Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Country Right & Wrong

I recently finished Zeitoun, Dave Eggers' extraordinary, infuriating, and hopeful journalistic novel about the drowning of New Orleans through the eyes of a faithful Islamic family who were torn apart by the storm and the systemic failures of the government's response to it. Eggers did a tremendous job both of describing the city's landscape and exercising restraint in recounting the horrors that happened to the title characters in the wake of the disaster. I remember watching Katrina as it happened from my safe New York berth and being appalled, and feeling helpless, like I wanted to go there and make a difference in some way. Eggers did make a difference, by capturing that moment in time in an accessible way.

I hadn't thought about Bush for a while. I've been doing my best to look away from the current carnival of clownish fuckery that some are charitably referring to as the 2012 Presidential Election race. Because every time I look, I simply feel disappointment and despair. I never realized that I would become nostalgic for the anger I felt towards George Bush, and the way he managed the country. In those days, it really felt like a wrong turn had been taken, but that we could correct it with proper civic engagement. Maybe I'm old, maybe I'm tired, or maybe I'm lazy, or maybe it's all of those things, but watching what passes for political discourse these days makes me think that nothing will change absent a slate-wiping event that would make Travis Bickle proud.

It prompted me to look back on this piece I wrote about Bush in 2005, shortly after Hunter Thompson killed himself. There's a lot I still believe in here. The worst part about it is that I really do believe that George Bush, as wrong-headed, incompetent, and awful as he was, really did believe in what he said and did. I don't believe a word of the current slate. And those diminishing returns are what's truly horrifying.

Here's the original 2005 piece, unedited:

Last summer, on a tear through Ohio I happened to run into George W. Bush. It was the damnedest thing, really. I was meeting a colleague at an upscale downtown hotel and so I hung out in the bar drinking whisky and waiting. A detail of spooks in black suits and ties and glasses were already in the place eyeing me up and down as if I were some sort of x-factor. The bar was filled to capacity with fat old men in three piece suits all waiting for some kind of fundraiser that was going on upstairs. I sat for a half hour and watched the place thin, after a fashion leaving me lonesome on the stool with just a few couples sitting at cocktail tables around the restaurant. My friend came down from his room and we went out for dinner at some local steakhouse.

When I returned to the hotel we had a couple more drinks and he went back up to his room. It wasn't late, but the bar was dead. There was me and Gary, the older, reserved barkeep, and just a couple of spooks hanging out as unobtrusively as possible near the doors. They were eyeing me again, but I paid no mind and ordered another drink.

That's when W walked in, dressed uncomfortably in a suit and tie that you could tell he really didn't favor. He was taller than I imagined, and his eyes were more sympathetic than I ever thought they could be when looking at him on the television. That's the problem with villains: at the end of the day they're really just people and their capacity for evil has to be measured against the physical realities of indigestion, and fatigue, and worry about the family and the dog. Which doesn't excuse any of the problems I have against Bush, but it made it hard for me to transfer my visceral intellectual hatred of the President to the tired, average looking man who was walking up to the bar.

One of the spooks walked over to me and asked to pay my tab and for me to leave. "No, hell, that's all right, let him stay," Bush said. "You're a citizen just like me," he said, sitting three stools over from me, "You got every right to have a drink in peace. What're you drinking anyway? I'll get your next one."

"Maker's Mark," I said, "But I'm all right, I just ordered one. Thanks anyway."

"That's very wise," W said, settling onto his stool. "'Be not among wine bibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh: For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags. ' That's from the book of Proverbs." He ordered a Coca-Cola then turned to me and said, "So lemme ask you what you think about this race we're in."

"Well, John Kerry's running a terrible race," I said, after lighting a smoke.

Bush let out a loud Texas guffaw. "That's what I keep saying, let's just hope he keeps it up!"

"Actually, I hope he gets his shit together," I said. "There's no way I can give you my vote."

