forced retirement and full pension. One would have thought that Waddle's weepy, obnoxious confession to Time magazine (April 23) proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that his conceit and negligence as a supervisor led directly to the accident. As an admirer and defender of the military, I must say that the Pentagon's inept response to the Greeneville incident is cringe-making. It's silly for conservatives to go on blaming Bill Clinton's sloppy stewardship for this recent string of military embarrassments. There's a new administration in charge.

In gravelly debris from the last, unlamented regime, Sen. Hillary Clinton threw her first soiree at her $2.85 million mansion in Washington last week -- a fundraiser for another freshman senator, Maria Cantwell, with whom Hillary has evidently bonded. I savored press accounts of the discomfiture of the 125 curious guests ("mostly women," according to the Washington Post) as they were brusquely whizzed from the front door straight through the foyer to the backyard, where they milled about under a circus tent. Meanwhile prankish protesters (one in striped prison garb and a Bill Clinton mask smeared with lipstick) cavorted at the end of the street with signs reading "Disgraceland -- next left," "Count the silverware" and "Madame Hillary's house of ill-repute."

Two nights earlier, Hillary, clad in a gold, leopard-print, full-length evening gown designed by Oscar de la Renta (at whose villa in the Dominican Republic the Clintons had recently vacationed), was the beneficiary of an insult to first lady Laura Bush. The occasion was the swank, $3,500-a-seat gala opening in New York of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' clothing at the Costume Institute. Mrs. Bush wisely attended only the cocktail party and departed before Hillary's arrival for dinner, so presumably she did not hear honorary chairwoman Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg gratuitously hailing Hillary for having "interpreted the role of first lady for our times."

Only Rush Limbaugh hit back at Caroline with the force that she deserved. Listening to his radio show in my car on the way back from classes, I cheered loudly (as at a great football play) as Limbaugh in one of his trademark flights of Roman oratory unleashed zinger after zinger, climaxing in an electrifying indictment: Caroline, charged Limbaugh, was honoring Hillary for imitating the depressing example of her own mother, Jackie Kennedy, who "looked the other way" and allowed herself to be personally humiliated and the White House to be profaned by the adulterous antics of a crude philanderer.

I feel genuinely sorry for those who are so blinded by narrow partisanship that they cannot appreciate Limbaugh's energy, intelligence and satiric skill. They live in a box with bags over their heads. Though he and I hardly agree on politics (I voted for Ralph Nader last year and may go Green again in 2004), I respect Limbaugh as a political analyst and deft rhetorician who is a master of the microphone and who knows how to engage and challenge a vast audience.

In other news last week, I was delighted to hear that Mayor Rudy Giuliani, rightly derided for his "decency" panel to oversee the arts, has called for abolishing the New York City Board of Education on the grounds that it has irreparably failed to educate the city's students. This is exactly the kind of extreme tactic that may be necessary to reform American education at both the primary and secondary levels. Only a cutoff of funding will break the stranglehold of an education establishment interested more in social engineering than in learning.

The problems in contemporary college education were well illustrated by the blizzard of bumper stickers I recently saw on a car in downtown Philadelphia. Pasted to the back window were decals from Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; plastered on the rear bumper and trunk were these proclamations: "Friends don't let friends eat meat"; "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people"; "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." There you have it: an expensive higher education based on sloganeering, on pat, trite phrases that substitute moral posturing for political reasoning. It's elitism masquerading as egalitarianism.

Public attention is focused on the wasteland of primary education when some maladjusted kid rakes his school with gunfire. But the amount of drug-taking that goes on, dished out by the nurse or cadged on the fly from junior suppliers, is also symptomatic of a profound malaise in the culture. Missionary planes are being shot out of the sky over Peru in a grandiose, wasteful drug war that will never be won as long as so many Americans need to anesthetize themselves to get through the day.

The upper middle class toddles off to whinge to its Prozac-pushing therapists while the lower middle class ferrets out its own buzz -- as witnessed by this item from the Philadelphia Inquirer's police blotter last year about a suburb not far from mine:

NEWTOWN -- A man and a woman, each about 19, inhaled the gas from 92 cans of whipped cream at the Acme store in the 3500 block of West Chester Pike and left without paying at midnight last Friday. A video surveillance tape captured them inhaling for 50 minutes, police said.

The longing for alteration of consciousness is a virtual universal in human life, especially during eras of spiritual emptiness. Give those pathetic, scrounging teens tobacco and beer, for pity's sake! Nicotine and alcohol, in moderation, are proven aids to creativity and thought. How enriching can a relatively superior suburban education be these days when hunching over the dairy case in the grocery's neon glare is the most alluring way to spend a Friday night? Inhaling nitrous oxide and toxic fumes from glue, paint and household cleaners (the rampant fad of "huffing") is scarcely a prescription for the long-term brain health of the rising generation. Who will defend this nation or advance its culture?

As I've argued in prior columns, American high schools have physically imprisoned young people, stripped them of civil liberties and fed them a diet of p.c. pap. The curriculum needs to be reduced to the basics in history, art and science and then restructured to allow free choice in vocational training. Many readers agreed that the current college prep program is often boring and mediocre and is alienating tens of thousands of students for whom it was never intended. Young people need better integration into the adult world, as was provided, for example, by the medieval guilds where a boy could learn his trade as an apprentice. Some form of the master-apprentice system should be revived.

Outstanding pop moment of the past several weeks for me was American Movie Classics' rebroadcast of "The Egyptian" (1954), directed by Michael Curtiz, which I have avidly followed for three decades as it emerged from schlocky obscurity on late-night TV to attain its present incarnation in gloriously restored, letter-box format. Alfred Newman's spectacular score, to which Bernard Herrmann contributed, is one of Hollywood's most haunting. Edmund Purdom's starring performance as a brooding physician at Akhenaten's court is a rare example of high intellect -- that is, willed mental process -- visually transferring to the screen. And of course I adore the charismatic Babylonian harlot who gets her pestilent comeuppance at the hands of mother nature.

Candice Bergen was a delicious treat in last weekend's broadcast by the Love Stories Channel of "Starting Over" (1979), directed by Alan J. Pakula, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Not only does Bergen look sensational (would a hirsute hunk like Burt Reynolds really be tempted away by the galumphing, self-pitying neurotic portrayed by Jill Clayburgh?), but she plays her beauty for laughs as a self-absorbed, emoting, Denise Rich-type sugar-pop songwriter. Anticipating her tour de force as a pulp-romance diva in George Cukor's "Rich and Famous" (1981), Bergen gets more humor out of slamming a coffee can into a grocery basket in this film than that twinkly, wet dishrag, Renie Zellweger, could get out of an entire script.

It's time to turn Anne Robinson, the nunlike, cassock-clad harridan host of the British hit quiz show, "Weakest Link," on Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal and all the rest of the spineless, tittering inginues who superpopulate the sexual landscape at the moment. Feminism is clearly in meltdown if this is really where contemporary women in their late 20s and 30s feel they are -- drifting, aimless and needy. Bring back Eve Arden and Tallulah Bankhead!

POSTSCRIPT: On May 5, I will be lecturing on educational reform at Santa Clara University in California. On May 15, I will participate in a panel on media stereotyping and defamation of Italians at a conference sponsored by the National Italian-American Foundation in New York.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

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China George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani Rush Limbaugh