December 19, 2003
Jack Huberman, Author of The Bush-Hater's Handbook: A Guide to the Most Appalling Presidency of the Past 100 Years
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
The Bush-Haters Handbook is a godsend to those looking for a concise, mordantly entertaining overview of the Bush record from a liberal perspective; those who want to arm themselves with talking points, facts, and figures for election-year debates with conservatives; and those seeking the perfect holiday gift book for that certain, special Bush-hater in their lives -- or for a Bush-lover they hope to rescue from the outer darkness. Summarizing, detailing, and bewailing all of the more important Bush administration outrages, and some of the more trivial ones, this book is the brainchild of Jack Huberman, a writer, illustrator, and former Canadian who took up U.S. citizenship just so he could vote against Dubya in 2000.
We spoke with Jack Huberman about his new book and what he sees in the coming election year.
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BuzzFlash: Youíve written a very resourceful A-to-Z book, The Bush Haterís Handbook, A Guide to the Most Appalling Presidency of the Past 100 Years. What do you hate most about George W. Bushís presidency?
Jack Huberman: Iíd have to say that even in an era of big-money politics, of government for sale, this administration goes beyond anything Iíve seen before. I donít think thereís a single thing the Bushies have done that doesnít, in some way, strengthen their hold on power, usually by solidifying the support of their corporate and big-money clientele. Faithfully and generously serving that clientele is this administrationís real business. Big business hardly needs lobbyists anymore -- the lobbyists are on the inside now, occupying key positions throughout Bush administration. I think you can even subsume the Iraq war under this heading. The purpose of invading Iraq, if you could reduce it to just one, was to boost Bushís popularity and get him reelected -- to in turn ensure the accomplishment of the rightís domestic agenda.
BuzzFlash: How do you explain Bushís ability to escape responsibility for his abysmal record and policies?
Huberman: A writer that BuzzFlash interviewed a few months ago, James Moore, who wrote a book on Karl Rove called "Bushís Brain," summed it up pretty well. The operating assumption in this administration is they can get away with anything because people arenít paying much attention. But why? I think people are just too busy. Itís the most common complaint in modern life. Whoís got time to really study up on political issues? People just make up their minds as quickly as they can, are swayed by TV and radio demagogues and/or their own deeply ingrained biases, and are left susceptible to the kind of image-control and stagecraft Bushís handlers excel at. The conservative bias of the corporate-owned media plays a huge part. People never hear about most of the scandals of the Bush administration because theyíre scandalously underreported. And of course, there was 9/11 and all the emotion surrounding it, which the White House was able to exploit to rally support for Bush and to suppress criticism.
BuzzFlash: Some would say the Bush administration is nothing but a PR operation -- all spin and no substance. Some of the telling examples that you point out in your book of willful deception by Bush involve false labeling of legislation, such as the Clear Skies Initiative, which in fact does the opposite and rolls back environmental standards on clean air.
Huberman: "Orwellian" really is the term for it. We could learn a few lessons from these people, and weíve got to for political survival. They understand the propaganda value of repetition. Now, itís not going to help much to repeat things if your message isnít getting out in the first place. But, we need to just keep calling them on things again and again, even if it means using some of the same words again and again. It works for them; it should work for us.
their mountains of money, the Bush campaign intends to bury the Democratic
candidate in ads next year. It seems so strange and unlikely
that advertising can determine something as important as an election
outcome. Who believes ads? Well, evidently, most of us. The dumb things
that advertising, in the broadest sense, can make people do and believe
are, well, unbelievable. I find I can be affected by political ads that
I know are bullshit. If itís made skillfully enough and contains some
grain of truth, it can be enough to unsettle your convictions and undermine
your better judgment. So, you just keep plugging away with commercials,
carefully staged photo-ops, and those backdrops they put behind Bush
labeled "Jobs," "Strengthening the economy," blah-blah-blah -- and apparently
it works, unlikely as it may seem.
Huberman: Iíve come only slowly to believe it, but I think the Bushiesí aim really is to cripple the federal government with record budget deficits, with a view toward strangling the remaining Great Society and New Deal social programs -- just as some critics have argued -- and the new Medicare bill notwithstanding.
Iíd speculate that at the core of this project -- and one of the core impulses of what I would call elite conservatism, versus populist and religious conservatism -- is an actual hostility or antipathy towards equality as a social goal. Thus, every bit of what we would call progress, every bit of legislation of the past century that aimed to increase economic equality, is in the Bush administrationís cross-hairs, not because they believe such efforts are counterproductive economically, and not only because they want the money to go instead toward tax cuts for their most valued supporters and bankrollers, but also, I think, because deep down, many of these people actually believe, whether for Darwinian, religious, or other ideological reasons, that equality is against the natural order of things, that there is supposed to be inequality -- that it is, per se, a good thing. Thereís no telling how far some of these people want to turn the clock, but I suspect that a return to the much wider class differences of the past is part of their vision.
