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August 15, 2004: The Bad-Boy Vote

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Playing Fair: The Bad-Boy Vote


Last weekend in Just Above Sunset you might have noticed this bit of dialog in Political Discourse: There seem to be some disagreements on methodology... - where Joseph, now living in France, had this comment on the new Republican tactic just announced, to go after Kerry with “derision” as a tactic, a sort of frat-boy thing, and what the Democrats should do about it…


… it's not so much that Democrats aren't good at derision, or avoid petty fights. It's that completely lacking self-awareness, the Bush-type personality is simply impervious to it.

You've seen this - it's the mark of the true bully.

You can say anything you want about them, but no matter how true, clever or embarrassing, they will stand there with this shit-eating grin (not the fake grin of the self-aware person who has momentarily been stunned or shamed, but the genuine, vapid article). They will think of something really witless to say and make you look like the idiot.

Why? Because you have to have some awareness of how others see you, of your own faults and imperfections and some inner acknowledgment of the validity of the criticisms of others. If not, the remark just slides right off.

When an entire nation admires a bully, I begin to wonder if some psycho-sociological force isn't at play. Do American men today feel so powerless and ineffectual, so limp-dicked, so henpecked by their wives, so disposable at their jobs, so despised by their children, so scared of the world that they must resort to infantile bully worship?


And as I commented, maybe so.

Bully-worship is empowering, when nothing else is. Something about surrogate power, I suppose – and as I have maintained for a long time, this has to do with seeing someone doing or saying what you wish you could do or say, but cannot. When Bush tells the rest of the world to shove it - choose your issue or treaty or international law or whatever (the constitution will do as an example too) - the folks Joseph identifies get at least a partial erection. That'll do. Bush’s election strategy will be to play to that strength, if that's the right word.

And right on schedule, from Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, and the author of "Liberal Racism" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), we get a good summary of how this all will work out.  It really is a frat-boy thing, and Sleeper shows how our president is not much different than he was as an undergraduate at Yale.

He's Got the Bad-Boy Vote Sewed Up
Jim Sleeper, The Los Angeles Times, August 9, 2004

A photograph of George Bush accompanies this piece – a clipping from the Yale yearbook the Times did not make available on the net.  It’s a black-and-white sports-action close-up of Bush at Yale in a rugby game.  He’s got a hammerlock on a guy from the opposing team, a smirk on his face, and he’s in punching the other guy good and hard in the side of the head.  This was thirty years ago.  The caption reads - "George Bush delivers illegal, but gratifying right hook to opposing ball carrier."  A right hook, no less.

Sleeper seems to think this somehow symbolically explains one reason why Bush still is riding high in the polling and hasn’t really dropped in popularity much at all since the Kerry nomination.  And here’s how Sleeper explains Bush’s continuing popularity -


He owes more than a little something to the "bad boy" vote that no pollster captures as well as this photo and caption do.

What I have in mind here isn't the bad guy in a detective story or the stand-up guy in "The Sopranos," or even some rock-band poseur. He may actually be a good guy most of the time, like millions of this country's mischievous frat boys who like getting away with things but who aren't that bad as long as they don't get into anything too far over their heads.

As president of his chapter of the DKE fraternity, Bush sounded a classic bad-boy note when he said he "didn't learn a damned thing" at Yale. "The reason was that he didn't try," Jacob Weisberg reported this spring in Yale Alumni Magazine. "One year, the star of the football team spotted him in the back row during [course-] shopping period. 'Hey, George Bush is in this class!' Calvin Hill, '69, shouted to his teammates. 'This is the one for us!' "


So his leadership style was born.  The smirking frat-boy leads the others in mocking the whole business.  You can take all the intellectual pretensions of college and books and learning and do a goof on it, and lead men.  Readers who, like me, attended Denison University at the same time remember how it was with the frat-boys.  They thought the rest of us were all fools.  And they let us know that.

But what does Jim Sleeper really know of this? Is he making this up? He says he isn’t.


I was in that room that day. Bush gave them a grinning thumbs up and, I have to admit, everyone laughed. He had a certain charm about getting away with things, like DKE's custom of "branding" new members' on the butt, a less-than-noble tradition he managed to protect when it came under fire.


Ah, I had forgotten about that branding thing Bush managed to get away with.

