Sign of the Apocalypse #51: George and Britney
Watching Back to the Future yesterday for the millionth time -- yes, it's that good, and the two sequels aren't far behind -- I was struck once again by the scene where Marty and Dr. Brown meet for the first time back in 1955. This part, in particular:
Doc: So tell me, Future Boy, who's president of the United States in 1985?
Marty: Ronald Reagan.
Doc: Ronald Reagan, the actor? Ha! Then who's vice president? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the first lady.
Marty: Whoa, wait Doc.
Doc: And Jack Benny is the secretary of the treasury. Ah.
Marty: Doc, you gotta listen to me.
Doc: I've had enough practical jokes for one evening. Goodnight, Future Boy.
To Dr. Brown, it is inconceivable that the president in 1985 is an actor -- particularly, one imagines, such a second-rate actor and right-wing blowhard as Reagan. He wants proof that Marty is from the future. This fact is a joke, however, not proof.
Marty soon provides ample proof. He knows how Doc bumped his head, knows about the flux capacitor. And then, of course, he shows him the De Lorean. And the video camera:
Doc: This is truly amazing, a portable television studio. No wonder your president has to be an actor, he's got to look good on television.
Doc is right, of course. Presidents, and presidential candidates, need to be telegenic, and tech-savvy. They need to look good on television -- as well as on YouTube and the campaign videos they put up on their websites. Policy, principle, and character still matter, but image matters, too, more than ever. I'm not saying anything new here. Everyone knows this.
But consider how far we've come. The line between entertainment and politics has been blurred -- by Clinton, to a great extent, but any president of the '90s would have blurred it, been required to blur it. Bush is less Hollywood than Clinton, but he is no less a product of our multimedia age, a politician-president dependent on the manufacturing of image, on how he is sold to the American people and to the world beyond. And we all know what he and his manufacturers wanted that image to be: a man of conviction, of deep religiosity, a common man, tough, determined, strong, the virtuous leader who stands firm against infidels at home and abroad.
But what a joke he has become. Are we even in a position to understand this?
Nixon was unpopular, too, a generation ago, and for good reason. He was a crook, a drunk, a paranoid, and there was Vietnam and Watergate. But my purpose here is not to compare Bush to Nixon, and certainly not to diminish the gravity of that horrible period in American history -- liberating, in the end, but horrifying, at the time. It is, rather, to remark on the appalling poverty of George W. Bush and of the Bush presidency generally.
For all that he has done wrong, for all that has gone into making him one of the worst presidents of all time, and his presidency one of the worst of all time, and without diminishing the gravity of this horrible period in American history, Bush has become a laughingstock, the butt of a perpetual political joke, an embarrassment, to himself and to his country.
His address on the Iraq War and Occupation this week was but the latest episode, predictably appalling. There was an attempt to present the manufactured image, a resolute president, but the image is transparent now, and has been for a long time. We all see through it, at least those of us who aren't trapped by delusion, and the content and substance of Bush's address could be, and was, observed and analyzed for what it was: as much of a joke as the man who delivered it.
Just how much of a joke? I wasn't quite sure until I read an intriguing post by Michael Currie Schaffer at TNR's The Plank:
On Sunday night, it seemed pretty clear that Britney Spears' performance at the MTV awards ceremony was the biggest prime-time fiasco of the week. Then came Thursday night and President Bush's Oval Office address on Iraq. At first blush, coverage of the white trash kid turned tabloid fodder and the rich kid turned good ol' boy would seem to have little in common (besides, of course, the four years of high-profile futility that followed the respective 2003 triumphs of Spears' In the Zone album and Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech). But what's astonishing is the similarities in this week's coverage of the two fallen ingenues.
Schaffer goes on to compare the coverage in juxtaposition. And it fits: Bush is Britney, Britney is Bush, they are two sides of the same coin, the same joke.
Whatever one can say in retrospect about Nixon, what is now abundantly clear is that the best comparison to Bush is a white-trash pop tart with a drug problem and possibly serious mental-health issues.
What more do you need to know about the state of America today? This is a Sign of the Apocalypse, to be sure, but it is also, if there ever was on, a Sign of America's Imminent Collapse.
Thankfully, he'll be gone by January '09. But how much more damage can he do, jokes and all, before then?