Richard Blow

Talking the Talk

You could hear the talking points in President Bush's press conference last night, how Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove had trained the president to answer the questions of a White House press corps that is, at long last, showing signs of spine. Bush's agenda was clear: to stanch growing public doubts about the Iraq war in the wake of recent violence. His strategy? To acknowledge that, yes, things have been "tough" in recent days, but in the long run, this war is essential to American security. That's why Bush kept using some variant of the phrase "historic mission" -- five times, by my count. It's political redirection. The president wants us to look past the images of burned corpses in Fallujah and simultaneously give the war an aura of legitimacy.

But Bush has a big problem. The public increasingly believes that his arguments for going to war -- that Saddam supported Al Qaeda, possessed weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the United States -- were simply not true, and may even have been willful misrepresentations of the truth by old warriors anxious to find cause to oust Saddam.

Make that two big problems. The press, which has been getting stiffed by the White House for years, doesn't have an iota of goodwill towards the president. (Call it the "Fleischer Effect" -- you can spit on the media for only so long before it spits back.) That's why reporters kept asking Bush if he'd made any mistakes or felt he should apologize for not doing more to prevent 9/11. They know this is a lose-lose scenario for the president. If he doesn't apologize, Bush looks like he's dodging responsibility, especially in comparison to Richard Clarke. If he does, it's payday for Democrats. This is media payback, and it is a bitch.

The subtext of last night's press conference was the question of whether Iraq is "another Vietnam." What that term means will be debated by partisans on both sides, but here's one attempt at definition: It means a war predicated on false assumptions, faulty intelligence and American hubris; a war sold to the American public by distortions and deceptions on the part of administration officials; a war that can not be "won" in any clear-cut sense; and a war that threatens to continue indefinitely, costing growing numbers of American lives abroad and producing traumatic social upheaval at home.

If this is what Americans think of the war in Iraq come November, Bush can't win. That's why the "mistake" question is so excruciating for Bush. It gives John Kerry the opportunity to rephrase his line regarding Vietnam: Who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?

"The analogy is false," Bush insisted last night. Yet, his answers inadvertently supported it. He spoke of his willingness to send as many troops as necessary and implicitly conceded that they'll be in Iraq indefinitely. He spoke of transferring "sovereignty" to the Iraqis come June 30, but he couldn't say to what lucky Iraqi we would transfer it, or even exactly what "sovereignty" meant. (Shades of South Vietnam.) He insisted that we had to "stay the course" in Iraq so that we would not have allowed "our youngsters to die in vain... Withdrawing from the battlefield would be just that."

But of course, if the war was wrongly conceived from the start, then our soldiers already have died in vain, and Bush is saying that more men and women need to die in order to give meaning to the deaths that have already occurred. Follow the logic: If every new death legitimizes the one preceding it, that's a justification for endless war.

Bush's final sentence last night was this: "The credibility of the United States is incredibly important for keeping world peace and freedom." It was a line straight from the mouth of Robert McNamara -- the idea that preventing loss of American "credibility" is reason enough to justify a misbegotten war. It took him a while, but McNamara apologized for his mistakes. Maybe one day, decades from now, George W. Bush will do the same.

Richard Blow is the former executive editor of George Magazine. He is author of 'American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr.,' and is writing a book about Harvard University.

The Breast and the Brightest

It has come to this: The Federal Communications Commission has announced that it plans an investigation into the exposure of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. "That celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt," FCC commissioner Michael Powell said. He wasn’t referring to Josh Groban’s freakish tribute to the Columbia astronauts, which featured a man in a space suit standing goofily on a fake moon surface, not that the Columbia astronauts actually walked on the moon, but whatever. "Our nation’s children, parents and citizens deserve better," Powell said.

If you’ve been living in a cave since Sunday morning, a quick recap. The Super Bowl halftime show featured a medley of performers including Janet Jackson, P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock and Justin Timberlake. Technically, Jessica Simpson was part of it, but she didn’t actually sing anything. Then again, it didn’t look like any of the other performers actually sang anything either. Lip-synching was the order of the day.

