"Everyone says he's stupid. I got news for you, he's not as stupid as you think. He's close."
-- Jackie Mason on Dan Quayle
I definitely have my opinions -- maybe you've noticed this -- but I'd like to think that I'm also open to other people's views, no matter how outlandish they may seem at first. Many ideas which seem ridiculous turn out to make sense, once you've allowed an open mind to do its work. In that spirit, I am willing to consider the unlikely possibility that George W. Bush is not a complete moron.
You must think I've gone mad. What? George W. Bush not a complete moron? But nothing could be more obvious! Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and Bush is an idiot! I know, I know. I refer frequently to Bush's supposed stupidity, and it's one of the few assertions I never feel the need to prove. Bush himself proves it better than I ever could, every time he opens his mouth. But maybe, maybe his stupidity is, like everything else about him, a sham.
What's got me thinking this way is that Amanda and I have been writing our next political/musical/comedy/satire thing, to be produced in New York this year. It's a follow-up to City Under Siege! (the show we did last year). But one big difference is that the main character, this time, is George W. Bush. (In City Under Siege!, Bush was much-discussed, but never actually appeared.) So while writing this show, for the first time I've had to consider Bush from the playwright's perspective. To write the character, I have to understand the man.
Toward that difficult end, I've found this 2002 article by Online Journal's Bev Conover very enlightening. The headline alone has the power to shift paradigms; it consists of one statement I adamantly disagreed with, followed by one which made me think. The article's title: "Bush Isn't a Moron, He's a Cunning Sociopath."
Conover argues that "if any of us are to have a future worth having," we "had better start seeing George W. Bush for what he is: a sociopath and a passive serial killer." When she wrote that, Bush had not even reached the midway point in his disastrous first term. But it was true, of course, long before he was not elected president.
"If we believe the psychiatrists," Conover writes, "a sign of a future serial killer is a child who delights in torturing and killing animals." And if we believe Bush's childhood friend Terry Throckmorton, one of the non-president's favorite childhood activities was torturing frogs. "We were terrible to animals," Throckmorton told the New York Times in May of 2000. (The Times noted that Throckmorton laughed as he said this.) "A dip behind the Bush home turned into a small lake after a good rain," explains Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof, "and thousands of frogs would come out." Throckmorton reminisced about how "everybody would get BB guns and shoot them. Or we'd put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up." Now, that's nice. The child Bush was just practicing on those frogs, waiting until the day he'd get to do the same thing with human beings.
But the only way to torture and kill human beings, without getting in trouble, was to follow the example set by his father and grandfather, and go into politics. As Governor of Texas, Bush executed 152 people, more than any governor in any state at any point in American history. Even as he prepared to inflict himself on the nation as a "compassionate conservative," he displayed a lack of regard for human life which would be disturbing enough coming from a professional wrestler. From a presidential candidate, it was chilling.
From Time magazine, February 21, 2000:
|"George W. Bush has at least one distinction as Governor: since he took office in 1995 his state has seen more executions...than any other. Just as he was beginning his presidential campaign in 1998, the case of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker came up for review. Religious leaders from Pat Robertson to the Pope pleaded with Bush to spare Tucker. Like Bush himself, she had found Christ in midlife. He could have issued a 30-day reprieve and signaled to the parole board that Tucker should be granted clemency. He didn't. Although he said he was anguished by the decision, in an interview in Talk magazine, writer Tucker Carlson described Bush mimicking the woman's final plea for her life. '"Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me."'"
George W. Bush is clearly an asshole, and we've all known assholes like him. He has no reason to feel good about himself; the only satisfaction available to him is that which comes from asserting power over less powerful beings. He knows no pleasure but the pain of others. (See E.L. Doctorow's excellent essay, "The Unfeeling President.") "Psychiatrists tell us," Conover writes, "that all serial killers lack the emotions that make us human; that they have to learn to emulate those emotions in order to get by in society."
But he could still be a moron, right?
Perhaps he only comes across as a moron when he is trying to be President of the United States, a role for which he is woefully unqualified. Discussing Alexandra Pelosi's campaign trail documentary Journeys with George, Conover notes that Bush "isn't tongue-tied when he is pumping up his ego, dishing out digs and being sarcastic and crude."
|"Mark Crispin Miller, author of The Bush Dyslexicon and professor of media studies at New York University, who also sees the darker Bush, said in a Nov. 28 interview with the Toronto Star, 'Bush is not an imbecile. He's not a puppet. I think that Bush is a sociopathic personality. I think he's incapable of empathy. He has an inordinate sense of his own entitlement, and he's a very skilled manipulator. And in all the snickering about his alleged idiocy, this is what a lot of people miss.'
"Miller said he did intend The Bush Dyslexicon to be a funny book, but that was before he read all the transcripts, which revealed, according to reporter Murray Whyte, 'a disquieting truth about what lurks behind the cock-eyed leer of the leader of the free world. He's not a moron at all on that point, Miller and Prime Minister Jean Chretien agree.'
