Fresh Hell is This?
March 31, 2003
In recent days, the pressure to conform to the government
line has increased. Almost every newspaper column I've read,
regardless of region of the country, makes at least some mention
of the need for the support of troops and George Bush as the
war in Iraq begins, either by quoting someone who believes
this, or as a direct editorialization in favor of the quelling
Foremost in those protestations for support is "respect
for the President." Much less frequently, "respect for the
office of the President." And yet, in the late '60s, when
I was a soldier, the prominent cry at anti-war demonstrations
was, "hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Quite
a question, especially in the context of the moment. It was
a sort of equal-protection statement, as well, since it encompassed
both Vietnamese kids, and our own fresh-faced high-schoolers
in jungle fatigues and flak jackets. Despite the perhaps deserved
nastiness in the shouted question, there was little vitriol
from the Johnson White House about such.
How times change. For a White House with a self-created
reputation for toughness, there has been a notable brittleness
and sensitivity to criticism in the Bush ranks. This tendency
has been apparent ever since the inauguration (beginning with
Bush's eschewing of the traditional half-mile walk to the
White House after inauguration - the occasional egg pelting
the Presidential limousine may have figured into that impromptu
decision), but it is in full bloom as the war against Iraq
Most recently, the remarks of Paul Celucci, the ambassador
to Canada, are most instructive in this regard. Sent to a
meeting of Canadian businessmen (the Bush White House is always
more comfortable in the company of businessmen), Celucci excoriated
the Chretien government for its position on the US-Iraq war
(let us please call it what it actually is), and, curiously,
called on Chretien to "muzzle" the Canadian press.
That latter remark reveals a wondrous tapestry of truth
about how the Bush crew thinks and operates. The Bush administration
is more top-heavy in corporate CEOs than any other in living
memory, and as we all know, by now, the modern CEO is decisive,
imperative, and simply won't stand for anything or anyone
sullying the "brand" or the corporate image.
In the case of this bunch, the corporate image is one of
the Lone Ranger, Superman, Prince Valiant and Terry & the
Pirates all rolled into one. Mr. Natural and the Doo-Dah Man
need not apply. It's all about image, rather than substance,
and that's why red-blooded cartoon character metaphors seem
so appropriate. The brand is the US of A. For that reason,
it was no surprise that the Bush administration looked to
Madison Avenue and Charlotte Beers to make the US look good
while it was planning gross mayhem. Equally, it was no surprise
that Ms. Beers found the task of making the rest of the world
love us and, particularly, love the Bush CEOs, to be beyond
her considerable skills in advertising.
More to the point, Celucci's remarks indicate a sad reality
in this country, and quite another reality outside this country.
In this country, today, the press is satisfactorily muzzled.
Ari Fleischer, as Bush's PR flack, applies rules to the White
House press corps' behavior which would make Goebbels proud,
and the press dutifully grovels. When they do not (as with
Helen Thomas, for example), the delinquents are relegated
to the back row and treated with studied disregard. The largest
number of the White House press corps would rather have a
hand-fed story to take back to their editors than nothing
Elsewhere in this still-large world, the press chooses not
to be quite so obeisant. Hence, Celucci's indirect remarks
to Chretien. The supposition implicit in Celucci's demands
regarding the Canadian press is that "subjugation of the press
works in the US. It will therefore work as well elsewhere.
Ignoring for the moment the implicit hubris in this attack,
there is also the CEO's demand for compliance to subordinates,
and the equal absurdity of the consideration of the leader
of a neighboring sovereign nation as a subordinate to not
just the United States, but to the US's most prominent CEO,
George W. Bush. Some news reports in Canada relate that Celucci's
remarks came "straight from the top." Moreover, the Canadian
press isn't happy at the prospect of such attempts at control
by the US.
The great hilarity in all this is that the modern American
CEO is, in fact, a joke, a P.T. Barnum character using personal
power in small arenas to manipulate the stock market for personal
gain. The Skillings, Lays and Kozlowskis have, through incompetence,
legislative influence-peddling and greed, effectively ruined
the investments of not only their own employees, but the pension
funds of countless state employees and the market at large.
From such a stock has George W. Bush picked his team. One
imagines these twits to begin imitating W.C. Fields in their
very rare press conferences.
George W. Bush is not far away from W.C. Fields impressions.
His recent press conferences and impromptu encounters with
the press have suggested both a testiness and a drug-induced
inebriation fitting Fields at the height of his popularity.
Nevertheless, we are talking here about the President of
the United States - the most visible representative of America,
but who is also the most prominent spokesman for American
views and the person who is responsible for distilling American
opinion for the benefit of the world outside the US. Bush
is not a comedian, however much he thinks himself one (as
evidenced by a recent tape of his antics prior to announcement
of war while having his make-up artists prepare him) and,
certainly, the subject of his recent remarks to the public
required a seriousness about and acknowledgement of the gravity
of the situation which seems not to be in his character. It's
telling that the response of the Bush White House, when such
off-the-cuff videotape made the internet rounds, was to restrict
control of the cameras to the White House. Perish the thought
that some poor PR flack in the White House will lose his job
because he might have to tell the Presidential CEO that he
behaves like an idiot on Qaaludes.
Governing a nation is not like running a corporation. There
are interests in every nation which compete with the government
view and don't take kindly to being told to shut up. Even
a minor-league CEO like George W. Bush should acknowledge
that simple fact, can't demand by fiat that a simple "no"
not be in the vocabulary of either his own public or of the
officials of other countries. Mussolini tried to do that,
and he and woven hemp became intimately acquainted.
In a democracy, the press can't be "muzzled" and the message
can't be micromanaged. In Canada, they still understand this
simple truth, despite the fact that large corporate interests
there have sought to make of its press what corporate interests
here have made of ours. In the US, the corporate press has
conveniently forgotten its Constitutional mandate as the "Fourth
Estate" of government, but that's not the way it is elsewhere,
While the Bush administration's CEOs are trying to apply
muzzles to those who disagree with them, trying to spin every
nuance of government to their advantage, people are dying
unnecessarily. A great deal of the rest of the world understands
this. George W. Bush and his corporate handmaidens do not.
They still think they're running corporations. They still
think they have the right to dictate, rather than the obligation
punpirate is a New Mexico writer who ponders, almost daily,
Dorothy Parker's remark, "what fresh hell is this?"