Preaching to the Choir, Damning “Bush World” Perfidy

Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America , by John Powers. Doubleday, 384 pages, $24.95.

Those Bush-bashing books keep on coming. For Americans on the left, piling Michael Moore, Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, Joe Conason, David Corn, Eric Alterman and Mark Green, and Al Franken on the coffee table is an obligation, not unlike putting a $20 bill in the collection plate every week. Each book chants the same hymn: The man who stole the presidency is not interested in ideas, mangles the language, sees everything in black and white, does the tax-cutting, environment-despoiling, no-bid-contract bidding of Kenny Boy, Halliburton and Grover Norquist, trashes civil liberties, lies about W.M.D., gives Iraq shock, awe, anarchy and Al Qaeda, and squanders the good will of the world. Each one ends with a call to action and a prayer: Please God, anybody but Bush.

John Powers, critic-at-large for NPR’s Fresh Air and deputy editor of the L.A. Weekly, claims that recycled anecdotes make each new volume “seem smaller and less impressive.” Apparently, he doesn’t believe that staying on message pays off. Why, then, has he written Sore Winners?

Mr. Powers wants to capitalize on the anger inspired by Bush 43. He brings to the task fresh insights and pungent prose portraits of the administration’s love-to-hate-‘em crew. John Ashcroft, he writes, is “The Witchfinder General … that oddest of creatures, a boring zealot.” Donald Rumsfeld is a great white rapper, “smart, poised and absolutely positive he was the biggest swinging dick in the room.” There is no “real” George W. Bush, he argues, but only multiple public personas, many of them contradictory. The President is a regular guy who chose a class identity into which he was not born. Comfortable in jeans with a big belt buckle, he is a runner and biker who walks with a John Wayne gait. He is Prince Hal, the wastrel Nepotist in Chief, who found in Sept. 11 his mission and his moment. He’s Dubya the dummy, who asks “Is our children learning?”, the C.E.O. who plays to the board, not the shareholders, and a compassionate conservative whose blood ran cold when Karla Faye Tucker asked for clemency. And he is Moby Dubya, the source of all evil.

Curiously, Mr. Powers is least persuasive in branding Mr. Bush a sore winner. He’s a bad winner, smirking and gloating; but he’s too sure of himself, too happy at the good fortune God gave him, to be sore. More on target is Mr. Powers’ insight that Bush has exploited the yearning of Americans for a strong leader … who will preserve the status quo. He’s given them guns, butter and credit cards, telling them, “There’s no greater American value than owning something.” Little wonder few are reaching “to imagine tomorrow.” Disastrously wrong-headed, Mr. Bush is a “genuine force” and an effective politician. He should not be misunderestimated.

Convinced that the President “is the political figure who defines our time,” Mr. Powers moves beyond the man to explore what he calls Bush World, the reigning ideas, values, symbols and policies in our culture. A defining feature of Bush World is the reality TV of Survivor and American Idol, “democratic” versions of Social Darwinism, where competitors are humiliated and voted off the show while the winners take all, “bragging, sneering, lording it over the losers.” Living with terror alerts, Americans take to the myth of Social Darwinism as they do to the narratives of good and evil in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and successive Bush State of the Union addresses.

In asking Americans to embrace “blithe superficiality” and preemptive war, the President can count on a cocky Fox News, a cowed mainstream media and supine Democratic politicians. While “the right has been having a gas” and offering Americans freedom, fun and authenticity, Mr. Powers writes, the joy and iconoclasm dribbled out of the left. The Nation became “as gray and unappetizing as homework.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman began to resemble the high-school teacher “who could never finish his history Ph.D. thesis but really wows sixteen year olds by explaining the Middle East using Nextel slogans.” Liberal intellectuals became puritanical anti-consumption scolds, ignored by ordinary Americans. The prominence of the erratic Michael Moore as a tribune of working people making the case against the Iraq war is evidence of the weakness of the left, not its power.

Most Democrats voted to authorize war with Iraq and waited for the consequences of what they knew to be a flawed policy. Most reporters passed along suspect claims about weapons of mass destruction by Ahmad Chalabi and, when embedded with our armed forces, wrote about how the war was being fought rather than its significance for Iraq, the Middle East and the war on terrorism.

Given the fecklessness of liberals, how might Americans escape from Bush World? Defeating Bush in 2004 won’t do it, because most of the defining elements of Bush World have been rooted in our culture for decades, a fact that Mr. Powers acknowledges but does not fully confront. Sore Winners is sometimes stunningly ahistorical. “It wasn’t so long ago,” Mr. Powers writes “that suburban America felt untouched, protected.” Is he suggesting that the change came on Bush’s watch? Under Reagan, Bush 41 and Bill Clinton, moreover, wasn’t populism also “nearly always as phony as a glass eye”? Weren’t shopworn versions of “The Good Negro,” akin to Bush World’s Colin and Condi, staples of popular and political culture then as well? Didn’t Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Coulter strut their stuff in the last century? Wouldn’t Martha Stewart have become a “sacrificial lamb in the court of celebrity justice” in Gore World?

In his conclusion, John Powers drops the hip, irreverent tone and goes preachy. The Bush administration’s dishonesty, militarism and devotion to winners, he declares, is a wake-up call to millions of Americans. They must stop getting their news from TV, monitor the machinations of the government, write a check to John Kerry. “And it means, if necessary, carrying the battle to the streets, which is where most of our freedoms were won in the first place …. We must create the world we want.”

Powers to the people. A venerable and valuable credo. It may just send Dubya back to Crawford-but I suspect Bush World will be around for quite a while.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.