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The Guilfoile-Warner Papers

Flip-Flops & Conventions

In 2001, our commentators lampooned the new president in their book, My First Presidentiary. Now, with the real possibility of four more Bush years, they discuss the issues facing today’s voters. This week: what we meant when we said what we meant, and going completely rhetorical.


Remember when you lived in Chicago and we’d have political debates over cold pints of Harp, under black-and-white barroom photos of Mayor Daley the First? Those discussions always detoured into whispered confessions of our guilty pop-star crushes. We were such girlie men then.

Anyway, I just finished reading your memo on George Bush’s comment that the war on terror is “unwinnable.” Very well said. However, I’m not surprised the president found it impossible to fib while looking into the dreamy eyes of Matt Lauer. If Lauer had been interviewing heads of state 30 years ago, Nixon would have no doubt interrupted the first innocuous question with “Yes, Matt! I am crooked as a hobo’s nose, my soul is as black as an Alaskan December, I generally dislike Jews in the abstract, and I would resign today, here on this program, in exchange for the promise of one night in your arms.”

Watergate would have been over before Woodward and Bernstein left the parking garage.

It’s unbelievable that more than two days of campaign time have been sacrificed to a semantic debate over the definition of “winnable.” Wouldn’t it have been funny if Kerry did as you suggested? If he had said, “I agree with the president; the war on terror is unwinnable in any traditional sense. We will always be vulnerable to attack from fascist lunatics who believe they have God’s blessing and nothing to lose. The world will only be safe when all civilized nations refuse to surrender to murderous blackmail and refuse to tolerate terrorists in their midst. That day will come sooner if our allies believe, as they once did, that their interests and our interests are the same.”

And then an hour later, catching wind of the Kerry concord, Scott McClellan would have had to backpedal: “Um, so anyway, I know what you heard, but what the president actually meant to say was that the war on terror was super-winnable, and the official position of the White House is that anyone who says otherwise is a slutty prom date to America’s enemies.”


Here’s a thing: For as long as I can remember, decisiveness has been a morally neutral attribute. No one has ever said, “I love my proctologist. He’s so decisive.” Or, “Say what you want about the captain of the Exxon Valdez, the man never wavered.” The White House wants to talk about the quality of decisiveness completely divorced from the resulting decisions. Any critical thinker would see that’s an asinine misdirection, like extolling the fresh mint taste of window cleaner to draw attention from the fact that it can’t remove an old Phish sticker from my rear windshield.

If we want leaders with strong convictions and nothing else, we should elect only college sophomores who are halfway through reading The Fountainhead.



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I’d just like to start by saying that—even knowing what I know now—I still would have ordered the meat-lovers’ breakfast scramble this morning. It’s important for everyone to realize that I did not waver in my choice, even as I was tempted by the buttermilk pancakes, as well as something called the “Guadalajara Skillet” (chorizo sausage, onions, Monterey jack, and two eggs, over easy, across a bed of new potatoes). I scarcely even considered the fruit plate or any of the “heart-healthy” alternatives. I ate a man’s breakfast. Then I cleared some brush in front of my apartment and spent some time mocking those who do not do such manly things, such as those who ski and wind-surf.

Of course, knowing what I know now, I would have splurged on the two-ply TP when I was at the store last week, if you know what I’m saying. Still, I will not waver from my love of saturated fat, not even when my cardiac arteries explode like sabotaged Iraqi oil pipelines.

Anyhow, to get to the meat (get it?) of your response, I think you raise several interesting points. First, regarding our old pop-star crush: I see a parallel between Britney’s career and America’s wounded world standing. Once, America was both innocent and sexy, a little bit vulgar, but good-intentioned in our international fanny waving. Like Britney, America was irresistible because of the weight of our charisma, our charm, our breasts. But somewhere along the line, America slid into the land of cigarette addiction, quickie marriages, and tabloid pictures of us in dirty wife-beaters with cellulite hanging out of our short-shorts, not to mention the pile of naked Iraqi civilians nearby.

