a. The Commander-in-Chief
The stage was set: the strategy had been decided, the tactics developed, the audience trained, the secondary players cast and in place. The only thing the ultraconservatives (now calling themselves “neo-conservatives”, or “neocons” for short, in an attempt to de-fang the poor images the word “ultraconservative” carried like the excess baggage on an overloaded pack mule) were missing was a star. The scenario they’d planned was toothless without one.
It hinged–as all such scenarios have from before the time of Carthage–on the investment of belief and power in a single individual who would represent them and their ancient agenda in a way that the populace would accept even as his radical actions belied every soothing word he spoke. Much as they would have liked one of their own on the throne, experience had taught them that someone who was overtly a neocon–James Watt, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and so on and so on–alienated large segments of voters and drove them into the other camp. A believer would be nice but more important was someone with a pleasant charm and unthreatening manner, someone who could successfully project the image of The Guy Next Door, who embodied simplicity and certainty without looking too intelligent but who looked intelligent enough (Americans don’t like their candidates to be smarter than they are; look what happened to Adlai Stevenson), someone with the common touch, and–vitally important–someone easily swayed and not too inquisitive; someone who would, for example, refuse to read the newspapers for himself and be content with summaries prepared by neocon aides who could then make sure he never saw anything that might shake his faith in their agenda; someone who might announce his decision to launch America’s first pre-emptive war on the slimmest of pretexts by poking his head into a door and uttering those six immortal words, “Fuck it. We’re taking him out.” IOW, they needed a C-average John Wayne with an over-ripe sense of his own “destiny”.
I don’t have to tell you who they found.
He was perfect in more ways than one. Even before 9/11, he saw himself as the one chosen by God to lead in a crucial time; in fact, he’d felt that since his conversion to fundamentalism shortly after he turned 40. He knew almost nothing about world affairs or international policy; seeming bored by them, his attention would wander whenever the subjects came up. He’d had a stormy relationship with his father and the process of differentiating himself from Poppy had pushed him to the right and into the fringes of the neocon camp before he’d ever held an office. When he did win office, it was as Governor in a state where the Governor was a figurehead whose duties consisted mainly of looking good on television and cutting ribbons to open highways and supermarkets. His experience in business, such as it was, led him to identify corporate values with American values as if they were one and the same, so he already saw the world through the eyes of the corporate powerhouses who would be his sponsors and donors. He was perfect alright, but then he almost lost.
Much has been written about the arrogance and ruthlessness with which the right fought Gore’s win in Florida, from the paid Republican cadres that chased Election Commissioners from their own building yelling epithets and threats to the SCOTUS reversing its oft-stated states’-rights policies in order to force the election to Bush. But what hasn’t been mentioned much is the underlying desperation that motivated that ruthlessness. The question that needs to be asked is, “What made the Republicans so desperate to win that they were willing to pull out all the stops, cross all the lines, violate all the rules, even the ones they had always before then respected?” The answer up to now, when one has been offered at all, was the standard–and not inaccurate–liberal line: “The right wing believes in winning at any price.” Well, yes, but why did this specific election bring all that out? It wasn’t as if they hated Gore with the same virulent intensity which they lavished on the Clintons; their tone with Gore tended to be that he was his own joke. They dismissed him as “The ‘Inventor’ of the Internet” and “Mr Woodman”.
And yet they had clearly been making plans from the beginning to steal the election if need be: Katherine Harris’ orders to screen out as many black voters from the rolls as possible and to put voting sites in black precincts in places as difficult to find as possible were repeated throughout much of the South; absentee ballots were mailed to servicemen stationed overseas much earlier and in much larger numbers than usual in many states; the RNC had legal teams in every battleground state ready to challenge the election results if the vote was even moderately close and what I can only call “harassment teams” on call, ready to be shipped anywhere in the country to provide “public support” for RNC challenges (most of the paid Republican “demonstrators” in Florida turned out to be from other states). And all this despite polls that suggested fairly strongly–until the last few weeks of the campaign–that GW had a comfortable lead. Clearly something was up. What?
The culmination of their plan was what, the plan they’d been working on for 25 solid years, step-by-step, inch-by-inch putting the pieces together. They had both Houses of Congress; they had determined, defined, and framed the issues before the country in ways that favored them; and if they didn’t have the support of all the people, they had enough on their side to buttress the next phase. All they needed now was the White House and they could force the policies they favored on the country before most of them woke up to what was happening. A business-friendly govt was only the beginning; they were going to re-make the world, starting with the Middle East, then moving on to Asia, Africa and finally the Americas. Papers they wrote for the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) laid out much of their plan in some detail, and the very title of their “project” gave away their intent: they were going to make the 21st century the American Century in the way that the 19th had been the British Century–they were going to expand American influence all over the globe, and with the fall of Communist Russia, there was no power left that could stop them. They were going to replace what they saw as a namby-pamby US with a muscular US unafraid to use its overwhelming military might to rule the world economy just as the Brits had, and the Romans before them.
To do all that, though, they must have a compliant President who was at least sympathetic to their attitudes and long-term goals; they’d seen during the Clinton years how little they could accomplish, even with effective control of the Congress, when the WH was in Democratic hands. But beyond that, the plan called for a strong identification with the American military by the American public, and the crucial link that forged that connection was the person of the President; they needed someone who looked and acted like a civilian but at the same time was credible as a military leader. He didn’t have to be smart and he shouldn’t be overtly martial. He needed to be charming, unthreatening–a man who would give every appearance of having been forced to a decision he was reluctant to make–but also very sure of himself and stubborn as hell, a man who would “stay the course” and not back down as Bush I had done.
For all these reasons and in all these ways, George W was perfect, the exactly right man at the exactly right time. The hardline neocons, heirs to the far-right radicalism of True Republicans since before the Civil War, had waited, hoped, evolved and planned for this moment for 150 years, and there was no way they were going to let it slip through their fingers. From their pov, the security of the Western World, perhaps the whole world, was at stake. They were the only ones who knew how to halt the long slide down the slope of Liberalism, secularism and “diversity” that could only end in the destruction of everything they valued, and they were the only ones with the will to do what was necessary to reverse that slide and take America back to being the “shining City on the Hill” they imagined it had once been. For there was one last consideration: they were absolutely certain that a challenge was coming, that they were standing on the cusp of enormous change, change so profound that it would result in either their total annihilation or their total victory.
They couldn’t have said if you asked them precisely what that change was, only that it was huge and very, very close. Some thought it was the Biblical Armageddon, the seeds of which they saw in the continuous unrest of the Middle East; some, especially those connected to the Militias, thought that The Revolt was at hand because the “people” were finally ready to throw off the chains of a “liberal” govt unresponsive to their demands; others thought The Rapture was right around the corner, when God would come with a fiery sword to smite the wicked and take the virtuous up to Heaven to sit at his Right Hand; still others thought that conditions were ripe for turning America into the first Western theocracy, a govt run directly by God, his orders fed through them, his representatives, his “transmitters”. But whatever The Moment was, it was coming, and the neocon faithful fully intended to be in control when it did.
That’s why they fought so hard for W, why they were prepared to overturn any applecart that was in their way, even if it belonged to them, why no trick was too dirty, no scheme too low, no maneuver too illegal to try. They had to win; Western Civilization was at stake, and this would likely be their last chance for a long time, maybe their only chance–who knew when, or even if, this particular alignment of circumstances, beliefs, and personalities could be manufactured again? Better to seize the day, to take full advantage of what they had built, what they had longed for, what they had prayed for. Seen in that light, stealing an election was a small price to pay–they would have paid more.