SORE WINNERS (And the Rest of Us)

In George Bush's America

By John Powers. Doubleday. 371 pp. $24.95

What we have here is a smart (at times smarty-pants) addition to and expansion upon the literature of that most un-literary enterprise, the presidential administration of George W. Bush. Like many others, John Powers is appalled by Bush and most of those by whom he is surrounded, but unlike most of Bush's critics -- Molly Ivins, Al Franken, Michael Moore et al. -- he takes Bush seriously. He understands that whatever the president's intellectual limitations, he is a representative figure who embodies, at this peculiar and scary moment in our history, aspects of the American state of mind and heart that cannot be dismissed as merely his own idiosyncrasies.

Powers is news to me. I've never seen a copy of L.A. Weekly, for which he writes about culture and the media; I don't listen to NPR's "Fresh Air," for which he is a film critic; I only glance at the recipes in Gourmet, for which he is an international correspondent. The loss, Sore Winners makes plain, has been mine. He is a clever, quick-witted writer with a gift for the dead-on zinger -- the Left's answer to P.J. O'Rourke, David Brooks, Andrew Ferguson, Christopher Caldwell et al., though obviously he's seriously outnumbered -- and he seems to have read, listened to, watched and gone online with just about everything. He's a pop-culture omnivore who understands that, like Bush, pop culture has to be taken seriously and that, unlikely though it may seem, there are connections between the two that command attention.

This surely is not the result of any conscious, deliberate undertaking on the president's part. Apart from his genuine love of baseball, Bush seems almost completely unconnected to the popular culture that, it can be argued, is this country's most important domestic product and most successful export. As all presidents do, he makes the obligatory gestures -- to country music, to NASCAR, to pro football -- but his heart doesn't seem to be in it. He makes a big deal of telling anyone who asks that he doesn't read the newspapers, but he doesn't seem to give significantly more attention to television, the movies, music or anything else that pours forth from pop culture's bottomless cornucopia.

Yet, Powers argues, "love him or loathe him, he is the political figure who defines our time, and like John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan before him, he casts a long shadow over our culture," the "polarized culture of unreality over which Bush rules." At the outset of what Powers describes as "a portrait of Bush's presidency -- a critical portrait, although I would like to think not an hysterical one," he writes:

"We see his fractured image reflected all around us -- in the rise of Fox News, the popularity of Darwinian game shows, the ubiquity of the neocon pundits, the left's crippling nostalgia, the reemergence of Cold War braggadocio, the $400 million box-office of 'The Passion of the Christ,' the celebration of consumerism as self-expression, and the color-coded algebra of fear that has become part of every American's psyche. If you put together the President's policies, the artificiality of our political discourse, the shrieking of our pop culture, and the babble of information that bombards us every day, you have the unreal reality I think of as Bush World."

A central characteristic of Bush World, as Powers sees it, is summarized in his title. The distance between haves and have-nots grows ever wider, and those at the top of the heap have more than most of us can imagine or comprehend, yet: "Today's Winners don't simply win, they win badly: bragging, sneering, lording it over the Losers, and promoting themselves with a crassness that would leave Duddy Kravitz blushing. When Hurricane Isabel knocks out the power in much of Washington, D.C., the Redskins' billionaire owner doesn't just get a huge generator to restore his own electricity but turns on all his lights, so that his house glows like the Vegas strip while his annoyed neighbors sit in the dark."

This newspaper has been reporting for months about "Red" and "Blue" America. Powers sees the division in somewhat different terms -- "Us" and "Them," "Winners" and "Losers" -- but it boils down to the same thing, a nation bitterly divided and presided over by a president who exploits and deliberately exacerbates those divisions for partisan ends. Powers is absolutely right that the events of September 2001 gave Bush a rich opportunity that he calculatedly spurned: "This remains his single most startling failure as president. September 11 hadn't merely legitimized his controversial ascension to office, it had offered him the chance to govern as a figure of national unity, defending the nation from malignant outsiders. Yet given a political gift that any other politician would kill for, he managed to turn the country even more bitterly divided than he'd found it."

The objection can be raised that it is far from clear whether Bush is the cause or the product of this division -- after all, as Powers himself leaves no doubt, there are divisions in the country not directly attributable to politics about which Bush seems never to have given a moment's thought -- but the connection is self-evident: A divided country has a president who fosters division as a political strategy. It may be a slight exaggeration to say that Americans are possessed by "feelings of frustration, impotence, and rage" in "a time when hysteria has replaced politics and consumption passes for social action," but there's no denying that the popular mood is ugly or that the president's "compassionate conservatism is content with a two-tier society whose levels drift farther apart all the time." Powers writes:

"America is increasingly a country where Winners' kids attend private schools and the Losers' go to fading public ones, where Winners shop at specialty grocers and Losers buy their food at Wal-Mart or Costco, where Winners fly business or first class while Losers are stuck in economy sections and treated with flagrant, lunch-in-a-doggie-bag contempt, where Winners choose from a smorgasbord of jobs and Losers like Jessica Lynch enlist in the military because they couldn't get a job at Wal-Mart. . . . While Bush didn't create this situation, his policies are making the divisions far more extreme."

What's truly peculiar -- and what Powers rather mysteriously never really comes to terms with -- is that in a nation the considerable majority of whose residents are Losers as defined above, the winner-take-all ethos is embraced by the very people who lose. "Reality" television shows (which in fact have absolutely nothing to do with reality) are "faux Darwinian games of selection, extinction, survival and victory," yet they are avidly watched by millions who lose out in real-world games every day. This is merely a rejiggered Social Darwinism, and Powers is correct to say that it "informs our pop culture, feeds the arrogance of Winners, calls down disrespect on Losers, and inspires an attitude toward celebrity that is at once slavish and embittered."

Perhaps the explanation for this is that Americans still believe what Reagan loved to tell them, that this is a country where any person can become rich, and that they get vicarious pleasure from victories won by others that will always be denied to them. Perhaps. What is certain is that the opportunity for national reconciliation and unity that September 2001 provided has been blown not just by Bush and his cronies but by the country itself. Millions of Americans are poor, many of them desperately so, yet the ordinary citizens who go to the polls have no evident sympathy for them, and their plight is rarely reported by news and entertainment media that are as obsessed with celebrity, private wealth and triumphalism as the smuggest neocon.

To his credit, Powers concentrates on analysis of the country's divisions and the current administration's contributions to them rather than on proposing blue-sky remedies. He is avowedly a man of the Left, but he accurately points out that the Left now is "hedged in by shibboleths and defeatism," and that what remains of it has little interest in the "muscular blend of theory and action" that once characterized it. Now the Left "is largely defined by patterns of consumption -- which magazines we read and which movies we see -- or by its newfangled ideas of organizing -- such as Howard Dean's Internet-grassroots campaign." The Left is toothless and irrelevant, steamrollered under by the neocons and a public that equates "liberal" with "wimp."

So here we are, at the start of a presidential campaign in which personality and attack ads are everything, and substance is nowhere to be seen. It's going to be nasty and divisive, which these days means it's going to be all too American. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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