Thursday, October 28, 2004

Decision 2004: Fear Fatigue vs. Sheer Fatigue

The New York Times
October 31, 2004

Decision 2004: Fear Fatigue vs. Sheer Fatigue

JOHN KERRY is a flip-flopper. He's "French." Whether he's asserting his non-girlie-boy bona fides by riding a Harley onto Jay Leno's set, "reporting for duty" at the Democratic convention or hunting geese in Ohio, he comes off like a second-rung James Brolin auditioning for a Levitra ad. And let's not forget the words - all those words. When Mr. Kerry starts a sentence, you know you're embarking on a long journey with no interesting scenery along the way and little likelihood that you'll get wherever you're going on time. "Vote for Him Before You Vote Against Him" is one of the more winning slogans at the hilarious Web site Kerry-Haters for Kerry.

If the cliché of 2000 remains true, that entertainment-addicted Americans will never let a tedious president into their living rooms for four long years, then Mr. Kerry, like Al Gore, is toast. But now that Mr. Kerry enters the final stretch of 2004 with a serious chance of unseating an incumbent in wartime, a competing theory also rises: it's possible for America to overdose on entertainment. No president has worked harder than George W. Bush to tell his story as a spectacle, much of it fictional, to rivet his constituents while casting himself in an unfailingly heroic light. Yet this particular movie may have gone on too long and have too many plot holes. It may have been too clever by half. It may have given Mr. Kerry just the opening he needs to win.

As George Will has pointed out, our war in Iraq has now lasted longer than America's involvement in World War I. The span from 9/11 to Election Day 2004 is only three months shy of the 41 months separating the attack on Pearl Harbor from V-E day. And still the storyline doesn't compute. Mr. Bush, having not brought back his original bad guy dead or alive, is now fond of saying that "three-quarters of Al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice." Even if true, is he telling us the war on terror is three-quarters over? Al Qaeda is, by our government's own account, in 60 countries. Last time I looked we're only at war in two.

The administration tries to finesse such narrative disconnects by creating a noir mood of "perpetual fear" - to borrow Philip Roth's totemic phrase from "The Plot Against America" - in line with what it sees as a perpetual war. But is perpetual war any more coherent a plot line? Mr. Bush calls himself "a war president" any chance he gets, yet he must be the first war president in history to respond to every setback with a call for new tax cuts. There isn't a person in the world, including our enemies, who doesn't know that we have fewer troops than we need, now or in perpetuity, and that we're too broke to spring for more.

As Mr. Bush said of the war to Matt Lauer in a rare moment of candor, quickly rescinded, "I don't think you can win it." Especially if you've so bought into the myth of your own invulnerable star power that you failed to secure nearly 380 tons of explosives destined to blow up American troops. So Karl Rove does what any director does to bolster a weak script - pump up the ominous chords on the soundtrack. He sends out Dick Cheney to keep telling us that it's only a matter of when, not if, a nuke will go off in the middle of one of our cities. But fear-mongering of this intensity and repetition can produce fear fatigue just like NBC's waning "Fear Factor." A long attention span has never been part of the American character.

We like fast-paced narratives with beginnings, middles and ends. We like an upbeat final curtain. "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending," said William Dean Howells to Edith Wharton in 1906, by way of explaining why her refusal to let her heroine, Lily Bart, survive ensured that the stage version of "The House of Mirth" would flop. The president hoped to give the tragedy of 9/11 a speedy happy ending by laying out a simple war pitting God's anointed against the evildoers, then by portraying Iraq as the "central front" in that war, then by staging a stirring victory celebration weeks after that central battle began. But when our major combat operations turned out not to be "over," this purported final reel was seen as the one thing the American public hates even more than an unhappy ending - a false one.

The triumphalist cinema that had led up to it, culminating in the toppling of the Saddam statue, was, like "Mission Accomplished" itself, too slick. It whetted our appetite for sequels. But what came instead were pictures by upstart independent filmmakers hawking an alternative scenario to "Shock and Awe": the charred corpses of civilian contractors strung up in Fallujah, the beheading of Nick Berg, the tableaux vivants of Abu Ghraib, the neat rows of 49 slaughtered Iraqi recruits decomposing in the sun. The scenes the administration created to counter them all backfired. A surprise Thanksgiving visit by the president to the troops turned out to feature a "show" turkey supplied by Halliburton. An elaborately staged presidential D-Day address in Normandy was upended by the death of the war-winning president Mr. Bush's handlers hoped to clone, Ronald Reagan. The handover of sovereignty was marred by the shot of Paul Bremer re-enacting the fall of Saigon by dashing to a helicopter to flee. There hasn't been an unalloyed feel-good video out of Iraq since the capture of Saddam. That was before last Christmas.

