The 1980s movie The Ploughman's Lunch took its title from an early example of what we have now come to know as spin. Ian McEwan's script took its central image from the fact that the bread-and-cheese snack that claimed to link yuppies in pubs to their ancestors who toiled on the soil was an invention of the contemporary advertising and catering trades. In Richard Eyre's film, this fraudulent food became a metaphor for political lying and pretence at the time of the Falklands war.
If anyone makes a similar film about the attack on Iraq, the title would now have to be The Plastic Turkey. In a revelation certain to be taught at schools of democracy and journalism for years to come, it has been revealed that the apparently appetizing turkey that President Bush carried towards beaming troops last week in Baghdad had been genetically modified to a degree that would lead even the most profit-hungry farmers to protest. The bird was the kind of model used by butchers and Hollywood set-dressers.
Following this disclosure, the president is, unlike his political prop, stuffed: with a gap in the storyboards for his re-election commercials. A picture intended to say to viewers "The Eagle Has Landed", in fact spelled out: "This Bird Never Flew."
The fakery went further. The hoax roast in the president's hands cannot even be claimed as a symbolic stand-in for the steaming birds that were actually served. Reports say that the US troops were given airline-style meals of pre-packaged meat. And the pretend chef had flown to Baghdad in an Air Force One that filed a fake flight-plan, pretending to be a small corporate jet.
The latter act - though embarrassing for a politician who promised to end the easy lying of the Clinton years - can probably just about be excused as security. But the affair of the plastic turkey can only be attributed to insecurity.
Although the image of George Bush, until recently, was of a man who could do whatever he wanted in both America and the world, recent events have suggested a man seriously worried about both his image and his career. The president seems to have entered a phase of gesture politics, and the gestures are those of a man who, while still swimming vigorously, has suddenly come to accept the possibility of drowning.
Apart from risking his life to deliver a stunt turkey to the Baghdad mess, the president is now set to revive the US space program: it's rumored that Nasa will, this month, announce new missions to the moon. And a man accused of imperial arrogance has even made a significant concession to the rival power base of Europe by abandoning protectionist steel tariffs. It can be argued that this is a cosmetic move - because Bush had already lost the votes of the steel states in the US - but the move indicates a politician much less happy than he once was to be seen as isolationist.
Even during an American election cycle, the apparent decision to aim for the moon is surprising. The original lunar program grew out of the bipolar political world of the cold war. Kennedy was only interested in landing in the Sea of Tranquility because of the fear that the Russians might splash down first. Now, with only one superpower, it will be not a space race but a space lap-of-honor or training run for America.
It's a measure of Bush's reputation that environmentalists have already accused him of planning to rob the moon of mineral deposits or light. But there's another possibility. A pattern is emerging in which the Bush White House - like a child hiding its face at a bad memory - seeks to replace a negative image with a positive one.
The original Gulf war photo-op planned for use in the 2004 election campaign was the commander-in-chief landing a jet on an aircraft carrier that flew the banner: Mission Accomplished. Now that Mission Impossible might be a more fitting message to fly from US ships, a substitute image was needed for the militaristic bits of the ads. This was provided by Dubya as carver-in-chief on Thanksgiving Day. The mooted new moonshots are calculated to wipe from the collective memory the images of the Challenger disaster.
If the president were to use the plastic turkey of Baghdad in commercials now, his opponents would make a real meal of it, so Bush 2004 needs some other photo-ops. Perhaps the new Nasa plans indicate that he intends to disguise Air Force One as a rocket and stage a photo-shoot on the moon.
Whatever the details, the message is clear. Though he still lacks anything as pesky as a plausible Democrat opponent, Dubya is starting to fear that his administration may become the second one-term turkey served up by the Bush dynasty.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003