Ira Chernus  


Bush and the Old West Myth

The liberal pundits at The New York Times agree on John Kerryís problem. Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd both say itís not about issues, itís about image. Quite right.

A recent poll found Kerry ahead by 10 points among people who say they will vote mainly based on issues. Those who will vote from "gut instinct" about the candidatesí character put Bush ahead by some 35 points. If those numbers stay constant, Bush may very well win.

Of course, we canít know the candidatesí true character. We never met them. We know only the image of character they project. The Democrats face an uphill battle because most voters find Bushís image more appealing than Kerryís. Why?

The Timesí liberals agree that itís about war and myth. Bush is promoting a "war psychology," Krugman says, because it makes the public believe in a "mythic reality in which our nation is purely good, our enemies are purely evil, and anyone who isn't our ally is our enemy. Ö Once war psychology takes hold, the public desperately wants to believe in its leadership, and ascribes heroic qualities to even the least deserving ruler."

Dowd puts it in a more specific context: the myth of the Old West. "After 9/11, Americans want tough guys who will protect them from Al Qaeda," in her view. They want heroes who are "men of smoke-'em-out edicts and action Ö steely-eyed, gun-slinging samurai riding in to save the frightened town." The Republicans have cast Bush and Cheney as Western ranchers who can play the John Wayne role believably for more than half the likely voters. Thatís all they need.

While Krugman and Dowd agree on the problem, they disagree on the solution. "To win," Krugman concludes, "Mr. Kerry must try to puncture the myth that Mr. Bush's handlers have so assiduously created." Give the public enough facts and the myth will die of its puncture wounds. Thatís the obvious solution to a highly rational economist.

Dowd takes a different view because she is a writer (she majored in English), more in touch with the human element. She knows that you canít kill a myth with facts, no matter how accurate they are. Myths are born in a realm where facts donít matter very much. Myths appeal precisely because they take us out of the realm of factual truth. A myth loses its power only when a more powerful myth comes along.

John Kerryís problem, as Dowd points outs, is that he doesnít have a better myth to offer. With Bush and Cheney coopting the myth of the Hollywood Western, Kerry is left "to star in a far less successful movie genre: the Eastern." The Republicans have brilliantly framed him as the "effete snob" (to use Spiro Agnewís famous phrase), the fussy genteel Bostonian who see every side of every issue and therefore never takes tough action.

The Eastern myth is all about a bunch of rich people talking things to death. The Western myth is about a lone ranger driving evil-doers to their death. "High tea in a drawing room is just not as compelling as high noon in the town square," Dowd concludes.

Dowd is right. Itís myth against myth. Kerry and Edwards can easily poke holes in the Bush campaignís myth, as Krugman suggests. Iraq and a very live Osama make Bush and Cheney failures as Western heroes. But that wonít help unless, at the same time, Kerry and Edwards offer us an appealing alternative story.

However, Dowd is wrong to paint the Kerry campaign as a passive victim of the Bush script-writing machine. Kerry and his people are not forced to play the effete Eastern girlie-men. They are free to create whatever myth they want. Their problem is that they have not yet offered us a counter-myth, a different way to frame the whole campaign.

If press reports are right, thatís because their leadership is caught up in terrible internal conflicts. They donít have a single decision-making structure. For weeks, they couldnít decide whether or not to fight back against Republican slurs. Now they seem to have that one under control, more or less.

But the larger problem remains. No single myth. No clear simple story to pit against the Bush-Cheney gunfighter nation.

Right now, it looks like the closest they can come is a story about a leader who has been wrong too many times. Kerry seems to think he can win by painting Bush as strong but wrong. This is very strange, if indeed (as news reports have it) the new Kerry line started with a long talk between the candidate and Bill Clinton. Because it was Clinton who famously told a Democratic audience that Americans would rather have a leader who is wrong but strong than one who is right but weak. Maybe he forgot to mention that to Kerry.

If Clinton is correct, itís hard to fault the Republicans. They are just trying to figure out what it takes to win and then doing it. Thatís what Democrats do, too. The Republicansí only fault is that, right now, they are doing it better and thus threatening us with four more years of horrendous national policy.

Ultimately, the problem lies with the crucial swing voters -- the ones who live in swing states and agree with Kerry on the issues, but will still vote for Bush. They are caught up in war psychology and the Western myth. They find high noon more compelling than high tea. They want, above all, to feel like true-blue Americans living out a great American myth.

But they are open to hearing another myth. The Western gunfighter is a powerful hero in American lore. But heís not the only one. And with Bush and Cheney playing the role so badly, they are vulnerable to almost any other myth the Kerry camp chooses to promote. Kerry can begin to show his strength as a leader by taking charge of his own campaign and deciding what one story he wants to tell.