If I were France, I wouldn’t want to be friends with us either. We’re tacky and gross.

So, the current conventional wisdom is that President Bush is going to win reelection, having broken through his previous ceiling of support—apparently thanks to the one-two punch of the Swift Boat Dissemblers and Zell Miller’s Insanity Express. To me, the Bush victory seems inevitable, as inevitable as a reality show where Rob Van Winkle (a.k.a. Vanilla Ice) and that Jerri chick from Survivor take turns running each other through with swords. That’s probably for pay-per-view, though. I’d be curious as to your take on both of these ideas.

The only question remaining in my mind is: How much additional damage can we do to the body politic between now and Nov. 2? The recent Bush “can we win the war on terror flip-flop” kerfuffle was the latest example of the diseased state of political debate. Still, I’m sure we can do even better, or much worse, depending on your perspective.

I see two worrisome things on the horizon. One: It looks as though if Bush wins, it’s going to be on a wave of fear and paranoia. Miller’s speech was a sort of tour de force of inflammatory spew, and Vice President Cheney just the other day made sure to remind us that a vote for Kerry virtually guarantees another terrorist attack. Two: There’s no new episodes of The OC until after the election. (Damn you, Major League Baseball playoffs!)

Best, as always,


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To answer your second question first, thanks to Zany Zell Miller’s post-speech challenge to Chris Matthews, I think televised duels to the death could be the next Celebrity Poker Showdown.

As for your first question, I’m not ready to say a Bush victory is inevitable, but I really think they schooled the Dems in conventioneering. Can you name one memorable moment from the Democratic convention? Barack Obama’s keynote speech was terrific, although I bet most people only recall that he’s the son of a goat herder, which, to be honest, sort of undermines his argument that American working families lack opportunities.

And there was Al Sharpton’s response to the president’s cynical assertion that the Democratic Party takes African-American votes for granted. Reverend Al said, “Read my lips: Our vote is not for sale.” Again, to be honest, that was Bush’s whole point to begin with. Oops.

The GOP convention, though: Wow. I loved Schwarzenegger’s speech. I used to make fun of Californians, but now I totally understand why they voted for him. If I just type the words, I can hear Arnold in my head: “If you believe a person should be treated as an individual, not as a member of an interest group, then you are a Republican! If you believe your family knows how to spend your money better than the government does, then you are a Republican! If you believe our educational system should be held accountable for the progress of our children, then you are a Republican!” That was awesome, even if it was total rhetorical bullshit. I mean, if the Republican Party honestly believed in any of that, I would be a Republican. Watch, I can do it, too: “If you eat bananas and like to swing from the jungle trees by your prehensile tail, then you are a caribou!”

An election is not like a college term paper—an assertion followed by a linear progression of facts, all leading to a conclusion. Elections are impressionistic. It doesn’t matter if no one fact-checked Zell Miller’s speech, or that one of these candidates chose to fight in Vietnam and the other chose not to. The impression that undecided voters have right now is that many Democrats hate the president and tolerate Kerry only as a means to remove Bush from office, while nearly all Republicans (and even some loose-screw Democrats, apparently) love George Bush. To an independent, undecided voter, that second impression is more compelling, I’m afraid to say.

Lots of Democrats are giving Kerry advice and lots of them are saying he should attack Bush harder. I think that’s wrong. All of Bush’s negatives have already been discounted by the electorate, and the undecideds, by definition, don’t despise the president the way partisan Democrats do. Kerry would only be bombing bridges that have already been destroyed, and occasionally (as in the case of “30-year-old” memos regarding Bush’s National Guard service that look like someone clumsily forged them on the marketing department’s Apple G4) he’ll get blowback. I think the Democrats’ problem is that the rank-and-file have been too focused on tearing down Bush and not focused enough on building up Kerry. Yes, Clinton hit back hard at W’s father, but Democrats also really liked Clinton. Too many of today’s progressives are more worried about establishing their liberal cred, making evident their nose-holding over Kerry/Edwards—so in the event of another bad beat they can whine that the Dems should have stuck with Dean. Meanwhile, guys like John McCain, who obviously can’t stand the president personally but who also like to win, are standing strong behind Bush.

