For Hunter S. Thompson*, R.I.P.
Much as I hate to stray from the standards of objective journalism, you may as well know from the outset that I am writing this thing under duress, having been dragged out from under my bed by several thugs sent over by pencil-pushers in the editorial department – literal-minded bureaucratic types who do not appreciate my having spent three days straight in a coma, inhaling dust bunnies the size of small goats, instead of writing my article. This is a lamentable failure of imagination on the pencil pushers’ part, considering how on Monday I had to endure almost an hour and a half in the same room as George W. Bush, having to listen to him deliver platitudes and “jokes” to 3,100 devotees at the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA. It ought to be obvious that I have sustained lasting, severe damage from the experience, not least of all from the tension of sitting there, wanting to rush the stage, yet knowing that I’d be torn limb from limb by the Orange County multitude – and that’s just counting the old ladies. I was also afraid, as I sat there watching the whole Satanic ritual, that my eye sockets might get burned out of my skull. I have not yet precluded this possibility.
Ah, Jesus, I have to get a grip on myself. The apes sent by Editorial are watching me write this and they are not to be trifled with. More to the point, if I don’t finish, I believe they may take my liquor as a perverse form of compensation, and I’m not expecting a delivery for another two hours — so it will be very tough going if they do. The illicit substances I had in my pocket rolled out while I was under the bed and the dog may already have licked them up, so things are looking pretty dire. Come to think of it, where is that dog?
But I digress. The theme of the Bush appearance was “We are well and truly fucked,” although technically, it was called a “Saddleback Civil Forum on Leadership and Service”, and the devout crowd in attendance left with big smiles on their faces. Pastor Rick Warren, who is “America’s most powerful religious leader” per a 2008 Time magazine cover, hosted the ex-Prez on a talk show-like stage set, and webcast the chit-chat live via his “Purpose-Driven” network to 164 countries (which is more countries than have signed the land mine ban treaty, but who’s counting?). This is the same Rick Warren who Obama picked to give the invocation at his inauguration, pissing off the LGBT community early so he could get to work pissing off other progressives on his list once his presidency officially began.
I looked for the picketers from CODEPINK and the Orange County Peace Coalition at Bush’s book promotion, but the 50 or so protesters were banished to the outer limits of the sprawling mega-church grounds. Tickets were free to go hear Bush sell his memoir, Decision Points, but they had been handed out over a week in advance, so I gazed uncertainly at the hordes pouring in. I considered just skipping the whole thing and going out on the town, but I wasn’t sure if Lake Forest knew that Prohibition had been repealed. Five minutes before the doors were about to close, I asked the Will Call table if they had an extra ticket, and a woman smiled and handed me one with a flourish: “It’s your lucky day.” That was not exactly my sentiment, but I obviously had to attend now. I went into an adjacent restroom and hid the protest sign that had been in my satchel, and made it through the bag-check without incident.
After a woman sang an extreme vibralto version of the national anthem that would not have been out of place in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Rick Warren’s wife Kay expressed her gratitude that she was raised to love her country, and a video extolled Bush’s righteousness. Then Pastor Warren and the ex-Prez came out together.
Bush lounged comfortably in a recliner while the pastor all but drooled, asking him questions for which the word “softball” is inadequate – I’d call them “shuttlecock” questions but I think the LGBT community hates Pastor Warren enough as it is. The questions revolved around how to be a good leader, in ways that the audience could try at home or at the office, i.e.: “How do you deal with the egos of the people you are assembling?” (If there’d been more time, perhaps Warren would also have asked for tips on writing good memos and whether Casual Fridays are a good idea). I had gone in with a vague plan to guffaw loudly at every lame-brained thing the Crawford reptile said, but evidently the pastor was careful to only ask questions Bush was expecting, because the kind of stumblings and circuitous sentences we’re used to from Bush were in short supply. I also ended up changing my plan because my vocal chords are not in peak condition these days — for which I blame my attorney, who regularly insists that we go out after midnight to howl at the moon. I’ve noticed increasingly thick hair growing on his back, but I don’t like to be impolite.
Dammit, there I am on another tangent. Writing about politics has clearly sapped me of my moral strength, but the goons Editorial sent over are scratching up my wood floor with their jackboots, so I really do have to bite down and push through.
Bush kept describing what it was like to lead “an organization” – as if he’d been a high school principal, or the head of his neighborhood watch patrol. “There’s nothing worse than trying to lead an organization and be full of self-pity”, the Supreme Court’s anointed one remarked thoughtfully. “‘Why me?’ It just doesn’t work.”
