Dahlia Lithwick, the attorney who writes a column for Slate on legal issues and provides insider views of the give and take at sessions of the Supreme Court, and who now and then appears on the news show as an expert on legal matters, is doing a turn as a guest columnist at the New York Times. Yes, a few of the regular Times columnists do take summer vacations.
Here she takes to task critics who portray George Bush as a kind of child, or, shall we say, as a childish frat-boy.
Babies and Bath Water
Dahlia Lithwick, The New York Times, August 19, 2004
Her point is that we should not be framing a national conversation about the president this way, as it doesn't do his opponents any good at all.
What she's talking about?
Ah, guilty as charged here.
It cannot have escaped anyone's notice that much of the current Bush-bashing aims to infantilize him. The most devastating segment in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," for instance, features the president - just after he learned of the second attack on the World Trade Center - perched on a chair in a Florida classroom, looking glazed and confused as he listens to a reading of "The Pet Goat." Mr. Bush's aide might well have whispered the news to one of the assembled students to greater effect, and the implication is inescapable: for seven long minutes, the president was Not a Man.
A glance at the top 150 ads selected by MoveOn.org for its recent political advertising contest, "Bush in 30 Seconds," similarly reveals the extent to which childishness is woven into the current Bush-bashing. While children have long been used in political ads to represent the future, many of the MoveOn entries use them to satirize the actual candidate. Several of the proposed anti-Bush commercials use kids to condemn the president for unsophisticated thinking, for an infantile worldview, for the fact that his daddy purchased his every big break and for the fact that he is desperately beholden to the wealthy and powerful grown-ups surrounding him. The clear message is that Bush is more a child than an adult.
But Lithwick says that thinking of Bushas a not-particularly-smart third grader make me look bad. Why? Because "it plays to every stereotype of liberals as snotty know-it-alls who think everyone in a red state is anti-intellectual or simple-minded. It answers name-calling from the right with name-calling from the left."
That is perhaps true.
And Lithwick also points out that this is an implicit insult to anyone who voted for Bush last time around. Those who maintain this Bush-as-petulant-child view are just sneering, as she says, and saying a little under half of all voters last time around "voted for a kid - and a dumb kid at that."
Well, if the shoe fits....
Then Lithwick discusses this in relation to the Bush-Gore debates four years ago and suggests Gore's behavior - the deep sighs and the eye rolling and all that - shows how dangerous such a view is. Gore came off badly.
[The media watchdog Bob Somerby here suggests this was not the case at all.]
Be that as it may, she says there is a bigger problem than Bush opponents of this sort coming off as arrogant, smug, condescending twits -
Oh yeah, those guys, the old white men who run the country. Almost forgot about them.
... the campaign to cast Mr. Bush as a bumbling child ignores the very grown-up machine that stands behind him. Infantilizing the president shifts the focus away from the Cheneys, Rumsfelds, Ashcrofts and Wolfowitzes. These are the men who promised us short, easy wars and painless little suspensions of the Geneva Conventions. These are the men of the secret energy-policy meetings. They aren't a bunch of rowdy juveniles. They represent one of the most secretive, powerful administrations in recent memory. Whether the president could outscore your kids on the SAT is a distraction from that fact.
The she lays another one out there - the psychological consequences of pointing out that the president is, perhaps in fact, an incurious frat-boy.
Hey, who said anything about exoneration?
With each attempt to cast Mr. Bush as a baby, we craft excuses for his childish behaviors. If Mr. Bush misled us into a war in Iraq, it's because children have trouble telling the truth. If Mr. Bush sees the world in too-stark terms, it's because nuanced reasoning isn't easy for children. With each comparison between the president and a youngster, we subtly lower national expectations and exonerate bad behavior.
Yes, jokes may not be useful, and she cites the one about Laura Bush tying the president's shoes each morning before she points him toward the Oval Office. But the "child" thing may be absolutely true, and at the same time, no one is excusing anything here.
Jeff Popovich here says he agrees with most of the Times essay, but says what's wrong is the implication is that the portrayal of Bush "as a dope" is strictly the screeching of the left. He suggests the Bush team is using this image carefully.
Curious. Our Bush may be a spoiled, nasty child, just as you say, but your Kerry is an old man and wimp?
I myself waver between thinking 43 is a mindless puppet or an evil political genius. Whether one or the other or somewhere in between, what seems clear to me is that someone in Bushco understands the dynamic that Lithwick presents and has deliberately courted the Bush as dope portrayal. Hence the demonization of the word "nuance" and its sneering use in describing Kerry's positions, as if having grown-up, sophisticated thought processes is a sign of weakness. The left may call 43 a child, but Bushco calls Kerry much worse: an adult. Bushco is making the comparison.
That may be a successful ploy. Energy, however mindless and destructive, is always more interesting than plodding and dull thoughtfulness. And that thought comes to you from out here in Hollywood. It is the first law of the box office - just basic marketing.
Molly Ivins, the Texas liberal (a strange species) has a slightly different take. She takes us back to Thucydides writing about the day when the leaders in Athens watched their fleet leave port to go off and conquer Sicily. That would be 2,419 years ago, if you keep track of such things. And of course, the Greeks got trounced - they lost the whole fleet. Oops.
Thucydides had this to say -
"To think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just another attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand the question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action; fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man... Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect."
Nothing much changes, does it? Ivins runs with that idea.
What. A. Mess.
Molly Ivins - Creators Syndicate 08.19.04 -
She sets the stage thusly -
Well, she goes on to explain that her gripe is that Kerry is running such a cautious campaign that Bush can get away with falsely claiming that Kerry would have supported the war even if he had known then what he knows today.
Remember what it was like just before the war? Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- Colin Powell told us to the pound how many tons of this, that and the other -- Saddam had a reconstituted nuclear program, he had numerous ties to Al Qaeda, and he was an imminent threat.
As the president put it, we couldn't afford to wait until the smoking gun was a mushroom cloud.
And she thinks this is just painful, given how things are going in Iraq - thus the title of her essay.
But what to do now?
It seems she is counseling Kerry and his folks to flaunt this "nuance" or "sensitivity" business, just as the other side flaunts the opposites. And let the people decide which approach will get us out of this mess.
What we need to figure out is why so many of us then became so invested in this awful enterprise. As the president says, fool me once, shame on, uh, somebody or other. John Kerry isn't going to remind any of us we were wrong -- that would be rude. (Sooner or later, someone is going to ask Kerry the question he so famously asked about Vietnam: "How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake?" He'd better have an answer ready.) The reason Kerry won't "blame America first," as the Rush Limbaughs would put it, is not just because none of us likes to have our nose rubbed in our mistakes, it's a political calculation. In case you hadn't noticed, John Kerry is winning this presidential race -- that's why he's running such a cautious campaign.
... Wretched excess always accompanies war fever -- in World War I, "patriots" used to go around kicking dachshunds on the grounds that they were "German dogs." As I have noted elsewhere, people like that do not go around kicking German shepherds.
Some of that bullying, swaggering tone remains with us, in our politics. To treat with contempt any effort at "nuance" or "sensitivity" -- in one of the most fraught and sensitive situations we've ever been in -- is just ugly know-nothingism. As Republicans used to say to Democrats abut the election debacle in Florida last time, "Get over it."
Lithwick and Ivins? We need more such women.