Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Friday, October 13, 2006

Two Thumbs up to Woodward’s Denial & the Disney President

Well I survived the long, hard slog of reading all 491 pages of Woodward’s Denial. The man clearly does not abide by the poetics of Callimachus, who famously declared, mega biblion, mega kakon -- “a big book’s a big piece of shit.” On the other hand, there was so much shit to write about the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq, that maybe the length was justified. It’s hard to say how this book will be treated by history or historians in the future. A lot of that has to do with the book’s ambiguous genre. It, as well as other books written by journalists these days, seems to inhabit a world halfway between newspaper-article reporting and a real work of history. It is what the French have dubbed reportage. These books aren’t churned out fast enough to contain much new information (and hence really aren’t “news”) but they’re churned out too fast to be consistently decent history writing. I readily understand the financial reasons for Woodward to write such books, Simon and Schuster to publish them, and the The Washington Post to tolerate this, but I never really understood why so many politicians and their staff are willing to cooperate with such projects, but not with ordinary journalists on the beat. One answer to this puzzle, however, was supplied at the very end of the book, when Woodward described a interview with Bush on December 11, 2003. Woodward was pressing Bush about not finding WMDs and finally after “five minutes and 18 seconds” of pushing him on this he got him to admit the simple fact that none had been found. Woodward goes on to say, “Later [in the interview] he [Bush] wanted to be sure that I understood the terms of the interview—his comments were for the book and not an article in The Washington Post. “In other words, I’m not going to read a headline, ‘Bush Says No Weapons’” (pp. 489-90). So there you have it. A politician can’t resist being a subject of quasi-historical book study and isn’t afraid of spilling a bit of the truth, as long is it’s not contained in a timely headline.

For Bush and others’ willingness to reveal some of the truth to a reportage project and Woodward’s policy of deferentially denying his readers access to this truth for later publication in a book, I give Bush and Woodward two thumbs up.

Naturally there are some really interesting tidbits buried here or there. Woodward provides some more grist for the mill of W’s tortured relationship with his old man. As you may recall, in Woodward’s Plan of Attack the intrepid reporter asked W why he didn’t ask his father for advice for the invasion, and W answered that “You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.” In Denial we learn that Bush says he really loves his father – a father who clearly is in anguish over his son’s poor judgment on Iraq. One comes away with the impression that Junior moved away from more benign manifestations of rebellion, such as drinking and cocaine, to waging a war that his old man wasn’t strong enough to fight. Scowcroft reads it this way, for he muses to Woodward that W “couldn’t decide whether he was going to rebel against his father or try to beat him at his own game” (p. 420). This brings up a very important historical question that some real archaeologist must eventually unearth. When did W first begin to have disdain for his father’s handling of the 1st Gulf War, and what role did the necons play in this? Of course the list of neocons in W’s administration is long and conspicuous for the fact that they were at odds with the important members of #41’s team: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Libby, Wolfowitz, Feith, Khalilizad, Abrams, Armitage, Hadley... When Bremer replaced Jay Garner in Iraq, Woodward reports that he brought along a large, young staff which Garner’s group dubbed the “Neocon Children’s Brigade” (p. 202). From Woodward’s account, however, it appears that W’s adoption of so many neoconservatives into his administration is almost an accident, as if he didn’t know them in advance and did not pick them for their neocon ideology. And yet, one of the original signatories of the neocon manifesto of 1996 was W’s brother, Jeb Bush, so W must have been aware of them and their basic tenets. Are we to imagine that W wasn’t in their circle too and wasn’t aware of what they were saying, which was basically that George H.W. Bush fucked up in Iraq and around the globe by his policy of “appeasement” and that he didn’t set about to “fix” his father’s mistakes? For Woodward’s failing to dig up some of these answers, I once again give him a thumbs up.

