12 August 2008

The Game of Politics

For years, I helped to keep the schedule of a major public figure. The fact that a network anchor isn’t a politician doesn’t negate the fact that s/he runs for election every night: the corporate bosses take the ratings very, very seriously. So the staff of a network anchor must exercise extreme caution in scheduling events and appearances that are appropriate. And at the first sign of trouble, the staff must do everything possible — up to and including throwing themselves bodily in the path of her/his speeding car — to bail the anchor out of an event that could compromise her/him.

Apparently, President Bush hasn’t got any such people working for him. Granted, when the travel plans were drawn up, the White House couldn’t have known that Russia and Georgia would go to war while the rest of the world was watching the Olympic Games. But surely they realized what was happening once the war started. How to explain, then, that the vigorous response of the President of the United States to this crisis included a dirt-bike race and a fanny-slapping volleyball game?

No wonder Putin kept right on bombing the Georgians. George Bush’s opinion on the subject carried about as much weight as that of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who remained on a boating vacation while the conflict began. “Don’t bother coming into the office — I have everything under control. You just relax and enjoy yourself.” Just think of the time Putin could have saved by making a conference call and saying the same thing to both presidents at once!

I’m having difficulty keeping my cool on this subject. Set aside that Georgia is among the only nations on earth who still like America — that they still like Bush, even. Set that aside, really, and consider this. Fourteen years ago, a Georgian family welcomed me into their home in Tbilisi, and the two youngest children, ages five and three, entertained us with the purest, sweetest singing I’ve ever heard. Today, those little boys are young men. They’re cannon fodder right now.

But okay — nobody knew this was going to happen. They did know other things, and reportedly some State Department staffers did suggest to President Bush that, given the continuing recalcitrance of the Chinese on everything from human rights to air pollution to Tibet to selling arms to rogue nations, it might be unwise for him to appear at the opening ceremonies in Beijing. One or two of them may even have realized that the ceremonies would be the Chinese sequel to Triumph of the Will. But Bush overruled them. He’s a sports buff, you see. He wanted to catch the basketball game.

I sympathize somewhat with those folks in the State Department — I’ve been there. When the Big Guy makes up his mind, there’s not much you can do. (And I didn’t even work for the Decider.)

Also taking advantage of the Olympics in order to make news — while attracting as little attention as possible — was former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who sincerely hoped that everybody would be too distracted by the Games to notice that he’d just admitted to an extramarital affair. Things didn’t quite work out that way, but you can’t fault Edwards’ reasoning: this was as good a window of opportunity as he was likely to find.

What I can’t fathom is why his clever, sensible wife — who knew all about the affair — encouraged her husband to run for the nomination, only a few months later. It’s admirable that she forgave him, but surely she realized that, eventually, other people would find out, and there’d be hell to pay (on top of all the hush money). Like it or not, voters care about these things. And yet she said, “Go for it, honey — run anyway.”

In confessing, Edwards blamed his own narcissism, but it’s important to remember that there’s a woman in the story of Narcissus, the nymph Echo, who’s every bit as smitten with him as he is with himself. I always figured Elizabeth Edwards for more the Hera type than an Echo — in this context, I’d picture her turning the Other Woman into a farm animal, instead of agreeing with everything her husband says — but I was wrong.

The Other Woman turns out to be a former lover of the writer Jay McInerney, who tried his darnedest to warn other men away from her by making her the main character of his novel, Story of My Life. He couldn’t have made himself clearer if he’d bought a billboard in Times Square. Does anybody read that book and walk away wanting to have an affair with Allison Poole?

It really does seem as if anybody who knows anything about politics — or contemporary fiction — would have sounded the alarm at any of several points in this misadventure. But apparently the Edwardses don’t know anything, and don’t know anyone who does.

And to think that this guy was very nearly Vice-President of the United States.

Maybe it’s all just a game to these people.

UPDATE: For some, the name of the game may be “Hi Bob.” The AP has released photographs of President Bush, a teetotaler, at the swimming competitions in Beijing this weekend.