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The Election and America’s Future

In 1983, during the formative years of spin, 241 Marines were blown up by one terrorist blast in Beirut. Two days later, on October 25, Reagan landed 1,200 marines in Grenada, which is 3,000 miles away from Beirut. By the time that the invasion force grew to 7,000 Marines, the campaign was over. The US lost 19 dead, while 49 soldiers in the Grenadian army perished on the other side, as well as 29 Cuban construction workers. Communism in the Caribbean was now kaput (except for the little matter of Castro and Cuba). After this instant victory over a ragtag foe, Reagan was stimulated enough to accept his supporters’ claim that America had now put an end to our shame in Vietnam. Reagan understood what Americans wanted, and that was spin. It was more important to be told you were healthy than to be healthy.

Bush-and-Rove enlarged this insight by an order of magnitude. They acted on the premise that America was prodigiously insecure. As an empire, we are nouveaux riches. We look to overcome the uneasiness implicit in this condition by amassing mega-money. The sorriest thing to be said about the US, as we sidle up to fascism (which can become our fate if we plunge into a major depression, or suffer a set of dirty-bomb catastrophes), is that we expect disasters. We await them. We have become a guilty nation. Somewhere in the moil of the national conscience is the knowledge that we are caught in the little contradiction of loving Jesus on Sunday, while lusting the rest of the week for mega-money. How can we not be in need of someone to tell us that we are good and pure and he will seek to make us secure? For Bush-and-Rove, 9/11 was the jackpot.

The presidency is a role, and George, left on his own, might have become a successful movie actor. Kerry’s task by now is to scourge Bush’s ham machismo. But how? Kerry’s only real opportunity will come as he steps into a most constricting venue—the debates. Kerry has to dominate Bush without a backward look at his own dovish councils—“Don’t be seen as cruel, John, or you will lose the women!” To the contrary—Kerry must win the men. He has to take Bush apart in public. By the end of the debates, he has to succeed in laying waste to Bush’s shit-eating grin and present himself as the legitimate alternative—a hero whose reputation was slandered by a slacker. That will not be routine. Bush is the better actor. He has been impersonating men more manly than himself for many years. Kerry has to convince some new part of the audience that his opponent is a closet weakling who seizes on inflexibility as a way to show America that he is strong. Bush’s appeal is, after all, to the stupid. They, too, are inflexible—they also know that maintaining one’s stupidity can become a kind of strength, provided you never change your mind.

There is a subtext which Kerry can use. Bush, after all, is not accustomed to working alone in hostile environments. He has been cosseted for years. It is cruel but true that he has the vulnerability of an ex-alcoholic.

People in Alcoholics Anonymous speak of themselves as dry drunks. As they see it, they may no longer drink, yet a sense of imbalance at having to do without liquor does not go away. Rather the impulse is sequestered behind the faith that God is supporting one’s efforts to remain sober.

Giving up booze may have been the most heroic act of George W.’s life, but America could now be paying the price. George W.’s piety has become a pomade to cover all the tamped-down dry-drunk craziness that still stirs in his livid inner air.

These gloomy words were written before the first debate on September 30. They were followed by an even gloomier final flourish: “Through this era of belly-grinding ironies, the most unpalatable may be that we have to hitch our hopes to a series of televised face-offs whose previous history has seldom offered more than a few sound bites for the contestants and apnea for the viewer. God bless America! We may not deserve it, but we could use the Lord’s help. Bush’s first confidence, after all, is that the devil will never desert him in his hour of need. His only error is that he thinks it is the Son who is speaking to him.”

The debate, however, offered surprising ground for optimism. Kerry was at his best, concise, forceful, almost joyous in the virtuosity of his ability. He was able to speak his piece despite the Procrustean bonds of the debate. And Bush was at his worst. He looked spoiled. He was out of his element. He was tired from campaigning. There are times when a man has campaigned so much that he is running on hollow. Even Bush’s face had become a liability. He looked cranky and puckered up. For years, he had been able to speak free of debate, always able to utter his homey patriotic gospel without interruption. Now in the ninety minutes of formalized back and forth, with the camera sometimes catching his petulant reactions while Kerry spoke, he looked unhappy enough to take a drink.