Another interesting refrain of the book is the degree to which the Saudis, especially via ambassador Bandar, were involved in Bush’s elections. Bush literally goes to Bandar to ask him for advice when he’s going to run the first time for president (pp. 4-5). He continues to go to Bandar throughout his tenure for advice (most famously now when he asks Bandar, “Why should I care about North Korea?” – a quote which is now making the rounds -- p. 12). The most outrageous revelation of this special relationship, although no real surprise, comes in the context of a meeting Bandar had with Bush in the Oval office on February 20, 2004 at which Woodward reports Rice and Card were also present. Woodward writes, “He [Bush] then thanked Bandar for what the Saudis were doing on oil – essentially flooding the market and trying to keep the price as low as possible. He [Bush] expressed appreciation for the policy and the impact it could have during the election year” (p. 287). Woodward tells us in an appendix of sources on page 509 that the “Information in this chapter [26] comes primarily from background interviews with seven knowledgeable sources...and from documents obtained by the author.” Throughout the book it is clear that Bandar and Card are two people he interviewed extensively – I would peg Card as the primary eye-witness source for this information. So Woodward reports, probably based on Card’s eye-witness testimony, that the Saudis used oil to interfere with the 2004 elections in Bush’s favor. Those who think Bush and the Republicans also don’t have similar friends in the markets working for them right now in the 2006 election cycle are simply naive. In the very next sentence though, which is the beginning of a new paragraph, Woodward then writes, and I am not making this up, “On a new and important subject, Bush said that the United States had a program of $3 billion in aid to Pakistan.” What the fuck? You mean the revelation that a foreign entity was using oil to influence the 2004 US elections in Bush’s favor is not important? For this entire affair and Woodward’s nonchalant reporting of it, I once again give Bush and Woodward two thumbs up.

A further refrain running through the book is Bush’s purely political calculations for running the war based upon his image as a resolute, unswerving Commander in Chief. This portrait dovetails nicely with one of the salient points made by Frank Rich in his book about how good the Bush administration is at manipulating images and political theater. I too have long thought that Bush’s or Rove’s or the Republicans’ true political genius and success are due to their realization that totus mundus agit histrionem -- “All the world’s a stage.” Who can forget the Bush’s bullhorn-moment at the collapsed World Trade Centers or his Top Gun spectacle just offshore from San Diego, but carefully choreographed to look like it was in the middle of the Pacific? The above Latin quote graced the Globe Theatre and has become synonymous with Shakespearean theater. The Bard, probably more than any other English playwright, grasped the idea that performances are not confined to the footlights of the stage, rather all of life was a stage. This realization perhaps led him to write plays that did not fit the inherited classical categories of Comedy or Tragedy (or even Tragi-comedy), rather he wrote a different form of drama that Lionel Abel in 1963 dubbed “Metatheatre.” Metatheatre is found when a play doubles back on itself, where the performance recognizes, engages, and exploits its own theatricality. It characterizes a work that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as a play in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality (that is, it can serve as a meditation upon Aristotle’s concept of mimesis). So in Hamlet we find a play within a play where “The play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscious of the King.”

Metatheatre, then, arises from a view of life (not of theater) -- that is how life is actually lived, and therefore should be presented on stage. What characterizes that life is its theatricality: characters who know that they are both other than the plot in which they appear and constructed by that plot; characters who attempt to control their plot or reveal their own theatricality like Hamlet. What follows from this worldview is the sense that real world beyond the footlights -- the world of family, of forum, of courts, of political chambers, of symbols and position -- is also a stage. This does not mean that Shakespeare or those who possess the metatheatrical sensibility are uncertain about what is “real”; it merely means that those who view life this way are absolutely certain that all of life is a performance, that it is all an act, all an improvisation of images, all a competition over the meaning of the symbols that inhabit our world, and that we must also improvise ourselves to achieve our desires (position, power, sex...). And this is what Frank Rich sees in the Bush Administration. This is what they are masters at. We need not look far for Bush’s inspiration for this theatrical view of the world. As Woodward reports, one time Bush confided to John McCain that, “I don’t want to be like my father. I want to be Ronald Reagan” (p. 419).

