Thursday, September 30, 2004

Bush/Christ '04
As this election season meanders toward a conclusion I'm increasingly worried will resemble that of the Phillies' season, a few truths seem to be suggesting themselves. One of the most profound and upsetting is that "we"--urban, secular, liberal Americans--really don't know or understand our own countrymen. A friend of mine recently wrote in an e-mail, "The fact that there is anyone who will vote for Bush is mindblowing"; it's a sentiment I've repeated to myself, and heard in conversation, probably more times than I could count.

I understand that this sort of insular mindset, taken to its logical conclusion, leads to sad sentiments like those of the late Pauline Kael after the 1972 election, when the critic reacted with bewilderment and disbelief to news of Nixon's landslide victory, saying "I don't know a single person who voted for Nixon."

Frank Rich has an article in this coming Sunday's New York Times that leaves me feeling much the same way. It's a review, of sorts, of a straight-to-DVD documentary titled "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House":

Though you can buy the DVD for $14.95, its makers told the right-wing news service that they plan to distribute 300,000 copies to America's churches. And no wonder. This movie aspires to be "The Passion of the Bush," and it succeeds.

More than any other campaign artifact, it clarifies the hard-knuckles rationale of the president's vote-for-me-or-face-Armageddon re-election message. It transforms the president that the Democrats deride as a "fortunate son" of privilege into a prodigal son with the "moral clarity of an old-fashioned biblical prophet." Its Bush is not merely a sincere man of faith but God's essential and irreplaceable warrior on Earth. The stations of his cross are burnished into cinematic fable: the misspent youth, the hard drinking (a thirst that came from "a throat full of Texas dust"), the fateful 40th-birthday hangover in Colorado Springs, the walk on the beach with Billy Graham. A towheaded child actor bathed in the golden light of an off-camera halo re-enacts the young George comforting his mom after the death of his sister; it's a parable anticipating the future president's miraculous ability to comfort us all after 9/11. An older Bush impersonator is seen rebuffing a sexual come-on from a fellow Bush-Quayle campaign worker hovering by a Xerox machine in 1988; it's an effort to imbue our born-again savior with retroactive chastity. As for the actual president, he is shown with a flag for a backdrop in a split-screen tableau with Jesus. The message isn't subtle: they were separated at birth.

"Faith in the White House" purports to be the product of "independent research," uncoordinated with the Bush-Cheney campaign. But many of its talking heads are official or unofficial administration associates or sycophants. They include the evangelical leader and presidential confidant Ted Haggard (who is also one of Mel Gibson's most fervent P.R. men) and Deal Hudson, an adviser to the Bush-Cheney campaign until August, when he resigned following The National Catholic Reporter's investigation of accusations that he sexually harassed an 18-year-old Fordham student in the 1990's. As for the documentary's "research," a film positioning itself as a scrupulously factual "alternative" to "Fahrenheit 9/11" should not inflate Mr. Bush's early business "success" with Arbusto Energy (an outright bust for most of its investors) or the number of children he's had vaccinated in Iraq ("more than 22 million," the movie claims, in a country whose total population is 25 million).

"Will George W. Bush be allowed to finish the battle against the forces of evil that threaten our very existence?" Such is the portentous question posed at the film's conclusion by its narrator, the religious broadcaster Janet Parshall, beloved by some for her ecumenical generosity in inviting Jews for Jesus onto her radio show during the High Holidays. Anyone who stands in the way of Mr. Bush completing his godly battle, of course, is a heretic. Facts on the ground in Iraq don't matter. Rational arguments mustered in presidential debates don't matter. Logic of any kind is a nonstarter. The president - who after 9/11 called the war on terrorism a "crusade," until protests forced the White House to backpedal - is divine.

I'm trying to put aside the stunning disconnections to reality--as well as the film's evident editorial shrug at trifles such as the record deficit, increasing poverty (a subject apparently addressed in the boring sections of the Bible) and record income disparities, growing lack of health insurance, record levels of personal debt, the increasing squeeze on the middle class, lying to Congress and the public as a matter of policy, ad nauseum--and focus on what's really scary here: the apparent truth that for millions of our fellow citizens, Bush's record and personal life story are both insignificant because he has cloaked himself in the raiments of Christian iconography.

The analogies of Bush to Hitler and neocon America to Nazi Germany have always struck me as overstated (and not just because, as Huey Freeman of "The Boondocks" once noted, Hitler really won the election that brought him to power). But the more I see of the vision these people seem to have for the country--no limits to corporate power, the elevation of militarism as the manifestation of national greatness, and above all the invocation of divine approval of the temporal rulers to stifle, or at least render irrelevant, public criticism--the more I'm reminded of Franco's Spain.

We're a long way from that today: our Constitution endures, and two hundred-plus years of tradition favoring personal freedoms and secular governance can't just be knocked aside. But we have a ruling clique that relentlessly pushes against the institutional structure safeguarding our liberties as well as the governmental forms designed to ensure some level of economic equity. Given enough time and force to push with, they'll knock it all over. That's what is at stake this year.

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