Tue, Sep 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Bush: poor performance, exemplary packaging

After Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, reality intruded on the president's finely honed image. Both times he was missing in action

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


The appeal of any presidential candidate is based on a "gut reaction, unarticulated, non-analytical, a product of the particular chemistry between the voter and the image of the candidate," argued the late US president Richard Nixon's speechwriter Raymond Price. "[It's] not what's there that counts, it's what's projected."

And that projection, he continued, "depends more on the medium and its use than it does on the candidate himself." In other words, the US presidency is not just a political role but a performative one.

Over the past six years, US President George W. Bush's performance, both in office and on the campaign trail, has often been less than stellar.

But his packaging has, for the most part, been exemplary. He has been projected as a man of the people and a man of action. Never mind that he did precious little for the first 40 years of his life and that most of what he did achieve came courtesy of his father's connections. Image was everything.

This was the MBA candidate who would take care of business -- literally and metaphorically; the blue-blood whose folksy affectations turned blue states red; the affable jock who created a softball team called Nads in college just so that he could make banners saying "Go Nads."

Liberals ridiculed Bush for being ignorant about the rest of the world, but what many of them failed to grasp is that this is precisely what so many of their fellow countrymen liked about him. He didn't know the name of the president of Pakistan, and nor did they. The fact that he mangled his syntax was taken not as evidence that he had squandered an expensive education but as a sign of his unrehearsed folksiness. His supporters like the fact that he doesn't think too much. He's not a ditherer but, in his own words, "the decider."

Only twice did reality intrude on this meticulously constructed and carefully choreographed image: first after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and then almost exactly four years later, following Hurricane Katrina. Those two events represent the zenith and the nadir of Bush's presidency. In the wake of Sept. 11, 69 percent of Americans believed he was a president who "cared about people like them," and 75 percent thought he was "a strong and decisive leader."

After Katrina, those numbers were 42 percent and 49 percent respectively. Within a month of the 9/11 attacks, Bush's approval ratings had hit a giddy 92 percent; within a month of Katrina, they were down to 40 percent.

Today he stands between the two anniversaries that have come to define his tenure. Last week marked a year since Katrina flooded New Orleans, exposing his administration as aloof and incompetent -- an impression from which he has never recovered.

Next week will revive memories of a commander-in-chief who was tough and resolute -- an image he is desperate to resurrect.

On both anniversaries the dead will be commemorated. But the public discussion of why they died and what should be done to prevent more similar deaths reflects two very different notions of what kind of superpower the US aspires to be. They are, if not contradictory, at the very least in conflict.

A period of doleful introspection last week over how the world's wealthiest nation could treat its poor so shabbily will now be followed by a flag-waving orgy hailing patriotic resilience in the face of a vicious attack. If these anniversaries reveal a lot about Bush, they also tell us a great deal about the US.

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