August 11, 2005
By Sharon L. Jansen
Fighter pilot. Major League pitcher. Race-car driver. Cowboy.
What's all this? A reunion of the Village People? No, sorry to
disappoint you. It's just George W. Bush, playing dress-up.
I've been thinking about Bush's love of role-playing for a while
now, ever since his May 2003 performance in that green
flight suit on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. You remember:
the tailhook landing, the color-coordinated shirts of the cheering
sailors, the carefully stage-managed timing of the event (to catch
the most flattering light), the swagger
across the flight deck, the "Mission Accomplished" banner
months later, Bush was still insisting hadn't been a stage prop
but the spontaneous gesture of the Lincoln crew.
In the two years since that memorable performance, Bush has donned
a dizzying array of costumes. There's the military-style
jacket he wore when he visited Camp Pendleton last December;
it's reminiscent of the jacket General Eisenhower wore during the
Second World War, but Bush's ad hoc version, in addition
to epaulets, has a presidential seal emblazoned on the right front,
his name and "Commander in Chief" on the left, and a flag patch
on one sleeve.
Looking now at the newspaper images I've collected and at the "photo
essays" posted on the White House website, I can see that this jacket
seems to be the outfit of choice whenever Bush
visits Marine bases. For a recent appearance at Fort
Hood, however, he wore an Army windbreaker. He got his lines
right, too: "Hoo-ah," said the president as he greeted his assembled
audience. He kept the jacket on all during lunch. He was wearing
a similar jacket in Baghdad when he produced that platter
of Thanksgiving turkey in the mess tent, remember, but I still
think an apron would have been more appropriate.
When he's not in military drag, Bush likes to pretend he's a professional
athlete. The president was sporting
a Washington Nationals warm-up jacket when he threw the ceremonial
first pitch at this year's home opener. Last year, when Bush took
the field at Busch Stadium, he was pitching in a St. Louis Cardinals
jacket. By contrast, when Dick
Cheney threw out the first pitch for the Cincinnati Reds' home
opener two days later, he was wearing a regular old windbreaker,
the kind every guy in his 50s has hanging somewhere in his closet.
When it's not baseball, it's NASCAR - and Bush is wearing his
Daytona 500 jacket. Visiting Maine on Earth Day? Better be wearing
the right outfit - a workshirt and an official Wells
National Estuarine Research Reserve jacket with a fish-and-seabird
logo. Feel like going for a bike ride? Make sure you're decked-out
like Lance Armstrong and riding a top-of-the-line Trek 98 mountain
bike. Where do all these get-ups come from? (Well, we know where
the bike came from - it was a gift
from Trek president John Burke and retails
for nearly $4,000.)
And then there's the cowboy thing. The extent to which the whole
"wanted-dead-or-alive," Texas-homeboy act is just one
more calculated role is pretty obvious by now. If you're still
not convinced, just check out the 2002
documentary Journeys with George, where Bush is eager
to show off his costume - even wearing a suit, he tells the camera,
he can still be a cowboy as long as he's wearing the boots and his
suit pants and shirts have been tailored just so. (This film about
the 2000 primary campaign also reveals that George Bush is the kind
of guy who likes to address grown women as "baby," but
that's another story.)
Not that I have anything against fantasy role-playing. There are
days when I wouldn't mind putting on a sparkly tiara or fluffy tutu
myself, although I sure wouldn't want to show up on the evening
news dressed as a princess or a ballerina. So if a grown man wants
to parade around in the kind of "let's pretend" outfits
that most kids have outgrown by time they're six, that's okay with
me. I really don't mind - but when that grown man is the president
of the United States, I really do mind.
In the first place, what's with all this hyper-masculine posing?
