W: Our President
1. W.: Mysteries of the Organism
In George W. Bush, we have a president for whom reading a teleprompter is a physical exertion. Each line accomplished brings a panting release of breath. His best trait is his doggedness. Another man would have realized his failings and tried to do something about them. In W., his indifference to his deficiencies, his shameless willingness to do things for which he is unfit—e.g. read, speak, lead a political community—are, alongside his noble birth, his main strengths.
Character tells in public appearances. W. often looks confused. His brow tightens as if he were enduring some pain he can’t quite locate. It could be on his foot, in his bowel. But it is the pain of thinking, or speaking, itself.
His underlip rises to cover its mate. His chin collapses his face from underneath, as in the frozen mastication of the retarded. The upthrust chin is as much W.’s characteristic expression as it was for Charcot’s lunatics. The two lines that emerge pointing downward between his eyebrows when he thinks he shows anger resemble the expression on the mute face of a baby, about to throw a tantrum. They are the mimicry of anger in a stunted face.
W. is a close stander. He once allowed Brit Hume to interview him in prime-time, because his poll numbers were low. He showed America his golf putting, his dogs, his way of talking to children, his skill at sitting. He demonstrated his verisimilitude. You could see that even Brit Hume was nervous at finding that W. stands too close. In the absence of character, he tries to suck definition from others in his proximity—as if to assure himself that their uprightness will keep him erect, within distance of touch.
W. is a tongue thruster. You see that little pink muscle flicker outwards between his pale lips frequently during a speech. W.’s tongue is the gremlin soul announcing its presence, the unformed, fetus-like, moist juvenility inside the mannequin.
As he nears the end of his speeches, he becomes complacent. You detect the flash of a spoiled grin. It indicates: “I got away with something.” W. is the curious figure who learned to get away with things that weren’t rebellious. What he got away with was dutiful conformism.
W.’s is the heroism of just functioning. Our leader has grown expert in his way. We have watched him gradually become assured. His triumph over adversity has given him the opportunity to mortgage the economy, wreck foreign relations, despoil the environment, and cause the deaths of innocents. If you can manage to hold the small things together, as W. has, you can ruin the big things utterly.
It is unfortunate that W. is our president at a time of crisis. For W. is really a president for an era when all problems are solved, when poverty has been eradicated, illness and strife abolished, and peace and goodness permanently assured. His reign speaks of a time of perfection, when even an idiot might rule. His ascension to the throne is the gesture of a completed democracy. In this heaven, the meanest citizen could be trusted to steer the state. In the balked but eager physiognomy of George W. Bush we have our most utopian image of American life: a reflection of the blessed land over which even this man could be trusted to rule.
2. The Autonomous Follower
Some on the left compare W. to Hitler. Nothing could be more wrong.
It is our embarrassing distinction in the United States to have acquired a follower as our leader. The younger Bush is a believer. You don’t picture him on the podium at Nuremberg. No, you see him in the third row of the crowd on the rally floor. Look for his face, there, among the other sons! Witness our little man, W. His face shining with perspiration, he puts all his spirit into the regime salute. How smartly he swallows everything. For the Leader! For Homeland Security! (Für die Sicherheit der Heimat!)
When he wore his flight suit on the USS Abraham Lincoln, he was being true to something deep inside him. It had to be a tight little outfit, a uniform he could zip right up the front. A statesman’s suit, presidential garb, must feel wrong to him. He needs to be reminded of his happy days as an Andover cheerleader. He wants his crotch tightly cupped in nylon, secure as a flyer in someone else’s plane.
Could W. be a new type in history? Let us think of him as “the autonomous follower.”
In the old era of bureaucratic conformism, people talked about the follower, the organization man. This functionary could commit acts of cruelty and stupidity just by carrying out orders. Don’t we have a mental picture of this ninny, wrecking nations, laying waste to continents, executing criminals without a second thought, mistreating prisoners of war, and creating vast pools of victims, domestic and foreign, all because some higher-up told him to? He was “only following orders.” That was an aspect of rationalized hierarchy. But W. is achieving similar disasters without anyone giving him orders. He—incredibly—is the one giving orders. And yet he seems to be no Führer himself.
W. seems to lead, that is, to make functional decisions that are not dictated to him. He has his advisers, whose questions to him, answered on a principle of simplicity, become his doctrines. But the source of right is somewhere outside of W., in his God, or his notion of good and evil. By keeping it outside of him, never doubting, he sheds its terrible nimbus onto the White House and the departments. We see an administration that has merged politics with belief and separated it from thought.
The sine qua non of the autonomous follower is his belief in automatic action with no agent. All good people, and he most of all, are only instruments of an order which is supposed already to have been made.
Perhaps Poppy Bush made the order, speaking psychologically. Perhaps Our Father made it, theologically. Perhaps W.’s advisers know who made it, and will tell him. Perhaps “democracy,” which W. loves only in the guise of a vast instrumental mechanism, grinding across the globe, a teleology of the world-spirit—perhaps free markets and democracy made the order inevitable.
Freedom, W.’s favorite word, is the word he understands least. His unconscious philosophy is necessitarian. Ask him what mistakes he has made and he can’t think of any. To make a mistake, you must have had a choice.
In this way he can take for granted that he is an instrument of good without being arrogant or ambitious. It is one of the most appealing things about him. “I am a lowly sinner,” he announces to his evangelical constituents, by which he reminds himself of his own exemption from responsibility and his redemption by divine unfreedom. He makes up orders that are assembled from the bric-a-brac of instruction, correction, remembered adage, childhood experience, assumed law, scripture, in a collection of string, paper trash, and bits of bright foil.
W. was corrected many, many times as a boy. Those corrections make up his truth. You can see and hear it in every speech. It is what gives his face its extraordinary air of inexperience, of innocence. He is not facing reality and trying to think; he is squinting and trying to remember his lessons. When W. addresses the bad guys to pronounce their doom, and exhorts the decent people to trust in the good things to come—when he promises everything, regardless of reality, assuring his listeners they have nothing to fear, and nothing to pay, because nothing costs anything, in a world of final security where two plus two equals either four, or five—we hear W. addressing himself, not America. He is catechizing himself.