W. Isn’t Beelzebub, He’s Just a Corleone-But Michael or Fredo?

Remember the way that rabid, self-destructive, paranoid, murder-list Clinton hatred paralyzed the Right (for a time, at least) in the 90’s? When Jerry Falwell peddled videotapes accusing the Clintons of multiple contract murders in Arkansas (after they offed Vince Foster, of course)? When lists of “murdered” witnesses circulated among the idiot faithful? Who could take those frothing, spittle-flecked conspiracy theorists seriously? But by failing to condemn these excrescences of Clinton hatred, much of the Right delegitimized any intellectual credibility it might have had and probably cost Newt Gingrich his job after a dismal showing in the ’98 midterm elections.

And now it’s back, in its mirror-image form on the Left. Dragging itself wet and dripping from what The Times ‘ liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof recently called the Left’s “cesspool of outraged incoherence” comes the new embodiment, the personification of that same rabid, self-destructive, paranoid rage: Bush Hatred.

Bush Hatred: As a cultural phenomenon, it has suddenly reached the critical mass of the Right’s sicko Clinton hatred. It’s crossed the line from opposition to his policies, from dissent, to an infantile, pathetic substitute for dissent and opposition. How do you define the difference; how do you know the line has been crossed? I think it’s safe to say the line was crossed even before the bitter election defeat turned what Mr. Kristof called incoherent rage to impotent rage.

The line was probably crossed when paranoid murder theories à la Falwell began to whiz through cyberspace immediately after Paul Wellstone’s death: George W. Bush had him killed!

Here’s the key part of the text of an e-mail that was circulated virtually minutes after Wellstone’s death:

” … alert: possible bush/republican coup: sen. wellstone assassinated … u.s. senator paul wellstone killed in mysterious plane crash right before pivotal, ‘too-close-to-call’ election, just like mel carnahan in 2000 ….

“remember how just before congress was going to vote on signing away our constitutional rights to the usa patriot act, how mail laced with anthrax was sent to members of congress ….

“remember how the nazis set the german parliament building (reichstag) on fire ….

“this is it, folks. We need to mobilize *IMMEDIATELY* … against a potenital [ sic ] republican fascist assault …. “

So let’s see: Bush had Wellstone “assassinated,” maybe Carnahan, too; he had anthrax sent to Congress; and he’s planning a Reichstag-fire fascist coup. Unless, as Gore Vidal believes, 9/11 was Bush’s “Hitlerian” coup.

Why aren’t those who railed against paranoid, right-wing, murder-list Clinton-hatred standing up to this “cesspool” of incoherent Left Bush hatred? A few, like David Corn in The Nation , have tried to combat idiot conspiracy theories. But who can take left dissent seriously if it doesn’t separate itself from Bush assassination and anthrax charges? Who can take left dissent seriously if it defends Mr. Vidal’s ludicrous charge that Bush engineered the mass murder of 9/11? If it defends Mr. Vidal’s crackpot conspiracy theory-as a couple of letter writers did in these pages- as dissent. Of course we must take Vidal’s ravings seriously, they said in effect; it’s Bush he’s talking about, and so proof is unnecessary. But let’s face it: In a sense, they’re right. For much of the Left, dissent has degenerated into nothing more than incoherent, impotent Bush hatred.

It’s funny: After I published my recent critique of Left idiocy (Oct. 14, 2002)-no, not the one on Vidal’s particular paranoid brand of Left idiocy (Nov. 11, 2002)-I got some letters saying that I had taken a cheap shot by focusing, in my opening, on a protester at an antiwar rally who was holding a sign that read “BUSH IS A DEVIL … HANDS OFF N. KOREA, IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN …. “

But, in fact, that basically is what Left dissent has come down to: Bush is a devil. Yes, there still is some issue-based dissent, but it’s drowned out by the incoherent rage. So any idiot conspiracy theory Mr. Vidal feels like floating that accuses Bush of arranging the 9/11 mass murder is just fine with today’s Leftists, because it’s Bush , don’t you see: It’s His Satanic Majesty, the Longhorn Lucifer, the Prince of Harkness (Yale reference), George W. Beelzebub.

Sad, self-destructive, but true. Pardon me if I return to that sign: “BUSH IS A DEVIL … HANDS OFF N. KOREA, IRAQ,” etc. Pardon me if I ask what might seem like a naïve question, but isn’t the Left supposed to be on the side of oppressed people, rather than on the side of the police states, such as North Korea, or the vicious theocracies, such as Iran, that oppress them? That’s why I used to think of myself as part of the Left. How did it all turn around so that if Mr. Bush opposes a police state, that particular police state is then taken under the nurturing, protective wing of the Left-and those oppressed people don’t count. Police states like Iraq and North Korea must be worth protecting even though they torture their citizens, murder their dissenters, repress women and gays, because-well, because Bush is the devil, and if the devil opposes something, it must have something going for it.

