Dubya Like Me: A Case in Cluelessness

Whenever George W. Bush opened his mouth in public during last year's presidential campaign, a thrill ran through observers all across the country and beyond. The thrill -- not pleasant, but exciting nonetheless -- was the thrill that comes over us in the presence of a person who does not know what he is doing.

Electronically present to more or less the whole world, Bush kept everybody in a state of fearful uncertainty and expectation. Sometimes the feeling was so strong that it began to grow even before he spoke. Before the presidential debates, people were wondering if he would make it through without some fatal blunder. At every slight fumble or mispronunciation, we held the arms of our chairs: Would this be the one that finally revealed how utterly at sea the man was? Watching a person fake it is so nerve-wracking that I believe whenever he got through these ordeals halfway okay, even his enemies were secretly relieved.

In former times, that particular thrill was often aroused by his father's vice president, Dan Quayle. Looking into Quayle's eyes on the TV screen when he had no idea of the answer to a question he'd just been asked -- what a spine-tingling experience that was! To glimpse the cluelessness in those eyes! For an instant we were up there with him, in the common nightmare: The audience looks at us in anticipation, but we have lost our speech, forgotten our lines, and improvidently dressed in only our underwear. The Dan Quayle deer-in-headlights clueless stare proved a bit too scary to be exciting, finally. Part of what George W. Bush offered was the old Dan Quayle frisson, but in a less concentrated, commercially acceptable form.

I am a few years younger, but I belong to the same generation as W. Bush and Quayle. I know how many classes we skipped, how much we partied, how much TV we watched. (What great work, I wonder, do those many hours of "Baretta" and "Hee Haw" prepare you for?) I have a generational sense of the vacancy in their stare, because I share it. I myself don't know what I am doing a good forty percent of the time. I am now the kind of white-haired, thick-waisted, superficially presentable male who people give huge responsibility to and ask directions of on the street. And often, I'm just making it up. The situation is one I've become quite familiar with -- I'm asked a question, no answer presents itself in my brain, and I begin to answer anyway. My mouth moves and words come out, propelled perhaps by pure syntax or by the momentum of the language, while I watch from a distance, as curious as anybody to hear what I'm going to say. And somehow words do emerge, and my listeners accept them as an answer representing thought and knowledge, and I alone, apparently, know that no thought or knowledge was involved.

I go into a fancy wine store and buy a good bottle of wine. I stop by the bank and listen to a lady there tell about interest points on my home loan. I see the guy who does my taxes and I have a conversation about the new tax laws. I run into a health-conscious friend who discusses some kind of fatty acid and what it could do for me. I go home and answer a homework question from my son having to do with the surface tension of water. I sit down to dinner and talk to my wife about the purchase of some bathroom tile. At no point during any of these encounters do I have more than the vaguest idea of what I am talking about. Nor do I understand in any clear way what is being said to me; instead I listen to the general sound of the sentences, hoping no one has noticed that I am actually lying down someplace in the back of my head, leafing through an old copy of a magazine. And if, God forbid, I actually have to do something -- make a decision, provide real information -- I close my eyes and just guess.

I won't describe the messes this gets me into. With my almost-teenage daughter, I have agreed to complicated plans that later caused me to curse and fume when I discovered what they actually were. But these are personal disasters, probably of no danger to the public at large. Anybody who watches TV or movies knows that Dad will always be an idiot; but what if Dad is the president? Cluelessness multiplied by power is what puts the secret message of dizzying terror in W. Bush's eyes. (Recently, of course, he has kept to his script and hasn't shown the clueless stare; to see him hiding it only scares me more.)

And if I don't know what I'm doing and W. Bush doesn't know what he's doing, what does that say for the human species as a whole? Clearly, a lot of human history must have been the result of major world figures drawing a total blank at key moments and simply blurting out the first thing that came to mind. Big events as well as small have turned on a neurological roll of the dice. Thomas Jefferson, for example, seems to have improvised a lot more than the textbooks would have us believe. A friend of mine who teaches a college course on Jefferson has examined his famous "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" statement from the Declaration of Independence, and she concludes that he planned the "life, liberty" part beforehand, but "the pursuit of happiness" part he merely added on the spot to round out the phrase, a flourish at the end. Jefferson himself, she believes, had no intention of mentioning "the pursuit of happiness" until he saw the words flowing from his pen. It may be that for 225 years now we've been trying to live up to a founding concept of our country that was thrown in at the last minute because it sounded nice and the author couldn't think what else to say. That it happened to be a phrase of poetry and genius was one of the best breaks America ever had.