Most of this was seen on a big state-of-the-art television set, and the verdict seemed clear. Kerry had won by a large margin. Bush’s only credit was that he had gone the distance without making any irremediable errors. Kerry’s poll numbers seemed bound to increase.

Only one caveat remained. The first twenty minutes of the debate had been seen on the kind of modest-sized set that most of America would be using. On that set, one saw a somewhat different debate. Karl Rove had scored again. However it had been managed, the placement of the cameras favored Bush. His head took up more square inches on the screen than Kerry’s. In television, that is half the battle. Kerry looked long and lean as he spoke out of what seemed to be a medium shot, whereas Bush had many a close-up.

This advantage partly disappeared on the large set. There, each man’s expression was clear, and their relative strengths and weaknesses were obvious. On a small set, however, some of the cinematographic advantage went the other way.

We will have to wait for the polls. Will they be as skewed as the camera angles? We seem to be living these days in a kaleidoscope of ironies. Is the worst yet to come? If it is a close election, the electronic voting machines are ready to augment every foul memory of Florida in 2000. Perhaps it is no longer Jesus or Allah who oversees our fate but the turn of the Greek gods to take another run around the track. When it comes to destiny, they were the first, after all, to conceive of the Ironies.

EDMUND S. MORGAN

New Haven, Connecticut

In the wake of the many scandals that have disgraced our government in the last four years, who is accountable? Will the secretary of defense be dismissed because of what happened at Abu Ghraib? Will the attorney general be dismissed for what is happening at Guantánamo Bay? Will the secretary of the interior be dismissed for handing national treasures to corporate looters? Will the secretary of state bear responsibility for refusal to participate in efforts of the rest of the world to keep the planet inhabitable? Will the President of the United States disavow what his handpicked agents have done on his watch?

We all know the answers. But in the eyes of the world the ultimate accountability lies not with the President or his men. In the end it lies with the sovereign people of the United States. The government is our government, resting on our choices and supported in all its activities by our taxes. We may claim with some reason that the last election was stolen, but we have had to accept the result. In the last analysis people get the government they deserve, and ours, more directly than most, is the product of our choice. We have been credited, rightly, for what it has done in the past, for standing up, however belatedly, to the Nazis, for assisting the recovery of Europe under the Marshall Plan, for containing the threat of imperial communism. We cannot now escape credit for what our government has so shamefully done. We began as a people with “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” and we won admiration for it. We have now lost the good opinion of mankind and with it the self-respect of decent Americans.

It may take many years to recover what we have lost. We cannot restore the lives lost in Iraq, the lives of our soldiers, none of whom deserved to die for us, and the many more lives of the people we have professed to liberate in a war fought under false pretenses. But we can dismiss the people responsible for the other horrors committed in our name. Our self-respect, and the respect of the rest of the world for us as a people, hang on the next election. The damage now being done can be stopped. Some of it can be reversed. But the longer it goes on the less reversible it becomes. Seldom has our future as a people been in greater jeopardy. If we continue the heedless destruction of everything the United States has stood for in the past, we will rightly be held accountable, not only by the rest of the world but by our own grandchildren and their grandchildren for generations to come.

THOMAS POWERS

South Royalton, Vermont

The big issue in 2004 is Iraq—will voters reject President Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, or will they accept and endorse it by giving him a second term? This question is not complicated, and the answer either way will be clear and crushing. Bush’s defeat will signal to the world, and to the Republican Party, that the President’s decision for war has been rejected by the country as unjustified and unwise. Bush’s victory will signal something roughly the opposite—that the country has accepted and endorsed his decision, thereby transforming Bush’s war into America’s war.

Many other questions will of course be answered at the same time, but the question of Iraq is the one that will have the greatest consequences, because it will have the most to do with how long the war lasts. Mainstream thinking about this war has come a long way since Congress and just about everybody else accepted President Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein had and was seeking weapons of mass destruction and that this posed a “growing danger” for the United States. But mainstream thinking may not be ready to accept a conclusion that this war, like the intervention in Somalia at one end of the spectrum of pain, or like Vietnam at the other, will be seen in retrospect as a failure. How big a failure, after how much pain, waits on events.

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