Democratic Underground


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 of office.

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 evidence.

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 stump speech:

"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 society?"

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 Troll Logic.

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

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