Just Above Sunset
September 18, 2005 - Chasing the Zeitgeist

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As noted a few months ago here, sometimes the weekly issue of Just Above Sunset is hard to assemble.  The zeitgeist ("the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate" or, if you will, the spirit or "ghost" of the times, if that's what the German means) kept running away.  A topic on Monday of the week that you'd think would be discussed everywhere can be swamped by something breaking on Tuesday, and then by hot items later in the week.  The national conversation shifts.  You can chase the zeitgeist all you want.  It's a slippery devil.  But one aim here is to get a sense of what has people talking and thinking - to get a sense of what people think is important, what is shifting, how things are changing.

If fact, should some restaurant one day open a block or two from here, call itself "Just Above Sunset" and want to buy that domain name, I'd sell it to them and rename the weekly site "Meme Watch: Chasing the Zeitgeist."  The daily web log could be renamed too, although nothing comes to mind, although I see dailyzeitgeist.com has not been taken, so far.  (Memewatch.com has been taken, but not chasingthezeitgeist.com)

So what's the meme of the week?  It seems to be this:

End of the Bush Era
E. J. Dionne Jr. - The Washington Post - Tuesday, September 13, 2005; page A27

Here's the argument:


Recent months, and especially the past two weeks, have brought home to a steadily growing majority of Americans the truth that President Bush's government doesn't work. His policies are failing, his approach to leadership is detached and self-indulgent, his way of politics has produced a divided, angry and dysfunctional public square. We dare not go on like this.


Well, that's an interesting use of the word "we" - better not tell the guys at Fox News, or Karl Rove.  But the idea is somehow something has changed.  The Bush era, with its worship of the sneering frat-boy approach to all problems, has run up against its natural limitations.  That would be reality.

Dionne does a little history.  This whole Bush era didn't begin with two planes smashing into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and a fourth dropping out of the sky east of Pittsburgh, or even when Bush took office:


It began on Sept. 14, 2001, when Bush declared at the World Trade Center site: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." Bush was, indeed, skilled in identifying enemies and rallying a nation already disposed to action. He failed to realize after Sept. 11 that it was not we who were lucky to have him as a leader, but he who was lucky to be president of a great country that understood the importance of standing together in the face of a grave foreign threat. Very nearly all of us rallied behind him.

If Bush had understood that his central task was to forge national unity, as he seemed to shortly after Sept. 11, the country would never have become so polarized. Instead, Bush put patriotism to the service of narrowly ideological policies and an extreme partisanship. He pushed for more tax cuts for his wealthiest supporters and shamelessly used relatively modest details in the bill creating a Department of Homeland Security as partisan cudgels in the 2002 elections.

He invoked our national anger over terrorism to win support for a war in Iraq. But he failed to pay heed to those who warned that the United States would need many more troops and careful planning to see the job through. The president assumed things would turn out fine, on the basis of wildly optimistic assumptions. Careful policymaking and thinking through potential flaws in your approach are not his administration's strong suits.


As a summary of the last four years, that's nicely concise.  Of course it doesn't address why most Americans bought into it all and thought this fellow in the White House would save us all from all the bad things, no matter how rich he made his friends and supporters and no matter how many of our son and daughters died in the middle-east or came home maimed for life.  Maybe believing this one guy would keep us safe trumped everything else - in spite of his lack of knowledge of detail of much of anything and his refusal to consider it, and his inflexibility and chip-on-the-shoulder scorn of anyone who disagreed with him.  Hope too, has its limits.

When did hope turn to dust, as they put it?  Dionne suggests the day Bush first toured the Gulf Coast States after Hurricane Katrina, September 2nd –


There was no magic moment with a bullhorn. The utter failure of federal relief efforts had by then penetrated the country's consciousness. Yesterday's resignation of FEMA Director Michael Brown [see the date on the item] put an exclamation point on the failure.


The idea here is that the source of the political success was "his claim that he could protect Americans. Leadership, strength and security were Bush's calling cards."