This, by the way, doesn’t make me an uncritical Bush fan. I think it might be appropriate, though, to talk about the evolution of my thinking about my classmate, the Devil. And perhaps the best lens through which to look at that evolution is The Godfather .

I called the White House press office the other day to see if I could get confirmation that the President had seen or read The Godfather , because I believe it is a profound influence on the way he sees the world. I’d seen the Bush family compared to the Corleones before, but I had a different kind of Godfather theory-one that had more to do with the brothers than the father.

The White House was not helpful. “That’s a ridiculous question,” White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said of my mild inquiry. Why ridiculous? “We’re dealing with many more important matters,” he said. And yet somehow they have time to tell us many less-important details. Somehow we know that Mr. Bush read The Very Hungry Caterpillar . He didn’t quite refuse to answer the question, but he basically told me not to hold my breath waiting for him to get back to me on it. Obviously, he thought I was going to use The Godfather against his boss, but in fact what I was seeking to do was to use The Godfather as a kind of rationale for Bush’s behavior-as a way of explaining his post-9/11 worldview, the new rules for dealing with the likes of Osama and Saddam and the gangland world we find ourselves in.

Basically, I think there are two aspects of The Godfather that help explain George W.

First, there’s the way he’s morphed from Fredo to Sonny to (a little bit of) Michael.

I must admit, I first thought of George W. as basically the Fredo of Skull and Bones: overprivileged, trading on his family’s influence-and ineffectually, too. (By the way, another indication that Bush hatred has crossed the line is the resurgence of Skull and Bones conspiracy theories of the Vidal secret-cabal type. It’s a little dismaying because, while I love having fun at the expense of the overprivileged stiffs of the Bush Secret Society, whenever I’ve written about Skull and Bones, I’ve taken great pains to portray it for what it is: an American equivalent of the British “Old Boy” network of Etonians, an informal network of power and connections, not without importance historically and anthropologically, but one that shamelessly exercises its influence out in the open. And yet the conspiracy theorists insist on making Bones a coven that rules the world in secret through Vidal-style cabal-like conspiracies, that manipulates history Protocols of the Elders of Connecticut –style, you might say.)

Anyway, I didn’t have any strong feelings about the Fredo of Skull and Bones. Or maybe I felt the mixed feelings we all have for Fredo in The Godfather movies: He’s weak and abrasive in a passive-aggressive way, but we kind of forgive him for at least knowing his place, finding his métier working in Vegas and, as Moe Greene puts it, “banging cocktail waitresses two at a time.”

But then, when Fredo of Skull and Bones started running for President, I found a lot of things not to like about him, and I published them in these pages. I didn’t like his South Carolina primary campaign, where he exploited the racist sentimentality about the Confederate flag, smeared John McCain and sucked up to Pat Robertson (who would later, like the Left, suggest that the mass murders of 9/11 were a righteous judgment on a sinful America)-the primary campaign that basically won him the nomination.

And I didn’t like him for Florida, and wrote several columns bashing him and his thuggish minions for pickpocketing that election (whatever the conflicting newspaper recounts showed, there’s no doubt that more people went to the polls in Florida seeking to vote Democratic for President than Republican, and only a disgracefully prejudiced, political and hypocritical Supreme Court gave him the Presidency-as Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband indiscreetly made clear).

But there it was: Fredo was the only President we had. I wasn’t happy, but my contempt for Al Gore’s pusillanimous and deceptive posturing before and after the election didn’t make me long for a Gore Presidency. (Gore as the snotty WASP Senator in Godfather II ?)

Then came 9/11, and Fredo began to morph into Sonny-and here’s the thing that came as the real surprise to me: began demonstrating some of the sagacity of Michael.

Now if you think of Osama bin Laden as Barzini, and the Taliban as the Tattaglia family, Rummy as Luca Brasi … no, I’m not going that route. Nor will I make any Sopranos comparison to make it seem more au courant . Much as I love The Sopranos -or have until this season-the whole series can be seen as a gloss, a commentary, a Talmudic meditation on the moral questions first raised by The Godfather , questions that extend beyond Little Italy and the Jersey suburbs: Is it possible to live an honorable life in a world that lives by gangland rules? Is there any sustainable code or limitation within gangland rules, or will one eventually be forced to go totally gangland, “get medieval,” go all unilateral on gangland in order to survive?

No, this theory-which has to remain a theory, since the White House isn’t racing to get back to me on the question of whether Mr. Bush saw The Godfather (though I hereby bet White House spokesman Ken Lisaius $1,000 that Bush did , since everyone else of his generation did; as I’ve sheepishly disclosed in the past, and probably should again in this context, I was a classmate of George W. at Yale, though I didn’t know him)-this theory, I was saying, doesn’t call for a one-to-one mapping of the plot of The Godfather onto George W. and 9/11. It has more to do with the dynamic of the three Corleone brothers-Fredo, Sonny and Michael-going on within George W.

