George Washington, Thomas Jefferson — two American revolutionaries who became Presidents. Now how about this: George W. Bush, a President who became "An American Revolutionary." Well, that’s the word according to Time, the venerable news magazine that has awarded Bush "Person of the Year" status, while portraying him as a Genuine American Hero.
In its year-end issue, Time doesn’t say exactly why it decided to hang the moniker "Revolutionary" on Bush Jr. Instead, managing editor Jim Kelly explains why he’s Mr. 2004: "For sticking to his guns (literally and figuratively), for reshaping the rules of politics to fit his ten-gallon hat leadership style and for persuading a majority of voters this time around that he deserved to be in the White House for another four years, George W. Bush is TIME’S Person of the Year."
In their lengthy cover story, Time wordsmiths Nancy Gibbs and John F. Dickerson paint a portrait of an "extraordinary politician."
"Eagles rather than doves nestle in the Oval Office Christmas tree, pinecones the size of footballs are piled around the fireplace," their article begins.
"He’s wearing a blue pinstripe suit, and his shoes are shined bright enough to shave in. He is loose, lively, framing a point with his hands or extending his arm with his fingers up as though he’s throwing a big idea gently across the room."
Big idea? Gibbs and Dickerson obviously notice things lesser journalists might have missed. They have their own explanation for why Bush belongs on Time’s cover.
"For sharpening the debate until the choices bled, for reframing reality to match his design, for gambling his fortunes — and America’s — on his faith in the power of leadership, George W. Bush is TIME’S 2004 Person of the Year."
Tens of thousands dead in Iraq and more dying daily, ballooning government debt, billions in tax cuts for rich Americans, a harebrained scheme for Ballistic Missile Defense and no plan at all for Global Warming. The 5,000-word cover story is not concerned with any of this. It mentions the war and U.S. economic troubles only in passing focusing instead on how the man who holds the title "Leader of the Free World" bested John Kerry.
"Bush ran big and bold and specific all at the same time, rivaling Reagan in breadth of vision and Clinton in tactical ingenuity," Time asserts.
Accompanying photos show Bush standing tall in the Oval Office, speed biking while listening to Brown Eyed Girl on his iPod or sporting his cowboy hat as he enters the White House the back way "with his beloved dog Barney." Bush’s PR flaks couldn’t have concocted a more flattering or a more unreal portrait.
Twenty-five years ago, the late Christopher Lasch warned that the mass media were making the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant. "Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information," Lasch wrote in "The Culture of Narcissism." He went on to argue that in the merger of politics and spectacle, the art of managing crisis had become the essence of Presidential statecraft.
"Propaganda seeks to create in the public a chronic sense of crisis, which in turn justifies the expansion of executive power and the secrecy surrounding it. The executive then asserts his ‘presidential’ qualities by conveying his determination to rise to the crisis, whatever the crisis of the moment happens to be — to run risks, to test his mettle, to shrink from no danger, to resort to bold and decisive action even when the occasion calls for prudence and caution."
In the Time cover story’s flood of rhetoric there is one chilling moment of insight. Bush supplies it himself. It comes in the transcript of an interview printed in a separate box. When the Time journalists ask Bush if he’s making personnel changes to consolidate power in his second term, the "American Revolutionary" replies: "I’m consolidating power? I’ve got all the power I need."
Bruce Wark is a writer and journalism professor in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He writes for The Coast, a weekly magazine and teaches at the University of King’s College. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org