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Saint George

Rallying around a wartime president is one thing. But why does Dubya remain entirely untouchable even as we question his lieutenants -- and his increasingly disturbing policies?

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To get the willies from George W. Bush, to distrust the man, to have your stomach roll a bit when you hear him speak, is to feel like the most churlish and sullen of adolescents. He's the unappealing uncle -- with his cold eye on you -- whose house you're stuck at this holiday season. While you're trying to shut out his existence, everybody else is sucking up to him.

If you knew it was just pretend, just a holiday bit -- everybody being phony and polite -- you could handle it; the problem is in thinking that all this affability, this undisaffected appreciation for the guy, is honest feeling on everyone else's part. What if 85 percent of the American people actually, deep in their hearts, approve of him -- dig him? What does that say about you and where you fit in?

Certainly the wash of Bush boosterism is broad enough -- and backed by a militant core -- for most cautious citizens not to want to tangle with it. Criticism is as bottled up as perhaps it's ever been about an American president (Bush is more sacrosanct three months after September 11 than FDR was three months after Pearl Harbor).

His natural antagonists are treading carefully, proceeding gingerly, going out of the way to praise him -- even while trying to criticize him. For instance, Frank Rich's scraping bow to "George W. Bush's nuanced and so far effective prosecution of the war" on the Times op-ed page as he criticized John Ashcroft's sweeping new legal approach to the war, as though Bush and Ashcroft were separate parts of government.

To question George W. Bush, or doubt him, or take him on, is not only to put yourself on the wrong side of the war effort -- a winning one -- but, it seems more and more, to run against the grain of a new, tidal, transforming, tonal shift. Buck Bush and you buck the era, buddy.

He may still seem like a cipher -- that inexpressiveness of his must trouble even his greatest admirers -- but it is hard not to face the fact that he occupies an amazing amount of psychic space. And he gets larger and larger. The less expressive he is, or the simpler that expression becomes -- the aggrieved man; Osama has offended him -- the larger he gets.

The space he occupies is far greater than just policy or politics (Clinton, for instance, may never have transcended either). He's casting a new kind of Stepford spell, which nobody wants to try to break. He's rising to Republican-archetype stature -- as potentially large as Reagan and Eisenhower. If you took on Reagan, you were taking on optimism; if you took on Eisenhower, you were taking on prosperity, serenity even. If you take on Bush, you take on . . . well, we don't exactly know what yet. He's large and ever-expanding, but still a muddle.

Reagan and Eisenhower were immediate, palpable. In each case, there was the smile. The message was clear: Lie back, feel good, be well, don't worry.Bush, however, seems much the opposite. Not least of all, he has no smile -- or the smile is so furtive and twitching and scary that it's clearly sending a different message. Instead of that special sort of Republican father-figure embrace, there's a remoteness, an absence, something strict and ungenerous (war has given us the flip side of his boyish inattention).

Who is he?

What is he feeling, or trying to tell us he's feeling? What does he want us to feel? What's the message?

So far his message is limited to vigilance. Evil is what we're up against -- we must do what we must do.

Vigilance is a good mode for Bush. It doesn't require a smile. Nor does it require much of an explanation. In this mode, you don't have to begin to contemplate the equivocal nature of different sorts of threats, or the relative costs of defending against each variety of threat, or even the failures of vigilance that might have exposed us to attack. You are either with us or against us. (He embodies the threat. He doesn't even have to specify what might happen to a recalcitrant Saddam: "He'll find out.") Implacability, determination, total grit, and homeland security are the coin of the realm. It doesn't take a genius to be vigilant, only a righteous man. The world is a dangerous, but not a complicated, place.

His affect is unrelieved grimness.

Grimness is not a standard, or popular, affect in the political bag of tricks. The usual political tactic is to try to relieve grimness, to suggest reasons for optimism. There are, however, various reasons why grimness works for Bush -- why it's an effective melding of man and countenance.

