Joe Conason's Journal

How to understand the George W. Bush "cult of personality." Plus: Who will replace Ari? (Paging Chris Matthews!)

Published May 19, 2003 3:31PM (EDT)

Signs amid the sagebrush
There are days, like last Saturday, when it looks as if a conceptual poet is composing the New York Times' headlines and laying out the front page. Who else would place "Suicide Bombs Kill at Least 14 in Casablanca" right next to "U.S. Officials See Signs of a Revived Al Qaeda"? So loud and unmistakable were those "signs" that even the Democratic presidential candidates noticed.

That's not quite fair to all nine Democrats, of course. Sen. John Kerry, for one, pointed out the Bush administration's failure to use adequate force in Afghanistan many months ago. That wasn't a secret to anyone who read Bob Woodward's book "Bush at War," which revealed in detail how the president and his advisors decided to take out the Taliban with the least possible political and military risk -- and thus allowed Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and most of their top lieutenants to escape.

The best recent essay explaining how the Bush White House transmutes incompetence into omnipotence -- and who helps them to create this illusion -- is not available online. To read James Wolcott, perhaps our sharpest cultural critic and certainly our funniest, one must buy or subscribe to Vanity Fair (where his 2002 essays just won a National Magazine Award). Among those who would profit from reading Wolcott are the puzzled readers who write to me every day, asking why so many Americans are suckered by Rovian triumphalism.

"Bush's cult of personality is based on a rawhide image of masculinity as carefully storyboarded and marketed as an old Marlboro Man campaign," writes Wolcott. "Now that the Marlboro Man has coughed up a lung, Bush has the heroic sunset all to himself." The reiteration of the cowboy archetype has been relentless since Sept. 11, by Bush himself ("dead or alive"), by his "sidekick" Cheney, and by his frequent brush-clearing sojourns at the Crawford compound.

"President Bush is no more of genuine cowboy (roping steers, farting by the campfire) than Ronald Reagan was. In fact, he's further removed from reality. Reagan was an actor who played cowboys in movies and became a politician. Bush is a politician who pretends to be a cowboy in order to remind us of Reagan when he was president. Reagan represented Hollywood. Bush represents an imitation of Hollywood, the TV spin-off of the hit movie."

That brings us to today's big Beltway item, the pending resignation of Ari Fleischer. Perhaps Rove should replace the retiring robo-spinner with someone who displays greater emotional enthusiasm for the manufacturing of W-brand machismo. Now who could that be? Chris Matthews indignantly denies that he coveted the press podium during the Clinton years, but could he turn it down now? Chris would certainly bring a certain shameless gusto to the tasks Fleischer performed so woodenly.

[10:15 a.m. PDT, May 19, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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