07 December 2008

Piaf at the White House

Mesdames, Messieurs, le Président des Etats-Unis

An article I came across, sometime during this long campaign season just (mostly) past, suggested that liberals are hamstrung during any contest with conservatives because we can’t bring ourselves to think the way they do. That is, certain kinds of conservative political thinking are so irrational that normal people can’t put themselves in the other fellow’s shoes; instead, we find ourselves saying, “Nobody could really think that.”

When I was at CBS News, the suspicion was widespread, if not universal, that the conservative commentatrix Laura Ingraham, at the time a consultant for the News Division and no older than the youngest among us, didn’t believe a word of what she said on camera: she let fly the most outrageous things she could think of, we believed, merely in order to attract attention — and air time — and money. That gimmick, like her short skirts, worked very nicely for her, we had to admit, though we were too easily shamed to follow her example. I hear much the same being said of the far more outrageous Ann Coulter, as if she were simultaneously Finley Peter Dunne and Mr. Dooley, a writer and a comic persona at once. We almost envy Coulter’s ability to think like a frothy-mouthed lunatic. We could make very nice careers for ourselves, if only we could think that way, too.

Apparently, conservatives have no trouble anticipating liberal thought, which is one way they so often smash us at the polls. This fundamental rift goes beyond mere politics or cognition, however. Transcripts of acting President George Bush’s recent interview with Charles Gibson, of ABC News, suggest that cognitive and affective thought among certain conservatives may be wholly beyond the scope of other people’s brains. To put it simply, I spend my entire life in regret, whereas George Bush is a kind of Super Piaf, who regrets nothing at all. I can’t imagine what life must be like for such a person. Easier, perhaps, except for those one lives with.

In his interview with ABC, Soon-to-be-Citizen Bush cited, as the only regret of his eight years in the White House, that the intelligence in the weeks leading up to his invasion of Iraq was not “different.” He referred — of course — to the discovery that the promised “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” the primary justification for the war, did not in fact exist in Iraq.

This was a far cry from apologizing for the war (although some U.S. newspapers interpreted it that way) and a far cry from taking any personal responsibility for his decisions. Though he skipped an opportunity to emphasize, as he usually does, that the U.S. was right to invade Iraq, regardless, he did repeat the outright lie that Iraq had forbidden access to United Nations inspectors in the weeks leading up to the invasion. (In truth, the U.N. inspectors pursued their investigations right up until they fled the country — of their own accord — because Bush was about to start bombing Baghdad.) And he persists in making it sound as if the evidence indicating the presence of WMD were nothing but “slam dunk,” though parties inside and outside his administration expressed considerable skepticism at the time.

We’ve been through this and through this with Bush, and reasonably we shouldn’t expect him to change his tune: leopards will change their spots before Bush admits the lies and mistakes that have characterized his war in Iraq. That war is, after all, one of the very few things he can claim as his own; take that away, and he’s got a freakishly blank slate to show for his eight years in power. Yet we marvel anyway that Bush doesn’t regret his part in the failed economy; the poisonous political climate in Washington; the rollbacks of civil rights for blacks, immigrants, and homosexuals as a direct result of the policies of the party he ostensibly leads; the nightmarish federal response to Hurricane Katrina; or the irresponsible aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Doesn’t he regret hiring “Heckuva Job Brownie”? Doesn’t he regret not firing Donald Rumsfeld or Alberto Gonzales?

Politics long since ceased to be the arena for admission of responsibility, much less fault: that would mean showing weakness, which is fatal. Even Congressmen who have been caught with their trousers down insist they’re innocent, as if their willies have been taken out of context somehow. Why should a President express regret, when a Congressman does not? And even in the Age of Oprah, we must concede that a network-television interview may not always be the place to unburden one’s secret soul. But still! Couldn’t Bush have thrown us a crumb? We, who do not agree with him, simply can’t believe that, with a record so sordid, he sincerely can’t find any other sources of contrition.

Why we seek some proof that Bush is somehow related to us, as a species, I don’t know, but there it is. We are disappointed — when not outraged — by each fresh reminder that his brain is wired differently from ours.

And, I suspect, we are somewhat envious, too. How nice it must be, to live that way!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having just seen the excellent FROST/NIXON, based on Peter Morgan's play, I am struck with the thought that at least Nixon was wired to experience shame. He was shamed into resigning. Bush Jr. seems to have been born without the shame gene. Like you, I am mystified and disappointed by the man's oblivious certainty and inability to really regret.