Democratic Underground

Playing Dress-Up

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 that, six 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 brush-clearing, "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 camera.

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 century.

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 kings."

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?

But times 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 was revealed 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 else.

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?

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