Anyway, Justin and Janet danced a duet, and at the end of it Justin grabbed the leather cup covering Janet’s right breast and ripped it off. If you believe Timberlake, a red liner was supposed to cover Jackson’s skin, but he ripped that off too. For about half a second, if you looked really hard, you could kinda-sorta see Jackson’s breast. But even then, not really -- as the Drudge Report later showed in great close-up, Jackson was wearing what I can only describe as a throwing-star nipple ring, which suggests either that she had wisely prepared for the incident or that Janet Jackson wears some really funky jewelry.

The outrage came fast and furious. The NFL announced that MTV wouldn’t be producing another halftime show anytime soon. Deeply offended newspaper columnists wrote articles like The Boston Globe’s "Jackson & Co. sink to new low," which would, in fact, be an interesting thesis to debate.

And inevitably, cultural conservatives saw a prime opportunity to engage in a little fundraising. Both the Family Research Council and the Parents Television Council, headed by right-wing media critic (i.e., nut) Brent Bozell, cranked out high-minded criticisms. Predictably, CBS "deeply" regretted the incident, and Timberlake apologized too. (In my vision of heaven, I dream of having to apologize for ripping off Janet Jackson’s breastplate at halftime of the Super Bowl.)

This is what semioticians would describe as a "dense" cultural moment, so let us unpack some of its ironies.

First, CBS and MTV are both owned by Viacom, which obviously saw a chance to exploit corporate synergy by hiring MTV to produce the halftime show. I don’t know about you, but it warms my heart when massive media corporations try to foist corporate synergy on the unsuspecting public and wind up being investigated by the FCC.

Second, CBS is the company that wouldn’t air an anti-Bush ad by MoveOn.org because it didn’t want to offend the White House and conservatives, just as it spiked a Ronald Reagan mini-series to avoid offending the White House and conservatives. And then it runs a halftime show which offends the White House and conservatives. How quickly all the previous sucking up is forgotten.

Third, let us not forget that this outrage is all about a half-second of partially nipple ring-covered breast. This in an hour-long game of brutal violence -- CBS certainly didn't hesitate to show blood spilling from one player's nose in the first quarter -- in a sport with a steroid problem, many of whose players have taken to owning unregistered guns, while other players are encouraged to become so obese that they risk dying on the field. Yes, it’s definitely the breast that we should get worked up about.

At least there wasn’t any other female flesh to tempt the God-fearing men of America! No scantily clad, artificially enhanced cheerleaders whom CBS kept using as a segue into and out of commercials, for example. And I’m sure that Visa used the bikini-wearing women’s volleyball team to promote the summer Olympics simply because of its athleticism.

What’s really going on here? Well, American hypocrisy about sex, of course. We run ads for drugs that help men get erections without ever mentioning the word "sex"; we grow irate at an exposed breast amidst an orgy of capitalist decadence. We nurse from the breast as children, but we fetishize it as adults, make it an object of lust and taboo -- so that showing a breast, a source of human life, becomes worthy of government investigation.

It is, literally, a clash of human nature versus corporate culture. The Super Bowl has become the first American corporate holiday, a nationwide celebration of capitalism. (We watch it for the ads!) Any element of spontaneity threatens the corporate control of people’s minds and, yes, bodies. That’s why I loved the rebellious symbolism of the guy who streaked across the field (which, of course, CBS wouldn’t show). That’s also why the corporate producers don't mind the lip-synching -- mouthing the approved words is the perfect metaphor for this synthetic event, actually preferable to the authentic but imperfect human voice.

The Super Bowl is capitalism's equivalent of the Soviets' May Day parade, or North Korea's beautiful but robotic gymnastic demonstrations featuring tens of thousands of thoroughly indoctrinated pawns. In contrast, Justin Timberlake’s baring of Janet Jackson’s breast reminds me of the American soldiers who broadcast hidden hand signals as their Iraqi captors were videotaping them -- a clandestine attempt to subvert monolithic propaganda. For the individuals involved, the stakes are very different, of course. But the ideological conflict -- man versus machine -- is much the same.

