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Sore Winners: American Idols, Patriotic Shoppers, and Other Strange Species in George Bush's Americaby John Powers
Synopses & Reviews
The Six Faces of George W. Bush
Will the Real Slim Shady please stand up
Please stand up, Please stand up
On June 4, 2002, President George W. Bush held a diplomatic summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinean Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at a palace in Aqaba, a small coastal city best known for the Hollywood-fed myth that it had once been captured by Lawrence of Arabia. After the day's discussions, the leaders strolled together toward the world's cameras, crossing a bridge built over a swimming pool. It was the kind of culminating image, fat with metaphor-the bridging of divided peoples, the President acting as a uniter-that the Bush White House likes to call the money shot, perhaps oblivious of its porn-world associations. The President's advance team hadn't just mapped out the leaders' path, as earlier White House staffs might have done. They had asked the Jordanians to build a bridge over the pool so that Bush and the others could walk over water on their way to the banks of cameras. When the first bridge proved too narrow to accommodate the men side by side, the Bush people had it torn down and a new one built that was wide enough. They were well aware that this visual iconography would matter far more to American TV viewers than anything the President would actually say.
Ever since Parson Weems cooked up the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, our presidents have come robed in mythology, much of it consciously crafted. In the 1920s, the founding father of American advertising, Edward L. Bernays, was asked to help Calvin Coolidge fight the perception that he was icy and remote. Bernays brought Al Jolson anda cohort of his fellow vaudevilleans to breakfast at the White House, an event that prompted the humanizing headline President Nearly Laughs-and opened the gate for events staged by media advisors (or pseudo-events, as Daniel Boorstin termed them). Just as advertising has grown more sophisticated in the last eighty years, so has presidential image making. If it was by serendipity that the musical Camelot opened less than one month after John F. Kennedy was elected president, it was his widow Jackie who, in her sole interview after his assassination, planted the idea of America happy-ever-aftering in that fantasy of JFK's White House.
Spooked by the power of Kennedy's dashing image, Richard Nixon put himself in the hands of media advisors in 1968, and, as Joe McGinnis famously chronicled in The Selling of the President, they pulled off an extraordinary feat. Tricky Dick was repackaged as The New Nixon, a changed man whose painfully forced smile was something a divided nation could believe in. Small wonder that the Nixon team's techniques were studied and refined by Ronald Reagan, who invested every manipulated scenario with enormous charisma, and Bill Clinton, who knew all the tricks in The Gipper's playbook-it wasn't for nothing that the boy from racy Hot Springs, Arkansas, sold himself as The Man from Hope.
The current White House has scrutinized these precedents and more. No president has controlled his PR more tightly than Bush, who watched aghast as his father lost control of his persona-going from sturdy Cold Warrior to vomiting babbler-and plummeted from 89 percent approval ratings in the summer of 1991 to 37.7 percent of the vote in the 1992 election. Conscious thatpresidents, like all consumer products, rise and fall on their image, his staff treats each event with the lavish precision of a Michael Mann movie. They'd never let him go on TV wearing a cardigan, as Jimmy Carter did in what's remembered as his ruinous Malaise Speech. He didn't actually use the word malaise, but such is the power of myth. Bush's handlers know that t
Politics and culture, culture and politics. They’ve never been normal in America, but today they’re weirder than ever. Millionaire populists like Bill O’Reilly and Michael Moore dominate a political scene spinning ever further from the real world; meanwhile, we look to bizarre experiments like “Survivor” for our daily dose of reality.
In this wonderfully acerbic tour through our increasingly unhinged culture, John Powers takes on celebrities and evangelicals, pundits and politicians, making sense of the mess for the rest of us. He shows how we have come to equate consumerism with patriotism and Fox News with objective journalism, and how our culture has become more polarized than ever even as we all shop at the same exact big-box stores. Insightful, hilarious, and critical of both liberals and conservatives, this is one of the smartest and most enjoyable books on American culture in years.
About the Author
John Powers is the film critic at Vogue and Editor-at-Large of L.A. Weekly, where he writes a media-culture column. He is also critic-at-large for NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” and has been an international correspondent for Gourmet. He lives in Pasadena, California. with his wife, Sandi Tan.
Table of Contents
Introduction The Digital Presidency
Chapter 1 The Six Faces of George W. Bush
Chapter 2 From September 11 to 9/111: Birth of a Legend
Chapter 3 The Disquieting American, or The “Why Do They Hate Us?” Blues
Chapter 4 Idols and Survivors: Populist Social Darwinism
Chapter 5 Meta-Media Madness: We Distort, You Deride
Chapter 6 The Small Pleasures of Big-Box Culture
Chapter 7 Postcards from the Wedge
Epilogue Escape from Bush World
Afterword And You—And You—And You—And You Were There
A Select Bibliography
What Our Readers Are Saying