The pterodactyl from Texas bragged that he did not believe in “surrounding” himself with “sycophants”, because there’s a “tendency for people to say ‘oh boy, you’re looking pretty’ when you’re not.” The audience took him at his word that he wanted advisors who were “willing to share opinions in an open and honest way”, conveniently forgetting about Colin Powell, Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neill, and others who apparently tried to share opinions. The CIA also comes to mind, people I don’t normally feel a lot of sympathy for – and people who may very well have tampered with my GPS recently, since it told me to turn right when I needed to turn left, and when turning right propelled me straight into oncoming traffic. But nonetheless, the CIA comes to mind, as an agency whose skepticism about Saddam’s alleged WMDs and the wisdom of invading Iraq were not welcome in the Bush White House. Oh yes, and then there were the U.N. inspectors. And critics of the Administration’s policies of surveillance, detention, and torture. Somehow, they all missed the Decider’s open-mindedness.
W. did actually wrap up his declaration of tolerance with: “once you decide, they need to say ‘Yessir,’ or they’re out”. One of the few scraps of honesty in the whole evening. But his audience got off on the display of power. As did the fundamentalist pastor, who was getting a little flushed sticking his tongue that far up Bush’s fundament, and who interjected at one point: “it’s a theocracy, and you’re Theo.”
The worshippers noticed no disconnect when Bush advised using “good judgment” to put “people around you who you can trust.” In that crowd, I didn’t think it was prudent to bring up Donald Rumsfeld, who sent the troops to war without enough body or Humvee armor, or Alberto Gonzalez, who ‘couldn’t recall’ details of the firing of federal attorneys, or Michael Brown, the former unsuccessful horse commissioner turned disastrous FEMA administrator, or Harriet Miers, who Bush trusted to be a Supreme Court justice until senators were appalled at her ignorance of the law. Besides, as I’ve said, my voice was a little too hoarse to carry in that enormous stadium. I may have to change my cigarette brand.
But let’s not be uncharitable. Who would want to be a downer, when Bush was being so upbeat? The conversation did touch on the low points of his presidency – Warren, channeling Barbara Walters for a moment, asked him very sympathetically: “You clearly weren’t listening to the polls. What kept you going?”, but Bush replied “Belief.” #43 admitted that “it’s hard to relive those days”, but his faith kept him going – allowed him to endure the hardships of…he didn’t say, but I guess you’d call it ‘democracy’. He told the Saddleback Church: “you’ve got to tune those people out. They’re acting out of spite and…emotions that are negative.” With an approval rating below 30% by the end of his presidency, he must have had some industrial strength earplugs.
The most important thing about leadership, he told us, is to have “a set of principles you will not violate.” One of his key principles was: “All life is precious”. Warren smiled and nodded, discreetly refraining to mention the 1800+ lives lost in Katrina, the 3000 lost on 9/11, or the close to 5,000 troops lost in Iraq thanks to Bush. The ex-Prez shared another heartfelt principle, reposing leisurely: “to whom much is given, much is required”. He did not, however, explain how this principle related to his lack of any response to direct verbal warnings that Hurricane Katrina would breach the New Orleans levees. In fact, when Warren even mentioned Katrina, Bush quickly changed the subject — and Laura has probably since struck the pastor from their Christmas card list.
A slogan that came up often during the evening, causing a tremor just below my right eye, was “it’s not all about you” – a slogan, apparently, that Warren favors and which Bush feels is the secret of good leadership. King George made sure we knew that he did not view his job as “serving George Bush” but “serving the United States of America.” This from the guy who oversaw eight years of troubled times, yet told his wife that “the worst moment” of his presidency was being called a racist by rapper Kayne West in a Katrina telethon. But the horrors of Katrina, 9/11, economic collapse, two occupations, deterioration between Israel and the Palestinians, and the vilification of America worldwide seem to have vanished from W.’s mind. He exclaimed to Pastor Warren with religious conviction that every day in the White House had been “joyous” for him.
It was at that point that DeDe Miller’s brain exploded. Cindy Sheehan’s sister, unable to take anymore, stood up and harangued Bush at length from the back of the hall. Without a mike her words didn’t travel far, but it’s safe to guess she was demanding how Bush could’ve been joyous during a bogus war that had taken the life of her nephew Casey and thousands of others. About 15 minutes later, a second woman, in a CODEPINK-style Statue of Liberty tiara, disrupted the event and held up a sign. And near the end of the event, a third woman also stood up near the front and yelled at Bush. Each was mostly ignored by those on stage and in the audience, although one guy seemed to think the third protester was a lamp at home – he kept clapping abruptly in her face. Each woman was soon pulled out by dark-clad personnel and vanished behind a mysterious row of black curtains, never to be seen again.
W. did explain his reasons for the invasion of Iraq: to combat a dictator “enriched by oil”, with “the capacity to build weapons”, and worst of all, an “aggressive attitude toward the United States.” Many in the audience nodded encouragingly. It was all the explanation they needed.
