The scripted presidency of George W. Bush

When actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency in 1980, a number of pundits wondered whether cue cards would have a prominent place in the White House.

Since Reagan, other actors have entered the political arena, most notably bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, who occupies the California gubernatorial office Reagan held four decades ago. But it is rapidly becoming clear that the ultimate “scripted presidency” belongs not to Reagan but to prodigal son/ne’er-do-well businessman-turned-governor-turned president George W. Bush.

In case anyone missed it, a minor imbroglio is developing over a “question and answer” session Bush held with military personnel in Iraq. The tame exchange failed to make the news. What is making news, however, is the pre-show session captured from a satellite feed.

It shows Allison Barber, a deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department, “prepping” the armed services members in advance of Bush’s arrival. She encourages the military personnel to smile because it looks good on television, and tells one soldier that if something comes up that isn’t scripted, he has the microphone and it is his chance to be impressive. A video clip of this preparatory session is available on CNN’s web site, www.cnn.com.

In a sense, it is surprising that this event made news. Anyone who has followed the Bush administration with any degree of attention is well aware not only of its penchant for secrecy, but also of its aversion to anything resembling spontaneity. The emperor, clearly, cannot be seen without the clothing of a script.

One case in point was the “tour” the president went on to promote his much-ballyhooed plan to “rescue” Social Security. It featured carefully screened audiences of his supporters.

Of course, it is important for the president to be protected, and the Secret Service exists for this purpose. For Bush, however, the need for protection extends beyond the physical protection which a nation’s chief executive deserves. He has to have intellectual protection as well.

No one has ever contended that George W. Bush is an intellectual heavyweight. He has no gift for a pungent phrase. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous statement, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” could not have been uttered by this president. He might have turned it into something like, “To be afraid is to have fear, and fear is fearful.”

Cindy Sheehan, in contrast, has been extraordinarily eloquent. And unlike the members of the armed forces who participated in the “question and answer” session with Bush, this administration could not compel her to stick with its script.

As the Bush administration’s approval ratings continue their rapid descent — spurred by the disastrous U.S. military intervention in Iraq, the abysmal governmental response to Hurricane Katrina, the exposure of a covert CIA operative because her husband wouldn’t sing the Bush administration’s tune, the economic downturn and increasing gas prices — the Bush administration resembles more and more the administration of the fictional British leader Jim Hacker in the comedy series “Yes, Prime Minister.” Hacker “increased the average age of the cabinet, but lowered the average IQ.”

Bush’s recent nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court even though she’s had no judicial or constitutional law experience is just another example of the president’s intellectual shallowness. In his selection, he is following the script of the movie “The Untouchables,” acting as a twisted White House version of the beat cop Malone, played by Sean Connery. Malone went to the police academy for recruits to clean up corruption. Bush, like the ultra-right generally, believes the judicial system is corrupted by defenders of democratic rights, and won’t be satisfied until right-wing ideologues tip the scales of justice. To accomplish his version of a “clean up,” Bush looks for people “untainted” by the experience of judicial reasoning or understanding of civil rights and liberties.

The ultra-right and the Republican Party have also had as part of their script that they don’t really believe in government. It’s time to take them at their word, hold them to that script, and yell “cut.”

Lawrence Albright is a reader of the People’s Weekly World.