The "Whatever" Presidency of George W. Bush
“Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere. (Laughter and applause.)” Recently I found the transcript online from the March 24, 2004 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C. where President George W. Bush spoke those words. The annual banquet is typically a light-hearted affair, a kind of Mardi Gras for politicians and the Washington Press Corps (delightfully disrupted this year by comedian Stephen Colbert), where political and press elites get to act like they’re auditioning for the popular “reality TV” show “Last Comic Standing.” This year Bush got laughs telling the audience he had survived the latest White House shakeup.
Reading his words from the 2004 banquet again gave me the same chilled amazement that I had when I first heard them. I had been flipping channels taking a study break during my doctoral study in history at Duke, and there on C-SPAN, was the president smirking into the microphone: “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere. (Laughter and applause.)” This was the same president who had just the year before stared into the television camera with a somber face and assured us and the rest of the world that Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” were about to be used on us so we had the right and the duty to invade. That U.S.-led invasion, destruction, occupation, and exploitation of a sovereign country is now rationalized on the grounds of “spreading democracy” at a frightening toll to Iraq, while bleeding this country’s resources dry as well.
But this is the “whatever” presidency. Iraq has no connection to the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks after all? Whatever. No “WMDs”? Whatever. “Democracy” in Iraq is in fact nothing more than a neo-colonial regime with elections? Whatever, whatever, whatever. “Laughter and applause.” When rapper Kanye West blurted during the September 2, 2005 televised benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” he was only stating the obvious.
How did Bush consolidate so much power in the executive branch to wage endless “war on terror” (or whatever)? The steady growth of the executive branch over time and abuses by its occupants--especially in wartime--has to be the subject of another essay. But strong or weak, every administration has made some kind of mark on public policy. I have been going back and forth trying to decide what kind of footprint is being left by the George W. Bush presidency.
At first I thought in literary terms—the Captain Ahab presidency, right? Think of the late Trinidadian Marxist scholar C.L.R. James’s brilliant 1953 book-length essay Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways that put in historical context the writings of Herman Melville—especially Moby Dick. So how could Bush be Ahab? After all, James points out: “Ahab is no common man. He has a fine brain and has had some education (6).” Clearly Ahab is not a “whatever” kind of fictional guy. Bush, by contrast, won two presidential elections not just for his politics (whatever those were) but for expressing a diffident, self-centered fatalism that denies accountability in its quest for profitability. But combined with Vice President Dick Cheney’s fine hand (and arguably “finer” brain) Bush’s “whatever” demeanor conceals an Ahab-like pursuit of the White Whale in something Bush calls the “war on terror”--itself an extension of the neoconservative “Project for a New American Century” with its desire to see the United States control global oil and natural gas supplies.
So what exactly was Ahab’s beef? And what did James think Melville was warning for the future of civilization? Here is James’s interpretation:
So far tens of millions of Americans can understand Ahab. They have worked under such men….“Melville’s theme is totalitarianism,” James argues, “its rise and fall, its power and its weakness. For long before Moby Dick actually destroys him, Ahab begins to show the fatal weakness of the course he has embarked on (60-61).” Recall that in his single-minded pursuit of Moby Dick, mad Captain Ahab was willing to take down the Pequod (named for the Indian tribe massacred by European settlers) with all aboard—and he did, all save the fictional narrator named Ishmael. Remember, too, that before that “White Whale” had crushed the ship and its crew, there were those aboard who knew better but would not speak out.
Men who are thinking like that, classes of people in a nation who are thinking such thoughts, are being steadily prepared for desperate action. If now there descends upon them a violent catastrophe that ruins them and convinces them that the life that they have been living is intolerable and the grave doubts that have previously tormented them are justified, then they are going to throw aside all the traditional restraints of civilization. They are going to seek a new theory of society and a new program of action, and, on the basis of this theory and this program, they are going to act. This is what happens to Ahab when a whale bites off his leg. The whale is Moby Dick….
In Moby Dick, he decided, was the solution of his problems. If he killed Moby Dick it would solve all that was troubling him (8-9).