Two weeks of a major disaster handled casually at the federal level for far too long - the Gulf Coast leveled and New Orleans pretty much destroyed - and that's gone.  But Dionne says that was just a climax to something that had been going on for months:


The president's post-election fixation on privatizing part of Social Security showed how out of touch he was. The more Bush discussed this boutique idea cooked up in conservative think tanks and Wall Street imaginations, the less the public liked it. The situation in Iraq deteriorated. The glorious economy Bush kept touting turned out not to be glorious for many Americans. The Census Bureau's annual economic report, released in the midst of the Gulf disaster, found that an additional 4.1 million Americans had slipped into poverty between 2001 and 2004.


Yes, what was that all about?

Anyway, here's the new landscape, as Dionne sees it:


• The way is now open for leaders of both parties "to declare their independence from the recent past."

• Now forces outside the White House have the opportunity to shape a more appropriate national agenda - for competence and innovation.

• "The federal budget, already a mess before Katrina, is now a laughable document. Those who call for yet more tax cuts risk sounding like robots droning automated talking points programmed inside them long ago. Katrina has forced the issue of deep poverty back onto the national agenda after a long absence."

• We can now actually talk about options in Iraq and not be called traitors. (Not how Dionne puts it, but close enough.)

• We'll have fewer hacks in key positions. (Not how Dionne puts it, but close enough.)


That is, of course, a big shift. But is it wishful thinking?

Time will tell. It's all at least possible now.

Dionne ends with this:


And what of Bush, who has more than three years left in his term? Paradoxically, his best hope lies in recognizing that the Bush Era, as he and we have known it, really is gone. He can decide to help us in the transition to what comes next. Or he can cling stubbornly to his past and thereby doom himself to frustrating irrelevance.


Anyone taking bets which it will be?

Note this from Josh Marshall, Tuesday, September 13:


Someone alert the Secret Service! Has the real President Bush been abducted and replaced by a stand-in?

President Bush: "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government ... To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

I guess this is an example of that old saw, "If at first your efforts to blame everybody else don't succeed, take responsibility yourself."


Hey, it is the first time he has ever taken responsibility for something that didn't work out.  There is a change in the air.  Blaming Michael Brown, the man who resigned as head of FEMA, for everything that went wrong on the federal level may have been tempting, but his handlers knew how that would play.

Bill Montgomery, Billmon over at Whiskey Bar, looks at this shift in the Zeitgeist using a different German word:


The image of the leader is in essence a gestalt - a picture that can be seen in two entirely different ways, depending on the viewer's mental inclination. The role of propaganda is to reinforce and defend the desired image, while encouraging the audience to unconsciously suppress the other.

Once the gestalt flips, it can take enormous doses of propaganda to flip it back, especially if the audience is simultaneously being exposed to images or ideas that clash with the desired picture of the leader. In that sense, Katrina and its aftermath amounted to an enormous eruption of raw reality into the increasingly hermetic media world of babbling heads and cable spin jockeys - the big bubble that surrounds Bush's little one. And the time is long past when the Rovians could brag about creating their own reality for the media to study. [See Without a Doubt by Ron Suskind (October 17, 2004), and discussed here.] We're talking about real reality now, not the cheap imitation stuff. And for the Rovians, real reality has (to paraphrase Col. Kurtz) become an enemy to be feared.

It's not surprising, then, that the gang is frantically trying to squeeze the last few drops of charisma out of the nearly dry sponge of Shrub's post 9/11 performance - the trigger for the last major gestalt shift in his image. Bush's Saturday radio address was a crude attempt to splice the two disasters together using the same faux Churchillian rhetoric that David Frum used to whip up. But it only sounds maudlin and incoherent the second time around: "Even the most destructive storm cannot weaken the heart and soul of our nation. America will overcome this ordeal, and we will be stronger for it. Even in the deepest darkness, we can see the light of hope, and the light shows us the way forward."

