70 years ago in The Villager


Volume 73, Number 24 | October 15 – 21, 2003


The Stepford presidency: Bush as frat-boy robot

East Side, West Side, I am a New York City boy, Manhattan born and bred. What did I know from cars as a kid? That people who did not live in New York City had them. People like my high school and college friend and classmate Billy Lowenthal, who did live in New York, in Manhattan, at 1010 Fifth Avenue (with windows magnificently overlooking Fifth Avenue parades), but who also had a summer place in the Adirondacks. That is to say, his family had a house on a lake in the Adirondacks, and they owned one or more cars, which Billy learned to drive early.

It was Bill Lowenthal who taught me to drive my first car, the six-year-old 1933 Ford convertible coup that Murray Latz and I had jointly bought for I don’t remember how few dollars as sophomores at Dartmouth College, and that had become mine in entirety when Murray’s mama made him sell his half to me. Billy took me up on a hill on the outskirts of Hanover, N.H., and had me start, stop, start, stop, back up, go forward, back up, go forward, ease the clutch in, ease the clutch out, what seemed like several thousand times until I’d got it. More or less. That weekend I drove a carful of classmates from Hanover to Boston and Cambridge for a Dartmouth-Harvard football game, which will show you how crazy 19-year-old males can be, and what I mostly remember is seeing the entrance to a tunnel amidst a main avenue in Boston, and heading into it as a shortcut to avoid traffic, only to find a sort of trolley subway car (or “the T,” as they call it in Boston) advancing in that tunnel directly head-on toward my car and all the people in it. Needless to say, I quickly learned how to back up.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon maybe two weeks later, back in Hanover, a few minutes after the end of a soggy football game, I was trying to manipulate my little vehicle off the muddy side road that paralleled Memorial Stadium and up onto Wheelock Street, but hesitating and hesitating and then pushing the nose of my automobile a few inches forward at a time, with the clutch bucking, as car after car after car whipped by on Wheelock. I was just about pointing the nose up onto the macadam of Wheelock — bit by cautious, jolting bit — when, with the blast of a horn, from behind the wheel of a big new sports car hard to my left came the loud, arrogant, B.M.O.C. fraternity-voice sneer: “Drive it or park it, worm!”

If you saw the movie “Scent of a Woman” and remember the overbearing privileged bully marvelously well played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, that sort of voice from that sort of guy. As you see, I never quite forgot it. I might think of it only once every 10 years, but it was always somewhere buried deep.

What just now has brought it back was one paragraph in a September 30, 2003, Op-Ed column by David Brooks in the New York Times in which Mr. Brooks, writing on what he speaks of as “The Presidency Wars,” quotes from Jonathan Chait in a recent issue of The New Republic.

“I hate President George W. Bush,” Mr. Chait had written. “He reminds me of a certain type I knew in high school — the kid who was given a fancy sports car for his 16th birthday and believed that he had somehow earned it. I hate the way he walks . . . . I hate the way he talks . . . . I suspect that if I got to know him personally, I would hate him even more.”

Well, hate is not what I myself feel toward the super fraternity boy who is now in the White House, and who so vividly at the moment brings back that instant on the cusp of Wheelock Street on a wet Saturday afternoon long ago. Jonathan Chait knew him in high school. I knew him in college — many of him.

If I had to put a finger on what I do feel, I think it is a 50/50 mixture of disbelief (that he’s president) and disquiet. I do not detest him the way I detest James Baker, the smarmy, snarly master manipulator who finagled George W. into the White House via dangling chads and the U. S. Supreme Court. I do not down-rate him the way I (foolishly) down-rate John Ashcroft, the tin-star Javert who was loathed enough in his home state to be beaten for the Senate by a dead man.

The thing is, George W. Bush may be that long-ago and eternal fraternity boy, yes. But for me he is also very weirdly something else: a Stepford wife. It’s in the way that every single syllable comes out of him, whether he’s delivering a speech, with his eyes tracking the teleprompter right to left, word by mechanical word, line by line, or just answering questions or exchanging pleasantries off the cuff — what cuff? He’s not there. There’s no one there. It’s a robot, a mechanical doll, a gear-box voice, just like in that movie — more yet, like Robert Wilson’s giant robots in Jean-Claude Van Italie’s “America Hurrah,” way back in the dangerous 1960s.

Maybe it’s that our president went to the wrong school, meaning Yale. People keep talking about the Bushes, Sr. and Jr., being patricians. Well, George W. Bush is not my idea of a patrician. Franklin D. Roosevelt is my idea of a patrician. Harvard, not Yale. Harvard with a heart, which is more than you can say about the kind of fraternity boy who would get his jollies with a honk of the horn and a “Drive it or park it, worm.”

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