Bush's symbolism sends message of power

Posted: May 09, 2003 12:00 AM

I think it was Adlai Stevenson who said that America can choke on a gnat but swallow tigers whole. We've just defeated the rabid tiger of Saddam Hussein and, while celebrating the victory, we're gagging over one of the most insignificant controversies in a long while. I'm referring, of course, to the "scandal" of President Bush landing on an aircraft carrier.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who over his career has led numerous fights to sluice billions upon billions of dollars out of taxpayers' pockets and into the public trough for various liberal programs, is now demanding an investigation into how much the president's photo-op cost.

Alas, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has spent so much taxpayer money on personal porcine priorities he could not possibly complain about the costs. If he had, his fellow senators would have leapt under their desks to take cover from the Divine Lightning Bolt that surely would have struck him for such rank hypocrisy. So, the good senator, who often compares himself to the great Roman orators, went a different route, prattling on about Bush's "self-congratulatory" and "flamboyant showmanship."

This presents one of those terrible conflicts we all face from time to time: Do you take an argument seriously on its own terms, or do you cynically say this is all political hoo-hah? My instinct says it's all hoo-hah.

But, then again, what's nonsense to some is important to others. For example, in 1988, George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in part because Dukakis is Greek for "fashioned by the gods to lose national elections," but also because Bush successfully used symbolic issues - the Pledge of Allegiance, for example - to bludgeon Dukakis.

In 1996, President Clinton won in part because Bob Dole seemed like the sort of old man who follows you around his store making sure you don't steal anything, but also because Bill Clinton came out in favor of such symbolic issues as school uniforms. Conservatives whined that presidents have nothing to do with school uniforms, but Clinton and his adviser Dick Morris reasoned that such small-bore values issues resonated with voters.

In short, symbolism matters because -duh -symbols symbolize larger issues.

So I guess it makes sense to take this whole fight seriously for a moment. Yes, the Democrats are right. This was a photo-op. Of course it was a photo-op, and the White House was silly to pretend that Bush had to visit the USS Abraham Lincoln in a S-3B Viking jet, wearing a flight suit while the aircraft carrier was moving.

But it was also a great photo-op. And the gesture, though symbolic, was greatly appreciated by America's armed forces. Statecraft is about photo-ops, too. When President Kennedy was assassinated, the U.S. government hurried a picture of LBJ being sworn in en route to Washington to assure the world of the continuity of government.

The signing of the surrender by the Japanese was a photo-op, as was the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. All ticker-tape parades, public presidential inaugurations and most international summits are largely photo-ops, too.

But the pictures communicate important things: the end of a war, the beginning of a new administration, close ties between nations, whatever. Saying President Bush's USS Abraham Lincoln visit was merely a photo-op downplays the fact that we learn important things from such events. Not only did Bush's excellent speech receive more attention thanks to the manner in which it was delivered, but the protests of Democrats at the symbol of our military triumph tells voters what liberals thought of the war in the first place.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times frets that this is a "scary" sign of creeping militarism. He should breathe into a paper bag. Ten of the last 11 presidents were veterans, and five U.S. presidents have been generals without a military dictatorship.

Something tells me a jumpsuit isn't going turn America into "Seven Days in May."

Sure, the White House had a political motive in mind, but tell me when a White House didn't?

President Clinton took a poll on where he should go on vacation -supposedly so he could get away from politics! -and then made sure the picture of his family on horseback was splashed around the world.

The last point is that it's almost impossible to believe that Byrd and Waxman would be denouncing the carrier-visit if Bush had had tripped over his own feet while exiting the plane, like Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford in those old "Saturday Night Live" skits. In other words, they object to the "stunt" because it was successful. That's understandable, considering the plight of the Democrats these days, but it's not an argument.