October 27, 2004
By The Plaid Adder
Back when I used to live in Austin, one of our favorite things
to do during the summer months was go down to the Congress Avenue
Bridge and watch the bats come out at sunset. Quite by accident,
the engineers who built the bridge happened to duplicate perfect
living conditions for Mexican free-tailed bats, and as a result,
three quarters of a million of them spend the summer roosting in
the cavities underneath it.
Every night as the sun goes down they come streaming out of the
bridge in a broken ribbon that undulates through the dying light
like a darker reflection of the river. It's a stunning and unforgettable
sight. I remember the first time Liza took me down there, I was
sitting on the bank eagerly watching the sky, greeting the emergence
of every sparrow, pigeon, or other lone flying creature with a cry
of, "Is that them?" Liza said, after a while, "Don't worry. When
it happens, you'll know." And she was right.
And this is how we have all been awaiting the October Surprise.
"Is that it? Wait, is that it?" But the whole point of the October
Surprise is that when it happens, we just know. The October Surprise
is supposed to stun us with its utterly compelling spectacularity.
Instead, what's happened is that little puny bits of surprise have
come dribbling out from under the bridge one by one, each exploding
with a faint "poof" before winking out.
From my point of view, this merely proves my contention
that Rove does not have a real October Surprise in store
for us. He keeps setting off his little firecrackers, expecting
them to move mountains, and then running back inside for more when
that turns out not to happen.
Take, for example, the "Wolves" ad, which the Bush campaign unveiled
with much fanfare last week. The buzz on the news shows - most of
it provided by Rove and company - was that this ad had been so devastatingly
effective in focus groups that they waited until the final stretch
to unleash it.
When they say "effective," of course, what they really mean is
"frightening." Since they have now realized that they will never
convince the voters that the country is actually doing well under
Bush's stewardship, their only recourse is to convince voters that
as bad as things are right now, removing Bush from office would
make them EVEN WORSE! Hence the constant return, in the past several
weeks, to the idea that Kerry is some kind of terrorism magnet who
will draw every weapon in the world screaming in a straight line
toward Washington D.C. the instant he steps up to take the oath
The Onion summed up this line of argument last week with
the headline, "Cheney Vows to Attack U.S. if Kerry Is Elected."
The Onion is a parody newspaper - but sadly, under the Bush
administration, it has gotten very hard to tell the difference.
One starts to wonder how Cheney and Bush can be so sure that
a Kerry presidency would result in a terrorist attack on America.
Do they have Bin Laden on the phone promising to be ready with the
dirty bombs at a moment's notice? Is Cheney planning to open the
doors of the cargo bay and throw out the bomb himself, riding it
down to its detonation like a snarling Slim Pickens?
Of course, we don't have to wonder whether there could ever be
a terrorist attack on American soil during a Bush presidency. We
already know the answer to that question.
This is how the Bush campaign seems to be working these days:
take one of Bush's worst features, project it onto Kerry, and then
attack him for the mistakes that Bush actually made. Instead of
restricting themselves to blaming their failures on the previous
Democratic administration, they are now trying to blame them on
the future Democratic administration.
That's what the "Wolves" ad is all about. For anyone who hasn't
seen it, the basic gist is that the camera pans through a scaaaaaary
forest while a woman reads some scaaaaaaaary text about how America's
enemies are waiting to attack at any moment, and claims that Kerry
would leave our soft underbelly exposed to the terrorists. The ad
winds up with a shot of some wolves sitting on a hillside, then
getting up to come scaaaaaarily toward the camera as the ad finishes.
The symbolism is supposed to be easy enough to read: soon as Kerry
takes office, the terrorists smell weakness and pounce.
What's interesting about this ad is that even if we leave aside
the question of whether what it's trying to do is despicable, the
fact is that it doesn't do it very well. The forest isn't dark enough,
the fleeting glimpses of wolf heads aren't ominous enough, and at
the end, when the wolves are supposed to be "pouncing,"
they go from sitting placidly on a hillside to loping without any
apparent hurry toward a point off-camera.
For a campaign that is supposed to be going balls-out down the
final stretch, this ad feels curiously emasculated. Even Disney
could do - and indeed has done, many a time - a better job of making
wolves look menacing. This ad doesn't show any teeth or claws; there's
no snarling; and the wolves never get very close to the camera.
The camera does not actually put the viewer in the position of being
attacked by this rather tame pack of wolves, and that seriously
limits the ad's emotional impact.
Why would this crew start pulling punches now? Certainly not out
of any concerns about whether it's ethical to play on the voters'
traumatic memories of 9/11 so expertly that they are too frightened
to make rational decisions once they get into the voting booth.
They certainly would do that if they could; the problem is that
they are afraid to scare the voters too much.
Bush wants people to feel as if his magical presence alone is keeping
and will continue to keep America safe; that's the only reason anyone
is going to vote for him. But he also wants the voters to feel as
if they are in imminent peril at all times; that's the only reason
anyone is going to vote for him. Try as he might, in the end he
can't have it both ways; and the howler that is "Wolves" is the
Bush's other problem is that, once again, reality refuses to play
along. This morning on NPR I heard the following two stories within
the space of half an hour:
1) It has finally been brought to the attention of the
American media that shortly after the fall of Baghdad, 350-400 tons
of high-grade explosives that the IAEA had identified and sealed
during previous weapons inspections appear to have gone missing.
More specifically, this weapons site was looted in the chaos that
followed the invasion. Well, at least now we know where all those
car bombs are coming from.
