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Commander-in-Costume
May 6, 2003
By Mike McArdle

Joe McGinniss was present at the birth of modern American politics. His book The Selling of the President chronicled the Nixon campaign of 1968 and described how a group of dedicated men repackaged Richard Milhous Nixon and gave America one of its worst Presidents.

A modern politician is as much a consumer product as a PT Cruiser or a George Foreman grill, and they are sold with the same techniques and often the same advertising people. Richard Nixon was widely believed to have lost the Presidency in 1960 because he appeared devious and insincere in his televised debates with the cool, assured John F. Kennedy.

Nixon learned his lesson and hired professional image makers for his 1968 comeback. They remade Nixon, long thought of as a nasty political knife-fighter, into a more mellow elder statesman. Appearances and speeches were crafted to show the voters only the Nixon that the handlers wanted them to see. Debates were avoided - they were not controllable. Nixon was going end the Vietnam War with a plan that he couldn't talk about, and crime would be defeated merely by hiring a new attorney general.

It seems so shamelessly corrupt in retrospect because we know that crime got worse and the secret plan to end the war remains a secret to this day. But they pulled it off. Nixon just barely snuck into the office he had sought for so long. Once there, however, the real Nixon returned - the crude political street fighter who made up the rules as he went along and saw enemies everywhere. Nixon eventually brought himself down and degraded the office he had put such a priority on obtaining.

In the decades that followed the art of manipulating the public's perception has reached levels that the men who had to put a good face on Tricky Dick could have never imagined. A modern campaign - in fact a modern Presidency (campaigns are perpetual nowadays) - is a series of carefully planned images and soundbites designed to manipulate the perceptions of the public.

And it is that manipulation that has brought us George W. Bush, the anti-Nixon.

Nixon was in fact a man of many gifts in an unattractive package. A extremely bright student, he grew resentful of the Eastern elite whom he felt had denied him a place in an Ivy League law school because he wasn't one of their own. He lost the presidency in 1960 to an Ivy League child of privilege who possessed the good looks and personal skills that Nixon lacked. Nixon's resentments gradually morphed into the obsessive paranoia that eventually destroyed his career.

Bush is a man of few gifts in an appealing package. He is exactly the type of person that Nixon so despised, a son of Eastern old money who was handed the things that Nixon had to work so hard for. Never studied, never worked hard and yet was never far from wealth or political power.

But it is Bush more than anyone else who's benefited from the political image-making that Nixon used in the 1968 campaign. Nowhere was this more evident than during last week's appearance on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.

The military personnel on their way back to the US were used as a prop for a publicly financed political photo-op - Bush landing on the carrier deck in a fighter plane dressed as a pilot. Of course Bush's real military record was nothing short of disgraceful. He used his father's influence to avoid Vietnam and obtain a spot in the Texas Air National Guard, from which he went AWOL for over a year.

Bush later delivered a speech on the deck in front of a huge banner reading "Mission Accomplished.". The speech, of course, was as fraudulent as his pilot costume. The absurd linking of Iraq with 9/11 and Al Qaeda - evidence of which the administration has never been able to supply - was repeated. The oft-mentioned weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify an attack on a virtually defenseless country have never been found, but were shamelessly dragged out again. "The regime" can't give anybody the missing WMDs anymore because it no longer exists. Repeat lies often enough and they become truth.

The press, having abdicated its responsibility to scrutinize anything that even remotely involves flag-waving went along for the ride. Chris Matthews of MSNBC actually went so far as gush over how good Bush looked in his jump suit. As Mr. Hardball put it, "He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes west. I remember him standing at that fence with Colin Powell. Was the best picture in the 2000 campaign."

But Matthews inadvertently touched on Bush's greatest political asset. He can made into anything that the image makers want him to be. He is so utterly vacuous that he can be the cowboy, the soldier, the businessman - and there is no pesky real person to get in the way. He is what the people who remade Nixon could only have dreamed of.

Turn over in your grave, Dick, the Eastern elites that you hated took your makeover gambit to elevate one of their own to power and are using it to keep him there.

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