He wakes up in the White House on Jan. 21, 2001, and he’s still Fredo; he’s let his consigliere and his thugs play Sonny for him to get him there-although every once in a while, when he executes a particularly mean-spirited maneuver, as in the South Carolina primary, you wonder if he’s Sonny masquerading as the harmless Fredo. But that would really make him Michael, and I don’t think we see any real elements of Michael emerge until after 9/11.

But then, suddenly, there’s 9/11, that moment like the one in the first Godfather when Barzini hits the Old Man. Yes, George W. acts like hotheaded Sonny in that he hits the Tattaglia family, the hapless Taliban, right away. But he’s smart enough to realize he’s got to play the Saddam thing differently.

Clearly, he’s made a decision that the old rules don’t apply-only a loser and a sucker finds himself the last one or the only one to obey them. He realizes the time has come to “settle all family business” with terrorists. But in a very shrewd way. Saddam is family business, in the sense that anyone serious about long-term security can’t allow a nutter like him making bombs and handing them off to terrorists with paradise in their eyes. But Saddam has to be handled with a little more finesse than Afghanistan. So George W. gets the world thinking he’s morphed from Fredo to Sonny-the hotheaded unilateralist, so to speak-but it’s really Michael running the show. Bluffing a unilateral move (which he’d do, if necessary, although it has a downside), but bluffing it so compellingly that he gets the multilateralists of the world to join in on the dismantling of Saddam in order to prevent that crazy Sonny from knocking over the beautiful, multilateral house of cards they believe in.

Consider this, the “money graf” from the first installment of Bob Woodward’s new “Bush at War” series in The Washington Post on Nov. 17. It’s Mr. Woodward’s indirect-discourse version of what he thinks is going on in Mr. Bush’s mind:

“Bush believed a preemption strategy might be the only alternative if he were serious about … the realities at the beginning of the 21st century … the possibility of another massive, surprise terrorist attack similar to Sept. 11, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction …. Should the two converge in the hands of terrorists or a rogue state, the United States could be attacked, and tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people could be killed.

“In addition, the president and his team had found that protecting and sealing the U.S. homeland was basically impossible. Even with heightened security and the national terrorist alerts, the country was only marginally safer. The United States had absorbed Pearl Harbor and gone on to win World War II. For the moment, the country had absorbed Sept. 11 and gone on to win the first phase of the war in Afghanistan. What would happen if there were a nuclear attack, killing tens or hundreds of thousands? A free country could become a police state. What would the citizens or history think of a president who had not acted in absolutely the most aggressive way? When did a defense require an active offense?”

The chilling reality here: the possibility of a second strike here and its profound consequences if we just sit and allow those who could make it happen time to do it. It’s time for Michael to co-opt the multilateralists.

A digression here on the Left’s love of the multilateral system, its horror of unilateral pre-emption. Again, it goes back to my puzzlement about what the Left is about: Isn’t it supposed to be on the side of oppressed people? And yet the multilateral system that suddenly is all the rage in Left rhetoric does little more than entrench some of the worst torturing and murdering police states more deeply in power; allows theocracies to execute “blasphemers” with impunity, as Iran is about to do; allows others to commit multiple genocides with impunity; puts Sudan and Syria in charge of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. I mean, come on, who are we kidding? The multilateral system in place now is no more moral than the gangland system of The Godfather .

Wouldn’t it be a victory for the oppressed people of Iraq, of North Korea, of Iran, if their police-state regimes were overthrown? Even by a cowboy unilateralist? Even by The Devil? Even by the nation of Disney and McDonald’s? But, alas, the Left must protect and shield these odious police states and torturing theocracies, in large part because the Left really seems to believe murdering dissidents is not as bad as the globalizing influence of McDonald’s. And because the Left did nothing-but nothing -to challenge the murderous states of Eastern Europe because they were nominally Marxist. And most of the Left opposed even the multilateral intervention to forestall possible genocide in Albania. Where, for instance, are the Left demonstrations in solidarity with the courageous students of Iran protesting capital punishment for “blasphemy”?

I disagree with George Bush on just about every domestic issue you can name, and did so from the moment he named John Ashcroft Attorney General. I think the struggle to maintain the separation of church and state is one of the defining virtues of America. Every stupid, historically ignorant, Constitutionally repellent measure, from God in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, needs to be vigorously opposed. But the Left has no credibility on this issue, because it’s now the chief American defender of theocracies abroad. It simply amazes me that the Left doesn’t get that the people who attacked us don’t just want God in some pledge; they want to execute “blasphemers,” beat women into burqas, stone gays-America was founded by escapees from such theocracies.

How can the Left be so blind to who the real enemy is? How can they have so alienated themselves-not just from the electorate, but from reason itself, dumbing down dissidence to paranoid Vidalian mass-murder conspiracy charges? Because, in effect, they have founded their own religion: Bush hatred. It doesn’t have a God, but it does have a Satan: “Bush is the devil.