"'He has no trouble speaking off the cuff when he's speaking punitively, when he's talking about violence, when he's talking about revenge,' Miller told Whyte. 'When he struts and thumps his chest, his syntax and grammar are fine. It's only when he leaps into the wild blue yonder of compassion, or idealism, or altruism, that he makes these hilarious mistakes.'"
Fascinating! This is absolutely true! At a press conference or public appearance, when he is called upon to act and speak like a dignified, sensitive statesman, Bush can always be counted upon to talk like an idiot. Almost every appearance he makes is characterized by a thick mental fog at best, and at worst, a mastery of English communication which ranks him somewhere between a rock and a dog. But when he's just being George -- "Did anybody say 'nice shot?'" -- he actually is loose and natural. And an asshole.
Consider Mark Crispin Miller's analysis of Bush's famous "Fool me once" screw-up. It happened during a speech in Nashville late in September, 2001. What he was trying to say, of course, was "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." What he said was, "Fool me once -- shame -- shame on you. Fool me -- can't get fooled again." This is probably his most famous stupid moment, partly because it made such a fitting coda to Fahrenheit 9/11 (with Michael Moore's retort, "For once, we agreed"). It has been cited endlessly as evidence that Bush is an inarticulate simpleton. That he may be, but Miller points out the psychological underpinnings of the gaffe. "What's revealing about this," he says, "is that Bush could not say 'shame on me' to save his life. That's a completely alien idea to him. This is a guy who is absolutely proud of his own inflexibility and rectitude."
It's a revelation. It's not that he couldn't talk; it's that he couldn't get the words "shame on me" to come out of his mouth. Like when he told reporters that he couldn't think of a single mistake his administration had made. He really couldn't. (A year later, he reopened the question, and expressed a dollop of regret over his "Bring 'em on" remark, in which he seemed to encourage opposing troops to attack American soldiers. But he said he didn't realize this was a mistake until his wife scolded him for it. And it's astonishing that a man who enabled the 9/11 attacks, let bin Laden off the hook, and slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians would decide that his one mistake was something he said.)
|"Another example, Miller said, occurred early in Bush's White House tenure when he said, 'I know how hard it is to put food on your family.' According to Miller, 'That wasn't because he's so stupid that he doesn't know how to say, "Put food on your family's table" -- it's because he doesn't care about people who can't put food on the table.'
"Miller told Whyte, 'When he tries to talk about what this country stands for, or about democracy, he can't do it.'
"'This, then, is why he's so closely watched by his handlers, Miller says...not because he'll say something stupid, but because he'll overindulge in the language of violence and punishment at which he excels,' Whyte wrote.
"'He's a very angry guy, a hostile guy. He's much like Nixon. So they're very, very careful to choreograph every move he makes. They don't want him anywhere near protestors, because he would lose his temper,' Miller said."
Conover wrote her article more than two years ago. Now that Bush has been posing as president for more than four years, his image has been polished with only marginal success. Sometimes it seems his handlers have managed to present him in a slightly more presidential light, but he's like a ticking bomb. Tonight he's giving a press conference, and it will be just like the others: He'll absently mouth the lines which have been written for him, with no indication that he knows what he's saying, or that he's even interested. At any moment, the charade can crumble. When it does, he either tries to keep going -- which is what happens when we get those hilarious malapropisms -- or he detonates.
Two days ago, at a Social Security event in Galveston, Texas, Bush had this exchange with one Mr. Bentley, a young American soldier about to leave for his second tour of duty in Iraq:
|MR. BENTLEY: And we're operating in central Iraq. I'll be back there next week...
[BUSH]: How many children you got?
MR. BENTLEY: We have two children. We have a four-year-old son named Patrick, and a three-month-old daughter named Elaine that I just got to meet for the first time.
MR. BENTLEY: Yes, sir.
[BUSH]: No wonder you're emotional...that's awesome.
MRS. BENTLEY: She was born two days after he deployed.
[BUSH]: Yes, great.
Yes, great. Mark Crispin Miller is right. What looks like stupidity, in this case, is actually just utter indifference. This extreme lack of empathy and compassion has until now been observed only in reptiles and hyenas. You just had a baby? Awesome! No wonder you're emotional! Yes, great! There is no inkling that the Bentleys were feeling emotional because of Mr. Bentley's imminent return to Iraq, where he will be called upon to kill and die for a cause which has nothing to do with him. It also has nothing to do with freedom, or any of the other high ideals Bush can't talk about without stammering. Oh, you just had a daughter! So THAT'S why you're emotional! No, George. He's emotional because he's afraid that he'll never get to know his daughter. Because of you and your bullshit war.
All things considered, I still think he's a moron. But maybe that's just because I've never witnessed his brilliance when it comes to blowing up frogs.