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The Chosen People

How Bush plays to the appealing delusion that America is a nation with a special calling to redeem the world.

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On the eve of the final debate of this presi- dential election, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote of back-to-back campaign visits by President Bush and Senator Kerry to the Ohio cities of Cuyahoga Falls and Youngstown. In Cuyahoga Falls, he found a pair of brothers, Andy and Adam Griffin, who managed to get into one of the president’s rallies. “I’m 100 percent for Bush,” said Andy. “It’s 100 percent I like Bush,” said Adam, who first identified himself as a Christian. In Youngstown, the reporter talked to a Kerry supporter named Jack Saling, a retired truck driver, who said of his allegiance to his candidate: “It’s 50-50. I’ve never followed Kerry that much, but we need a change, a serious change.”

“A rock star,” Milbank calls Bush. He is the candidate of passion; he turns people on. No one says that about Kerry. I think of him as the straight-“A” student. If you teach (and I do), you will recognize that Kerry is of a type: a smart guy who gets it all down, synthesizes it beautifully, and then tries to give you back what he thinks you want. I thought the defining moment of Kerry’s campaign was (unfortunately for him) his acceptance speech at the Demo- cratic National Convention. It was an “A” paper without a single original thought. I counted fifteen lifts from archived presidential speeches, most of them by John F. Kennedy and Ron- ald Reagan, the passion candidates of their times.

Love or hate his political music, it is the president who has given great en- ergy and passion to this campaign. His opponent has barely risen above “Anybody But Bush.” The conventional wisdom months ago was that if the campaign turned into a referendum on Bush, he would surely lose. But what we are seeing is not a referendum on what each of us thought about this president or his presidency. The contest is indeed about two Americas, not rich and poor, but past and future.

This campaign, I would argue, is one of the last convulsions of angry, real American men, fighting desperately (and well) to hold back the time and tide of the new—the un-white and un-Christian, and girlie-men, too, who sooner or later will be America. Bush has the Father Knows Best vote, from men who have lost their personal power and hate what is happening all around them.

“We think we are not like other people because God did shed his grace on us. We are going to save the world.”

As a group, their power probably peaked in 1996, when the Chris- tian Coalition distributed 40 million election guides after Bill Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth-abortion ban. Since then, though, the coalition and other reactionary groups have lost power, besieged by infighting and lawsuits and defections of leaders who have muted their anger to go mainstream.

Now the angry men left behind see George Bush as their last champion—whether he really is or not is a different question—as the man who can hold the line against these aliens and all these alien ideas. This is why Kerry’s words “global test” have become a mantra chanted by Bush and his surrogates. Whatever the senator’s words actually meant, a lot of good old-fashioned American men had their own idea: Kerry was going to give away God-given American superpower and greatness to the aliens.

I had a small premonition of how this was going during a trip through Florida in March 2003. On the 18th, the day before we went to war, I was just finishing up the question-and-answer session after a speech on presidential leadership, mostly about the strengths and weaknesses of Kennedy and Nixon. A couple of the last questions zeroed in on the war in Iraq. I said, with appropriate respect, that I thought Bush was ignorant of history and was doomed to repeat it. I added that I thought his secretary of State was incompetently presiding over the rape of diplomacy and that his secretary of Defense seemed to be crazy enough to actually believe that American invaders and occupiers would be greeted by dancing in the streets. There was applause for that.

But the next question was different: I was asked about how history might view this Iraq war. I answered that one possibility was that President Bush might be overreaching and that history could one day judge that this was the “beginning of the end of American empire.”

A hundred people, maybe more, in the crowd of 1,750 people began to boo. Some people walked out, too, or maybe they just wanted to get out early to avoid traffic as the parking lot emptied. Before applause drowned out dissent, some guy yelled, “Go back to Russia, you bum!” I loved that; it made me feel like a kid again. There was something encouragingly American about the scene: The crowd, or at least some of it, would let me demean the president and his men but not diminish the country or its actions, right or wrong.


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