No, I didn’t watch it. I’ve stopped watching Bush speak live on the notion that since every time he speaks he seems like a bored third grader dutifully if uncomprehendingly reciting his line in the class play. I find it so aggravating I can’t actually concentrate on what he’s saying. So I skip the speechifying and go straight to the transcript. And of course the president’s speech looks fine in the transcript, as it always does. The president’s speechwriters have created the Platonic ideal of George W. Bush, the one that speaks in plain, common language about big ideas and big truths (which then has to be filtered through the actual Dubya, alas; see above comments about the bored third-grader).
The major problem about the speech as far as I can see is not that it wasn’t a fine speech, but it was delivered exactly one year too late. And the real problem is not even that it’s a speech made one year too late, but that it’s one year too late and the administration doesn’t even know it. Calling for the destruction of Abu Ghraib would have been brilliant in May of 2003. In May of 2004, it looks like a large-scale application of Rumsfeld’s recent decision to forbid US soldiers to have camera phones: A move rooted more in a desire to negate evidence of wrongdoing rather than wrongdoing itself. By all means, let us destroy Abu Ghraib; it’s a hateful place. But how much better it would have been if it could have been destroyed before we had a chance to plaster a fresh coat of hate to the walls ourselves.
(To cut away from the main thrust of this, let’s talk for a minute about digital cameras and Iraq. I have been loathe to make any comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq, but here’s an analogy that works. Digital cameras are to Iraq what television was to Vietnam: The medium through which the folks back home are getting to see images of war the Pentagon doesn’t want us to see. The irony here is that the Pentagon had learned the lesson of Vietnam by “embedding” journalists, who happily lapped up the quasi-access. But as the saying go, the problem is the generals are always fighting the last war. They didn’t comprehend the damage camera phones could do until it was far too late. Banning camera phones won’t work anyway, particularly on a generation of soldiers who spent the last several years with a cell phone attached to their heads everywhere they went.)
Bush and co. have their defenders, many of whom want to accentuate the idea that real progress is being made in Iraq, in the day to day details of Iraqis getting through their lives. This idea is probably true, but the problem with doing things spectacularly wrong is a) it’s rather more newsworthy than the “good things” — which incidentally is not cynicism on the part of the news media any more than covering the damage of a 10-minute tornado instead of 16 straight days of sunshine is cynical — and b) it lends itself to a formulation of events that is not especially positive for the administration; i.e., that some good things are being done in spite of the administration’s monumental incompetence rather than through an intelligible plan. Credit for good things simply does not accrue. No, it’s not fair. However, by and large I find it really interesting when this administration or its fans complain about people not being fair.
I’ve never made a secret of my dislike for the administration, or my opinion that it’s incompetent, or that Bush, while not out-and-out stupid, is nevertheless one of the most intellectually incurious Presidents we’ve ever had (I was saying this three years ago). That’s saying something coming from the modern Republican party, which prefers its presidents genial and dim, so they will not impede the actual busy work being done by others.
But for all that I’ve doubted that Bush would be pried out of the White House in November. The GOP is simply too tenacious and skilled for that; any organization that can take George W. Bush, an Ivy League millionaire son of an Ivy League millionaire — a man who might not be able to pronounce “nepotism” but has surely benefited from it — and pass him off as a man for the NASCAR crowd is not an organization without skills. I’ve been fully expecting Four More Years for the last three, and given my own utter lack of enthusiasm for Kerry — me, a fellow who would rather dive into a wood chipper than vote for Bush — I’m still not ready to breathe easy on the matter.
Even so, and even considering the impressive strength of the GOP Reality Distortion Shield, there comes a time when even the best efforts of the spin masters can’t hide the incompetence. Let me put it this way: Bush has messed up the Iraq war so badly that he’s lost Tom Clancy. When someone like Tom Clancy is sitting there saying “good men make mistakes” in reference to Bush, think of how many of his readers — generally not tree-huggers — he’s just enabled to make the same judgment (Clancy has even less kind things to say about some of Bush’s advisors). These people aren’t necessarily going to go out and vote for Kerry — God forbid they should vote for an actual veteran and commander of men, you know — but that doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for Bush.
That’s what Bush needs to be scared of. The speech last night was designed to shore up the support of the people who are supposed to vote for Bush anyway; I don’t know if it’s going to work. It’s a year late and $200 billion short, and thanks to those digital cameras, Americans already know the worst of what that time and money has bought us, and given us an inkling of what how much more we’re going to have to pay for it before it’s all over.
In reality, Bush isn’t campaigning against John Kerry. He’s campaigning against the Bush his speechwriters have created: The Platonic Bush, the Ideal Bush, the one of simple strong words and big ideas, the Bush we keep being assured is there. Well, he’s not there. The Bush we’ve got is the flickering shadow on the cave wall, the one that fades with the harsh light of reality. Again, the tragedy for Bush is not that he’s campaigning against a better version of himself, but that he doesn’t even know it.
Update: Wired News reports that the “banning camera phones” is a rumor, so that’s good. Interestingly, however, Secretary Rumsfeld’s comment about the camera phones makes the point I made above:
While Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may not have signed a ban on new consumer digital-imaging technologies, he did express clear concern about the unforeseen impact of such technologies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 7.
“People are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon,” Rumsfeld said.