In today's column Maureen Dowd seizes on yet another cultish element of the Bush Presidency; his dogmatic adherence to an unchanging world view. In "The Immutable President," she draws from next week's Newsweek cover story:
Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe says he conducted four “freewheeling” interviews with the president last week, and concluded: “Bush thinks the new war vindicates his early vision of the region’s struggle: of good versus evil, civilization versus terrorism, freedom versus Islamic fascism. He still believes that when it comes to war and terror, leaders need to decide whose side they are on.”
The president sees Lebanon as a test of macho mettle rather than the latest chapter in a fratricidal free-for-all that’s been going on for centuries. “I view this as the forces of instability probing weakness,” he said. “I think they’re testing resolve.”
The more things get complicated, the more W. feels vindicated in his own simplified vision. The more people try to tell him that it’s not easy, that this is a region of shifting alliances and interests, the less he seems inclined to develop an adroit policy to win people over to our side instead of trying to annihilate them.
Years ago I got very interested in cults and used the topic for a number of college papers and speeches. For one I even interviewed another college student who had earlier escaped a cult. She had joined during that vulnerable time after high school. As I learned in my research, many cults, like the Hare Krishnas and Unification (Moonies), specifically target college freshmen and both high school and college seniors. The reason is fairly obvious. When we are in transition from a safe feeling environment and experiencing anxiety like we do leaving high school and facing college, or leaving college and facing adult responsibilities, we are scared. When we are thrown into the inevitable fears of a complicated world we crave simplicity. Cults offer that simplicity. They offer black and white, the leader's way or inevitable disaster, choices. Rigidity and cloistering can feel comforting when you are suddenly terrified of the big, bad world. Similarly Bush's Manichean and implicitly xenophobic world view was an analgesic to people terrified by the sudden realization, on 9/11, that terrorists could breach our defenses. To frightened people, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists," sounds comforting.
While the most extreme cults cut people off from their families and from outside influences, the Cult of Bush has been able to do this to some degree by "handling" the media and limiting the scope of information. Even so enough fresh air has gotten in that the majority of Americans have deprogrammed themselves; with Bush's approval ratings wallowing in the low 30s after their post 9/11 peak at around 90%. His remaining adherents are unsurprisingly dogmatic and impervious to contrary evidence.
Bush is as pampered and coddled as any cult leader. As with most cults, the shroud that protects him conceals both the scandalous and the bizarre. With the G8 Summit and the prying eyes of an unmanageable foreign press, Americans once again caught glimpses of a man untethered from consensual reality. He is used to having his demands for adulation and deference met.
He passes the time by chatting with a Chinese security agent, quizzing him about his English. "You been practicing?" he asks. A moment later, the agent's cell phone rings. The young man has a split second to choose: does he turn his back on a once-in-a-lifetime conversation with the president of the United States, or just let it go into voice mail? The agent snaps open his phone, and walks away. "Cell-phone violation!" Bush calls out. His staffers chuckle nervously: chirping phones are one of Bush's biggest peeves. "The guy didn't know the rules," says Bush. "Give him a break, will you?"
Even amongst other world leaders he expects a conformity of viewpoint and brooks no dissent.
That afternoon the leaders are promised they will see the final text of their statement on the Middle East, which calls on Hizbullah to end its rocket attacks and then urges Israel to end its military strikes. But the document fails to arrive at the promised hour of 4, and it's still not there at 5 o'clock. Bush has had it. "I'm going home," he says to the room full of presidents and prime ministers. "I'm going to get a shower. I'm just about meeting'd out." Some of the leaders suggest they should all work out their differences together. But Bush can no longer keep up appearances. "I thought that was a lousy idea and so did others," Bush says later. "It would lose focus and everybody would then have an opinion."
In the real world, where most of us live, everybody does have an opinion. But not in the strange isolation of the Cult of Bush. People are either with him or they breaking rules; whether out of ignorance or malice. Like most cult leaders, Bush himself, is above rules. Like a guru who preaches celibacy while secretly molesting his followers, Bush demands a rigid application of law for others but considers himself above the law. He oversaw a record number of executions as Governor of Texas, including that of a mentally handicapped man, but has exempted himself from over 800 Congressional statutes with a creative and illegal use of signing statements.
While this entire country is not forced into conformity with Bush's "divinely inspired vision," we are imperiled by the control this insular, political sect has over the levers of power. So is the entire, war-torn world.