The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Two Christmases ago my brother-in-law lent us his copy of Maureen Dowd's BUSHWORLD on CDs. At that time--just a month after his re-election--I couldn't face it. But the President has obliged me by spending the last eighteen months sabotaging what had seemed like an unbeatable Presidency (literally "unbeatable," if you believe Mark Crispin Miller's FOOLED AGAIN, as I do), and so last month I decided that I could finally face it.

I was surprised and a little disappointed to learn right away that this wasn't really a book about the Bushes; it's a collection of Dowd's NY TIMES columns about George W., often in unflattering comparison to his father (whom Dowd seems genuinely to admire). As I got into it, though, I began to enjoy the of-the-moment nature of the columns and to transport myself back several years to the time when Bush's great crusade was the missile shield. I'm sure that most readers of the TIMES are familiar with Dowd's stock tools and conceits: the use of contemporary popular movies as a lens through which to read politics, the framing of the Bush II presidency as a Shakespearian dynastic histotragecomedy, the comic portrayals of grumpy Cheney and idiot boy Bush, the constant wordplay. The prose is fine, but what comes out is how much better it could have been if it weren't written on deadline. I haven't read her new one, ARE MEN NECESSARY?, but I'd like to see what she can do when she sets out to write a book, not just a 600-word column.

I didn't learn much about W that I didn't know before, but it did really put things in context. We forget just how badly W was doing before 9/11, and now that he's reverted to form he's so clearly both a confirmation and refutation of the Peter Principle (that one rises to the level of one's incompetence): he constantly runs up against his essential limits of competence, and only 9/11 and Rove's clever use of it have kept Bush in office. But W also shows that encountering the bounds of one's competence in an arena controlled less by reality than by image-makers isn't necessarily limiting: someone with Bush's level of intelligence and talent shouldn't ever have become President--his essential incompetence should have prevented this--but with money, power, family connections, and smart strategists he did. This really comes out in Dowd's book.


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