2) Bush has found a new way to make terrorism funny. You
remember what fun he had telling his trifecta
joke at fund-raisers and yukking it up at the White House correspondents'
dinner about not being able to find any weapons of mass destruction
under his desk. Now he's added a laugh-line about Zarqawi to his
"If Zarqawi and his associates were not busy fighting Iraqi
and American forces in Iraq, what does Senator Kerry think they
would be doing? Peaceful small business owners? Running a benevolent
I tell you what, George. No matter what Zarqawi might have been
doing right now if you hadn't started the Iraq war, he wouldn't
be doing it with 800,000 pounds of Saddam Hussein's dynamite.
This is what just drives you mad if you listen to it for too long.
"If we left Saddam in power, terrorists might have gotten weapons
from Saddam Hussein and used them against us!" Cheney chortles,
when asked for the millionth time to explain why in God's name we
started this war. Might have? Well then, thank God that instead
of living with the remote possibility we went out there and made
it inevitable. By going to war the way he did, Bush ensured that
Al Qaeda would inherit Saddam Hussein's arsenal. We're goddamn lucky
he didn't have any weapons of mass destruction.
So essentially the Bush team has moved from arguing that they
went to war in order to prevent exactly what the war actually caused,
to trying to convince us that Bush needs to stay in the White House
so that all the things that normally happen while he's in the White
House don't happen any more.
The classical rhetoricians didn't have a name for a fallacy this
breathtaking. But out here on the Internets, we call that Insane
What they are desperately trying to prevent the rest of the country
from figuring out is that Bush's accession to office in 2000 was
exactly the sign of weakness that the "Wolves" ad says the terrorists
were waiting for. The 2000 election was a giant, loud, flashing
red signal to the rest of the world that something had gone terribly
wrong with this country.
The absolute basic minimum that you need to maintain democratic
rule is a mechanism to ensure the smooth transfer of power at the
appointed time to the legitimately elected representatives of the
people. The 2000 election proved that we do not have that. Instead,
after weeks of insanity, our leader was chosen for us by a split
decision which was made by an appointed body, which broke down along
partisan lines, and which was based not on the rule of law but on
- what else? - insane troll logic. And we sat there in shock and
let this crowd roll right over us into Washington.
What could possibly have made us look weaker than the installation
of a president who did not get the majority of the popular vote,
almost certainly did not win the electoral college vote, and on
top of everything else was incapable of convincing anyone who wasn't
already part of his base that he had the intelligence and the experience
necessary to lead the most powerful country on the planet?
What could tell the world any louder or more clearly that we are
rotting from within than the fact that we have allowed a man who
is clearly dangerously incompetent, assisted by as corrupt a cabal
of sycophantic parasites as ever gathered around the throne of any
tinpot dictator, to loot the economy, intimdate his political opposition,
muzzle the 'legitimate' press, and get our army so thoroughly mired
in two foreign wars that even our National Guard isn't around to
defend us at home?
What more enticing sign of weakness could we offer those slavering
wolves out there in the forest than the first Bush term?
Well, that one's easy: The second Bush term.
We can be forgiven for allowing him to get his hands on the reins
of power once. We were in shock, we'd never imagined anything
like this, it was dark, we were scared, it was all over before we
knew what was happening. If we do it twice, then everyone
in the world will know that they have front-row tickets to the decline
and fall of American democracy. Because everyone in the world will
know that for whatever reason, the American people cannot free themselves
from an illegitimate leader who proved long ago that he was unfit
for public office. The fact that Bush was able to sleaze his way
back into office with a record that dismal will telegraph it far
and wide: America has fallen, and it can't get up.
I hope - and most days, I believe - that this won't happen. I
hope that by this time next week we have shown each other and the
world that the American people are strong enough to fight back against
big money, corruption, disinformation, fearmongering, bigotry, dirty
tricks, voter intimidation, and a supine and submissive corporate
media, and that we will bring this nightmare to its long overdue
end. We've seen what happens to a country after the establishment
of one-party rule. We really don't want to go there. Our strength
has to come from returning power to the people. Anything
else is weakness.
Since Rove and his friends like wolves so much, I want to close
what I hope to God is my next-to-last column with a wolf story from
one of our great American writers. In Willa Cather's My Antonia,
Jim Burden is startled to find out why two of his neighbors had
to emigrate from Russia. One night long ago in the old country,
while driving the bride and groom home from a wedding party, these
two men encountered a pack of wolves that began chasing the sleigh.
Panicking, they threw overboard everything they were carrying, hoping
to make the sleigh lighter so the horses could outrun the wolves.
Finally, after everything inanimate had been tossed and the wolves
were still gaining, they demanded that the groom throw his bride
overboard. The groom refused. They threw bride and groom together
out into the snow. The wolves stopped to have their feast, and the
two men survived - hated, haunted, and dogged for the rest of their
lives by the story of their shame.
Rove would say that the moral of that story is simple: save your
own ass first. I read it differently. If I try to put myself in
this story, I know that I would end up out in the snow, holding
on like death to what I love. Because for me, the moral is that
it is a mistake to sacrifice everything to fear. Some things just
matter too much. Or at least they should.
If Bush's presidency has proven anything it is that when the wolves
are gaining, he is willing to throw them anything - civil
liberties, freedom, habeas corpus, human rights, respect, dignity,
jobs, the right to vote, his own soldiers, his own citizens. Because
if Bush reaches safety with nothing in the sleigh but himself, he'll
consider his presidency a success.
One week from now, please God, we'll know whether Bush will get
another chance to throw us to the wolves. I hope - and most days,
I believe - that he won't. Please, people, prove me right. Get out
the vote, stay safe, take care, and may I meet you all again two
weeks from now in a free country.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an
equally demented online audience since 1996. If Kerry emerges victorious
on November 3, my last regular DU column will appear on November
10; but there'll always be more of the same at http://www.plaidder.com.
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