So, of course there will be an investigation. With so much at stake, how could there not be? I have just one suggestion: While they’re at it, couldn’t they investigate Led Zeppelin for selling its songs so Cadillac can hawk SUVs? Now, that’s one musical travesty that's got to be stopped.

Richard Blow is the author of 'American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr.'

A Faux Interview With the President

If there was once a time when Diane Sawyer was a serious journalist -- and for the sake of argument, let us say there was -- it is officially over, as last week's interview with President Bush showed.

Given what was surely one of the sweetest plums in journalism, the chance to interview a president just days after the capture of the dictator he has overthrown, Sawyer couldn't decide whether she wanted to be Walter Cronkite or Oprah Winfrey. Torn between pressing Bush on Iraq and probing for a touchy-feely soundbite, she came across as uncertain, unprepared and painfully unspontaneous, and in so doing achieved the unusual feat of making President Bush sound verbally dexterous.

Let us first dispense with Sawyer's attempts to explore the sensitive side of President Bush. She asked whether he had bought Laura Bush a Christmas present; about who was tougher on his daughters' boyfriends, he or his wife; about what movies he was watching these days. (When Laura Bush revealed that her husband wanted to see Elf, ABC duly played a clip from that film, apparently thinking that an interview with the president was insufficiently entertaining and needed to be spiced up.)

Is there anyone in this country outside of Laura Bush who gives a damn whether the president has bought his wife a Christmas present? If so, I hope he or she doesn't vote.

I suppose I wouldn't have minded such silliness if Sawyer did a better job with more important matters. But in interviewing Bush about the rationale for the war, Sawyer made only token efforts to ask tough questions while wasting time with "gotcha" questions that any decent politician could easily sidestep.

She pointed out that Bush had called for Saddam's capture "dead or alive," then asked, "Were you sorry it was alive?" There is no point to this question other than to hope the response is a buzz-producing soundbite, and I almost applauded Bush's non-answer: "I'm glad that chapter in Iraq's history is over," he said. Later, Sawyer compounded her mistake by asking if Bush wanted to capture Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive." (As if there were another option.) She didn't get him the first time -- might as well keep plugging away.

And indeed, the juvenile questions just kept coming. "Fifty percent of the American people have said that they think the administration exaggerated the evidence going into the war with Iraq," Sawyer said. "Are the American people wrong?"

Now, there's no reason to frame the question this way other than a wan hope that Bush will commit the gaffe of saying yes, the American people are wrong. (Good luck.) Its purpose is immature; it hopes only that the president will say something embarrassing. It also reflects Sawyer's condescension towards Bush, a knee-jerk faith that he could be easily duped.

Sometimes I think the president must sit back and laugh at how journalist after journalist thinks he's such a dingbat that they ask him softball question after softball question.

In yet another embarrassing moment, Sawyer actually plugged an ABC drama by asking, "Once again, through that door this morning, presumably, you received the threat matrix which you get every morning." A gratuitous lead-in to a question about Al Qaeda, that line just happened to paraphrase the promo for the ABC show Threat Matrix.

Really, Sawyer should be more direct. Why not just ask Bush to talk for a while about his favorite television shows on the ABC network?

Sawyer's interview did produce one significant piece of news. When she queried Bush about whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or just might try to acquire them, Bush said, "What's the difference?...If he wants to acquire weapons, that would be the danger...And so we got rid of him."

There is an almost imperative follow-up: "President Bush, are you really saying that there's no difference between whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or just wanted them? Because that's not what you told this nation when you asked us to go to war."

Too bad Sawyer didn't ask that, or anything like it. The president gave Diane Sawyer the gotcha moment she was so desperately seeking, and Sawyer didn't even realize it. This is why presidents give interviews to television journalists.

Richard Blow is the former executive editor of George Magazine. He is author of American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and is writing a book about Harvard University.

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