I really believe that if the 100,000 protesters at the GOP convention had gone instead to Boston a month earlier to rally in support of John Kerry, they would have had 10 times the effect.

They probably wouldn’t have gotten laid as much, though. Actually being in favor of something is kind of lame.



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I have a confession. I was a member of the “Anybody But Bush” crowd: the ABBs. Of course, initially I thought “ABB” stood for “Americans for Better Basketball,” a cause I can get into—since the pro game has devolved into 46 minutes of artless flailing punctuated by a couple of minutes of spectacular dunk shots. Whatever happened to the fadeaway jumper? The bounce pass? The set shot? White guys who don’t come from Eastern Europe? After I learned my mistake, I didn’t have the guts to tell anyone. Plus, the danishes at the meetings were just outstanding.

Regarding the conventions, clearly the Republicans won the battle, but I think much of that is related to their being last up. Kerry was supposed to create an impression of himself, which he did, but the Republicans had plenty of opportunity to put that picture on the old Spin Art and squeeze enough paint over it until Pollock himself couldn’t have told the difference between that and “Lavender Mist.”

Here’s what I don’t understand, though: Why do they hold the conventions at different times? They’re just theater, entertainment, devoid of any actual “news,” so why not go all the way and make the conventions compete against each other for viewers—just as the entertainment events they are? Political counter-programming is the wave of the future. We could divide the networks and major cable outlets down the middle and assign them to cover a particular party’s convention. Better yet, let’s just give the airwaves over to the parties entirely. Screw Brokaw and Rather, put them on vacation for a week. James Carville will host the Democratic coverage and Mary Matalin will do the Republicans. Think of the pageantry if the conventions are really forced to compete for viewers. That duel Zell Miller wished for doesn’t seem so farfetched now, does it?

And I’m afraid that you’re right about the limitations of Bush hate as a tool for persuasion, and it should have dawned on those of us in the ABB crowd earlier. I’m reminded of the time I was unpacking my CD collection in my first post-college apartment, and one of my roommates, a good friend, looked into the pile, turned to me and said, “Dude? Tears for Fears? They suck.” Could I just admit the truth that, indeed, I purchased the disc in a moment of weakness, charmed by the two-headed hydra of “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”? (Which, by the way, is the Cheney caravan theme-song.) Could I just say, “Yeah, you’re right, I don’t know what I was thinking?” No, I could not. For the next three months I actually put the album in regular rotation on my CD player, and you wouldn’t believe the look on the clerk’s face when I placed my order for a custom-lettered “Tears for Fears Rox!” jersey-sleeved number at the local Shirts ‘n Stuff.

Take, for example, an issue like gay marriage. On principle, I support the right of any two people to marry, regardless of sexual orientation. (Unless one of those people is Britney Spears, because she really is making a mistake.) However, it isn’t one of those issues that I get truly fired up about—except when I hear someone like Rick Santorum go on about how homosexuals are threatening marriage, and then I want to divorce my wife and marry Ashton Kutcher just to spite the senator from Pennsylvania. I still think Kerry needs to go on the offense against Bush’s myriad failures, but he better start following that up with a plan that looks better, not just different.

In the end, I honestly don’t understand how anyone who has actually taken a look at the present state of the world and the consequences of the Bush administration’s policies could cast their vote for George W. Bush. Of course, I also don’t understand how three million people could watch Tru Calling on a regular basis when it’s up against CSI and The Apprentice.

The point is, I can watch all of them. I have TiVo.

Over and out,

TMN Contributing Writer John Warner is the author of the preeminent guide to winning the race for the Oval Office, So You Want to Be President?, and is Chief Creative Czar of TOW Books. He teaches at the College of Charleston.

TMN Contributing Writer Kevin Guilfoile’s debut thriller, Cast of Shadows, was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by the Chicago Tribune and the Kansas City Star. His humor has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Maxim, and The New Republic. More by Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner