Hail-to-the-Chief Show

Hail-to-the-Chief Show

This Administration may not know how to rule the world, but it sure can run a ritual.


This Administration may not know how to rule the world, but it sure can run a ritual. No President in recent history has been so adept at using pageantry to invest a radical new agenda with the authority of the past. Yet there is always a moment in these ceremonies when the symbolic web of tradition tears, revealing the snarling reality of the present.

In the Bush inaugural, that moment came when the presidential motorcade headed down Pennsylvania Avenue enclosed in a phalanx of police vehicles. “It looked like a military occupation proceeding through a hostile city,” snapped ABC’s George Will. Only after the event did we learn just how martial it was. Along with 13,000 officers, secret commando units were at large in Washington, and sharpshooters with state-of-the-art assault weapons were stationed on rooftops along the parade route. The President was riding in an armored limo with bulletproof tires and, reportedly, an oxygen system that could be activated during a chemical attack. None of this showed on TV. In the new surveillance society, nothing is more important than maintaining the illusion of normalcy.

TV commentators play an important part in this arrangement. They must reconcile the signs of ominous activity with the smooth surface. On Inauguration Day, that meant duly noting the barriers, checkpoints and protest cages while regarding them as a rational response to terrorism–a tad paranoid, at worst. If anything, the locked and loaded ambience gave weight to Bush’s speech, with its exhortation to endless war in the name of freedom and security. No pundit pointed out that this exercise in control was also a pretext for staging the most tightly managed inauguration in American history. Hundreds of thousands of spectators thought they were participating in a public event, when in fact they were extras on a giant set. Not even Goebbels could have imagined such a theater of actuality, but then, he didn’t live in the era of reality TV.

When W. finally left his tank to walk a block or so, he strolled past a select crowd of admirers who had paid up to $300 for their VIP bleacher seats. The few demonstrators who managed to lob hostile comments within official range were hauled away, off camera. These protesters “rattling their cages,” as Peter Jennings put it, were “in the great American tradition.” Instead of focusing on their confinement, television presented their dissent as a tribute to democracy. Instead of addressing the racist taint of having Trent Lott host this event, the media focused on the many mentions of the civil rights struggle in the President’s remarks. Every detail, down to W.’s dance with a black female soldier at a ball (“This is special,” Barbara Walters gushed), had been calculated to send a certain message. This inaugural was about giving an aggressive, repressive agenda the aura of greatness. That’s why the President’s speech was laced with allusions to renowned orations–and the pundits bought it. George Stephanopoulos detected “echoes of Kennedy and Lincoln.” Terry Moran found “echoes of the King James Bible.” Wolf Blitzer “heard a lot of Ronald Reagan.” This rhetoric, borrowed from a wine tasting, was the perfect patter for a state-run infotainment show.

At night, the anchors took to formalwear, but they didn’t get anywhere near the action at the inaugural balls. Nothing was allowed to mar the pretense of dignified solemnity. And the press was barred from the dinners and receptions where the real story unfolded. You’d think the prerogatives of news gathering would trump this haves-only protocol, but no reporter crashed the gathering for the Mississippi delegation sponsored by military contractors or the blast for “Young Republican fundraisers” produced by the pharmaceutical industry and Taser International. Instead, there was the usual clucking over the attributes of the First Lady’s wardrobe and the quality of the inaugural cuisine. Not that controversy was entirely absent from the festivities. Much was made of kracker-rapper and proud Republican Kid Rock’s exclusion from the official youth concert (though nothing better describes Bush’s economic agenda than the Kid’s observation that “there’s only two types of men/pimps and johns”). Of course, the real provocation came from the President’s address, whose meaning for the world was epitomized by Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in her comments to FOX News: “We want our quality of life for you, and we’re willing to fight for it.”

Hovering over this extravaganza was the aura of something new and disturbing. It was in the song by John Ashcroft trilled from the Capitol steps, the one about letting “the eagle soar like she’s never soared before.” It was in the boast by Billy Graham, “In Your providence You have granted a second term.” It was in the eerie tone of armed revelry and secret ceremony. Under the pomp and circumstance, one could glimpse the contours of the coming American security state. Political pageants are like that. They show the future disguised as the past.

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