The mystery of government is not how Washington works, but how to make it stop.
– P.J. O’Rourke
You know those political cartoons that depict George Bush as a sort of adolescent ape-man? I used to think they were a visual articulation of our president’s simplemindedness, but I recently came to the horrifying conclusion that the images in those cartoons are actually a reflection of America itself.
With the Republican party finally somewhat on the ropes—Libby and DeLay indicted; Frist and Rove under investigation; Miers withdrawn; Schwarzenegger voted down; Schmidt booed; Cunningham disgraced—America can (maybe) afford to breathe a little and examine how the GOP managed to fuck us over so badly in the first place. Turns out it was pretty easy: Not only do we not learn from our mistakes, it appears that we choose not to learn from them.
Or at least, that’s what I learned from reading Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President 1968. In this shrewdly researched campaign analysis, McGinniss explains how Richard Nixon—arguably the worst American president of the last 100 years, with the exception of the current one—took control of his own televised image in order to secure his election to an office he would eventually be forced to resign from. McGinniss quotes Daniel Boorstin’s The Image to describe the flawed public mindset that allowed such a travesty to happen in the first place: “In the last half century … we have misled ourselves … about men … and how much greatness can be found among them … We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality. We demand them. And we demand that there always be more of them, bigger and better and more vivid.”
McGinniss then adds his own epitaph to Boorstin’s pronouncement: “The Presidency seems to be the ultimate extension of our error.”
Truer words were never spoken. In 1968, Nixon, bitch-slapped by a medium that had depicted him as a sweaty, unshaven mess in a televised debate with John F. Kennedy eight years earlier, hired an expensive PR firm and learned how to manipulate Americans with the latest techniques in false advertising. Through staged settings, temperature control and careful editing, Nixon reinvented himself for a public that had previously rejected him and bamboozled our predecessors into thinking he was something—everything—he was not. McGinniss explains the phenomenon thusly: “The TV candidate … is measured not against his predecessors—not against a standard of performance established by two centuries of democracy—but against Mike Douglas. How well does he handle himself? Does he mumble, does he twitch, does he make me laugh? Do I feel warm inside?”
Apparently, the “new Nixon” made America feel reasonably warm. But how did he pull it off? Raymond K. Price laid it all out for us well in advance. A former editorial writer for the New York Herald Tribune, Price pointed out—in 1967—that “the natural human use of reason is to support prejudice, not to arrive at opinions.” Price would later become one of Nixon’s speechwriters and would compose most of Tricky Dick’s 1969 inaugural address.
McGinniss’s book was published in 1969; Boorstin’s in 1961. McGinniss also quotes Marshall McLuhan’s invaluable 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, to back up his assessments in The Selling of the President. Notice a pattern here? Most of this information is about 40 years old. So why haven’t we fucking learned anything? Have political candidates and their backers evolved so much that they’ve made these ideas obsolete? It’s not like Bush made us feel warm in those televised debates with Kerry last year; in fact, Dubya twitched, mumbled and looked even worse than Nixon did next to Kennedy in 1960. But 44 years’ worth of circumspection be damned, he still got elected. And it’s not just because Rove bypassed the image-sculpting process with electronic voting machines: It’s because we’ve devolved to the point that a completely transparent smear campaign like Swift Boat Veterans For Truth can actually work; to the point that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld can sell us an oil war disguised as a War on Terror that’s being disguised by the other side as a War on Allah; to the point that we find ourselves, in 2005, discussing a batshit idea like “intelligent design” as if it were actually something new.
And yet the excuses roll on. Pundits cite television, video games, movies, the internet and anti-depressants as the distractions that take America’s eyes off the politicians. This is true to a certain extent—if there’s one thing that crosses partisan lines, it’s that far too many of us think we can actually bone Paris Hilton if we see her on the tube enough times. But really, these are just symptoms of a much larger problem: We’re fucking backsliders.
Those monkey drawings of George Bush, though. That shit cracks me up.