|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Dec. 2000 - 3 Jan. 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Déjà vu, take two
Since election day, George W Bush has been a mysterious character. He is rarely seen in public and, when he does appear, he reads lines carefully from a teleprompter. So far, his presidency has been a work in progress; his role is muted, as if he had very little to say. The lines are predictable and surprisingly vapid -- this, after a campaign that was notable for its emptiness. During the vote recount in Florida, he disappeared to his ranch in Waco, Texas; even now, he moves shyly and discreetly, as if he was insecure. He avoids the loud triumphalism that was expected and the tough actions that were promised. Yet he has achieved his first public victory -- he appears likeable but impenetrable. Has he adopted the African proverb that characterised Harry Truman's presidency -- "speak softly and carry a big stick," as his advocates are saying? Or is he just not up to the job, as his opponents are suggesting?
It's difficult to decide, because neither he nor Gore were giving anything away during the race to the White House. They were both hiding behind their scripts, and it was impossible to judge what was acting and what reality.
They created a brilliant comedy of errors. The man who got less votes is the winner. Both Republicans and Democrats are now holding up this result as an example of a democratic process that works perfectly. But the confusion started before that. At the end of the presidential campaign, Al Gore made an appearance with Martin Sheen, who played the US president in the TV series West Wing. The appearance of the aspiring never-to-be president and the virtual Clinton was remarkable, if only because Gore refused to appear in public with the real Bill Clinton. Clinton, the character that the Hollywood actor plays on TV, was considered by Gore to be an embarrassing presence because of the role he played in the Lewinsky scandal. Clinton, though, was too much of an actor to share the stage with the vice-president -- a better actor, perhaps, than the professional who played him. He would have stolen the spotlight. The Democratic campaigners decided that they had to keep him out, because George W Bush was putting on a good show too, playing his role ("the simple man") much too well for the amateurish attempts of the vice-president. Bush was promising to kick Clinton out of the White House and restore morality -- even though the president wasn't running. Still, all the polls were saying that Clinton would have won, if only he had run.
Gore was also having trouble with an amateur in politics. Even though consumer rights activist Ralph Nader was denied an appearance on the TV debates staged between Gore and Bush, he was doing just well enough in the polls to keep the Democrats worrying. They insisted that he had no right to crash a party for two, and unsuccessfully tried to squeeze him out. Whenever they did let him on TV, Nader "appeared more presidential" than either of them. The Republicans weren't worried because he wasn't appealing to their audience, but Gore and the Democrats were as angry as any Hollywood diva confronted with the horror of seeing a supporting actress being nominated for an Oscar while the star went unnoticed. Bush, furthermore, seemed to be knowledgeable in an art that was a mystery to Gore. The most difficult thing for an actor is to fake sincerity. Gore looked like an intelligent fake; Bush outmanoeuvred him with sincere simplicity. Is the governor of Texas just a better actor than the vice-president? And what kind of show are we watching now?
The theatrics of presidential politics were a little too complex for somebody who grew up on films, so I turned to a professional. Tom O'Horgan directed the first production of the musical Hair on Broadway, of Jesus Christ Superstar and many more beautiful pieces of political musical theatre. Sitting amidst a collection of thousands of musical instruments in his Broadway apartment, I asked him what he made of the remarks that "Gore played a boring role," while "Bush has a good screenplay and good writers." He thought that the poor performance of both main actors in the presidential play had to be seen through the blockbuster that Bill Clinton put on during the eight years of his presidency.
"Clinton is not my favourite actor," he said. "I cannot be impartial, because I voted for him twice and he disappointed me."
He voted for Clinton because there was nothing better around. But the fact that Clinton is brilliant on-stage is undeniable.
"Of course, he made a fatal mistake that an actor cannot afford in mainstream theatre. He put his own personal story on stage. It was a dramatic story that doesn't belong on a state-owned stage. You can play your own life in experimental theatre, but in traditional settings it's an embarrassment. In the history of White House productions he will be remembered as the main character who besieged the public with his personal problems. But he played till the end with tears in his eyes, even though they tried to kick him offstage several times."
The Americans are tired of a president who was an overwhelming presence in their daily lives. Even though they are used to the fact that the presidency is a well staged production that requires acting skills, Bush has sensed that a president that isn't an overwhelming and constant presence might actually be a very effective statesman.
"Bush Sr was a good actor," said O'Horgan. "He defined his role and played it till the end. I never believed a word he said, but I cannot deny his professional credibility. I never liked his show, but he played the role well. Bush Jr has talent too. You can believe him just as much as his father."
Both Bushes and Clinton are still competing with the best performer ever. "Ronald Reagan was the really great actor in American presidential politics. He was a professional who couldn't afford to make a mistake on stage. He had brilliant writers who kept on rewriting his lines. He had a problem, though: he had to have his lines written in advance. Whenever he improvised, he was a catastrophe. He knew how to interpret brilliantly what others wrote. To know how to speak to the people who will vote for you and to the people that elected you is an essential part of the role of the president. But I still remember how the first president that I voted for talked. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was different from the people who came after him. Roosevelt didn't play the role of the president -- he was the president of the US. When he declared war, it was called a war and not an operation of this kind or another. With him, words had a close connection with things.
"With all the jokes about his intelligence and precarious knowledge of the world, my bet is that Bush Jr knows what he is doing. The liberals were quick to condemn his selection of the Cabinet as a reunion of his father's friends. It's true that Dick Cheney and Colin Powell look like characters from the sequel to the Gulf War, but this is a very modern approach. This is not an age of originality and ideas. Broadway is waiting for the next big thing, in music Carlos Santana is the talk of the town and the most successful concert in New York was the resurrection of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
"New plays are very prudent," says O'Horgan. "They are either remakes of successful pieces from the '50s and '60s, or minimalist shows that are incredibly boring."
The minimalist (and boring) Democratic production went up in flames at the elections; Bush is a new player staging a remake with actors from a previous production. The stage seems to be set. In the Balkans, Slobodan Milosevic, with whom Bush Sr didn't want to mess, is out of the picture. Junior has hinted that he never liked that show anyway, and is promising that he will dismantle the set and pull the supporting actors out. But Saddam Hussein is still there, a reassuring presence and a willing participant, and the son of Bush will deal with the son of Hafez Al-Assad and the son of King Hussein. It will be a family affair. In the end, Bill Clinton, master of fake sincerity, may prove to be just an intermission.
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