by Christian Salmon
‘We’re an empire and when we act, we create our own reality’
Scheherazade in the White House
How George Bush’s wartime administration used a magician, Hollywood designers and Karl Rove telling 1,001 stories to sell the invasion of Iraq.
A few days before the 2004 presidential election, Ron Suskind, a columnist who had been investigating the White House and its communications for years, wrote in The New York Times about a conversation he had with a presidential adviser in 2002. “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people ‘who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors.. and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’ ” (1).
Suskind’s article was a sensation, which the paper called an intellectual scoop. Columnists and bloggers seized on the phrase “reality-based community” which spread across the internet. Google had nearly a million hits for it in July 2007. Wikipedia created a page dedicated to it. According to Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University: “Many on the left adopted the term. ‘Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community’, their blogs said. The right then jeered at the left’s self-description. (‘They’re reality-based? Yeah, right…’)” (2).
The remarks, which were probably made by Karl Rove a few months before the Iraq war, are not just cynical and Machiavellian. They sound like they come from the theatre rather than from an office in the White House. Not content with renewing the ancient problems discussed in cabinet offices, pitting idealists against pragmatists, moralists against realists, pacifists against warmongers or, in 2002, defenders of international law against supporters of the use of force, they display a new concept of the relationship between politics and reality. The leaders of the world’s superpower were not just moving away from realpolitik but also from realism to become creators of their own reality, the masters of appearance, demanding a realpolitik of fiction.
Disney to the rescue
The US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 provided a spectacular illustration of the White House’s desire to create its own reality. Pentagon departments, keen not to repeat the mistakes of the first Gulf war in 1991, paid particular attention to their communications strategy. As well as 500 embedded journalists integrated into sections of the armed services, great attention was paid to the design of the press room at US forces headquarters in Qatar: for a million dollars, a storage hangar was transformed into an ultramodern television studio with stage, plasma screens and all the electronic equipment needed to produce videos, geographic maps and diagrams for real time combat.
A scene in which the US army spokesman, General Tommy Franks, addressed journalists cost $200,000 and was produced by a designer who had worked for Disney, Metro Goldwyn Mayer and the television programme Good Morning America. In 2001 the White House had put him in charge of creating background designs for presidential speeches – unsurprising to those aware of the ties between the Pentagon and Hollywood.
More surprising was the Pentagon decision to recruit David Blaine for interior design; he is a magician famous in the US for his TV show and for conjuring tricks such as levitating or being shut in a cage without food. Blaine claimed in a book in 2002 that he was the successor to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a 19th century magician who agreed to go to Algeria at the French government’s request to help it quell an uprising by showing that his magic was better than that of the rebels (3). It is not known whether that is what the Pentagon expected from Blaine but it seems that use was made of his illusionist talents for special effects.
Scott Sforza, a former ABC TV producer who worked within the Republican propaganda machine, created many backgrounds against which Bush made important statements during his terms of office. On 1 May 2003 he stage-managed the presidential speech on the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier before a sign reading “Mission accomplished: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
The show didn’t end there. Bush landed aboard the carrier in a fighter plane renamed Navy One; on it was written “George Bush, Commander-in-Chief”. He was seen leaving the cockpit dressed in a flight suit, his helmet under his arm as if he were returning from war in a remake of Top Gun (the film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who is a familiar face in Hollywood-Pentagon operations; he made a reality TV show, Profiles from the Front Line, on the war in Afghanistan).
The former New York Times theatre critic, Frank Rich, described the television coverage of this event and said it was fantastic – like theatre. David Broder of The Washington Post was captivated by what he called Bush’s physical posture (4). Sforza had to stage the scene carefully so that the city of San Diego, about 60km away, was not seen on the horizon when the carrier was supposed to be out in open sea in the combat zone.
But the staging was never as explicit as on 15 August 2002 when Bush solemnly spoke of national security in front of Mount Rushmore with its sculptures of the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. During his speech the cameras were placed at an angle that allowed Bush to be filmed in profile, his face superimposed on to those of his predecessors.
The image becomes the story
For Bush’s speech on the first anniversary of 9/11, in which he prepared US public opinion for the Iraq invasion by glorifying the “great struggle that tests our strength and even more our resolve”, Sforza rented three barges to take the team to the foot of the Statue of Liberty, which he had lit from below. He chose the camera angles so that the statue appeared in the background during the speech. Frank Rich, commenting on this, quoted Michael Deaver, who stage-managed Ronald Reagan’s declaration of candidacy speech in 1980 with the Statue of Liberty in the background. According to Deaver, people understood that what was around the speaker’s head was as important as the head itself (5).
What is around the head turns an image into a legend: “Mission accomplished”, the Founding Fathers, the Statue of Liberty – over time the image becomes the story. But the event must resonate with the viewer, must make two moments interact: what is represented in the image and the actual moment it is seen. This resonance produces the desired emotion. For Americans in 2002 nothing could have had a greater emotional impact than a speech on war on the first anniversary of 9/11. The country had just come back from summer holidays and was ready to concentrate on important matters.
According to Ira Chernus, professor at the University of Colorado, Karl Rove applied the “Scheherazade strategy”: “When policy dooms you, start telling stories – stories so fabulous, so gripping, so spellbinding that the king (or, in this case, the American citizen who theoretically rules our country) forgets all about a lethal policy. It plays on the insecurity of Americans who feel that their lives are out of control” (6). Rove did this with much success in 2004 when Bush was re-elected, diverting voters’ attention away from the state of the war by evoking the great collective myths of the US imagination.
As Chernus explains, Rove was “betting that the voters will be mesmerised by John Wayne-style tales of real men fighting evil on the frontier – at least enough Americans to avoid the death sentence that the voters might otherwise pronounce on the party that brought us the disaster in Iraq.” Chernus believed that Rove invented simplistic good-against-evil stories for his candidates to tell and tried to turn every election into a moral drama, a contest of Republican moral clarity versus Democratic moral confusion. “The Scheherazade strategy is a great scam, built on the illusion that moralistic tales can make us feel secure, no matter what’s actually going on out there in the world. Rove wants every vote for a Republican to be a symbolic statement” (7). This August Rove was forced to resign by Democrat members of Congress. He announced his decision with an admission which could have applied to all his work: “I feel like I’m Moby Dick… they’re after me.”