We're living through a time when Americans are challenged to comprehend and assimilate things we've never encountered before, things with no clear precedent in our public lives. Some of the most bewildering are provided by our elected leaders, at the highest level of power and responsibility.
If you saw Gerald Herbert's AP photo of President Bush strolling hand in hand with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, like a pair of giddy schoolgirls lost in puppy love, what floored you was not the gesture, which the New York Times initially captioned "a traditional sign of friendship" (Saudi, not Texan) and White House aides later attributed to Bush's solicitous concern for the aging prince's balance on a rough gravel pathway. What astonished you was that this touching spectacle unfolded in full view of working wire service photographers, and that the formidable White House spin machine made no apparent effort to keep the image out of circulation.
We stared in disbelief. The president's state-of-the-art image factory, which manipulates and micro-manages every atomic particle of information that might influence the public's opinion of Mr. Bush -- and pressures and persecutes every journalist whose opinion is unsatisfactory -- had no problem with a photograph that carried a 20-megaton payload of scalding irony. Here was the leader of the nation that produced Osama bin Laden and the suicide Saudis, who laid waste to the Pentagon and brought down the World Trade towers on 9/11/01; the prince who exercises more control than any other man living over soaring oil prices that hobble the American economy; the head of a harsh anti-democratic monarchy, a royal family linked intimately to the Bush family (like the bin Ladens) by a dozen embarrassing books. Here he was, just Uncle Abdullah, holding hands with the president of the United States and whispering sweet nothings about petroleum, the thing they both know and love the best.
Oil in the family. Enough nutritious irony in a single frame to feed every comic and talk show host to the left of Fox News to sustain their tribe all summer long. Counting himself among the stunned was the fundamentalist Republican Gary Bauer.
"You wonder," Bauer told Time's Joe Klein, "if the folks at the White House have any idea of the impact an image like this has out in Middle America."
You wonder. And you wonder, if "the folks at the White House" command infinitely less irony than Gary Bauer, just where their consciousness could possibly intersect with your own, or with that of anyone you know. Has the US been hijacked by aliens?
Irony, inseparable from humor and from humility, is the most reliable litmus test for human intelligence. Art, literature, history and even philosophy become crude and mechanical in its absence; personality loses its charm, hypocrisy proliferates unimpeded. And this is the conundrum the Bush White House presents and has always presented. Can they possibly be so stupid, or are we dealing with something even more alarming than stupidity, an obliviousness born of cynicism, native arrogance and the toxicity of power? Can it be a pose, this refusal to acknowledge any irony that weighs against them, no matter how immense?
One theory is that we are suffering the revenge of remedial readers. There was sneering when ill-wishers outed George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as academic trainwrecks and displayed their wretched transcripts on op-ed pages. I didn't sneer too much. Valedictorians are a negligible minority, and intellectual credentials seem to be a liability for American politicians. (Another pyrotechnic irony, though -- if you polled the entire Yale class of '68, how many would express "uncertainty" about evolution? My guess is just one -- the President of the United States.)
Obviously there's a kind of feral cunning that trumps abstract intelligence on the political battlefield. But Bush's nomination of John Bolton for ambassador to the United Nations, no less than the uncensored prom photo with Prince Abdullah, chills us because neither intelligence nor cunning can account for it. Something darker is at work.
Bolton is simply the Republican fist with its middle finger held erect, a calculated insult aimed at Democrats, the media and the world -- a rude gesture of unprecedented arrogance and defiance. Is this a coarse joke, irony served White House-style? For America's most visible and sensitive diplomatic post, they offer the ultimate anti-diplomat, an obnoxious bully so incapable of diplomacy or common tact that he offends everyone he encounters, Democrat or Republican, ally or enemy.
"It is totally erroneous to speak of Bolton as a diplomat," said retired diplomat Frederick Vreeland, who worked with Bolton under President George H.W. Bush. "He spoke of the UN as being the enemy."