Bush Jr. also recalled his emotions on 9/11: “anger”, “unspeakable sadness,” and feeling “helpless”, but then his “instincts kicked in” – though not immediately, because “The leader of an organization cannot overreact…I made the decision just to wait.” He made the decision to wait and then overreact, I guess (starting a new Cold War-like era of belligerence against the entire world, and so on). But at least, while he was in that classroom, he avoided upsetting the children. And when he made that first speech about 9/11, he “wanted to console and help people try to heal” — it was only on the next day and subsequent seven years that he wanted to scare the bejesus out of everyone.
But this crowd had a special relationship with Bejesus: when Bush recalled using his 9/14/01 cathedral speech to “try to start the grieving process” and yet also to “let the enemy know we’re going to come and get them,” the congregation jumped to their feet in a thunderous ovation. It may have been their favorite part of the whole evening. Bush had actually been trying to say that he was worried in 2001 about expressing a war-like sentiment in a church, but he looked at the bloodthirsty throng of Orange County citizens in the Saddleback Church on Mon., and didn’t even bother to finish his sentence.
After about an hour, my teeth had been ground down to nubs and I was beginning to suspect that the relentless glare of the lights on the audience was emitting brainwashing rays, but I was afraid my only chance to make it safely to the exits would be to blend in with the crowd, so I endured. Meanwhile, the congregation was applauding madly again — Bush had mentioned his tax cuts. The pastor grinned: “we like those. We want them to continue.” I wondered what tax cuts have to do with Christianity, until I remembered that the gigantic Saddleback Church, which is spread out over an estate of vast parking lots, eateries, and other buildings, serves one of the 100 most affluent cities with a pop. over 50,000 in the United States.
In a gee-shucks way that his audience lapped up, Bush also stressed that he didn’t know much about economics, but when told of the fiscal crisis, “didn’t want to gamble on whether or not we had a depression.” And so, this former friend of Ken Lay, “decided to use your money to bail out Wall Street, and I was really unhappy about it, but nonetheless I do believe that decision saved the country from a depression.”
The Clowner-in-Chief spent a fair amount of time talking about humor and how important it is to him, since it’s a “sign of a relaxed personality” — quite evidently a priority for him in times of national crisis. He joked frequently during the dialogue, impressing the audience with his modesty and folksiness while turning it around at the same time. For example, he quipped that people are surprised he can write a book, since they don’t even think he can read one. Then he casually mentioned that the way he read 92 history books in one year was to read on the exercise machine and wherever he could. Warren did not ask if TinTin comics count as history books.
The evening was almost over when Bush proclaimed that “Everyone loves America.” His audience seemed momentarily confused, since after all he’d spent his presidency telling us that we were surrounded by people who hate us for our freedom. Then, a Middle Eastern-looking man in a somber suit, sitting by himself, stood up from the very back of the auditorium and began purposefully walking forward. It was at this dramatic moment that I remembered there had been no metal detectors at the entrance; security seemed to remember it at just that moment too. But the gentleman turned to the nearest exit and went to find the restroom. Later it turned out he was Latino.
When it was all over, a complete stranger said to me, beaming: “It doesn’t get any better than that.” By that point I had lost all ability to form words, so I merely glowered back. Before crawling into my car with its “Jesus called: he wants his religion back” bumper sticker, I checked all my tires and lights for damage. Then I realized that they would have had no need to assault my car. Decision Points is currently at #1 on the L.A. Times hardcover non-fiction list.
Our efforts to move the book to the True Crime, Fantasy, and Psychotherapy sections of our local bookstores have clearly been inadequate. And when a man that the Mayor of London has warned might be arrested as a war criminal if he shows his face in the borough can get away with telling such whoppers — and the public’s response is to think it would make a good Christmas gift – then it would indeed seem that we are well and truly fucked.
However, one small glimmer of hope struck me. Twice during the book talk, Bush referred to the time when “it looked like Iraq was lost.” Bush said that. As in, Mr. Chauncey Gardiner, who kept perpetually saying that the U.S. was just about to claim victory in Iraq, any minute now. He didn’t even believe it himself? It seems like a chink in the armor. Perhaps there are others. Of course he’s trying to resurrect his image, but he clearly is aware of his unpopularity; when the Saddleback Church audience stood and cheered one of his remarks, he ad-libbed “Thanks. I forgot what it was like.” That lifts the gloom a little, to hear that the delusional narcissist is aware he’s not universally admired.
Hell, I might even be persuaded to place a bet on justice being done and the old man getting a fair trial some day. Sometimes you just have to place your bets on principle. In any case, I’ve been known to back a few losing causes in my day.
(* by Jennifer Epps, in tribute to Dr. Gonzo)