Last weekend the Rove studio showed its desperation. In Florida Mr. Bush risked ridicule by re-enacting "Mission Accomplished," this time landing by helicopter in sports stadiums to the theme from "Top Gun," the same movie that had inspired the stunt landing on the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. (The new banner read "Soaring to Victory.") This had been directly preceded by another cinematic misfire. On the same day that the president took to attacking Mr. Kerry for seeing the war on terror as "a metaphor," his own campaign released with great fanfare a new TV ad portraying terrorism as ... a metaphor. The metaphor in this case was a pack of wolves that looked as if they could easily be taken out by the rifle-bearing Kerry depicted in his equally ludicrous L. L. Bean photo op.

Mr. Bush is half right about Mr. Kerry. The Democrat does trade in one particular metaphor, which is Vietnam. Washington wisdom had it that Mr. Kerry was a fool to highlight his war service during his convention, which begat the Swift boats melee. Maybe no one cares anymore what either man did 35 years ago. But the net effect of the long detour into grainy "Apocalypse Now" iconography may not have been so much to adjudicate who was more patriotic or "strong" but to visually establish that quagmire as a metaphor for the war in Iraq without ever requiring Mr. Kerry to explicitly say so.

After Vietnam came the debates, widely dismissed in advance as canned events unlikely to change anything. But here, as in "Mission Accomplished," Mr. Rove's myth-making machinery may have been too successful for the president's own good. "By turning Kerry into a cartoon," wrote Dana Milbank in The Washington Post, "the Bush campaign created such low expectations for the senator that he easily exceeded them." After weeks in which Mr. Kerry had been painted as an effete toy poodle, his tall, ramrod-straight spine alone may have been enough for him to reverse his image deficit on television.

Mr. Bush was, of course, far more entertaining in the debates than his opponent; he may be the most facially expressive president since the invention of television. But in 2004, this may not be the winning formula it was four years ago. Because the audience had seen the unplugged, petulant Bush in the first debate, it knew that his subsequent reinventions were as contrived (if not as effective) as Sally Field's in "Sybil." Unlike such natural performers as Reagan and Bill Clinton, he lets you see all the over-rehearsed preparation that goes into his acting. By the time he tried to mask his rage with inappropriate grinning in debate No. 3, he seemed as fake as the story line by which he had sold the country on the war in Iraq.

Mr. Kerry, by contrast, was nothing if not consistent - consistently leaden. He may flip-flop on policy - though no less so than a president who once opposed nation building and a Homeland Security Department - but he doesn't flip-flop on personality. It wouldn't matter if Hugh Jackman were his running mate or how many of his daughters' hamsters he rescued; charm is not his forte. He'll never be, in that undying pollster's formulation, a guy you want to have a beer with - or even a pinot noir.

But he's also not a man likely to prance around on an aircraft carrier to foment the fiction that a happy ending is imminent. He's already announced his intention to jettison a favorite administration special effect, the color-coded terror alerts. His sepulchral looks and stentorian manner suggest he'd bring us any bad news straight up. Mr. Kerry may seem like the closest thing this country has ever had to an Audio-Animatronic chief executive, but Mr. Bush's action-hero theatrics may have defined "presidential" down to the point where Audio-Animatronics can pass for gravitas.

To Mr. Bush and his cronies, who see the world as an arena in which performance is all and circumspection is antithetical to manly decisiveness, Mr. Kerry is a farcical weakling. That's why they were so obsessed with smearing the senator's Vietnam record, the main refutation of that argument. What they didn't count on is that their man's "Top Gun" stagecraft carries its own baggage. When a real war goes wrong, a considered plan, as Mr. Kerry pedantically refers to his every policy prescription, can start to look preferable to a slam-dunk Jerry Bruckheimer stunt. While the mantra of this election season has it that Kerry voters are voting against Bush, not for Kerry, it's equally possible that some of them see their choice as a vote for mundane, nuances-and-all reality over a hyperbolic fantasy whose budget in blood and money has spiraled out of control. After three years of nonstop thrills, Americans will just have to decide on Nov. 2 whether there could be fates even worse than spending the next four years being bored.