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Saturday, October 16, 2004

Blind Man With a Pistol 

Via our distinguished colleague Avedon Carol: Many commentators (including Yr. Mst. Hmbl. Mnrch.) have written at length on the striking estrangement from reality of the Bush cult. But Ron Suskind, author of The Price of Loyalty, argues in tomorrow's NYT Magazine that the President's moorings have come rather looser than even the most pessimistic among us would like to think. What critics have long perceived as an imperial presidency has now metastasized into something worse -- a messianic presidency. Mr. Bush will not be held accountable for his manifest failures of vision and policy because almost half of the electorate, indifferent to fact and immune to reason, imagines him to be the conduit of God's will on earth; and with all those millions of true believers prepared to follow him as he drifts off into the ether, dragging the world behind him, who is he to disagree?
Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ''if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.'' The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.

''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . .

''This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''

In the Oval Office in December 2002, the president met with a few ranking senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. In those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored ''road map'' for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or Palestinians. One congressman -- the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress -- mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively. Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall.

''I don't know why you're talking about Sweden,'' Bush said. ''They're the neutral one. They don't have an army.''

Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: ''Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They're the ones that are historically neutral, without an army.'' Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.

Bush held to his view. ''No, no, it's Sweden that has no army.''

The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

George W. Bush and his team have constructed a high-performance electoral engine. The soul of this new machine is the support of millions of likely voters, who judge his worth based on intangibles -- character, certainty, fortitude and godliness -- rather than on what he says or does. The deeper the darkness, the brighter this filament of faith glows, a faith in the president and the just God who affirms him . . . .

Come to the hustings on Labor Day and meet the base. In 2004, you know a candidate by his base, and the Bush campaign is harnessing the might of churches, with hordes of voters registering through church-sponsored programs. Following the news of Bush on his national tour in the week after the Republican convention, you could sense how a faith-based president campaigns: on a surf of prayer and righteous rage . . . .

And for those who don't get it? That was explained to me in late 2002 by Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. ''You think he's an idiot, don't you?'' I said, no, I didn't. ''No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!'' In this instance, the final ''you,'' of course, meant the entire reality-based community.

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