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Karl Rove's War on Satire
July 8, 2003
By Weldon Berger

While many liberals spin their wheels bemoaning the steady erosion of Constitutional rights and the transformation of the mainstream press from The Fourth Estate into The Fifth Wheel, a far more inimical and far less obvious assault upon an American tradition has been waged and, apparently, won: the War on Satire.

Successful satire must be plausible in some sense while maintaining a certain distance from reality. Take, for example, Orwell's nightmare vision of talking totalitarian pigs, Animal Farm. When the book was first published in 1945, it was clearly recognizable as satire. Now, almost sixty years later, in a world populated by both Babe the talking pig and John Ashcroft, it reads like the printout of an unimaginative weblog. Clearly, some pigs are more equal than others. Big deal.

Despite inflation, though, satire has consistently offered the venomous writer an opportunity to skewer a victim under cover of literature. Wielded appropriately, it can be a devastating political weapon: modern politicians may be able to withstand scandal after scandal in this shameless age, but sustained laughter will yet eventually lay them low.

That is, until now. Between them, Karl Rove and George W. Bush have very nearly rendered even the most extreme satire nearly indistinguishable from reality, and hence, meaningless.

From the beginning, Bush posed a natural challenge to satire. A perfectly incompetent businessman who proposed to run the nation in a businesslike manner; a legendarily incoherent speaker who promised to become the education president; an extraordinarily privileged scion of a notoriously tone-deaf political dynasty who pledged himself as the empathetic spokesman for the masses; a man who had thoroughly enjoyed three decades of adolescence vowing to bring the grown-ups back to Washington; an ethically-challenged former cheerleader guaranteeing to restore honor and dignity to the White House.

Still, the opportunity existed to create just that smidgin of necessary daylight between the real Bush and the satirical version. That is, it existed until Karl Rove recognized the weakness and took steps to address it.

What Rove did was apply a combination of mind-numbing repetition and absurdist portrayals to gradually create such an enormous disconnect between the actual George Bush and the Rovian one as to render satire impossible.

We haven't the time to run through the entire catalog, so we'll focus upon the event through which the Rove campaign reached apotheosis: the now-infamous Bush aircraft carrier visit that signaled the transition from major combat in Iraq to somewhat less major combat in Iraq.

What happened here was that a guy whose last official act before blowing off his final year of duty in the Air National Guard was to get himself grounded for failing to show up for a flight physical, got into first a codpiece and then a Navy fighter, flew thirty miles offshore to the USS Abraham Lincoln and, in full view of God, the cameras and everyone, engaged in a solitary, flight-suited Chippendale strut, endlessly rebroadcast in slow motion while commentators as diverse as G. Gordon Liddy and Peggy Noonan swooned over the amplitude of the Presidential Package, across the deck.

In other words, the President of the United States became, for one brief, shining moment, a six-foot walking penis.

Satirists everywhere screamed in agony. An entire literary tradition expired on the spot.

A few die-hard writers formed a working group in an effort to salvage the situation and, for a few days, seemed to have found a performance art answer to Rove's challenge: they attempted to inveigle Mr. Clean, the housewife's dream, into donning a Bush mask and walking around large shopping malls periodically blowing Half-and-Half out his upturned nose.

Unfortunately, the buff advertising icon's employers turned out to be major Bush campaign contributors.

Karl Rove's victory was complete.

Weldon Berger is a freelance writer and unemployed satirist living despondently in Hawaii, which is as far from Karl Rove's office as it's possible to get while still residing in the U.S. He can be reached by email at:

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