Sunday, November 25, 2007

Joan Didion Skewers George Herbert Walker Bush

Recently, I posted a great metaphor describing Joan Didion's style, which reminded me how much I love her work and inspired me to catch up on some of her recent essays. So here's a lengthy quote from her work. If you're not familiar with it, you should know that she has an abiding fascination with how public narratives are constructed by politicians, policymakers, and influential people -- narratives that usually are seriously disconnected from what she has called "observable reality." She particularly likes to see the way this works when it comes to American foreign policy, which is frequently developed, as her essays invariably reveal, in an alarmingly offhand way, without concern for its human impact or "collateral damage." While the story below is not an example of foreign policy in its highest sense, it betrays a self-centered obliviousness that does not recommend itself for diplomacy, and which is all too common:

In August 1986, George [Herbert Walker] 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 ... 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 [personal camera] 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.
-from Joan Didion's "The West Wing of Oz," in Political Fictions, pp. 60-61.

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