Arthur Miller, in his recent book “On Politics and the Art of Acting,” has explained how he feels that the role of the politician in this country is essentially that of an actor. As we watch the performance of many of our country”s leaders, some disturbing things are shining through. It seems as though our political elite has decided that we cannot bear much reality, and politics is the manifestation of that belief. Until Sept. 11, George W. Bush had one role to perfect: He had to act himself out of the 2000 election. He needed to act as if he were elected president. The amount of acting in order to complete that task was awesome and as we observed, the president was spending much of his time finding himself and developing his character, in the process revealing to all of us that the compassionate conservatism that had been his prevailing rhetoric was in fact an ideology masquerading as textbook American conservatism.
This resulted in his isolating much of the public and much more of the international community. So Bush came to symbolize that isolation, that misdirection. The problem now is that as we face a crisis, Bush, Powell, Rumsfeld, and the bunch must act themselves out of that role.
Miller also noted that the presidency, in specific, is a “heroic role. It is not one for comedians, sleek lover types or second bananas. In a word, to be credible the man who acts as a president must hold in himself an element of potential dangerousness.” In this current bombing campaign, holding one”s self up as a hero is of course not difficult as we “avenge” the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. What President Bush is actually saying is not so important anymore. As he returned from Camp David yesterday to the White House, the president answered a few questions on the lawn. When asked if he would negotiate with the Taliban, Bush replied that “maybe they hadn”t heard we aren”t interested in negotiating.” The reporters, of course, ate this up. Bush continued as to how we would not stop bombing until our laundry list of conditions were met, all the while perfecting his heroic, world-saving gestures and facial expressions. Just when he was asked perhaps the most important question, whether or not we are looking to install a new government in Kabul, Bush yelled out for his dog Barney, flashed a smile, and led the wagging dog into the White House.
What Bush was saying was not so important as how he was saying it, and the reporters were posing as theater critics, as on this stage, as Miller once again tells us, “substance counts for next to nothing compared with style and inventive characterization. The question is whether the guy is persuasive, not what he is persuading us of.” Many facts were lost in the shuffle, including the fact that we had just finished bombing a residential neighborhood in Kabul, the fact that human rights organizations are declaring that our food drops are only a drop in the bucket as they need a cease-fire to make sure victims receive ample supplies, and the fact the only party avoiding negotiations with the nations we are bombing is us. Finally, in a beautiful stroke of acting prowess, Bush has implemented the $1 fund drive for Afghan children. What can be better than asking each American child to donate $1 an Afghan children fund? I would suggest not bombing them.
But American policy has rarely worried about children in other parts of the world, and that leads us to an important event coming upon us this Tuesday. One of our most distinguished scholars is to speak at Hill Auditorium this week. I am, of course, speaking of Madeleine Albright. As we all should remember, it was Albright who told Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes in 1996 that in pursuit of our foreign policy objectives, the death of over half a million children was “worth it.” To perfect the acting style, Albright recently stated to CNN that she was asked whether our policies have anything to do with the recent attacks and distaste for America. Her answer was “no. Only those who hate democracy and human rights and freedom would be opposed to what America stands for.” This is ethnocentric at best, racist at worst. But desperate attempts to appeal to the emotion of the audience is both the politician”s and actor”s final remedy, as we observed Albright in a town hall meeting in February 1998 where, after being besieged by some tough questions on the brutal sanctions policy on Iraq, she was moved to shout, “We are the greatest country in the world!” Patriotism here was her last refuge.
But I believe and hope she will find little refuge this week as she attempts to use Hill Auditorium as her stage to star as the local expert on all that is around us. It is up to us, all of us who believe that what you say is more important than how you say it, that $1 per Afghan children does not cancel out the destruction of their homeland, and that half a million Iraqi children are not worth any foreign policy objectives, to exercise our own style of Americanism, rejecting the efforts of Albright and others like her to emotionally blackmail us into following an American policy that is resulting in much more death and destruction outside of our borders than it will ever result in security inside them.
Amer G. Zahr can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.