Does Bush Think He's Channeling God?

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Mr. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. He is the author of Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes and the Course of History (McGraw-Hill). He is currently completing his first novel and screenplay, What It Feels Like . . . .

As I read Ron Suskind's dismaying cover story on President Bush's religiously inspired certainty in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "Without a Doubt," I kept experiencing déjà vu.

I've seen this storyline somewhere before: A president who had been a feckless, party-loving, hard-drinking man, is visited by a messenger of God and suddenly changes his ways. Thereafter, he knows what is right and will listen to no one who suggests otherwise. This president, convinced that he is doing God's work--that he is God’s spokesman on earth--suspends civil liberties to fight crime. He repudiates international treaties and announces that the United States will build new weapons to put itself in a position of world dominance. He orders other nations to follow American dictates, or else. That the "or else" means using American military might for preemptive war is made clear to world leaders when they are assembled and shown a demonstration of American military power. They all immediately agree to do what the United States (and God) demands.

Then it hit me. The plot that sounds so much like the way George W. Bush sees himself and his presidency is that of a now obscure 1933 film produced by William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Studios, Gabriel Over the White House. In it, an irresponsible man named Judson Hammond, played by Walter Huston, is elected to the presidency on promises he doesn't intend to keep. "Oh, don't worry," an aide tells him, "by the time they realize you’re not keeping them, your term will be over." Then, driving his car recklessly, President Hammond has a tire blowout at 100 mph. He apparently dies from his injuries, but is transformed by divine intervention and emerges, literally born again, as a supremely confident leader who has no doubts in the rightness of his course. He demands that Congress give him dictatorial powers and then adjourn, so that he can solve all domestic and international problems. He once was lost; now he's found. But what has he found?

President Hammond's approach to the world, like that of George W. Bush, fits with neither traditional Republican isolationism nor the Wilsonian internationalism practiced by most presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Rather, the film, with the assurance that God is on the side of the United States, advances an approach to the world that might best be termed "isolated internationalism." With God on our side, this nation should neither withdraw from the world nor work out agreements with other nations to form cooperative international coalitions. Rather, the United States should simply declare what it will do and expect others to do. Other nations are welcome to join in a Coalition of the Willing, meaning those willing to follow unquestioningly the divinely inspired Leader of the United States.

Mr. Hearst's simplistic views of the world and of the solutions to its problems eerily foreshadow those that hold sway in Mr. Bush's White House today. God spoke through Hearst's fictional President Hammond; similarly the Bush who now occupies the presidency confuses himself with the one that burned in Exodus 3:2. "I pray to be as good a messenger of [God's] will as possible," Mr. Bush told Bob Woodward.

It is well known that Ronald Reagan often confused movies with reality. Garry Wills and others have contended that Mr. Reagan got his idea that something like the Strategic Defense Initiative was possible from a 1940 movie, Murder in the Air. That film depicts a new super weapon called an "inertia projector" that can shoot down enemy planes before they reach the nation. In the movie, this weapon makes the United States invincible and puts it in a position to establish world peace.

Now it appears that the current president is living out a movie fantasy of his own, basing his self-image on the plot of a seven-decade-old movie that purported to speak the will of God but actually spoke the will of William Randolph Hearst.

The source of the problems of Orson Welles's fictionalized Hearst in Citizen Kane was that he had lost the love of a mother; the source of our--the nation's and the world's--problems with George W. Bush is that he thinks he has found, not just the love, but the voice of a Heavenly Father. That voice, which is in fact one that is all too much of this world, sounds uncomfortably similar to that of the real life Hearst.

Welles's Charles Foster Kane represented America, with its ideals corrupted by excessive wealth and power, demanding that others follow his distortions of reality. Hearst’s Judson Hammond was an American president corrupted (although Hearst didn’t realize it) by the belief that he had Ultimate Power on his side. Citizen Bush suffers from the same delusion.

The citizens of America must recapture the ideals of our national youth. All together, now, as we enter the voting booths on November 2, let us whisper: "Rosebud."

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More Comments:

Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

The Civil Rights era exists now, not for the purposes of any sort of truth telling, but as a standard battering ram to pull out for the purpose of beating on white heterosexual men.

Ms. Wagner reprises this theme again. How boring.

Hope I never meet this woman.

Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

Mr. McElvaine reprises this favorite theme of the left again... and again... and again...

Anybody out there with anything useful or interesting to say?

Michael Di Tore - 10/27/2004

But the audience in 2004 may well buy it. We have a new generation in America, a Southernized Republican party with staunch support of a Christian Coalition, with neocons applying religious tests to secular issues and using the old tried and true method of barbarion logic to get what they want. They and most Americans don't know about war, the centuries of wars Europeans experienced so they don't know what a facist state can really be like. The best that can happen after another four years of Bush is that the country goes broke and mends its ways.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 10/26/2004

2) "Anybody out there with anything useful or interesting to say?"

Maybe you should be asking yourself this question

Michael Barnes Thomin - 10/26/2004

Mr. Thomas (if that's your real name),
Two points you might find useful:

1) "Mr. McElvaine reprises this favorite theme of the left again... and again... and again..."

Perhaps you should refrain from repeating the tired attack of "left" and "liberal". It has become quite boorish and makes you seem like a ranting and raving fool. Granted, this is only the fourth of fifth post authored by you that I have read, but throughout all of them the "crazy liberal" theme underlies them all.

"Anybody out there with anything useful or interesting to say?"

Maybe you should be asking yourself this question.

George Antrobus - 10/25/2004

It's been a while since I've seen this film (it turns up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies)but as I recall the religous aspect is a very minor part of the film that is simply used to move the plot in a certain direction.

The really shocking thing about the film is that it is a piece of popular entertainment aimed at a mass audience that is openly comtemptous of democracy and the rule of law. President Hammond (who is the hero the audience is intended to sympathize with) deals with the problem of Capone like gangsters by suspending the right to trial by jury and executing them after drumhead court-martials (sound familiar?). By the end of the film America is essentially a fascist state, and all the better for it.

At least the audience didn't buy it, the film flopped at the box office.