I have some background on Bolton that isn't generally available, a report from a friend of mine (nameless unless someone doubts him) who was Bolton's classmate in military school.
"Short, nonathletic, arrogant, unpopular and highly intolerant of other people's opinions," Bolton's classmate recalls, "sort of Napoleonic but without any of Napoleon's talents for leadership. Making him ambassador is like thumbing our nose at the UN, and foreign diplomats understand that."
Here is the developmental profile of a classic jerk, if we reject a popular anatomical epithet that describes him even more accurately. Already hopeless in the 7th grade, praised by no one save Jesse Helms -- and an apostle of Helms's foreign policy, in essence "Kiss the eagle's bloody talons" -- John Bolton may soon be the angry face that America presents to the world. His description by a conservative Republican as "a kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy," "a serial abuser of little people," closes the case on Bolton's character. We've all met this miserable little prick somewhere, in some avatar, and we all regret it.
If this nomination isn't about humor, if it isn't official malfunction at the level of brain damage, where do we file it? Does the White House relish the grim irony of Bolton at the UN, or miss it entirely? Which is worse? We all know the ways of bullies, the way humorlessness and power seem to seek each other out. For epic humorlessness, few bullies eclipse Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, whose government (according to Molly Ivins) sampled the diplomacy of John Bolton and denounced him as "human scum" and "a bloodsucker." Bullies and dictators seldom get the joke, and deal simply with irony -- when you don't get the joke, you smash the joker.
The Kim Jong Il factor, the fascist factor, is what we need to fear most when our president displays serene indifference to irony, to criticism, to reality. This is something new in America, this body language of unrestrained power and executive fiat. To the best of my knowledge, the barely-elected (many now say never-elected) Republican junta has no permanent, North Korean-style lock on the government of the USA -- but they act as if they do.
What do they know that we don't know? Our leaders will always try to manipulate and mislead us. But in a democracy, politicians court us, right, and charm us if they can? The president is obliged to notice, and care, when we laugh at him. Yet irony, according to the John Boltons and Kim Jong Ils of this belligerent planet, is a thing victims and losers apply to ease the sting of their wounds. How many divisions do ironists command? What happens to your sense of humor when I make your nose bleed?
Pathology lurks. Somehow the whole country -- the whole world -- has begun to pay dearly for the fact that Bolton, Bush and Cheney were never the best or the brightest or the most beloved. The late Hunter Thompson was no unimpeachable news source, but he got my attention when he described George W. Bush as "a baffled little creep" who used to adhere to the fringes of the fast Houston cocaine crowd -- and once passed out in Thompson's bathtub.
"He was nothing, he offered nothing, and he promised nothing," Thompson recalled. "He was insignificant in every way. He had no humor." (My italics.)
From harsh experience, I've come to believe that personality shapes history -- that whatever shaped Alexander, Muhammad, Saladin, Luther, Robespierre, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin made the world we live in, to a far greater extent than class struggles, market forces or the clash of huge ideas. Freud, for all his myopia, was closer to the truth than Marx. History is like a trail of gunpowder waiting for personality to strike a spark. The conditions Marx studied only determine the type of personality most likely to ignite events.
America's adolescent overconfidence, repulsive overconsumption, cultural putrefaction and moral vertigo guaranteed the rise of a class of hungry, humorless nonentities and mediocrities, severely limited in everything but their personal ambitions -- scruple-free "kiss-up, kick-down guys" who confuse their own stunted, needy, self-righteous self-absorption with objective reality.
It's their turn now -- unblushing self-promoters, purveyors of empty bravado, goat-brained thugs in Armani suits -- all of irony's natural victims striking back at their tormentors. The smell of curdled testosterone hangs over Washington, D.C., like a chemical smog. The new ruling class takes its motto from one of its charter members, Edward von Kloberg III, the outrageous gay lobbyist who committed suicide in Rome last week, ending a career devoted to representing outlaw dictators and genocidal tyrants. He sold his services to Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Ceausescu and Samuel K. Doe of Liberia, and admitted to courting Kim Jong Il and Paraguay's heinous Alfredo Stroessner. Asked how he squared his clients with his conscience, von Kloberg replied, "Shame is for sissies."
