David B. Livingstone/RabidNation.com | 24.10.2004 05:57
There are few more enduring American myths than that of the triumphant outsider. Whether we’re talking about hearty pilgrims carving new lives out of Plymouth rock or the triumph of this year’s Boston Red Sox, there’s something about the notion of the disadvantaged, down-at-the-heels little guy finally getting the chance to kick ass and take names that seems to endlessly stimulate the American psyche: Dustin Hoffman got his girl in The Graduate, Clint Eastwood’s rogue cop Harry Callahan took down entire mobs with his .44, and Mr. Smith went to Washington. It was always the American dream writ large in blazing neon - archetypal everymen triumphing over seemingly insurmountable odds thanks to persistence, yankee ingenuity, or some other hallowed virtue. In the realms of movies and sports, we fall for it every time.
Such sentimentality becomes a difficult matter in the political sphere, however, at least once it’s separated from fantasy. Ninteteenth century novelist Horatio Alger built a career out of whole-cloth fables: Shoeshine boys with big dreams, bright smiles, and unassailable virtue who somehow grew up to be president. No harm done. But Alger’s triumphant mediocrities suddenly came to life four years ago in the person of George W. Bush, the silver-spoonfed slacker son of a failed one-term president, who somehow reinvented himself in the popular mind as the embodiment of John Q. Public in an astonishing display of political sleight-of-hand.
Beyond America’s borders, there is little comprehension for the popularity of a president who has shepherded his country into two failing wars, who has overseen a massive exodus of jobs overseas, and who has devastated his country’s image in all corners of the globe. Recent polls around the world have shown a 2 to 1 preference for a Kerry victory in virtually every country questioned, and Little Bush has become a figure of scorn, mockery, derision, or fear throughout the popular media elsewhere. Nonetheless, a sizeable proportion of his countrymen - fifty or so percent, at the most recent reckoning - not only favor his re-election, but support him with quasi-religious fervor.
Never mind the spluttering, incoherent performance in the debates; never mind the overt failure of both his foreign and domestic policies; never mind the political dirty tricks, the stump-speech lies and the wholesale disenfranchisement of voters (and thus, the subversion of the democratic process) on the part of his party hatchet-men: George W. Bush, the failed Texas oil kingpin and friend to white collar felons, has seemingly cornered the market in patriotic Christian minds - millions of whom, evidently, are praying for another four years of bellicosity, ruthlessness, and abject failure from their idol. Depending upon how many of them make it to the polls on election day (and upon how many African-Americans, poor people, workers, and others see their votes disqualified by armies of Republican lawyers), they just might get their way.
How can this be? How is it that an empty head atop an empty suit came to embody the hopes and dreams of perhaps 150 million Americans? How is it that a simian smirk, mangled syntax, and a wafer-thin Marlboro Man swaggering veneer came to be confused as presidential qualities? How did a former coke-sniffing draft dodger come to be exalted as a paragon of virtue, temperance, and family values? On the face of it, it’s confusing: George W. Bush would seem to stand for everything his supporters profess to revile.
The popularity of George Bush only starts to make sense when seen in the context of the broader cultural mire he emerged from. America is the land of Survivor, where venal stereotypes compete in an atmosphere of pretend danger for money and prizes. It’s the land of the Venetian Hotel, where tens of thousands of people annually pay dearly for the privilege of riding fake gondolas through a fake Venice under a fake sky. It’s the land of virtual reality video games and cyber-sex, of plasticene peroxide pop princesses, of bat-boys and alien invaders on tabloid headlines. It’s the land of shimmering artifice.
George Bush isn’t beloved because of who he is. He’s beloved because of who he isn’t. His fans recognize, even if they won’t acknowledge it, that there is no “there” there; the president of the world’s only remaining superpower has about as much gravitas as a freshly-peeled balloon. And that’s what they love about him.
George Walker Bush only exists as a loud voice, a cartoon swagger, a reassuring platitude, and a glassy stare. He’s a blank president for a blank generation, a broadly-drawn caricature who can be readily remolded in an individual’s mind to reflect whatever fantastic projections might be appealing. Bush is exceptional precisely for his lack of exceptionality; as a paradigm of mediocrity and hollowness, he reflects the actual essence of a broad swath of the American population - a class of human beings who, adrift in their convictions, their feelings, and their lives, recoil from substance and gravitate towards the reassuring comfort of the empty phrase or gesture. George Bush, at once everyman and no man, grants us all permission to look away from the vacuum at the core of our own lives and look to his instead, where we may see ourselves reflected. He is like us, and in him, we shine.