The Tuesday Column: Scripted Presidency
Bush's Choreography by the Scriptures
Pierre Tristam, Daytona Beach News-Journal/September 20, 2005
For President Bush every appearance, every word, every joke, every strut, every backdrop is staged for iconic effect by an army of ghostwriters and television producers. But symbolism designed to have the force of a papal bull can just as easily be full of a different kind of bull. Bush's address to the nation from New Orleans last Thursday night was especially rancid. The city's stink was not to blame. The fishiness was Bush's alone. To appreciate its bouquet, a brief retrospective in Bush choreography is helpful. Hold your nose.
The evening of Oct. 7, 2001, Bush announced the war on Afghanistan in an address to the nation from the White House Treaty Room, with a painting of President McKinley presiding over ceremonies ending the Spanish-American War. McKinley, of course, launched America's 20th century empire. For the first anniversary of the 2001 attacks, the White House planted Bush on Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty looming over his shoulder, and rented three barges-full of stadium lights to illuminate the statue during the evening address to the nation. The statue was off-limits at the time, and would remain so until 2004. For a speech from Mt. Rushmore the following summer, the president's podium was set in such a way as to align Bush's profile along that of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln. Only God was missing (hold on to your kerchiefs).
For a speech at a St. Louis trucking company in January 2003, Bush was planted in the middle of shipping boxes to signify the power of American goods. Except that the White House literally taped over "Made in China" stamps on the boxes. Then came the mother of all struts-and-bull productions - Bush's landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in bulging flight suit to announce, in the bathing light of a setting sun (the aircraft carrier was maneuvered away from its destination especially for the production value), "mission accomplished" in Iraq. At least the setting sun got it right.
The strut was recycled Thursday night, on the grass in front of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans' Jackson Square, the lawn looking eerily manicured for a ravaged city and the floodlit façade of the cathedral looking like a banner from God, an implicit "Mission Accomplished" that had nothing to do with the rebuilding of New Orleans but with reconstructing the self-inflicted wreck of the administration. What guile, what vulgarity, what fakery: the rolled up sleeves, the unbuttoned shirt, the false modesty so callously contradicted by the holier-than-thou backdrop, that splurge of white (of white, ladies and bigots) and spotless cleanliness when any corner of the city, begrimed and honestly dark, or perhaps a backdrop of some of the actual people he's pretending to help, should have sufficed.
Then again we're an unsubtle people, duped as easily as Lewis and Clark duped Indian tribes, upriver of those same Mississippi waters, with promises of benevolence from "the great white father." We were duped again Thursday night, when the great white featherweight's allusions to New Orleans as a battleground ("we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes") should not so easily have been lost, especially in the earthshine context of that cathedral. Remember that Sept. 16, 2001, mini-speech in which Bush spoke of "this crusade, this war on terrorism"? Official history has it that he didn't mean to use the word crusade, that he knew not what he was doing. Speaking of bull: No breath goes unscripted in this by-the-Scriptures administration.
So it was Thursday night. The Cathedral is named after Louis IX, admittedly one of France's better kings so far as the poor and the blighted were concerned, but he was also the only French king ever canonized - by Pope Boniface VIII, a neocon of his day - a detail a president so keen on his own divine right would have relished. "Saint" Louis also led two crusades, a detail too delicious, too pretzel-crunchy, for Bush's producers to miss. No, this was no mere play to present America with a whitish enterprise-zone image of New Orleans' future. It was Act IX in the president's ongoing crusade on America: For God, Mammon and the GOP. New Orleans is the latest opportune parish.
It's been there before. The White House Web archive of staged pictures features one of Bush at New Orleans' Zephyr Field in April 2001, when he was selling the first round of those tax cuts he's clinging to, sacrifices be damned, even now. The picture, (below) featuring a big "TAX RELIEF NOW!" sign at his feet, shows him bathed in a crowd uncharacteristically white for the second-blackest city in America (after Detroit). He got his relief then. He was bathed in white again Thursday night, God-winking - minus the people. What a relief that subtraction must have been.