The Great American Lockdown
Next week the Republicans will occupy lower midtown Manhattan with a security force--they used to be called armies--around 20,000 strong that includes 10,000 New York City police and a host of federal agents and tactical units under the supervision of the Secret Service. National Guard units will be placed on alert for call-up. Advisers from the Pentagon will doubtless be on hand as well, though in a more sub rosa capacity since the Rumsfeld DoD's wish to participate in domestic police actions has not yet received official blessing. Malice and plausible deniability are in the air: The NYPD's 35-page manual "Legal Guidelines for the Republican National Convention" takes ominous care to warn that protesters may impersonate officers and beat down their comrades to create the false impression of police brutality.
A 13-block cordon will be set around Madison Square Garden for the duration of the pageant. Outside that perimeter, police will be free to do as they see fit with protesters lacking permits, which is to say nearly all of them. Inside, convention-goers have been presented with an exhaustive list of items they may not bring with them to the convention floor, which includes computers, video cameras, walking sticks, and spray bottles or cans. Jesus himself could not gain entry without first surrendering his crown of thorns, which, for all the screeners could ascertain, might have been dipped in deadly ricin for use in a terrorist attack. Congress made a special $50 million appropriation for Bush's Manhattan brigade, but the real cost will likely be in the range of $75 to $125 million. No traveling delegation of the American imperium has found itself in such foreign, hostile--and heavily fortified--environs since the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.
It's the terrorists they fear, of course. And, more pressingly, the people. The New York Times reported almost two weeks ago that agents of the FBI have been knocking on the doors of likely convention demonstrators to let them know the godly eye of Ashcroft is upon them. The president has seen the whole premise of holding the convention in New York City slip away from him: The teary and triumphal appearance at Ground Zero that Karl Rove envisioned from the start was quietly ruled out in late June for the simple reason that this president can go nowhere in public without having his photo ops ruined by those who loathe him. He is reduced to doing everything in controlled settings. This is no simple matter in a campaign season. It requires, for one thing, a costly and time-consuming process of vetting ticket requests for Bush appearances to ensure that few, if any, who are not supporters get in.
As all this was happening, John Kerry and a team of the Democrats' best minds were staying up late confabulating new ways to make The Candidate ever more indistinguishable from the widely hated president. Their latest coup: Kerry would still have authorized Bush to invade Iraq even in the known absence of any weapons of mass destruction.
The Silence of the Lambs
Here is Paul Waldman, the author of a book called Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies, on the inner life of the modern working journalist:
"Many years ago, I had a conversation with a White House correspondent for a major newspaper, and I asked her about this question of covering the [political] strategy and not covering the policy details. And she said, 'Look, I'm not an expert on welfare policy. I'm not an expert on foreign policy. What I'm an expert on is politics, and that's what I'm going to write about.'
"The way that ends up manifesting itself is in theater criticism, and the irony is that reporters tend to be very, very cynical. They assume that the motives that candidates and politicians offer are always false, and they always are concealing some sort of vaguely sinister strategic motive. But the irony is that they reward good image-making and they punish bad image-making. So even though they're cynical, they're also playing right into the hands of somebody like Karl Rove, because he knows all too well that it's not a question of whether you are going to try to construct some kind of theater. You're going to be evaluated based on whether it came off well or not.
"If you have a good photo op, you're going to get praised. If you fall off the stage like Bob Dole did, then you're going to get criticized. Reporters believe when they're doing this stuff that they're kind of in the know, and their cynicism is holding politicians to account. But it really isn't. All it's doing is insisting that they put on good theater as opposed to bad theater."
The president poses a special challenge to the drama critics: what to do when the hero appears less than heroic, or even less than present. Bush's penchant for parting his lips and serving up word salad is legend among his detractors, but few actually realize how commonplace the gaffes are outside the confines of his major television appearances. Beyond garden-variety dyslexia, which by itself would not be particularly striking or memorable--witness his father--Bush's speaking troubles reflect a huge propensity to lose interest in the words coming out of his mouth, often in the middle of sentences. At such times he will utter a word that sounds vaguely like the one memorized for the occasion, or he'll elide a couple of different talking-point phrases so as to turn them inside out. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we," he recently told a Washington audience. "They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
And there are the abundant examples of anecdotes that end at blank walls, parables without point, long and rambling tautologies: in short, times when the president of the United States seems to go to his special place and leave his mouth to fend for itself. Reporters cannot say as much, since presidents do not act this way: They don't talk without thinking. They do not have to feign interest in their own words. Some presidents are found to be miscreants--it proves the system works!--but none is ever a fool. Members of the media keep to this script, except when they are laughing together over drinks.
Nor will the fourth estate brook any suggestion that the campaign game is fixed. On the day last week when he visited St. Paul, I listened to the MPR broadcast of Bush's talk that afternoon in Hudson, Wisconsin. Afterward, the handpicked Republican crowd was solicited for questions, lobbing softball after softball in W's direction.
The first: We're praying for you, Mr. President. Nothing more, really.
Bush fumbled it. Specifically, he could not stay engaged long enough to finish an earnest-seeming thanks. "This is an amazing country..." he intoned in conclusion, then faltered--"which..."--aw, fuck!, he's thinking--"prays for..."--sounding more mystified now, but nearly home--"me."
The tent-revival aspect of the gathering kept floating to the surface. Another concerned citizen for Bush, who identified himself as a "youth minister," asked after faith-based initiatives. But it was only an entrée to his real question, which concerned any plans the president might have for publicly exposing Satan and his works. Bush thanked the young man for his own works but let the devil off the hook entirely in his reply. Soon, mercifully, it was back on the bus and off to the city.
Every day now, this sort of painfully contrived sideshow is passed off as the president meeting the people on the grand road of democracy. The next morning the Star Tribune summarized his trip thus: "A wide embrace for Bush in St. Paul." It would have been nearly as accurate, and more apt, to make that "Bush in Wisconsin: Soft on Satan?" But the script forbids making fun of the president, even when he's making fun of the script.
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