His speechwriters would have done better by sticking to straight Irving Berlin: "Through the night with a light from above."


Well, Bush gave a major address to the nation on the 15th in prime time, and it wasn't much like address at the Washington National Cathedral on September 14, 2001 - as you recall he asked "almighty God to watch over our nation and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come."

Will that work?  Will more visits to New Orleans help? 



Probably not as well as the White House hopes, although it may at least stem the bleeding - especially if gas prices keep coming back down and Shrub doesn't mind doing a couple hundred more photo ops with Katrina victims and relief workers who don't mind being used as stage props. The mindless repetition of talking points is still a powerful weapon, and the Rovians are as good at that as they are bad at anything else that requires more than trace amounts of managerial competence.

But even a partial recovery will take time - too much time, probably, for a president already on the verge of lame duckhood. And there's always the risk that a fresh eruption of reality - in Iraq, the financial markets, or maybe some other patronage infested federal agency - will spray more mud in Shrub's face. Damage control, in other words, could become a full-time job for the Mayberry Machiavellis, and political survival a full-time obsession for a large number of GOP senators and congressmen. ...


There's much more and you could read the whole thing.

But the key here is these fresh eruptions of reality. That is a problem.

Last May on the Daily Show, this sums up where we've been:


Rob Corddry: How does one report the facts in an unbiased way when the facts themselves are biased?

Jon Stewart: I'm sorry, Rob, did you say the facts are biased?

Corddry: That's right Jon. From the names of our fallen soldiers to the gradual withdrawal of our allies to the growing insurgency, it's become all too clear that facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda.


It's not just the facts in Iraq now.

So, the candidate for meme of the week is it's over.  Or reality matters.  It's time to deal with real life, not neoconservative fantasies. Too bad so many had to die to get back to real life, but here we are.



Bill Maher had a column in the Los Angeles Times September 9 that was not available on the web, probably because it contained material that he would use on his HBO discussion show "Real Time" that evening.  It is now available on his HBO website here and it continue the meme in his own idiosyncratic way:


New Rule: America must recall the president. That's what this country needs. A good, old-fashioned, California-style recall election! Complete with Gary Coleman, porno actresses and action film stars. And just like Schwarzenegger's predecessor here in California, George Bush is now so unpopular, he must defend his jog against... Russell Crowe. Because at this point, I want a leader who will throw a phone at somebody. In fact, let's have only phone throwers. Naomi Campbell can be the vice-president!

Now, I kid, but seriously, Mr. President, this job can't be fun for you anymore. There's no more money to spend. You used up all of that. You can't start another war because you also used up the army. And now, darn the luck, the rest of your term has become the Bush family nightmare: helping poor people.

Yeah, listen to your mom. The cupboard's bare, the credit card's maxed out, and no one is speaking to you: mission accomplished! Now it's time to do what you've always done best: lose interest and walk away. Like you did with your military service. And the oil company. And the baseball team. It's time. Time to move on and try the next fantasy job. How about cowboy or spaceman?

Now, I know what you're saying. You're saying that there's so many other things that you, as president, could involve yourself in... Please don't. I know, I know, there's a lot left to do. There's a war with Venezuela, and eliminating the sales tax on yachts. Turning the space program over to the church. And Social Security to Fannie Mae. Giving embryos the vote. But, sir, none of that is going to happen now. Why? Because you govern like Billy Joel drives. You've performed so poorly I'm surprised you haven't given yourself a medal. You're a catastrophe that walks like a man.

Herbert Hoover was a shitty president, but even he never conceded an entire metropolis to rising water and snakes.

On your watch, we've lost almost all of our allies, the surplus, four airliners, two Trade Centers, a piece of the Pentagon and the City of New Orleans... Maybe you're just not lucky!

I'm not saying you don't love this country. I'm just wondering how much worse it could be if you were on the other side. So, yes, God does speak to you, and what he's saying is, "Take a hint."


The man doesn't take hints.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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