For Ishmael’s part, feelings of “terror in his soul” combined with attraction to a “man of action (47)” compel him to follow Ahab’s quest for the highly symbolic White Whale. James points out: “Ishmael begins his explanation with a recognition of the fact that whiteness is the color of religion, or beautiful ceremonials, of weddings, of peace, of things that are beautiful and sincere….[after which] he says that nevertheless it is a color of terror. The reason is clear. For him there is no longer anything beautiful or sincere….(45)”From Bush’s public statements it is clear that he sees himself not so much our elected president but rather as America’s Commander/CEO: President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” nightmare come true. Bush, like Ahab, appeals to those impressed or reassured by confident “men of action” taking on a fearful world. Running up huge deficits where once a surplus existed? Ignore global warming? Invade two sovereign nations and now you can’t deal with domestic disasters--including those of your own making? Whatever—whatever it takes. Just make us feel safe. (Ironically Bush shares a totalitarian tendency with his nemesis Osama bin Laden—who bears more of an obvious resemblance to Ahab.)
James reminds us that Melville was a product of his times. His classic novel was written and published in 1851 at the height of the Industrial Revolution. It was also just a year after the passage of the controversial Fugitive Slave Act. And it was three years after slaveholder president James K. Polk had successfully concluded a war on Mexico under false pretenses, seizing nearly half of that country with hopes of growing cotton on this “annexed” land using African American slaves to fuel United States industry.
But Melville’s genius, according to James, was in both capturing the spirit of the times as well as making predictions for the future: “The outstanding fact, however, of the 19th century,” wrote James in the 1978 afterword to his reprinted essay, “is that Melville in Moby Dick saw more clearly than even Dostoevsky in The Possessed what the future of capitalism was going to be (150).” James had already concluded by 1953 that that future Melville predicted had arrived to produce different versions of state capitalism across the planet, whether governments called themselves democratic, communist, or fascist. And the more totalitarian marriages of state and capital would produce even more misery as they sparked greater resistance.
Meanwhile, what of Starbuck and the other crew members, Stubb and Flask, all of whom knew better? James in 1953 drew troubling conclusions of what Starbuck represents: “He knew that Ahab was mad and he protested continuously. But every protest was followed by capitulation. That Ahab was so passionately devoted to something, (no matter what it was) this was what overwhelmed Starbuck. His story is the story of liberals and democrats who during the last quarter of a century have led the capitulation to the totalitarians in country after country (56).”
Today there is literary criticism--and there is literary criticism. But James’s genius in this and other works was his ability to discover prescience in the past, whether it was the Haitian slave masses winning their 1804 revolution (The Black Jacobins), or in the fiction of Herman Melville. With his insights James speaks to us today through Melville. And there is something eerily Ahab-ist in Bush’s infatuation with the nautical command: “Stay the course!” against the Iraqi “insurgency” he cannot defeat.In the story, Starbuck’s moral paralysis to the very end drives us crazy. But in real life we still have to wonder who were those elected representatives who meekly voted to take us to war, and keep voting to keep us “there” in permanent war against Iraq and the White Whale of “terror” until the chase itself crushes us all? Who were those audience members at the 2004 White House Correspondents’ Association banquet who are recorded for all eternity as having responded not with boos and jeers but “laughter and applause” at Bush’s joke on all of us?: “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere.” Looking back at Melville’s own life experience, James offers this depressing observation: “It is most likely that Melville, working on board ship, had observed closely how men rationalized their subservience to tyranny…. (59)”
Yet James also leaves us with some hope. Writing in the 1978 afterword, James averred that Melville appreciated “the creative power of the popular mass” in Moby Dick, and in fact James had used this passage from Moby Dick to title his own work:
If then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! (16-17).
Captain Ahab, James concluded in 1978, was a “modern historical type (149),” and that this totalitarian type, wherever it can be found, continues to pose acute challenges to those concerned with the salvation of civilization and liberation of humanity. “Totalitarianism and barbarism are inseparable… (62)” argued James in 1953, when the horrors of Hitler and Stalin were then in the recent past. “The voyage of the Pequod is the voyage of modern civilization seeking its destiny,” wrote James. “Ahab, we know, is consumed with anger at that civilization (18-19).” And fact, unlike Melville’s brilliant fiction, does not have to end badly, as James reminds us. But much is required of us to make sure we combine with all the other “mariners, renegades, and castaways” to expose where the real “weapons of mass destruction” lie and share a determination to not let the ship of civilization go down in a whirlpool of self-destruction and totalitarianism.