People who don't know what they're doing often get by on their supposed freshness and spontaneity. Indeed, the idea of the New, so central to our lives, sets us up for this trick all the time. To devotees of the New, incompetence and unpreparedness are actually good; what we want is a mind uncluttered by previous experience. As a writer, I sometimes get calls from magazine editors who ask me to write articles on subjects about which I am completely uninformed. When I admit my ignorance, the editors always say that's exactly what they're looking for, because someone who understands the subject can't see it with fresh eyes, and it's actually far better that I know nothing, and so on. Usually I don't take these assignments, but once in a while I do. I've noticed that when I submit the article, the editors never say, "Wow! I loved it! You had no idea what you were talking about at all!"

When people believe they're creating the New, they even make a virtue of not knowing what they're doing. And now that everything is new all the time, the most thorough kinds of ignorance are accepted as routine. Not long ago I came across a hint of how this bizarre system first began. It's in the Bible, in the Book of Matthew, just a few pages into the New Testament. Jesus is telling the disciples how they should travel about the land preaching, and he says they should not carry money or supplies or extra clothes, because all will be provided for them as they go; and if they are brought before officials to explain themselves, he says, "Take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father."

I can sympathize with someone trying to start a new religion and not wanting to get tangled up in the details. You want your disciples to go out there and preach, instead of wasting time on travel plans. But telling them not to bother making some notes beforehand about what they're going to say... that's irresponsible, it seems to me. Imagine the millions of hours of dreadful sermons that particular advice has spawned!

Once on an airplane I happened to sit in front of two preachers -- Southern evangelicals, on their way to seek souls in Russia -- and I heard one say to the other, "I didn't have a sermon prepared, so I just stood up there and started ramble-preaching." Ramble-preaching -- they even have a term for it! I have sat through many hours of ramble-preaching, in church and not, and it's an ordeal I cannot bear. The moment I realize the minister is just making it up as he goes along is the moment I look for the door. I feel the same about onstage improvisation of any kind. Please, performers, let's not just see what pops into your head. Give me a wooden, pre-scripted speaker any day.

So, naturally, in the presidential race I was for Gore. I loved how stiff and prepped and pat he was. Even the makeup I didn't mind. I found the whole Gore approach wonderfully un-spontaneous and restful. As I so often do, when he spoke I listened to the sound rather than the meaning while drifting in a pleasant reverie. Then suddenly on the TV screen W. Bush would appear. Somehow I could never avoid looking into those frightened, terrifying eyes. It was as if there were swirly spirals going into them like in a science fiction movie, causing a whirlpool effect into which I feared I'd fall. In his cornered-animal gaze darting back and forth I saw mirrored my own deep unpreparedness for so many of the tasks I'm faced with in life. My Gore reverie evaporated as I unwillingly looked and looked again. With dumb luck, and completely unintentionally, Bush's old-guy Republican handlers had created a compelling piece of reality TV simply by the confusion in their candidate's eyes.

W. Bush's visible confusion and lostness during the campaign, oddly enough, may help explain why he did as well in the election as he did. Lost, he may have seemed more real, more live; we watch the tightrope walker more closely when it appears he is about to fall. Bill Clinton, a political prodigy, held our attention by staying one step ahead with hard-to-categorize deeds we kept having to judge and argue about. W. Bush is a more average person, as unremarkable as the generation to which he belongs. It's a generation that doesn't have a lot to show for itself; so far, it hasn't started a new country, ended slavery, won a world war. Maybe we will still accomplish something great. Maybe the best we can hope for is just not to do too much wrong. When I look in W. Bush's eyes I see our clock ticking, and the chances for true inspiration slipping away.

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