For years, George Bush suffered the reputation of being one of the great wimps in American politics. Nixon told dirty jokes about his subservience; Garry Trudeau mocked him relentlessly for months in “Doonesbury.” For a while, the nation’s newspaper columnists even discussed “the wimp factor” in evaluating the 1988 presidential primaries and the possible outcome of the election. Then Bush went on the offensive, grabbed the flag, enlisted Willie Horton as a campaign aide, and learned to speak like Clint Eastwood’s “Make My Day” with his very own “Read My Lips, No New Taxes.”
For those Americans still clueless that a virile, active president has replaced an aging enfeebled one, the Bush administration has kindly and gently choreographed a remarkable outdoors routine for the nation’s press photographers: See George Bush standing chest deep in the foaming surf of South Florida, casting his lure in search of a big one! See George trout fishing in Maine! See George quail hunting in the thick cactus-filled brush of south Texas! My God, this guy is movin’ and shakin’!
Mr. Bush is not the first surf-and-turf president. That honor goes to Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1908. Roosevelt had campaigned as a war hero, the legendary “Rough Rider” from the Spanish-American War. The legend of San Juan Hill was itself carefully cultivated by Roosevelt. He deliberately took the name “Rough Riders” for his unit because it was already internationally famous as the nickname for the “cowboys” and “Indians” of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show; the name gave his regiment instant celebrity status. Moreover, some battle scenes were staged for the cameras—the Spanish soldiers were given their guns back, but the bullets were removed from the cartridges. Finally, the Rough Riders were only one among several US units fighting in the area that day.
As president, Roosevelt hired the first full time press secretary. He also instituted private interviews with correspondents and began to choreograph both his official and social activities for news photographers, including the early film crews. Roosevelt was particularly astute in symbolizing his philosophy of “rugged individualism” and “walk softly and carry a big stick” foreign policy through having his hunting trips photographed. The cultural tradition of the heroic warrior-hunter who regenerates society with his victories was thus used to help persuade voters of the United States’ rightful ascension to world empire.
Bush’s manipulative political playing with symbolic virility follows this cultural tradition. One might think that after nearly ninety years, the US press might have a more self-reflective approach to choreographed role-playing by politicians. But the drama seems irresistible; the press acquiesces to its own manipulation, and in turn shares responsibility for the reduction of democracy from discussion and action to the role of spectators watching a presidential Wild Kingdom.
William Gibson is writing a book about paramilitary culture and warrior fantasies in the 1980s.