Gene Lyons: Practical Imagery
Posted on Wednesday, March 10, 2004
" When the facts change, I change my mind—what do you do, sir?"—John Maynard Keynes
History records that George W. Bush became a "rancher" in 1999, buying a spread outside Crawford, Texas, shortly before announcing his presidential candidacy. Before acquiring the place, with its oddly immobile round bales, Bush showed no interest in country life. On working ranches, most of the hay has been fed to cows by March; on Rancho Bush, it provides a picturesque backdrop for TV correspondents. This president rides golf carts, not quarter horses. When they say he’s "clearing brush" by hand in the August heat, my guess is he’s watching baseball on satellite TV. Either way, it’s a good bet that those cows he patted at that Houston rodeo were the first he’s touched since attending the same event during the 2000 campaign.
He’s a Texas cliche, an urban millionaire who buys livestock to certify his authenticity. If Martha Stewart had grown up in Dallas, she’d market designer branding irons, and Bush would buy them. That said, cowboy imagery has been politically useful to Bush and could prove so again, unless presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry learns to counter it.
In the iconography of the Hollywood cowboy movie, real men are real simple. Guys who give complicated explanations are womanish, indecisive and untrustworthy. Making a virtue of necessity, Bush plays the straight-talking man of action to great effect. It’s basically how he gets away with so many falsehoods without being seen as deceptive.
Never mind that better westerns like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and Clint Eastwood’s "Unforgiven" have played against this stereotype for a generation. Or that Kerry is an authentic war hero running against a guy who plays one on TV. As an Eastern intellectual who talks like a book, Kerry risks coming off like Jimmy Stewart to Bush’s John Wayne in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence."
Kerry shouldn’t underestimate Bush. Inarticulate at times, he delivers scripted lines with great conviction. He’s got a particular knack for sarcastic putdowns. Having reportedly resented people like Kerry—sons of privilege whose achievements match their pedigreessince his own New England prep school days, Bush effectively mocked his rival in remarks at a Dallas fund-raiser widely replayed on TV. "The [Democratic] candidates are an interesting group with diverse opinions," Bush said with a smirk. "For tax cuts and against them, for NAFTA and against NAFTA, for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act, in favor of liberating Iraq and opposed to it. And that’s just one senator from Massachusetts."
OK, so two of Bush’s four examples are brazenly false. Kerry voted against Bush’s millions-for-millionaires tax cuts, correctly predicting that they would blow a hole in the federal budget. And "liberating Iraq" never came up for a vote. It became Bush’s fallback position after Saddam Hussein’s "weapons of mass destruction" turned out to be figments of neo-conservative imagination.
Kerry explains his October 2002 vote giving Bush something he already had, the option to use force in Iraq (the U.S. bombed Saddam regularly under Bill Clinton) as a response to the president’s vow to build an international coalition, respect the U. N. arms inspection process and make war the last resort—promises he says Bush broke.
What Kerry can’t say, of course, is that to the degree his Iraq vote reflected political calculation, Bush made it so: scheduling a war vote before a congressional election, as his father refused to do in 1990.
The other two charges are almost as phony. Kerry doesn’t want to repeal NAFTA. He wants the U.S. to enforce environmental and worker safety rules, which trade rivals gain a competitive advantage by ignoring. As for the Patriot Act, with its problem with Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure, Kerry explains his vote as an emergency response to 9/11.
For Kerry and others, what made parts of the Patriot Act supportable was a "sunset clause" limiting its duration to three years, forcing Congress to revisit its most troubling aspects, such as secret searches. Bush now portrays that review as unpatriotic.
The White House pulled a similar bait-and-switch with tax cuts, getting them enacted by affixing expiration dates it now calls tax increases. But see, even a terse refutation of Bush’s charge that Kerry is an unprincipled flip-flopper takes quite a few words. To win, Kerry can’t simply defend himself. He must take the offensive. Writing in Slate, fellow Texan Will Saletan argues that the bait-and-switch argument—Kerry calls Bush "the biggest say-one-thing, do-another" president ever—won’t cut it. People don’t believe that cowboys lie. Instead, he argues that Bush’s real weakness is his near-theological certitude, his bull-headed inability to admit error, perceive contrary facts or change his mind. Having got the herd moving in the wrong direction, he’s too stubborn to turn around.
Personally, I’m not sure about the argument, but I do love the metaphor.
• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient
of the National Magazine Award