George W. Bush has built a presidency out of his predilection for stories. He’s fond of simple, opposing pairs: us, them; good, evil; patriot, terrorist. His ability to relate these pairs to the public in the forms of appealing, emotionally-charged narratives has been his trademark. Unfortunately, his reliance on these narratives is also proving to be his downfall.
Stories are nice, but the world operates according to facts. Facts are messy, greasy things. They stick to the fingers and kill people and completely defy the simple narratives we find palatable. Facts, in short, are not fun, which is why narratives, rather than facts, are the stuff of campaigns, conventions and elections. A mastery of storytelling requires only some archetypes, a plot and a meaningful conclusion. Whether its Mario rescuing the princess, David defeating Goliath or traditionalists putting an end to godless, hedonistic secularism, such stories are much more likely to inspire than are dry, nameless facts.
Any good leader, however, will have a firm grasp on facts. And this sort of mastery requires study, analysis, discipline and deference to all manner of greasy, bespectacled wonks. One would have hoped that Bush would have switched from narrative mode to fact mode after his election (and then re-election), but this, sadly, was not the case, and we are now bearing the full brunt of his recalcitrance in the face of facts.
Bush is far more concerned with his narratives – and with images that refer back to them – than he is with facts. And this obsession with narratives has precluded him and his administration from achieving anything approaching competency. Every step of the way, they’ve failed to account for the facts on the ground. They didn’t anticipate that Iraq, a multiethnic state cobbled together by the British, would experience explosive levels of sectarian and anti-American violence in the wake of the power vacuum following Saddam’s removal; they feel that global warming, which may or may not have helped to fuel Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (which, as I write, has reached Category 5 status and is poised to demolish a swath of the Gulf Coast), needs more study before definitive action; they didn’t anticipate that the situation in New Orleans would be so dismal, that federal assistance would be required quickly. It seems that the sheer mass of all that this administration doesn’t know or didn’t anticipate could fill the Superdome to the bursting point.
What accounts for so much failure? A stubborn belief in long-obviated narratives. Bush believes that good and evil are simple things, and that good will triumph. Therefore, what’s going on in Iraq is positive