BuzzFlash: You point out in your book that the appalling presidency is not just about President Bush, but all of the advisors and right-wing interests that are at work in his administration, who are implementing these corporate and right-wing policies. Do you think that people will eventually see that itís not just about George Bushís good ole boy image, but also about his whole administration and the totality of their policies?
Huberman: Whoever said politics is a beauty contest was on to something. Bush is very well protected against being seen to have any hand in the administrationís dirty work. In public -- and Iím speaking about perception only -- Bush has not acted terribly partisan. The really partisan and dirty work is delegated to others, to keep Bush elevated high above the fray. For instance, when legislation Bush wants gets hung up in the Senate, he doesnít identify Senate Democrats as the problem. He just refers to the "Senate." Meanwhile, those around him take care of smearing particular opponents as obstructionists or worse.
Itís really dramatic how different a picture you get when polls ask people about specific Bush policies, on the one hand, versus, "Do you approve of the job Bush is doing overall"; the latter numbers are always far higher. But the contest in 2004 is going to come down to how well they sell Bushís image as a great leader in the war on terrorism and as the conquering hero of Iraq, and how well they sell the proposition that Bushís tax cuts have worked. And, I expect a "fake to the center" between now and election time. They will again seek to sell Bush as a moderate.
BuzzFlash: It feels like there are so many traps that get laid for Democrats by Karl Rove. And itís just given that the Democrats are going to walk right into them. Take for example the current prescription drug and Medicare legislation that the Democrats walked right into. Another trap is this idea that delaying or rolling back Bushís tax cuts for the wealthy amounts to "raising taxes." What is the counter-strategy for the Democrats to get out this losing matrix?
Huberman: Well, it takes a lot of courage. I think they need the courage to vote against poison legislation and to explain to people why. Most of them donít have it. The Democrats didnít want to go down as having voted against a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Meanwhile, the Republicans have craftily embedded within a genuinely beneficial measure the seeds of Medicareís eventual destruction through privatization, which is their real interest -- along, of course, with stealing the Democratsí most potent issue. But Democrats were understandably loathe to vote against a Medicare prescription drug bill, however fraudulent. The Republicans have done it again. You got to hand it to them. Theyíre good.
BuzzFlash: As you documented well in your book, thereís a lot to hate about the Bush presidency. And the right wing has essentially been able to frame Democrats as angry, bitter, hateful people. How do you think that anger will play out in next yearís election?
Huberman: Iím not as afraid as some other Democrats that weíre coming off as too angry. Werenít we all saying for the first two years of the Bush administration, where are the Democrats? Why arenít they standing up? Why arenít they angrier? Why arenít they louder? And now weíre going to start worrying that theyíre too loud? I donít think so. It was overdue. Obviously thereís nothing that you want to do to excess. You donít want to look hysterical. Iím not concerned that thatís going to be a problem.
Iím also skeptical about the notion that joviality and good-naturedness and smiles are what people want most in their president. I think what many Bush supporters like is the angry, determined, self-righteous, booming-voiced Bush who demands that the Senate stop "obstructing" his judicial nominees or that the UN get behind him on Iraq.
So I think it isnít so much Bush's affability and personal charm that will continue to obscure his record and policies and help him at the polls but, on the contrary, his carefully forged image of hardness, steeliness, that will help him most. The American public seems to have become appallingly enthralled by machismo and to demand action figures as leaders. This is a political childishness that may take a psychologist to explain. No doubt it can be explained in part by 9/11. The more insecure people feel, the more dangerously susceptible they become to wanting to be ruled by a strongman. Also, for many people, Bush and his war are about not just 9/11 but also completing the eradication of the supposed shame of our defeat in Vietnam and of the national aversion to U.S. military adventures that war left behind. More broadly still, I'm afraid our national habit of pounding our chests and proclaiming ourselves the greatest country in the world in every possible respect disposes us not to be content with just having the world's most powerful military, but to enjoy seeing it used periodically. For that part of America, Bush represents and embodies these impulses.
BuzzFlash: Based on all the research from your book on the Bush administration and how it operates, what if anything can you forecast about the 2004 election? Do you have any advice for the Democratic Candidates?
Huberman: As I said, I expect a "fake to the center" by the White House in the remaining year, to help once again sell Bush as a moderate. As for the election itself, in the darkest, most paranoid corners of my mind, I expect more Floridas in states run by Republicans, and who knows what dirty tricks along the way. This White House is renowned for its secrecy, and this White House brought a bunch of old Iran-Contra operatives out from under their rocks and back into government, and put the likes of John Poindexter in charge of collecting personal data on Americans in a vast new computer database. After 2000, none of us should ever take a fair and clean presidential election for granted again, especially not with this crew.