You have, behind the grimness, the moral force of the 5,000 or 4,000 or 3,000 who have died. If you are not naturally a sentimentalist -- as, for instance, Giuliani turns out to be -- then grimness is a good fallback. Bush is a certain type at a funeral. Whereas Clinton would have gone for the inspirational, Bush is the stone-faced Protestant (which plays nationally -- Rudy may be too Catholic in his mourning to play in the South and West). His bereftness is rigid, hard, stoic. This gives weight to his lightweightness. He's a playground bully cleaned up for church. Indeed, when he shifts out of his grim character, he returns to his fecklessness (inappropriate body language, weird discomfort, verbal tics).

There are other advantages to grimness: It cuts off petty squabbles, underlying antagonisms, and cleverer points of view. Grimness, in its suggestion of a dire situation, of even a hopeless one, makes it pretty difficult to take issue. What's more, grim is kind of noble. He's Churchill Lite (very Lite).

He's found a groove.

What is said is that he has stepped up to the role. The circumstances have made him. Adversity has transformed him.

Where before he was coming undone in all but the most scripted public settings -- he wasn't just verbally maladroit but emotionally way off the mark -- the need for constant vigilance in an age of unrelieved grimness flatters his limited emotional and verbal range. He's at ease in this posture. He is good at being resolute, unwavering -- indeed, the less he says, the better. The world is a bad place -- no surprise that good and evil are at it again. It is a comfortable, even natural, role for a reformed alcoholic and born-again man.

As he grows into his new role, the policy manifestations of vigilance and grimness become clearer: mass detentions, interrogation sweeps, suspension of due process, military tribunals.

The mounting discomfort with all this dire reaction, or overreaction, has not rubbed off on the president.

It is a striking triumph of affect. It's not fear -- you can feel that abate. It's deeper than that: We are changed people accepting the world's changed conditions. Life is different now. Fuck 'em.

There is, possibly, no more advantageous condition for a politician than a changed world. The opportunity here is that you, the politician, can come to represent the change. This is "before and after" stuff. There's no going back. The new reality is yours to fashion.

The world is as it is -- deal with it.

This will require -- constant vigilance requires -- broader controls, stricter authority, Rummy, Cheney, and this Reich-sounding homeland business.

What's more, it forces a personality mutation. We are all suddenly nice. We are all solid citizens. We are all cowed. We are all for unity now -- disharmony itself is a sin. And unity is necessarily something that embraces all symbols of unity, including the president. The norm may have never been so strong.

This could be big. This could be the culture shift.

It's possible that Bush -- the strong, implacable, unremitting Bush, canonized in public opinion -- can accomplish the kind of vast, ungenerous, white-bread, retro, wagons-circled, near-Orwellian agenda the Republicans have been dreaming about for years.

The trick here for the Bush people is to stifle not the objections -- let the lefties and the Europeans object -- but the jokes. He is, with the slightest deconstruction, quite a comic-book figure. The line between courageous sentinel and big dork is a relatively thin one.

The worst thing for the Republican agenda would be for George W. to go back to being the butt boy of late-night television.

Surely it must be disconcerting that the son is at exactly the same place the father was: enormous popularity at the end of a nearly casualty-less war. The thing is, a warrior type tends to look ludicrous when the war is over -- especially these modern air wars, which are over as fast as they have started. It's hard to straddle being a strict, button-down war guy and an expansive, let-the-good-times-roll peace guy.

Plus, war leaves you with recession. War, which gets you big-time approval numbers, sucks when it comes to consumer confidence. Or worse, the formula could be a BUSH + WAR = RECESSION. Both father and son, in their crabbedness, their old-shoeness, their lack of big-picture grandness, may be recessionary personalities.

Let's assume this is what the best minds at the White House are thinking, too: We are where the old man was, so how do we not go where he went?It would sound overly cynical (even to me) to say that the secret lies in creating a permanent state of vigilance and grimness. Or to claim that Bush might even have his own agenda for pursuing this new generational, saga-like, phase-after-phase war.

And yet it doesn't have to be cynical. This belief in a general state of perpetual peril -- of evil and goodness in a never-ending dust-up -- can be heartfelt. Not only because it works so well for him but because the dystopian view fits him and a lot of Republicans -- they loved that Cold War, after all. The Bush grimace comes from the heart.

We are going deeper into bad times, in a hostile world, under rigid laws. It will get grimmer yet, until somebody starts making fun of this stiff. Fortunately, we're a nation with a lot of sniggering adolescents.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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