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Man on horseback

The emperor's new clothes
Man on Horseback

May 6, 2003

Gen. Georges Boulanger cut a fine figure; he looked
splendid in uniform, and magnificent on horseback. So his
handlers made sure that he appeared in uniform, astride a
horse, as often as possible.

It worked: Boulanger became immensely popular. If he hadn't
lost his nerve on the night of the attempted putsch, French
democracy might have ended in 1889.

We do things differently here - or we used to. Has "man on
horseback" politics come to America?

Some background: the Constitution declares the president
commander in chief of the armed forces to make it clear
that civilians, not the military, hold ultimate authority.
That's why American presidents traditionally make a point
of avoiding military affectations. Dwight Eisenhower was a
victorious general and John Kennedy a genuine war hero, but
while in office neither wore anything that resembled
military garb.

Given that history, George Bush's "Top Gun" act aboard the
U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln - c'mon, guys, it wasn't about
honoring the troops, it was about showing the president in
a flight suit - was as scary as it was funny.

Mind you, it was funny. At first the White House claimed
the dramatic tail-hook landing was necessary because the
carrier was too far out to use a helicopter. In fact, the
ship was so close to shore that, according to The
Associated Press, administration officials "acknowledged
positioning the massive ship to provide the best TV angle
for Bush's speech, with the sea as his background instead
of the San Diego coastline."

A U.S.-based British journalist told me that he and his
colleagues had laughed through the whole scene. If Tony
Blair had tried such a stunt, he said, the press would have
demanded to know how many hospital beds could have been
provided for the cost of the jet fuel.

But U.S. television coverage ranged from respectful to
gushing. Nobody pointed out that Mr. Bush was breaking an
important tradition. And nobody seemed bothered that Mr.
Bush, who appears to have skipped more than a year of the
National Guard service that kept him out of Vietnam, is now
emphasizing his flying experience. (Spare me the hate mail.
An exhaustive study by The Boston Globe found no evidence
that Mr. Bush fulfilled any of his duties during that
missing year. And since Mr. Bush has chosen to play up his
National Guard career, this can't be shrugged off as old

Anyway, it was quite a show. Luckily for Mr. Bush, the
frustrating search for Osama bin Laden somehow morphed into
a good old-fashioned war, the kind where you seize the
enemy's capital and get to declare victory after a cheering
crowd pulls down the tyrant's statue. (It wasn't much of a
crowd, and American soldiers actually brought down the
statue, but it looked great on TV.)

Let me be frank. Why is the failure to find any evidence of
an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program, or vast quantities
of chemical and biological weapons (a few drums don't
qualify - though we haven't found even that) a big deal?
Mainly because it feeds suspicions that the war wasn't
waged to eliminate real threats. This suspicion is further
fed by the administration's lackadaisical attitude toward
those supposed threats once Baghdad fell. For example,
Iraq's main nuclear waste dump wasn't secured until a few
days ago, by which time it had been thoroughly looted. So
was it all about the photo ops?

Well, Mr. Bush got to pose in his flight suit. And given
the absence of awkward questions, his handlers surely feel
empowered to make even more brazen use of the national
security issue in future.

Next year - in early September - the Republican Party will
hold its nominating convention in New York. The party will
exploit the time and location to the fullest. How many
people will dare question the propriety of the proceedings?

And who will ask why, if the administration is so proud of
its response to Sept. 11, it has gone to such lengths to
prevent a thorough, independent inquiry into what actually
happened? (An independent study commission wasn't created
until after the 2002 election, and it has been given little
time and a ludicrously tiny budget.)

There was a time when patriotic Americans from both parties
would have denounced any president who tried to take
political advantage of his role as commander in chief. But
that, it seems, was another country.