May 1 2002

From Bozo to Churchill

Book Excerpt

Countless leaders have been deified by national emergency, but few have been remade as quickly and completely as George W. Bush. In many cases, those who had misread him as a simple tool, braying automatically at his most trivial mistakes, now automatically revered him. Such converts suddenly agreed with those who had seen Bush’s flaws as signs of latent greatness–thitherto the notion only of a large plurality, but now the common wisdom.

And so, before you knew it, the seeming bozo was our savior. Not only were his famous foibles magically erased, but Bush’s entire political pre-history also slipped right down the memory hole–the fraud and thuggery in Florida, the Supreme Court’s complicity, the appointment of John Ashcroft, the budget-busting tax cuts, the moves against Social Security, the screw-you foreign policy, the slash-and-burn environmental policy, the lame prescription drug plan, the Jeffords controversy, California’s power black-outs, Dick Cheney’s Enron black-out and the many other signs of Big Oil’s toxic spread, and on and on. Such a tacky record contradicted Bush’s recent incarnation as America’s Augustus, and so the record (briefly) disappeared.

Certainly the corporate media did all they could to reinforce the mass amnesia. Eager, as ever, to exploit the craze, and also to score brownie points (or still more brownie points) with our now-towering leader, they glorified him with a panting desperation that recalled the war-time cult of Stalin. We had the cable operations vying to outdo each other with slick, airless “profiles” of his brilliant leadership–shows that might as well have come straight from the White House. (“And he will not waver!” Andrew Card said at the end of one on CNN–10/20/01.)

We had the national dailies and top TV pundits, along with scores of lesser lights, promiscuously classing Bush’s pipsqueak rhetoric with the most exalted works of war-time oratory. (“When he said ‘Let’s roll’ at the end, I think there is a bit of Churchill in that, in the sense that he was saying, ‘This is not the beginning of the end, it is perhaps the end of the beginning,'” Chris Matthews yelled at Larry King on November 8.)

In an extraordinary act of self-abasement, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (12/3/01) deemed Bush “a model of unblinking, eyes-on-the-prize decisiveness,” called him “eloquent,” “commanding” and “astute,” and treated his simplistic tag-lines as articulations of a reasonable policy: “From where does George W. Bush–or Laura, for that matter–draw the strength for this grand mission, the ambitious aim of which is nothing less than to ‘rid the world of evildoers’?”

And in February, there was “War and Destiny”–not a network miniseries, but a reverent spread in Vanity Fair, which lionized the presidential team with solemn head shots and TV-wrestlers’ nicknames–Cheney was “The Rock,” Ashcroft was “The Heat”–while ranking Dubya with Demosthenes. (“It’s been a while since presidential rhetoric could raise the hairs on your arm,” wrote Christopher Buckley. “Is this really the same frat boy who choked on his tongue talking about ‘subliminable’ advertising? Johnny got his gravitas.”)

Discreet erasures

Such overt Caesarism was continually reinforced by the discreet erasure of all incongruous information. Just as the news teams prettified the “war on terrorism”–and did it gladly, as if such a whitewash were a patriotic act–so did they work to idealize the man ostensibly in charge, by tuning out or under-playing all discordant facts about him.

There was, first of all, his non-election. The media chose, in mid-October, to postpone reporting on the long-awaited recount of the votes in Florida–because, they said, we were at war, which made resources tight, and also made the whole thing “utterly irrelevant,” as the New York Times‘ Richard Berke asserted (Salon, 9/29/01). That the war was partly in defense of “democratically elected government,” as Bush himself had said to great applause, did not, apparently, strike such reporters as ironic.

Then, a month later, the media did Bush/Cheney an enormous favor, by killing the important news that Gore had won the vote in Florida, and so, according to the Constitution, ought to be our president. This inconvenient finding was played way, way down, as, by and large, the newsfolk either sat on it (ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News) or brazenly distorted it, highlighting Bush’s slender victory just in those four counties where Gore had sued for hand counts. Such disinformation came from several broadcasts, but it was the New York Times that started it, with a front-page obfuscation that gave lots of ammo to Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge (The Nation, 12/17/01).