An old Denison friend wrote me about this today –


I was wondering if you'd seen the interview with Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury) in Rolling Stone. Trudeau was two years behind GWB at Yale, and in a weird twist of fate, a hazing scandal at Bush's fraternity prompted someone to request Trudeau to do a cartoon about it - his very first cartoon. Bush was rush chairman, a role he was perfectly suited for, and which he still plays, according to Trudeau. Bush was a sarcastic preppy who gave people nicknames, and was very good at making people feel comfortable, and also at making people feel uncomfortable. The hazing incident? They were branding freshman bare bottoms with red-hot coat hanger branding irons.

This puts comments about the torture at Abu Ghraib not being our "American nature" and Rush Limbaugh's dismissal of the scandal as nothing more than a college prank, in a different light.

Frat-boy group-enforced cruelty to calculated derision - their answers to a lot of unexamined fear and anger... who wants to examine fear and anger? It's easier to see some ass kicked.


Clare sort of nails it here, doesn’t she?

An excerpt for the Rolling Stone interview with Trudeau is here, and an MSNBC summary here.  Bush and those nicknames and mockery?  Trudeau comments – “He was extremely skilled at controlling people and outcomes in that way. Little bits of perfectly placed humiliation.”

And now that’s how we do politics.

Sleeper in the Los Angeles Times comments that this is a problem -


Being that kind of bad boy may be OK if you're cutting a history class or smirking behind your hand at some radical grad student leading your discussion section - but not when you're staging a commander in chief's flight-deck landing or a Thanksgiving Day pop-up in Baghdad.


Really?  Ask Karl Rove about that.  Look at the poll numbers.

Sleeper does point out that “Bad Boys” don't get that far very often and Bush himself would tell you that he's changed a lot since college.  When Bush turned forty he stopped drinking and found Jesus, after all.  He’s a new man?

Key people don’t believe that -


But I don't think the difference matters much to the bad boys he's left behind, including some classmates I know who are raising money for him, not to mention the up-and-comers I taught at Yale last year. Whether they cheered Bush's flight-deck landing or are reliving the joys of intramural rugby, they think he has shown them how to mess up yet still swagger off the field with an impish grin.


Leadership by example?  I guess.

But it’s really not a partisan political thing.  Sleeper points out that this has less to do with crude and bullying Republicans than you’d think.


This really is an apolitical, "guy" thing, like the thunderous welcome Bill Clinton got from a huge crowd of college boys, with their baseball caps on backward, at the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus on Jan. 28, 1998, only days after rumors of his Monica Lewinsky affair surfaced. Just the day before, 120 million Americans had been riveted, watching him pull off a triumphal, almost defiant, State of the Union address.

"Yeah, Bi-i-i-i-lll!" the college boys roared lustily, and not because Al Gore had just warmed them up with news of Clinton's tuition loans, Hope scholarships and his plans to add slots for more AmeriCorps volunteers. Bad Boy Bill entered the hall to a booming rendition of the rock band Kansas' "Carry On My Wayward Son." He was greeted like a rock star, with no boos or catcalls.


Whoa, Nellie! Clinton and Bush are just alike?  Their popularity with male voters depends on them playing the bad boy?  That is a strange linkage, but it feels right.

Well, Bush is our president.  Many of us misfits managed to make it through college in the late sixties doing what we did, even with the frat-boys mocking most of what we said, most of what we did, and most of what we thought – and most everything we cared about.  Four more years of this?

Been there.  Done that.  We can manage.

Jim Sleeper himself did drop us a line – and makes an important clarification –


I really enjoyed your commentary on this! But when you get to saying "Whoa, Nellie! Clinton and Bush are just alike? Their popularity with male voters depends on them playing the bad boy? That is a strange linkage, but it feels right…," you might take note of how I ended my column, in the very next paragraph:

"Whoever wrote that caption under George's rugby photo would understand. What he shouldn't understand is how anyone could act as if Iraq were just rugby or a dalliance. A history lesson ignored might be more like it."

The point being, that Bill Clinton's dalliance is nowhere on a scale with what George Bush is doing to the country in his "bad boy" mode, whether in Iraq or, for that matter, on the budget.


Indeed so.  Yes, there is a difference – a big one.

Bob Harris writing at This Modern World, when questioned about his own harping on this rugby business, says it really isn’t that very important.  His problem is with this, the administration’s new pet project, National Preparedness Month - September 2004

Harris adds this perspective on the Yale rugby business -


Finally, no, of course this isn't supposed to be more important than other issues like the War On Tara, "voting" machines which are anything but, the slow Guantanamization of American life, or the rest of our impending doom during the incompetent reign of a corrupt alcoholic chimpanzee who thinks he talks to God. September … is National Frighten The Children Just Before The Election month. That alone is way more a part of our future than whether or not Bush slugged a guy, drove drunk, dodged Vietnam, profited from insider trades, took sadistic delight in executing people, or ignored repeated warnings about Al-Qaeda until it was too goddam late.