His eyes went steely for a moment and then the composure returned. "And why's that?" he asked.

"With due respect, I think you're running the country all wrong. I was with you on Afghanistan, but the way you've managed Iraq is all wrong and it just keeps getting worse."

"And with due respect to you, I don't think you have all the facts," Bush answered. "Saddam Hussein was a terrible, terrible man. He turned his weapons on his own people, he defied the world community, and he aided terrorists. How could we stand by and let him continue?"

"Yeah, I read the news and I've heard all that, but all I'm seeing is that your guys had a plan to get in there and depose Saddam, but you had no idea what you were gonna do afterwards. So good, you broke it, Saddam's out of power, and the whole country's on the verge of anarchy."

"That's just the way that freedom spreads," he said. "The terrorists are fighting us because we represent the march of freedom and every single act of terrorism is proof of how scary these people think freedom is. They know it's coming, and that their days are numbered and so they desperately defy us, but we will destroy them, because we know we're right."

"Save it," I said. "You broke faith with a tradition of American foreign policy and led us into a war of your choosing, that's not what the United States is all about. A lot changed with 9/11, I'll grant you that, but it doesn't give us the right to unilaterally invade a foreign country that isn't directly threatening us, and to do so on shoddy evidence."

"And I suppose you're one of those people who think that we should have waited until an American city was in ashes before taking out a man who had proved time and again to be a threat."

"No, I'm one of those people who thinks the United States should stand taller than the world's bullies, act with unimpeachable integrity, and lead by example. We could have employed military force if you exhausted diplomacy..."

"Diplomacy wasn't working..."

"And neither is your military solution. Come on. Abu Ghraib. You should be ashamed of yourself. As an American, I'm certainly ashamed. How can we persuade the rest of the world that we've got the best answer if we behave like bullies and thugs?"

"I am ashamed of what happened in that place. But that doesn't change the fact that we're doing God's work and spreading freedom. That's the calling of our nation, to spread freedom, and to conquer oppression, wherever it lives. That's how we'll destroy the terrorists."

"Jesus," I said, exhaling smoke, "do you ever listen to yourself? We're losing because we're winning, the terrorists are attacking us because we're going to win. Don't you know how retarded that sounds? Freedom isn't occupying other nations without the sanction of our allies. Freedom isn't flouting the Geneva Convention. Freedom isn't cultivating a nation of fear under freaks like that Attorney General you dug out from an election lost to a dead man. Freedom is behaving in the best interests of your citizens, admitting when you made mistakes, and building constructive bridges. Not continuing on some homicidal domination adventure."

Bush withdrew and took some rapid sips at his drink. "Well, I can see we're just looking at the world from two different points of view. That's what makes America great, the fact that we can sit in this place and have this conversation," he said.

"You couldn't be more right about that," I said. "Look, I love America. I think we've got the greatest constitution in the history of the world. I think we're capable of great things, but I think you're handling it badly. And the thing is, I can't tell if it's some cynical geopolitical power grab or if you really believe in what you're doing."

He looked away from me, angry then disgusted. "I can tell you, I'm nothing if not a man of faith and conviction. I believe we were put on this earth to spread freedom and that God wants me to be where I am doing his work." He extended his hand. "God bless you, young man. One day when you're older and you can see how we've spread God's promise of freedom, I hope you'll think back on this conversation and recognize that what I'm doing is right."

I shook his hand and watched him walk away. I was filled with all kinds of weird emotions bordering between anger, sadness, and disgust. Face to face, he really didn't seem like a bad man. But in person he was every bit as arrogant, every bit as irrational, and every bit as unreflective as I feared he was. And I recognized that if we can't come up with a candidate who could beat that, then this country was spiraling horribly out of control. I hoped for Kerry to do the job. Now, every time I think back on that strange night in Columbus, I feel sick because he couldn't. And I recognize that we're deeper in the shit than we can ever realize.

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