A lone ranger in danger

Bush sees himself as the heroic rescuer and avenger in a primal struggle with savages -- but he shouldn't forget Custer.

Published September 3, 2004 4:26PM (EDT)

George W. Bush emerged between two gigantic American flags, and walked down a runway to the center of a stage emblazoned with the seal of the presidency. The proscenium behind him resembled a Roman temple, engraved with large gold letters: "The United States of America." The overpowering evidence of his authority did not foster distance between him and the crowd; instead his elevation excited charismatic deference. Standing alone on the image of the American eagle, he was thrust on his podium physically both amid and above the rapturous delegates at the Republican Convention. His solitary presence brought him closer to them in fulfilling their dream of leadership -- the president as lone ranger.

Bush has always benefited from what he calls in another context the "soft bigotry of low expectations." The dismissals of him as stupid, crude and impulsive allow the widest play for his well-planned and sophisticated shrewdness. The spoiled son of privilege, who gained admission to Yale with the help of his family legacy, sloughed off his military service, was indifferent to the intricacies of international affairs that compelled the career of his father and was a failure in business until salvaged by family friends, has in fact been a diligent student in one crucial area. The field in which he is expert is politics. Assimilating by osmosis its lessons in a political family, he apprenticed beginning in his early 20s to the most talented and slyest Southern political consultants (who were the innovators of the post-civil rights Southern strategy), becoming their equal. Part of his cleverness lies in hiding this true identity.

Bush's acceptance speech was intended in part to present the gloss of a "vision" of domestic policy. Until this moment, he had avoided laying out any program beyond his adherence to the social agenda of the religious right on gay marriage, stem cell research and abortion. His tax cuts have fostered a wildly burgeoning deficit that he steadfastly refuses to address for fear of repeating the nightmare of his father's rescinding of his principal promise: "Read my lips -- no new taxes." Bush's "Leave No Child Behind" education initiative, which was fashioned as the signature program of his "compassionate conservatism," is crushing schools and is desperately unpopular, even in the most conservative states like Utah. The policy demands adherence to certain standards of performance, but Bush has refused to provide the $27 billion in necessary funding. His Medicare program for prescription drugs for seniors, a partial privatization, has older voters up in arms.

In his speech, Bush seized upon shards of Clintonism about helping workers cope with the impact of globalization to offer the bleached bones of old Republicanism -- privatization schemes on Social Security and Medicare. He attached no price tag to these plans that policy experts calculate will cost trillions of dollars and detonate further explosions in the deficit. But this portion of the speech was the tribute Bush had to pay to his blank page on domestic accomplishment, his bow to the many.

For him, 9/11 is the casus belli of his presidency. It is the beginning, middle and end of the drama -- the moment when the enemy enters and calls forth the hero. Fear and uncertainty demand his absolute conviction. The hero stands tall and defiant, doing whatever it takes. "Nothing will hold us back," Bush said repeatedly in his speech. He sees his every action in the light of 9/11. "Do I forget the lessons of Sept. 11 and take the word of a madman?" he asked the crowd, referring to Saddam Hussein. "No!" "Or do I take action to defend our country?"

But even this defense of his strategy of preemption was not the most revelatory section of his speech. Bush also described his "flaws": Some have to "correct my English" and sometimes "I come across as a little too blunt." Plain-speaking and honest, he is a natural man. "Some folks look at me," he said, "and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.'"

With this Bush cast himself as the natural-born cowboy. Suddenly the war on terrorism was folded into the myth of the frontier and its stories of captivity and battles with savages. The hero is the rescuer and avenger, an isolate caught in a moral landscape between civilization and wilderness. In this primal struggle, the savages use cruel methods to terrorize the settlers, even taking hostages. Law and chaos rage in conflict.

In the 19th century novels of James Fenimore Cooper, such as "The Last of the Mohicans," Hawkeye, the frontier hero, knows the savages and their ways. Part of what makes him a hero is that he is an unassuming natural man, in touch with the primitives, who has lived among them, putting him beyond the rigid hierarchies of the town. Because of his intimate knowledge he can use the methods of the savages against them.

In Western iconography, the lineage runs from Hawkeye to Buffalo Bill, from the Lone Ranger to George W. Bush. But the danger for the Lone Ranger is that without friends like Tonto he may become General Custer. Instead of achieving a bonanza, he may find himself through rash judgment surrounded at Little Big Horn, or Mesopotamia. For now, though, with "a certain swagger," Bush gets his convention bump.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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