But the past is prologue.


Of course it is.  As Michael Josephson, the schlock radio guru says, character counts.  Except when it doesn’t.

[Note: Harris says he too has been trading emails with Jim Sleeper. Sleeper has written me two notes so far - but none of his email addresses (AOL) are working so I haven't been able to thank him yet, or trade quips.  My replies to him just bounce back.  The Yale man of many books, and numerous reviews in the New York Review of Books, compliments me and I cannot reach him! ]


A late comment from Bob Patterson, also know as “The World’s Laziest Journalist” -


There was a country song titled "Ladies Love Outlaws" that had a refrain that went “Outlaws touch ladies deep down in their souls” but in the final rendering of the line it was changed to “Outlaws touch ladies … anywhere they want to … ”

Outlaws, bad boys, rebels . . . nonconformists all.

Camus in "The Rebel" says (although I can not find the exact passage despite several attempts) that one way society disarms the rebel is to absorb them into the upper class. Thus the Rolling Stones become the Rolling Stones Incorporated. They lose their cutting edge when they have a stake in the establishment they used to rebel against.

Bush as bad boy?

It maybe a matter of semantics.  Not a bad boy.  (Think the wrong side of the tracks.)  It's the spoiled brat.  Richie Rich.  I read somewhere before he was elected that it would be dangerous to have him as a president because he did not know the value of a budget.  He had no experience about planning how to pay for a purchase.  Buy an invasion of Iraq?  No problem!  Put it on the charge card and dad's accountants will take care of it when the bill comes due.

He seems to be living up to that psychological profile quite well.

Four more years! Or as James Cagney said when he pushed the grapefruit into May Marsh's face: "You'll take it and like it. See!"

Isn't someone a bully only until they lose their first big fight? As long as they pick on the little guys, they remain bullies. Lose to a bigger guy, and then you can start to worry about a little guy who might take you too. George W is in the process of realizing that he is losing a fight. It hasn't quite dawned on him fully yet.


Maybe so.  But don’t count on him losing.


Bob Harris at the website This Modern World has published the photo of George Bush at Yale that was in the print edition of The Los Angeles Times but not on line.  The photo is credited to the Yale yearbook (the caption is in the original).  This is what is being discussed at the top of this column.

Here is a bit of what Harris has to say about the photo -


It's not in the Times' online version, and the rest of the country should see it, I think.

Incidentally, while rugby is a contact sport, every player knows that tackling above the shoulders is a foul. So is leaving your feet during a tackle. Either of these is serious enough that the other team is immediately awarded a penalty kick, often directly resulting in points for the other team.

So even without throwing a punch, Bush is already well outside fair play.

Grasping an opponent by the back of the head and punching him in the face is beyond the pale - I've watched rugby avidly for years, and I've never seen it during an open-field tackle like this, honest - and will typically result in a player being immediately sent off.

I'm sure by next week Karl Rove will have a collection of rugby players claiming that John Kerry was even worse...


Rugby has rules?  Yeah, I suppose it does.

And the consequence of this old photograph hitting the web?  For those who think that rules are for losers, and that those who insist we play the rules – you know, the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions and all that – are sissies, well, this photo gets Bush more votes.  Harris is wrong to think otherwise.

I suspect most pro-Bush websites have posted this photo this week – proudly.

Actual Size

Minor note - this from May 5, 2004 -


With all the controversy about John Kerry's Vietnam medals and ribbons, who'd have thought that loyal George W. Bush aide Karen Hughes would be the one to catch the President fibbing about a supposed varsity letter? In her new book, "Ten Minutes From Normal," Hughes recounts a conversation with Bush after Russian President Vladimir Putin grilled him on his Yale days.

"President Putin knew you had played rugby, but he didn't have the context. I mean, you just played for one semester in college, right?" Hughes said.

Bush corrected: "I played for a year, and it was the varsity."

Yesterday, a Yale spokeswoman confirmed that there's no such thing as varsity rugby at Yale - not when Bush was an undergrad in the 1960s ….


Screw the rules and lie too?  Bush as bad boy.  You have to love it.  And all this is, in its own small way, a winner for Bush.

(That last reference was uncovered by Atrios over at Eshaton.)



Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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