How long, in Karl Rove's America, before "Shame is for sissies" replaces "E pluribus unum" on the coin of the realm? When the impudence and impenitence of George Bush or Tom DeLay leaves you speechless, remember their mentor von Kloberg, a man who would have gleefully handled public relations for Satan himself. Yet von Kloberg had one virtue his disciples lack: He was no hypocrite. He never once said he was defending traditional family values or making the world safe for democracy. There's even evidence that he was capable of irony.
Von Kloberg has gone to his reward, perhaps to join some of the gruesome clients he liked to call "the damned." But his dark art lives after him, in a city and most dramatically in an administration that approaches every problem as an image problem. Murder, genocide, torture, graft, corruption? The dictator's spin doctor has better words -- "negative projection," perhaps, or "poor communication." Indefensible, catastrophic invasion of an unoffending country? Call it Operation Iraqi Freedom, call it a jihad for democracy. You don't have to be subtle, as the White House constantly reminds us. You don't have to reckon with irony, that last refuge of the effete. Just change the words, repeat them incessantly, and disparage anyone who resists them. Incompetent, arrogant and inflexible, the Bush administration House has scored its greatest successes changing the words America uses, and reorganizing its flow of information.
Totalitarian thinkers, Hannah Arendt once wrote, are characterized by "extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it." If you told me 20 years ago that a cocky free press, still flaunting Richard Nixon's scalp, could be reduced to groveling impotence by the likes of George W. Bush, I guess I'd have laughed at you. But the other night I saw some film of Syrian troop carriers leaving Lebanon, and the voice-over -- this was CNN, I swear -- said something like, "another triumph for the president's master plan to liberate the Middle East."
It startled me like a slap in the face. When did Karl Rove plant his microchips in their brains? The Goebbels Network is ever-expanding. A clamorous Right defeated the press by maneuvering it into a format where it couldn't function, a game it could never win. The adversary model, the snarling, shouting pro-wrestling model favored by TV "news" programmers, gives the impression that the press, like Congress, is divided into loyal Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Journalists -- journalists by true vocation as opposed to some who list that occupation on IRS returns -- are largely immune to ideology, rhetoric and partisan politics. We have no heroes among politicians; we've seen too many clowns and thieves on both sides of the aisle. We don't vilify the president because we disagree with his philosophy; he has no philosophy. We oppose him because we're conditioned to hate liars, hypocrites, bullies and "serial abusers of little people," and he's assembled the most frightening collection we've ever seen.
By branding all unfriendly journalists (and other Americans who criticize the president) "liberals" -- embittered members of a losing team -- Karl Rove and company have ingeniously compromised fair comment and legitimate dissent. A neighbor recommended something I wrote to a friend of his, a libertarian, who read it and dismissed it as "knee-jerk liberal." There was no trace of a liberal attitude or left-of-center opinion in my essay. It was a conservative defense of the First Amendment, protesting the Bush administration's war on journalists. That libertarian has been had, like our credulous local columnist -- attempting even-handedness -- who equated the freaky neo-fascist entertainer Ann Coulter with the journalist Frank Rich.
In fact, some of the most articulate criticism of the White House has come from conservatives.
"Bush has behaved like a caricature of what a right-wing president is supposed to be, and his continuation as president will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations," argued American Conservative magazine, endorsing John Kerry. "The launching of an invasion against a country that posed no threat to the US, the doling out of war profits to politically favored corporations, the financing of the war by ballooning the deficit to be passed on to the nation's children ... It is as if Bush sought to resurrect every false 1960s-era left-wing cliché about predatory imperialism and turn it into administration policy."
