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The Truth, Mainly - 12/31/1990

George Bush no longer a wimp; tough talk to be taken seriously

I don't like to admit this, but I'm starting to take George Bush seriously. So seriously that I wake up at 2 a.m. and wonder about him.

During most of this fall, I've just assumed that he and his administration had overdosed on steroids. I figured that the President and Danny Quayle and Dick Cheney and Jim Baker had been pumping iron in the basement of the White House and started messing around with those drugs that make you look like Arnold Schwartznegger.

If you think back on the bizarre antics of some of our football heroes, you remember the symptoms of an overdose: a generally bristling demeanor, an irrational desire to smash heavy objects, and a tendency toward confused, disconnected, and inappropriately bellicose talk.

Boys will be boys, we'd say, and wink at one another.

And that's what most of us did each week when the Bush-Quayle-Cheney-Baker team would hit us with a new reason we need to smash Iraq. One of their pollsters told them early in the crisis that most Americans didn't like the idea of going to war for oil, so it was (1) not oil, but hostages; (2) not oil, but naked aggression; (3) not oil, but a new world order; (4) not oil, but a guy worse than Hitler; (5) not oil, but jobs; (6) not oil, but U.N. resolutions; (7) not oil, but a nuclear threat.

I've probably left out a few, but you get the idea. It was easy to wink at each other and attribute that confusion of purpose to steroid abuse.

And it was hard to take the administration seriously every time it unleashed Danny Quayle, especially when he was sent to lecture the Japanese for not committing troops to the cause. That was shortly before he redefined the theory of Constitutional checks and balances by telling us that "Short of a strong resolution of support, Congress can be helpful by remaining silent."

The President himself didn't help us take him seriously when he kept sounding like a petulant nose guard. He'd "had it" with Saddam, he said. "That's the most expensive vote you'll ever cast" was his message to Yemen's U.N. ambassador who said no to our Jan. 15 deadline. "I'm not in a negotiating mood," he told a press conference early this month. And if Saddam doesn't back down, "he's going to get his ass kicked."

Boys will be boys.

But the President wasn't so funny when Iraq started releasing the hostages. You remember what he said: this will just make it easier to attack Saddam. And he said it before all the hostages were released—as though he was more interested in talking tough than in thinking very hard about what a logical Iraqi response to that threat might be.

The Truth, Mainly


It was hard to wink at that.

And I became convinced George Bush was someone to be taken seriously when he sent thousands of body bags and coffins to Saudi Arabia—and then activated a unit of military morticians.

I don't know how the Iraqis are responding, but the President is giving most Americans a bad case of the fantods.

And yes, we know the rationale: in order to force Saddam out of Kuwait, the President has to convince him we're ready for war. And to do that, he also has to convince congressional committees and the American public that he's not bluffing, that he really is ready to get lots of people killed.

So let me admit that as a part of the American public, I'm convinced. If there are any Bushniks out there with their fingers on the public pulse, they can report that I am taking the president seriously. I am absolutely convinced George Bush is not a wimp. He's a really tough guy. He's bad.

But what wakes me up at 2 a.m. is the fear that in convincing everybody else how bad he is, the President has also convinced himself. I worry that he's become a captive of his own brinkmanship, that all that steroid-overdose rhetoric has polluted his thinking so that he believes he really does have to follow through with an international bloodbath.

"We are what we pretend to be," Kurt Vonnegut tells us in Mother Night, "so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

I liked George Bush a lot better when he was pretending to be a kinder, gentler President.

It's clear that he values being thought tough. What's still not clear is whether, on his scales, being thought tough weighs more or less than having a decent respect for human life. Pondering that question might keep us all sober on this New Year's Eve.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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