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Bush Unchallenged by Media

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May. 25, 2003. 01:00 AM

Bush unchallenged by media

LINDA MCQUAIG

When Stockwell Day arrived by skidoo in a wetsuit, Canadians laughed. When George Bush arrived by fighter jet in a combat suit, Americans called him a hero.

That says a lot about the difference between Canadians and Americans these days. Canadians aren't so easily conned.

Of course, some might conclude instead that former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day is simply a more laughable figure. But that hardly seems fair.

It's true that Day's waterside "press conference" in 2000 was stage-managed and laughable — designed so that Day could look vigorous and athletic as he zoomed up in a wetsuit.

But Bush's fighter-plane landing on the deck of a U.S. battleship earlier this month, and his emergence from the cockpit in combat gear and mussed-up hair, was even more stage-managed (right down to the soft-tone sunset lighting and the "Mission Accomplished" backdrop sign perfectly angled for TV viewers). As for laughable, it's hard to outdo Bush — who went AWOL from the National Guard during the Vietnam War — strutting around the ship in full battle regalia, carrying his own helmet (I guess there wasn't anybody available to carry it for him.)

But while the Canadian media had a field day lampooning Stockwell Day, the American media largely treated the Bush photo-op as a serious event, if not a nation-building moment. (One had to seek out obscure Web sites to find questions like: Wasn't that a sock stuffed down the front of the president's combat pants?)

Only an administration supremely confident of the media's docility would have risked staging an event like that, leaving Bush open to ridicule from any media outlet that saw its role as more than simply being a chronicler of Tales of Fearless Leaders.

This media docility has allowed the Bush administration to go largely unchallenged as it adopts the mantle of an imperial presidency. Some of the administration's most rabid hawks have even come close to realizing their dream — implementing the ultra-elitist ideas of an obscure political philosopher named Leo Strauss.

There's been a buzz recently over reports that Strauss, who shaped the neoconservative revolution from his post at the University of Chicago, is lionized by (among others) Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, widely seen as the architect of Washington's post-9/11 strategy.

Media accounts have focused on Strauss' advocacy of strong leadership, devoting less attention to his anti-democratic leanings. Central to the Straussian vision is a docile citizenry, kept uninformed and easy to manipulate through perpetual fear of external attack. "Deception of the citizens by those in power is critical," explains Shadia Drury, a University of Calgary political scientist and author of Leo Strauss And The American Right.

Accordingly, a terrified American public was kept under the mistaken illusion that Saddam Hussein had "weapons of mass destruction" and would soon strike America if America didn't strike first. Clearly, a vigorous, questioning American media could throw a spanner into the best-laid plans of the White House Straussians, or "Leocons" as they're sometimes called, but there seems to be little chance of that these days.

Rather, anyone questioning the Commander-in-Chief or his policies is promptly dissed by hostile Bush supporters who display a virulent, anti-democratic contempt for public debate or even, often, civilized discourse.

So, for instance, Fox News "host" Bill O'Reilly last February interviewed an anti-war activist whose father was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. One might have thought that losing a father in that American tragedy would have at least earned the activist a respectful hearing on an American interview program. Wrong. O'Reilly never let up his verbal abuse during the interview, and afterwards promptly told the activist to "Get out of my studio before I tear you to f----ing pieces."

Or, as Chris Hill, business development vice-president for Showtime Digital Media in California, wrote me after a recent column questioning U.S. actions in Iraq: "Please do us all a favor and take a long walk off a short pier, you spineless, leftist, Canadian ---- (expletive for female genitalia)."

In a less coarsely worded attempt to shut down public debate, historian Michael Bliss vehemently denounced the Star's Michele Landsberg for even posing questions in her column that any normally curious person (let alone a historian) would want answered, like: How come the world's best military was unable to do anything about hijacked airplanes flying over its territory for more than an hour on Sept. 11?

Some people seem to be hoping we'll all feel too cowed to ask any questions, other than how the president manages to look so rugged and handsome in his uniform. How does he do it?

Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and political commentator. She writes every Sunday.

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