As for the campaign, the Bush campaign will obviously claim Iraq as a great victory in the war on terrorism -- which in fact it isnít a part of, except insofar as it will provoke more terrorism against us. They will reprise and reprise the capture of Saddam. Remind us of the toppling of the Taliban. Point to the emergence of a Palestinian prime minister and the Road Map as evidence of progress there. Tout the Medicare bill. Claim the tax cuts saved the economy -- never mind the $680 billion a year in deficits as far as the eye can see. Tell us in these and other ways how Bush has more or less single-handedly saved America and Western civilization -- but that of course, thereís still a lot of work to do.
What worries me most about the Democratsí approach is the tendency to reduce the issues to just two -- Iraq and "the economy," in a meaninglessly broad sense; and when things seems to be going better for Bush in one of those two areas, they just switch their attack to the other one. Well, what if both appear to be going well next year?
I expected all along that the graph of the economy and the stock market over Bushís four years was going to be V-shaped. Recessions donít last forever; a recovery was inevitable at some point, and probably within Bushís term. Indeed -- and this is about as conspiracy-minded as I get -- I expected the recovery would actually be engineered and timed to ensure Bushís reelection. All it really takes is for the administration and the media to start talking up the economy, as theyíve been doing since about June; for the Fed to keep interest rates low; and for the corporate sector to start spending and hiring a bit more. And the corporate sector, needless to say, wants to see Bush reelected.
So pinning your hopes on a bad economy in 2004 is, besides being highly unseemly, a dangerous roll of the dice. If the economy looks good by next year, Americans might even forget that we ever had a recession. The same sort of thing applies to Iraq, especially now with the capture of Saddam Hussein, and given Americansí short memories. By next fall, the Bushies might have carried off some sort of bogus "exit strategy." If the results are disastrous, it probably wonít be apparent until well after November anyway.
BuzzFlash: The risk is you never want to put things out of your control when you frame the debate.
Huberman: Exactly. Democrats should be talking about economic and quality of life issues that mere GDP and even jobs numbers donít reveal. There might be continuing GDP growth in 2004 and some marginal decline in unemployment -- but how many good jobs will continue to stream offshore, and what kinds of jobs will take their place? What benefits, if any, will they offer? Will ever larger numbers of families be struggling to get by? How many more will lack health insurance, or be unable to afford college tuition? Itís Bushís emphasis on helping the richest few, and the true costs of his tax cuts -- those are the issues, the things that wonít change by next year. So the "economy" issue has to be framed a bit more carefully. Likewise, on Iraq, even in the unlikely event of everything there turning out wonderfully, the Democrats can, and should, still ask, "Tell us again -- what was the great and imminent threat that required this illegal war which cost hundreds of American and thousands of Iraqi lives and 150 billion of our tax dollars, drew resources away from fighting Al Qaeda, badly damaged our relations with our allies, and destabilized Iraq, with unpredictable and possibly disastrous consequences? They can, and should, remind the public of all the lies we were told to justify all this sacrifice and this huge gamble.
But so much depends on the media, especially the broadcast media, which have been really a disgrace from the beginning as far as reporting on the Bush administration. I keep hoping that some broadcast and cable news people will find some spine, try to become journalists again, and at least get more objective, if not openly critical. As much as the corporate media is invested in keeping Bush in power, I think they also have their finger up to see which way the windís blowing. And if they sense public criticism mounting, they themselves will probably start getting a little tougher on Bush, then and you could start to see some momentum develop.
BuzzFlash: What can people do to feel more empowered and what steps do you think ordinary Americans can take? Obviously reading books such as yours and getting informed about Bushís record is a step.
Huberman: As I ended my introduction, "I wrote [The Bush-Haterís Handbook] in the past tense, or what might be called the Ďpast hopeful,í in the ardent hope that the Bush administration will in fact have passed into the past tense while this book is still being read, or if not, then to help conjure up the day when Bush & Co. are, indeed, history." I certainly hope this book helps, in however tiny a way, to bring that end about.
BuzzFlash: Tell us how you picked this title.
Huberman: I laughed when I first thought of it -- and so does almost everyone when they hear it. Itís prettyÖstrong, and sounded even more so before Bush-hatred became the media topic that it has in the past few months. I had misgivings about it at first. But itís also funny, and therefore, I hope, disarming enough to be inviting rather than off-putting to undecided and even to pro-Bush readers.
What can one book do? I donít know the answer to that. But this was what I could do, and I can only hope it does some good.
BuzzFlash: Jack Huberman, thanks for speaking with us.
Huberman: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Moore, Co-Author (with Wayne Slater) of "Bush's Brain" answers
the BuzzFlash question, "Who is Bush's Brain?"
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otherwise noted, all original