I suppose a military uniform is irresistible (even Michael
Jackson loves the whole epaulets thing), but the men - and women
- of the armed forces aren't playing these days, and when Bush had
the chance to actually be a soldier, rather than playing
one on TV, he pretty much left that to others. As for the fetish
for athletic apparel - all I'll say here is that when the WNBA champs
show up at the White House with a Shock
jersey for the president, he didn't put it on to pose for the
Okay, I'm willing to admit being a cowboy might be fun - the boots
have such cute heels - but why didn't George Bush put on a labcoat
when he toured
the new FBI laboratory at Quantico? Why isn't he photographed
in surgical scrubs, with a calculator, at a computer, on a backhoe,
or even in that apron I mentioned? Anything but this series of cartoonish
stereotypes about what it means to be a man in America in the twenty-first
Just as troubling, Bush has pretty much gotten away with it. It's
not that the emperor has no clothes, it's that he's always dressed
up like a first-grader getting ready to go trick-or-treating. John Kerry
wears camouflage and carries
a shotgun and all the news outlets were on it (Google the story
for yourself). Everybody from the NRA to Dick Cheney was quoted
making fun of Kerry's photo-op for what it was: a blatant bit of
political posturing. Hell, for once even Bush could see the obvious.
Now I agree that Kerry looked pretty much like a jackass, but that's
not my point. Why aren't Bush's outfits subject to the same derision?
More recently, Bush's costuming has approached operatic grandeur.
Take his so-called "address
to the nation" at the end of June. This time Bush wasn't
playing soldier, he was playing with soldiers, using some
750 men and women from Fort Bragg and nearby Pope Air Force base
as stage props for the big show. The military brass flanking him
on the platform? They were cast as extras - they had no lines, they
were just part of the set. Shakespeare knew how it all worked, of
course, but at least he was clear about it - before the action begins
in Henry the Fifth, he sends out the character of Prologue
to address the audience and to beg their pardon for presenting so
"great an object" on such an "unworthy" stage.
He's completely honest about his use of token warriors: "Into
a thousand parts divide one man, and make imaginary puissance,"
Prologue says, "For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck out
Just a matter of days after the House passed its proposed constitutional
amendment banning flag desecration, the American flag had been
appropriated to serve as the backdrop for Bush's performance. Attenuated
and truncated (Nine
stripes?) to work as a curtain to frame Bush as he delivered
his soliloquy, the flag had also been manipulated so that its primary
colors wouldn't detract from the star of the show. In fact, the
flag's blue had been muted to a soft pastel, perfectly matching
the baby blue of Bush's necktie.
Where was outrage? Where was the whole protect-the-flag crowd
when it came to this kind of desecration? Where were the shock
and awe at how the military had been readied for prime time? How
many bodies are enough to "deck out" this king?
are tough for blockbusters this summer, and as a
recent headline in the Chicago Tribune says, "Even
good reviews don't pay dividends." So Bush had to pull out
all the stops when it came to the staging of the July
20 announcement of his Supreme Court appointee, John Roberts.
In prime-time and on all the networks, this event had clearly been
calculated as major summer release. But Bush seems to have missed
his mark this time. Even with his dramatic entrance and the East
Room setting and the humbly blushing Roberts and the nominee's beaming
wife and the antics
of his four-year-old son (who had to be quickly removed), Bush's
blockbuster didn't quite generate the popcorn-pleased audience response
the president wanted.
It's not just the blogosphere that is swirling with commentary
about the way the hurried-up announcement was a bit of theater intended
to divert attention from Karl Rove - it's everywhere. And it didn't
take long before stories about the rigor of the whole vetting process
came to light. By the next day, the depth of Bush's selection process
in the New York Times: "chemistry," "intuition,"
and the candidate's exercise regimen seem to have been Bush's major
criteria for choosing a nominee who will serve on the bench of the
court-of-last-appeal for decades. In his LA Times commentary
"The (Over)Exercise of Power," Jonathan
Chait analyzes Bush's interview techniques, noting that there's
something "creepy" about Bush's "obsession"
with exercise, almost to the exclusion of anything else. "It
also shows how out of touch he is," Chait concludes.
It's not just his obsession with physical fitness that shows how
"out of touch" with reality George Bush is. Sure, Bush runs while
Iraq burns, but that's not all. More fundamentally, there's something
that just isn't right about a guy who's so uncomfortable with who
he is and what he is that he has to keep pretending he's someone
And now he's off on his five-week
summer break, back to Crawford and the ranch. Haven't we yet
reached the point where the president will be forced to stop playing
around and to start playing it straight?