Copyright 2002 The Los Angeles Times.  All rights reserved.,0,3940561.story?coll=la%2Dnews%2Dcomment%2Dopinions


Plotting a Story, Plotting a War

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

September 29 2002

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. -- As the country braces for war with Iraq, there seems to be none of the anxiety usually associated with impending conflict. Americans seem not only sanguine; they appear confident and even eager to fight. Polls show that a majority of Americans favor going after Saddam Hussein alone, and that majority becomes overwhelming if the United Nations is our umbrella.

No doubt this is partly because the debate over the consequences of war--potential casualties, the possible long-term occupation of Iraq, the effect of the Iraqi war on the war against terrorism--has yet to start in earnest. But it may also be partly the result of another factor: After the highs of the war in Afghanistan wore off and a period of drift and national purposelessness set in, the war against Iraq promises to channel our collective energies and give us something tangible around which to rally. Or put another way, war brings clarity.

Whatever the political and military reasons for going to war with Iraq, this cultural one shouldn't be discounted. Countries are a little like movies. They attract the largest audience and elicit the most enthusiastic response when they provide the most compelling narrative. One needn't be overly cynical to say that President Bush realizes that, after 9/11, the country and his presidency need a script. Even though, by most accounts, Saddam Hussein does not constitute an imminent threat to us, a war against Iraq provides a plot that will shape and direct the nation.

Presidents once came to office having provided the electorate with scripts that laid out grand plans. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal would vanquish the Depression. Harry Truman's Fair Deal would bring about an egalitarian agenda for postwar America. Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected on the promise that he would go to Korea and end the war there, and that he would fight communism both within and outside America. John F. Kennedy had his New Frontier, which was intended to infuse the country with hope and vigor. In each case, it was no accident that the candidate with the best plot, the most comprehensive and inspiring program, wound up winning the election.

Over the years, though, presidential scriptwriting has become attenuated. The old geographical, ethnic and ideological divisions that used to sharpen the narrative, and focus and raise the electoral stakes, have become fuzzy. In a country where Republicans and Democrats are evenly matched in Washington and where economic and ideological disputes have been blunted, candidates are reluctant to lay out a national mission for fear they might offend some constituency and tip the balance to their opponents. Today, electoral politics is less a matter of attracting voters than of subtracting them, which makes for timorous aspirants.

In addition, in times of peace and prosperity, there is less desire for a grand national narrative. If anything, Americans seem to suspect that a national mission might upset the status quo--witness President Clinton's unsuccessful push for a system of national health care. The result is that candidates and presidents tend to focus on the mechanics of getting elected, rather than on the larger meaning of the election. The last presidential candidate--the last president--who articulated a purpose for his administration was Ronald Reagan. His successors just seemed to want to get into office and stay there.

Bush certainly fit that mold. Like his father, he was no foaming ideologue wanting to change the nature and size of government, no alarmist wanting to awaken the country to military threats, no moralist wanting to recharge the country's spirit--though, like his father, he espoused these things to endear himself to the Republican right. Essentially, he was just a patrician with a fat Rolodex. Like his father, he also had difficulty with the "vision thing"--the kind of narrative amplitude that Reagan and others had brought to office and the kind the country needs if it is to be stirred to action.

About all Bush had to stir the American soul was a giant tax cut that he claimed would make this a better country, though basically all it did was further enrich the wealthy. It was, to say the least, an uninspired script, and as he headed into the second year of his administration, he had exhausted his one big idea and he was floundering--the head of yet another presidency without a cause.

All this was unfortunately magnified by the president's personal history. Bush was our James Dean president--a young no-account who had bounced from job to job with his father's safety net below him, a hellion with an admitted drinking problem, intellectually incurious, until he finally discovered how to parlay his geniality into political hay. As president, he was a nice guy going nowhere.

Then came 9/11. The president would probably be the first to admit that the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon provided him with what he and his strategists could not--a plot and a purpose. Suddenly, as many observers noted at the time, Bush had a reason to be in office. His was to be the presidency that would fight and defeat global terrorism.

The problem is, as narratives go, fighting terrorism is pretty awful. It's not easy to convert the mess of destroying Al Qaeda into a clean Hollywood script. Initially, Bush tried. He invoked the rhetoric of the Old West ("Wanted Dead or Alive"); he declared that he would hunt down the perpetrators no matter what it took; he promised the swift justice of military tribunals. But the fact remains that unless he brought home the hide of Osama bin Laden and unless he dismantled Al Qaeda, this was going to be a story with a horrifying beginning, an uplifting middle--the successful war in Afghanistan--but a protracted and uncertain end, most likely one warning of one potential terrorist attack after another.

At the same time, 9/11 has made clear the importance of a clean national narrative. Americans both want and need to believe that the lives lost on 9/11 were not lost in vain, that the deaths would be avenged by U.S. action. Again, it's not that Americans continually feel threatened by terrorists or that we are especially vengeful. It's that we lack a satisfying plot. The war against terrorism doesn't provide one.

Bush, mindful of how drift undermined his father's presidency, may have realized the insufficiency of the terrorism narrative in focusing his presidency and rallying the country. He may also have realized that there was an alternative script on the shelf. Saddam Hussein has long been a favorite Bush target. During the 2000 campaign, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, then a Bush consultant, even mentioned "regime change" in Iraq as a policy objective. So, in a political bait-and-switch, the president substituted the Iraq script for the terrorism one. Seamlessly, Saddam Hussein replaced Bin Laden as Public Enemy No. 1. Iraq thus became what Alfred Hitchcock once called a "MacGuffin"--something that wasn't intrinsically important if you stopped to think about it but that propelled the plot. The plot was the thing.

Depending on whom you listen to, Iraq may or may not be intrinsically important, but it certainly makes for a much better plot for America and the administration than the war on terrorism. It has a simple villain who will almost certainly either be killed or brought into custody, not someone who may be dead in a cave or hiding out on the Pakistan frontier. It has a clearly demarcated battlefield, not the back alleys and tenements of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It has an army, not a ragtag group of fanatical guerrillas and religious zealots. And it has an attainable objective that will permit us to declare victory and demand surrender.

Put these together and Iraq provides a conventional narrative, like World War II, rather than a modern, unconventional narrative like the war on terrorism, which is precisely the point. The war on Iraq gives us the lineaments and the catharsis of a movie, the very things the Bush presidency has so obviously lacked.

So, in the end, there may be legitimate military and geopolitical reasons to head off to war against Saddam Hussein, and the world would be better off without him. But these things may matter far less than the fact that regime change in Iraq is also a good, simple, clearly defined cause for a country and for a presidency badly in need of one.

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