The West Wing of Oz, Part 1: December 22, 1988 | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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The West Wing of Oz, Part 1: December 22, 1988 

In August 1986, George Bush, traveling in his role as vice president of the United States and accompanied by his staff, the Secret Service, the traveling press, and a personal camera crew wearing baseball caps reading "Shooters, Inc." and working on a $10,000 retainer paid by a Bush PAC called the Fund for America's Future, spent several days in Israel and Jordan. The schedule in Israel included, according to reports in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, shoots at the Western Wall, at the Holocaust memorial, at David Ben-Gurion's tomb, and at thirty-two other locations chosen to produce camera footage illustrating that George Bush was, as Marlin Fitzwater, at that time the vice-presidential press secretary, put it, "familiar with the issues." The Shooters, Inc. crew did not go on to Jordan (there was, an official explained to The Los Angeles Times, "nothing to be gained from showing him schmoozing with Arabs"), but the Bush advance team in Amman had nonetheless directed considerable attention to improving visuals for the traveling press.

Members of the advance team had requested, for example, that the Jordanian army marching band change its uniforms from white to red. They had requested that the Jordanians, who did not have enough equipment to transport Bush's traveling press corps, borrow the necessary helicopters to do so from the Israeli air force. In an effort to assure the color of live military action as a backdrop for the vice president, they had asked the Jordanians to stage maneuvers at a sensitive location overlooking Israel and the Golan Heights. They had asked the Jordanians to raise, over the Jordanian base there, the American flag. They had asked that Bush be photographed studying, through binoculars, "enemy territory," a shot ultimately vetoed by the State Department, since the "enemy territory" at hand was Israel. They had also asked, possibly the most arresting detail, that, at every stop on the itinerary, camels be present.

Some months later I happened to be in Amman, and mentioned reading about this Bush trip to several officials at the American embassy there. They could have, it was agreed, "cordially killed" the reporters in question, particularly Charles P. Wallace from The Los Angeles Times, but the reports themselves had been accurate. "You didn't hear this, but they didn't write the half of it," one said.

This is in fact the kind of story we expect to hear about our elected officials. We not only expect them to use other nations as changeable scrims in the theater of domestic politics but encourage them to do so. After the April 1961 failure of the Bay of Pigs, John Kennedy's job approval rating was four points higher than it had been in March. After the 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic, Lyndon Johnson's job approval rating rose six points. After the 1983 invasion of Grenada, Ronald Reagan's job approval rating rose four points, and what was that winter referred to in Washington as "Lebanon"--the sending of American marines into Beirut, the killing of the 241, and the subsequent pullout--was, in the afterglow of this certified success in the Caribbean, largely forgotten. "Gemayal could fall tonight and it would be a two-day story," I recall David Gergen saying a few months later. In May 1984, Francis X. Klines of The New York Times described the view taken by James Baker, who was routinely described during his years in the Reagan White House as a manager of almost supernatural executive ability, the "ultimate pragmatist": "In attempting action in Lebanon, Baker argues, President Reagan avoided another 'impotent' episode, such as the taking of American hostages in Iran, and in withdrawing the Marines, the President avoided another 'Vietnam' ... 'Pulling the Marines out put the lie to the argument that the President's trigger-happy,' he [Baker] said." The "issue," in other words, was one of preserving faith in President Reagan at home, a task that, after the ultimate pragmatist left the White House, fell into the hands of the less adroit.

History is context. At a moment when the nation had seen control of its economy pass to its creditors and when the administration-elect had for political reasons severely limited its ability to regain that control, this extreme reliance on the efficacy of faith over works meant something different from what it might have meant in 1984 or 1980. On the night in New Orleans in August 1988 when George Bush accepted the Republican nomination and spoke of his intention to "speak for freedom, stand for freedom, and be a patient friend to anyone, east or west, who will fight for freedom," the word "patient" was construed by some in the Louisiana Superdome as an abandonment of the Reagan Doctrine, a suggestion that a Bush administration would play a passive rather than an active role in any further dreams of rollback.

This overlooked the real nature of the Reagan Doctrine, the usefulness of which to the Reagan administration had been essentially political. Administrations with little room to maneuver at home have historically looked for sideshows abroad, for the creation of what pollsters call "a dramatic event," an external crisis, preferably one so remote that it remains an abstraction. On the evening of the November 1988 election and on several evenings that followed, I happened to sit at dinner next to men with considerable experience in the financial community. They were agreed that the foreign markets would allow the new Bush administration, which was seen to have limited it options by promising for political reasons not to raise taxes, only a limited time before calling in the markers; they disagreed only as to the length of that time and to the nature of the downturn. One thought perhaps two years, another six months. Some saw a blowout ("blowout" was a word used a good deal), others saw a gradual tightening, a slow transition to that era of limited expectation of which Jerry Brown had spoken when he was governor of California.

These men were, among themselves, uniformly pessimistic. They saw a situation in which the space available for domestic maneuvering had been reduced to zero. In this light it did not seem encouraging that George Bush, on the Thursday before he left for his post-election Florida vacation, found time to meet not with those investors around the world who were that week sending him a message (the dollar was again dropping against the yen, against the mark, and against the pound; the Dow was dropping 78.47 points), not with the Germans, not with the Japanese, not even with anyone from the American financial community, but with representatives of the Afghan resistance. "Once in a while I think about those things, but not much," the president-elect told the CBS News crew which asked him, a few days later in Florida, about the falling market.

  • An excerpt from the essay “The West Wing of Oz,” which appears in "Political Fictions."


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