It was more as our commander-in-chief, however, than as the leader of a great democracy, that Bush was constantly made over by the media, whose watchdogs guarded his persona with the loyalty and zeal of presidential handlers. Thus they kept on talking up his day-to-day performance, while spiking contradictory reports. When, at the end of September, CBS (9/25/01) confirmed that Air Force One had not been targeted on 9/11, the other media held back, as if to certify Bush’s excuse for speeding out of town.

Links with the enemy

Far more troubling, however, was the media’s failure to report those stories that would surely complicate Bush’s posture as a pure crusader. Our press has told us very little of the links between him and our new enemy–such links as would have had the anchors turning somersaults if it had been Bill Clinton.

Concerning Bush’s family, first of all, the watchdogs have been perfect lambs. Most of them spiked the news that the bin Laden family owned a small piece of the Carlyle Group, employer of the senior Bush (an awkward fact reported by the Wall Street Journal–9/27/01–and that drove the bin Ladens to sell their shares); or that Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother, seems to have invested in Arbusto Energy, George W. Bush’s fledgling oil concern, back in 1976 (a story noted in the foreign press, and, stateside, only by such plucky independents as the On-Line Journal–7/3/01).

The media have also been too tactful about Carlyle’s profits from the “war on terrorism,” through the (aptly named) Crusader, a giant, pokey howitzer made by United Defense, a Carlyle subsidiary. Although the Pentagon itself had hoped to phase it out (in Kosovo, it proved to be not worth the cost), that $11 billion turkey was resuscitated by the terrorist attack. “On Sept. 26, the Army signed a $665 million modified contract with United Defense through April 2003 to complete the Crusader’s development phase,” reported the Los Angeles Times (1/10/02)–and few others, including Multinational Monitor, Red Herring and Paul Krugman in his New York Times column. (The deal was never mentioned on TV.)

And while the media laid off such family ties, so did they play down, or ignore, the larger links between the evil ones and our own government. There was the poignant case of John O’Neill, the Twin Towers’ security chief who died on 9/11, and prior to that one of the FBI’s top counter-terrorism experts. In November, it emerged that he had finally quit the Bureau in disgust because the State Department interfered with his investigation of certain of Osama’s siblings, then living here in the United States. O’Neill believed that he was stopped because of oil, and our unofficial closeness to the Saudis.

That story broke in France, in an exposé by two investigative journalists (Jean-Charles Brisand and Guillaume Dasquie, Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth), whose findings were then carefully neglected in this country–although there was one brief item deep inside the New York Times(11/12/01). (O’Neill’s death inspired many patriotic eulogies, but none made mention of the reason why he changed careers.) Clearly, the U.S. media were loath to follow any leads that might somehow implicate Bush/Cheney in the great disaster.

Weird uninterest

Such deference may explain the media’s weird uninterest in the catastrophic failure of intelligence and military readiness that was so horribly revealed on 9/11. In the months after, Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker(10/8/01) was strikingly alone in looking into the CIA’s malfeasance. Otherwise, the press appeared to share the view of Bush, who went to Langley two weeks after the attack to praise the agency for its great work (9/26/01): “I can’t thank you enough, on behalf of the American people. Keep doing it.”

By failing to look into it, the media have, unconsciously or not, colluded with the White House, whose big-time occupants do not want 9/11 publicly investigated. When, in January, Congress was preparing hearings on the matter, both Bush and Cheney lobbied hard to get them dropped (New York Post, 1/30/02)–a move that most Republicans did not support (and that the media, by and large, did not report).

While the media did take the lead in glamorizing Bush, however, they were not forcing that heroic view on everybody else, but merely coming up with the heroic view that, for the moment, many people wanted. Traumatized, the journalists and many in the audience were eager for George W. Bush to be another Roosevelt; and they were just as eager not to know whatever disenchanting truths an independent press would try to tell them.

Thus the terrorists did land a blow on our democracy, by knocking millions, briefly, to their knees–TV journalists included. “George Bush is the president,” Dan Rather said to David Letterman (9/18/01). “He makes the decisions–and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where. He makes the call.” (Moments later, while reciting lyrics from “America the Beautiful,” the anchorman broke down in tears.) That fearful, warlike mood was all-pervasive after 9/11.


Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at New York University, is the author of The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder (Norton). This article is excerpted from the new preface to the updated paperback edition.