Now that the overthrow of Congress has launched President Bush into a two-year slough of lame-duck limbo (or, in NBA terms, "garbage time"), it's appropriate to ponder what has befallen America in the Bush era. My guiding light, throughout the ordeal, has been Daniel Boorstin's 1961 book, "The Image."
Boorstin grew alarmed by the ability of Sen. Joseph McCarthy to titillate the press with slanders and fabrications about fictional commies in the government. In "The Image," Boorstin noted that McCarthy got press because he always scheduled his bombshells conveniently for reporters' deadlines. Boorstin referred to McCarthy's strategic incursions into the news cycle as "pseudo-events."
Boorstin defined a pseudo-event as having four qualities: not spontaneous, planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the purpose of being reported or reproduced, having an ambiguous relation to the underlying reality of the situation, and usually intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Boorstin wrote, "We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality."
If this all rings familiar, it's because we are six years into an administration composed almost exclusively of unreality - smoke, mirrors, and staged events before invitation-only audiences. Bush staffers got into the habit of mocking the press and public as "the reality-based community."
Boorstin might well have dubbed this White House the pseudo-presidency.
Typical of this regime is the scheduled pseudo-event in which Vice President Dick Cheney or Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld explained that a reality in, say, Iraq - seen by Americans on television - is really an illusion; it was manufactured by hostile media. This official press event - Cheney or Rumsfeld would insist - is real. The war, as seen on TV, is illusion.
Such performances, although patently false on their face, always work.
The press suffers shock and awe. The public is assured by Rummy's assuredness. Eyewitness evidence is rendered ambiguous. Boorstin said, "Whenever in the public mind a pseudo-event competes for attention with a spontaneous event, the pseudo-event will tend to dominate."
But now, changes are afoot. The midterm electoral upheaval heralds the likely fadeout of Karl Rove, the Bush regime's grand illusionist. We've probably seen the last of Dubya's really riveting sideshows. It's time to look back and wonder: What were the five most blatant pseudo-events of the Bush years?
Wow. This is a tough question. This White House has cooked some whoppers and then topped them with super-whoppers. Among pseudo-events I had to drop from my list were the bipartisan fraud perpetrated at the signing of No Child Left Behind; Colin Powell's pre-Iraq PowerPoint travesty at the U.N.; Bush's 2003 State of the Union assertion that Iraq and Niger were ganging up to nuke America; the 2000 "voter riot" in Miami consisting entirely of GOP operatives flown in from Texas and Washington; and the signing of John McCain's anti-torture bill, during which Bush looked straight into McCain's soul and said, John, bill or no bill, I'm gonna torture anybody I damn well feel like torturing.
Here are my choices for the Top Five Pseudo-Events of the Bush regime:
5.Plastic Turkey for the Troops. On the first Thanksgiving of the Iraq war, Dubya surprised the troops with a turkey dinner. Except, well, the turkey, which photographed beautifully, was fake. And Dubya didn't actually hang around for dinner. Nice uniform, though.
4. Dubya's Ground Zero Grandstand Play. Bush got years of media mileage for showing up at ground zero in New York three days late. Dressed like a manly man and yelling through a megaphone as firefighters cheered and cops wept, Bush promised to hunt down Osama bin Laden and avenge this outrage. Since then, Bush has exploited the victims of Sept. 11, cut funding for first responders (firefighters and cops) and, um ... Osama? Still out there.
3. Bush v. Gore. The perfect TV pseudo-event. Talking heads suffered a case of the collective vapors while reading the Supreme Court decision that handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush. You could cut the suspense with a knife, but only if you neglected to note that all the justices on Dubya's side (except, of course, for William Rehnquist, proud product of Tricky Dick) had been appointed by administrations in which Bush's father was president or vice president.
2. The Jackson Square Light Show. Three days late (again), Dubya coptered into the Big Easy. Stagehands set up a thrilling array of klieg lights, powered with giant generators. Dubya knitted his brow, clenched his fist, made a speech and blew town. Then the stagehands packed up the lights and took away the generators. Rescue teams went back to hunting for dead bodies in the dark.
1. "Mission Accomplished." Ah, the USS Abraham Lincoln. The glorious landing. The flight suit. The boyish smirk. The banner. The declaration of triumph in Iraq, with only 2,500 more American kids (give or take a thousand) left to kill. Brilliant! Dazzling! Mwah!
Daniel Boorstin wrote about Americans: "We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so 'realistic' that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth."
This fall's voting represented an extraordinary step back from Boorstin's indictment. By repudiating Bush overwhelmingly, Americans suggested that - at least for the moment - we prefer actual live reality to the lifelike illusions trotted out for more than six years by our pseudo-president and his media masseurs.
Will it last? Sure, we're done with Dubya. But "the menace of unreality" is self-renewing and seductive. We've got a dozen candidates poised to take Bush's place. And their press agents are already scheduling, scheduling ...
David Benjamin is a novelist and journalist, originally from Madison, who lives and works in Paris. His latest book is "The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked."
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