It's my impression that the White House has no patience with principles, liberal or conservative, and no respect for people who cling to them. Principle, like shame or irony, is for sissies. Aside from a primitive, invertebrate tropism toward power, I detect no guiding principle in the Bush presidency except the first one young George learned in Texas -- that oil is good and more oil is better.
If the media still hunted with live ammunition, Enron, Halliburton and the energy industry's pornographic profits since 9/11 would be enough to force this oil-soaked, sheik-beholden government to resign. (In disgrace -- remember disgrace?) The first thing every reporter was taught, back when reporters were taught things, is that the best way to find the truth is to follow the money. A student of the Bush presidency watches the money flow relentlessly uphill. Americans who earn over $200,000 a year received 97% of Bush's $1.4 trillion tax cuts, while the money to pay for his hemorrhaging abomination of a war was squeezed from cuts in food stamps, school lunches, student loans and veterans' benefits. Look it up. When shame and irony leave the hall together, no obscenity is inconceivable.
Worse still than handouts to the wealthy is the reprehensible new legislation that blocks working Americans from climbing the hill where the money flows -- laws like boulders rolled downhill to crush the scrambling underclass, the estimated 80 million Americans unable to pay their bills. Think about what it means to limit personal bankruptcies, inhibit class action suits against toxic employers like Wal-Mart, protect chemical polluters (usually oil companies) from liability lawsuits and cap settlements in personal injury cases. It means trying to eliminate what little protection ordinary citizens retain against corporate leviathans that cheat, exploit, injure and poison them, trap them in hopeless jobs, renege on their health care and default on their pensions. It means stripping leverage from the people who have no leverage to spare.
The Bush administration's domestic policies are the blueprint for a new feudalism, a kind of fascist plutocracy. List all the democratic safeguards that separate a working American from a slave or a medieval serf. There are many. Labor unions? Their membership has been reduced by two-thirds since the 1950s, and the White House has them ticketed for extinction. Lawyers? In rightwing rhetoric, plaintiff's attorneys like John Edwards are the devil's spawn. Courts, judges? The radical Right rains fire on responsible judges who resist its excesses and labors to replace them with pro-business reactionaries. Congress? Don't play irony with me. The media? I rest my case. If Bush has his way, the poor man, like serfs and slaves of yore, will have no one but God to protect him. And the religious right says God's a Republican.
While the president chides the Russians about democracy and free speech, he schemes to reward his corporate sponsors with a lucrative new version of slavery. If this, in fact, was a class war, it's almost over, and the losers are being led off in chains. This is more serious than encouraging Fred Flintstone biology while the world laps the US in science education; more serious even than gang-raping the environment and fighting bloody unwinnable wars, launched by lies, that enrich your relatives and cronies. This is selling out America, suffocating its every dream and promise.
What God would confer his blessing on a punitive cult of "Christians" -- and no few Jews -- who answer only to the powerful and literally, not figuratively, rob the poorbox to pay for their wars? Are you listening to the anguish of a liberal?
It's funny. If the government were magically seized by that micro-minority of PC radicals who attack free speech from the left and don't merely support but obey organized victim groups, I would be, as I've always been, among their harshest critics. I'm of an age and a turn of mind to return, with a few reservations, to the politics of my boyhood idol Barry Goldwater. Instead, the shameless bastards in Washington are turning me into the Che Guevara of AARP.
What's a radical, under the new corporate totalitarianism? If you wonder sometimes whether everyone in your family is human, play them Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad, a collection of songs that challenge you to care about Americans with no power, few breaks and few options. If one of your tribe mutters something about "bleeding-heart liberals," well, he has no heart -- but he has a great chance to get ahead in the cannibal society George W. Bush and John Bolton represent.
Hal Crowther's most recent book is Cathedrals of Kudzu; a new collection of essays, Gather at the River, will be published in August by LSU Press.