Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bush is like Chauncey Gardiner

This is a post I wrote long ago, and recently posted to DovBear's blog.

Being There is one of the best films I have ever seen. It came out in 1979 but seems remarkably relevant today. I'm not the first person to have noticed similarities between President Bush and Chauncey Gardiner, but I did come to this conclusion independently.

Peter Sellers stars as a mentally retarded man, Chauncey, who, through a series of accidents, gets mistaken for a great thinker. His actual understanding of the world is so limited that he thinks a television set is people in a box. His only area of expertise is gardening. But nobody seems to notice this, and they interpret his literal statements about TV-watching and gardening (e.g., "As long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well, in the garden") as profound metaphors about the world. When he tells someone he can't read, the person thinks he means that he doesn't have the time in this busy world. (Sound familiar?) Gradually, he becomes famous, appearing on talk shows and meeting with public officials. All the while, nobody seems to notice that he doesn't have a clue what's going on! Everyone assumes he's this sophisticated, high-class thinker and misinterprets the simple, mundane things he says as brilliant kernels of wisdom. The film ends with the suggestion that the people around him might have him run for president.

None of this is meant to be taken literally, of course. The story is a satire designed to skewer the vapidity of television culture. I don't think the author of this tale, Jerzy Kosinski, ever foresaw that the situation he was describing would actually come true one day.

You might call me a Bush hater, but that would be a mistake. The Bush haters greatly overestimate Dubya's intelligence. Sure, they all say "Bush is a moron," reciting those words like a mantra, but they don't act like they really believe it. They give the man an awful lot of credit for the actions and policies of the Bush Administration, as though he's somehow in charge of everything rather than (as I see it) a puppet being controlled by others. When a reporter asked him for his opinion following the revelation of Deep Throat's identity, this was his response: "I don't have an opinion yet." Open-minded, huh? I'm sure that's how his admirers have spun it. I have a more sinister explanation: he hadn't yet discussed the matter with his advisors, who would tell him what his opinion should be.

He's like that a lot. You think he's the one who came up with those words about the sacrifice in Iraq being worth it? He never writes his speeches. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that; most politicians have speechwriters. But the thing about Bush is that, in everything he does, he seems to rely heavily on the efforts of other people--Dick Cheney, Karl Rove ("Bush's Brain"), Condaleeza Rice. Remember Fahrenheit 9/11 and all the vacation time he spends? It often seems like Cheney's really the acting president, while Bush goes off to play golf, or jog, or relax somewhere. He has had this reputation ever since he was governor of Texas, a position, I should point out, that has so little power it's almost symbolic.

But what's truly amazing is how little the public notices this, even when they disagree with him. Take the aftermath of 9/11. He looks noble, delivers a nice speech he didn't write, and suddenly he's the most popular president ever. His handling of 9/11 was no more impressive than I would expect from any other president. He was just fortunate enough to be around when this great tragedy happened, and he has continually exploited its political value ever since. When he arrives with Bin Laden in chains, I'll give him credit. Until then, he should shut his trap.

I may be making the same mistake I mentioned before, of crediting Bush with the actions of others in the administration. It's often hard to tell who's really making the decisions, since most of Bush's public appearances are scripted. When he's forced to make off-the-cuff remarks every now and then, he ends up saying stupid things that reveal a startling lack of understanding. Rove is actually on record having instructed Bush to make as few public appearances as possible during his 1998 gubernatorial run. They wanted to keep him out of the limelight as much as possible, otherwise people were bound to notice that the emperor has no clothes.

What about his handling of debates? Wasn't there a consensus that he won all those debates against Ann Richards and Al Gore? What we have to realize is that ever since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, the press has had a strange tendency to judge a candidate's performance based on criteria that have absolutely nothing to do with the content of what the person is saying. In 2000, Al Gore was said to have "lost" the debates because of his body language and subtle behavior--he rolled his eyes a lot, stepped into Bush's space--making him come off, supposedly, as arrogant and rude. Then there was the matter of Gore's alleged "exaggerations," like saying he went to a Texas fire site with James Lee Witt, when in reality he went with another official, and traveled with Witt during another incident. The press jumped on Gore for this minor blunder, acting like he was a liar, all the while ignoring Bush's misstatements during the same debates (and there were several). The emphasis on all this trivial stuff ended up overshadowing the fact that the polls taken right after two of the debates showed that the initial consensus was that Gore had won. Only after the press started focusing on these irrelevant details did people change their minds.

If you actually listen to what Bush says during the debates, a different picture emerges. He frequently doesn't answer the questions given to him, sometimes completely changing the subject to talk about something else (i.e., something he's rehearsed). When he does come up with answers of his own, they are startlingly simplistic. A lot of what he does is just repeat key themes over and over, a technique that has proven effective. And his admirers mistake the simplicity for clarity.

As Roger Ebert wrote in his book The Great Movies II, Bush has never said anything Chauncey Gardiner couldn't have said. This is not to suggest that Bush is actually retarded--I'm not prepared to back that up, and it isn't true. He seems to have certain kinds of smarts. But he's intellectually vapid, and proud of it. (He actually boasted to having been a C student.) He's like Chauncey in the sense that he's a know-nothing who's being controlled by the people around him.