Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Understanding US Politics, Part I

As a non-partisan public service in this US election year, I'd like to offer the following analysis of the fascinating role of perception, as opposed to reality, in American politics. I will skip JFK because emotions still run so high on that particular President that I'm afraid someone might shoot at me. (That's why we have no Grassy Knoll near our house.) I'm also skipping Jimmy Carter...because I can't think of anything to say.

In American politics, it’s all about image—and once that image is fixed in the public mind, it doesn’t much matter what you actually do or say. Our most startling “lefty” moves have come from “conservative” presidents, and vice-versa. It’s like having a Magic Cloak of Invisibility: anything you do that doesn’t fit your image is either not noticed, or misinterpreted so as to be consistent with your image. Even your past is ignored if it doesn't fit your image.

The image industry reached ridiculous proportions with Clinton I and Bush II, but it has a long history—and one I argue parallels the adoption and spread of television. I’d like to cite a few highlights:

Dwight Eisenhower
Image: Former Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces, Archconservative hawk…but
* Coined a lasting term when he warned, in his Presidential farewell speech to the nation, against the dangers of an emerging “military-industrial complex.”
* Kept the country from getting embroiled in Vietnam, and noted, “It was generally conceded that had an election been held, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected Premier.”

Lyndon Johnson
Image: Classic bleeding-heart liberal…but
* Vastly escalated US involvement in Vietnam into a full-scale war
* Instituted a draft policy that disproportionately fell on the poor and minorities
* Expanded government spying on citizens who expressed opinions that did not agree with those of the White House
* Bloated the military budget in a way Eisenhower couldn’t have imagined

Richard Nixon
Image: King of the Archconservative hawks…but
* Imposed wage/price controls on the US economy (pinko!)
* Banned US germ-warfare research
* Cut the link of US currency to gold
* Instituted the policy of d├ętente with the Soviet Union
* Began the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) with the Soviet Union
* Sat down with Mao Tse-tung and normalized relations with Communist China.

Ronald Reagan
Image: Archconservative tough guy…but
* Presided over the illegal sale of strategic weapons to our enemies (Iran-Contra)
* Created a budget deficit of historic proportions through profligate spending while cutting taxes
* Sat out World War II serving in the 1st Motion Picture Division in Culver City, California, as well as a stint in the notoriously risky Provisional Task Force Show Unit in Burbank, California
* Was President of the Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood actors’ union
* After American Marines were killed in a bombing, abruptly withdrew US peacekeeping forces from Lebanon. (Though he did show his tough guy credentials when, in a brave move, he matched US forces against the full military might of the nation of Grenada (population 110,000)

Here where I live in Orange County--notoriously the most conservative county in the State of California--they renamed the airport after actor John Wayne. Wayne, whose first name was actually "Marion," grew up in the tree-lined suburb of Glendale, California, and put in his time in the school of hard knocks by attending the University of Southern California, USC (which, because of its cost and elitism, is generally said to stand for the University of Spoiled Children).

The local power structure explained that they renamed the airport John Wayne "because of what he represented." I'm not sure exactly what they mean by that. What I am sure of is that while Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Mel Brooks were getting shot at, John Wayne stayed home making movies.

Wayne's apologists claim he tried to enlist three times but was rejected because of physical problems, notably a back injury (from a surfing accident in Newport Beach. Them thar waves got quite a kick, buckaroo.) Since he continued to do most of his own stunts, this seems pretty unlikely, and is contradicted by military records (he was never given a physical deferment of any sort. You can read the facts about his deferments here.)

I point this out not to criticize John Wayne, but to emphasize that it's all about image. When the powers-that-be in Orange County decided to name the airport after a hero, they chose to ignore real heroes in favor of someone who played heroes in the movies. Welcome to US politics.

If you care, there are now direct flights from John Wayne Airport to Ronald Reagan Airport.

Next: The Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton(?)-Bush(?) era

4 comments:

Janet said...

I should be laughing but I'm not. It's too true to be funny. Even from north of the 49th I can see that. (I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not actually sitting north of the 49th, but you know what I mean.)

David Isaak said...

Alas, being up there you probably have the clearest view of what's happening down here. I'm guessing you're over on the East-ish side, too, where the view is too close for comfort.

My goal is to sell my next book for so much money that we can move to Prince Rupert, BC. Lovely town, and far, far away. (A bit wet, but we've lived in Oregon and Washington. We can do wet.)

Even if "Rupert" is a silly name.

Janet said...

Yup, East-ish, hence the 49th remark. I grew up out West though.

Prince Rupert was historical and a major force in the exploration of Canada. And you can feel free to do wet. Ew.

I'd wait on the move. It's a bad time to be selling in the States and buying in Canada... I'm hoping to do the opposite while the situation is favourable.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Well, there isn't much chance of my being showered with writing earnings any time soon.

As to buying in the US--I don't think we're near the bottom yet.