One of the most tell-tale signs, both in life and on the stage, of a metatheatrical character, is his use of rhetoric. A metatheatrical character can take any situation and improvise (spin) an argument on stage. The more amusing examples can, naturally, can be found in Comedy. Digression here: although Abel limited his discussion of metatheatre to Tragedy, as others have argued (Susan Sontag in her review of Abel and more recently Will Batstone), if metatheatre arises from life and depends upon the theatricality of life, then there is no inherent reason why there cannot be a comic version of metatheatre, that is a comic presentation of life as already theatricalized. A good example of metatheatrical Comedy in the ancient world was Plautus. His “clever slave” characters in particular exhibit a comic metatheatrical view of the world. Thus the clever slave Gripus in the Rudens has fished up a trunk in the harbor. When confronted by someone who knows the trunk’s real owner (see here, where the word trunk is translated as “wallet”) he lays claim to the trunk by projecting it as a “trunk-fish” and himself as a “trunk-fisherman” in a brilliant farce of legal argument. As Woodward’s book makes clear, these are the sorts of political and legal farces the Bush administration and Republican party allegedly came into power to resist (Clinton’s comical “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”), yet are performing on the American public everyday in much more alarming and tragic ways than Clinton or the Democrats ever did: “Saddam refused to disarm, so we disarmed him” [how could he disarm when he didn’t have the arms he was accused of having?]; “What does that mean, ‘outrages upon human dignity’?”; “That’s not global warming, why that’s just ‘climate change’”... In fact, as perhaps Plautus reflects at Rome so many millennia ago, it’s obvious that effective empire-building in a democratic republic requires such a rhetorical manipulation of the world’s images. So Bush has become the Disney president in this neocon vision of the New American Century, backed up by Fox news.

Speaking of Fox News and Disney, in Woodward’s book on page 346 we learn that Fox News’s CEO Roger Ailes (who had been Bush senior’s media consultant) relayed a message to Rove late in the evening of the 2004 election that unlike the 2000 election “You don’t want me [FOX] to be the first one to call it.” As for Disney, when Rice was telling Bush that the images from Iraq were a problem, Bush allegedly says, “You know, we could go to Hollywood. I know people in Hollywood. We can go to Disney. We can get people involved who can do this kind of thing.” This perhaps adds some interesting commentary to The Path to 9-11, which was aired by a subsidiary of Disney (ABC). For Bush’s metatheatrical manipulation of images and his Disney presidency, I give him two thumbs up.

Finally, Woodward’s most obvious, unrelenting thesis seems to be that Iraq was winnable if Don Rumsfeld had never been picked as Secretary of Defense or if he had been fired even a few years into the war, or if he had been willing to send more troops – a tactical decision that Woodward has Rumsfeld blame on Franks. This aria of “Rumsfeld is the problem” begins on page one of the prologue and carries on throughout the entire book, one note after another. Rumsfeld had no plan for after the invasion, Rumsfeld replaced Garner with Bremer (who made 3 huge mistakes), Rumsfeld wouldn’t send enough troops, Rumsfeld didn’t get along with the State Department, Rumsfeld micromanaged... In fact, Woodward is so eager to cast Rumsfeld as the villain of the Iraq War that on page 310 he stoops to making even Wolfowitz seem more heroic in order to bring Rumsfeld’s incompetence into relief. Only in the last bar (chapter 45) does the score finally turn to Bush, and then Bush’s inability to see Rumsfeld’s failure is labeled merely a “denial” (the word denial is applied only to Bush and, as far as I could tell, first appears on page 267 and isn’t repeated until page 488, and again in the last sentence of the book on page 491), as if Bush were some sort of sympathetic creature with a pardonable psychic distress. The hard fact is, and one that history has taught again and again, is that occupying armies never succeed against local resistance, no matter the tactics or leaders, unless the occupying army is willing to slaughter most of the local, adult male population, intermarry (and hence produce new citizens with a stake), and take over the land. Of course the real blame for the decision to go war, not to anticipate an insurgency, and to keep the same personnel to run it, falls squarely and solely on Bush, who as the book makes clear, values political loyalty over competency. Over and over again Bush says “Heck of job” to all his players and only those, with the exception of Powell, who leave, are those who choose to leave (Tenet, Armitage, Card...). So, for the book’s underlying thesis that Rumsfeld was the problem and Bush was merely in denial about him and Iraq, I once again give Woodward two thumbs up.

One more new thing I learned from Woodward’s book. On page 290 he reports that “In Iraq the thumbs-up sign traditionally was the equivalent of the American middle-finger salute.” A google search confirms this.


At 4:39 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Thanks, Paul. Your summary has mercifully saved me from having to read the book. I'd give you "two thumbs up," except that you've added that to the list of concepts, "freedom," "democracy," "peace," etc., that now mean the exact opposite of what they meant a mere six years ago.


Post a Comment

<< Home