Bush as Brat: Pretensions to Empire

By David Swanson

Lewis Lapham, essayist extraordinaire and editor of Harper’s magazine, asked Congressman John Conyers what he thought the point was of publishing a lengthy report laying out evidence of Bush’s impeachable offenses. Conyers’ response was: “to take away the excuse that we didn’t know.”

But Lapham still wanted to know what the hurry was: why not wait until the Democrats had a large majority, or more investigations were done, or the public demanded Bush’s ouster? Conyers replied:

“I don’t think enough people know how much damage this administration can do to their civil liberties in a very short time. What would you have me do? Grumble and complain? Make cynical jokes? Throw up my hands and say that under the circumstances nothing can be done? At least I can muster the facts, establish a record, tell the story that ought to be front-page news.”

We know of this exchange because Lapham wrote about it in an essay called “The Case for Impeachment: Why We Can No Longer Afford George W. Bush,” which Lapham published as a cover story in Harper’s, and which now constitutes Chapter 29 in a 29-chapter collection of Lapham’s essays called “Pretensions to Empire.” Lapham’s article focuses on Conyers’ report and draws the obvious conclusion.

“Before reading the report,” he writes, “I wouldn’t have expected to find myself thinking that such a course of action was either likely or possible; after reading the report, I don’t know why we would run the risk of not impeaching the man.”

This is a telling statement, because this essay sits at the chronological end of a book preceded by 28 other essays in which Lapham had chronicled the crimes of the Bush Administration. He had done so, however, with a fair bit of grumbling, complaining, making cynical jokes, and throwing up his hands. In fact, his first 28 essays are a bit frustrating to read, and it is wonderful to see what Conyers does for Lapham. Conyers brings Lapham around to a vision of possible productive action.

Don’t get me wrong: Lapham throughout this brilliant book is no advocate of apathy or acceptance. But his focus is on analyzing the minds of the crooks running this country, not on strategizing to put them behind bars. And Lapham produces some insightful analysis.

Lapham grew up very wealthy, and it shows. His style, which includes frequent references to fashionable places and style trends, is not always my favorite. But what he understands about George W. Bush as a rich kid seems right. I’ve read analyses of Bush by people who’ve spent time behind bars and who see the criminal in him. Lapham sees the rich kid in Bush. After Bush gave an interview to Meet the Press that was roundly considered a flop, Lapham wrote:

“Like the President’s critics, the President’s admirers make the mistake of assuming that he gives much of a damn about the intelligence product, about what does or doesn’t happen in Iraq, about the success or failure of the steel tariff, the Environmental Protection Act, or the public schools. Although comforting, the assumption is impertinent. To the President’s way of thinking, the only important story is the one about George W. Bush – what he feels and how he looks; Pontifex Maximus, the country’s Celebrity in Chief, uninterested in history, lacking any frame of reference except the stage on which George W. Bush, the only actor in the play, must please George W. Bush, the only audience….The children of fortune learn to conceive the making of foreign policy as some sort of sporting event – a nation is slave or free, north or south, Christian or Muslim, ‘with us or against us.’ …He believes what he is told because he has no reason not to do so. What difference does it make? If everything is make-believe, then everything is as plausible as anything else.”

In another essay, Lapham writes:

“President Bush and his friends bear comparison not to Jesse James or Commodore Vanderbilt but to a clique of spoiled trust-fund kids. Certain of their superiority by virtue of their wealth (whether derived from corporate salary, family inheritance, or a sweetheart real estate investment), they fit the profile of wised-up teenagers who don’t want to hear it from anybody telling them what to do – which shoes to wear, how to behave in a dance club, when to speak to the caddie or the French ambassador, why it might not be a good idea to wreck the Social Security system, redirect the flow of the Missouri River, or invade Iraq….”

Time and again, Lapham interprets Bush as fundamentally a brat. But also, time and again, Lapham explains Bush and gang’s actions as part of a class war of the rich against the poor. This analysis too is worth the price of the book. So is Lapham’s understanding of religious, superstitious, and magical thinking, and the ever prouder place it holds in American culture.

Conyers’ report is here:

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