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From Draft NOtices, March-April 2005

Bush Administration Uses Political Theater to Override Criticism of Iraq War

— Emily Roxworthy

Mainstream media outlets have long compared activist demonstrations to street theater, both as a way of emphasizing the decentralized, grass-roots, and live nature of activists' tactics and as a way of ridiculing activism as outdated, obnoxiously "in-your-face," and melodramatic. This portrayal was certainly clear in The San Diego Union-Tribune coverage of those San Diegans protesting Bush's January 20, 2005, presidential inauguration. The article began by stressing the rudimentary nature of the protesters' rally: "People banged pots and pans and waved banners and chanted and cheered, but none of that was in celebration," staff writer Michael Stetz wrote. Stetz went on to repeatedly stress the predictably "unhappy" attitude of the protesters and closed his piece with the reactions of passive bystanders to the protest: "One man was heard to say: 'Anybody tell them the '70s were, like, 30 years ago?'" and two tourists from Phoenix who "didn't mind the commotion" as they dined on sushi in the Gaslamp Quarter remarked, "It's like dinner theater." Likewise, a San Francisco Chronicle article, headlined "Whether Bush's fife and drums or San Francisco's howls, pageantry ruled on Inauguration Day," shuttled between the theatrical elements of inauguration spectacles in Washington and anti-inauguration rallies in San Francisco, suggesting that both sides are complicit in a cycle of representations and counter-representations that are "the way we conduct politics more and more in this country, a showdown of appearances and photo opportunities, planned spontaneity and 'authorized protests.'"

In actuality, as of late the Bush administration and its grass-roots opponents have by no means shared equal footing in such a harmless exchange of "appearances and photo opportunities," in large part because of the unprecedented choreography and production budget the president puts into his carefully orchestrated spectacles. The most obvious instance might be Bush's now-infamous, nationally televised spectacle aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 2, 2003, in which he became the first sitting president to co-pilot a plane landing on an aircraft carrier. Costumed in a green flight suit and helmet, Bush went on to announce the "end to major combat operations in Iraq" and to disingenuously draw parallels between the war in Iraq and the "war on terrorism." While the USS Lincoln spectacle allowed Bush to portray himself as a rugged battle hero in order to upstage the realities of the invasion of Iraq, the notoriously expensive pageantry of Bush's second inauguration served to cover the contradictions of extreme U.S. military losses in Iraq (18 months after major combat supposedly ended) with celebrations of the power of those out of harm's way.

The Bush administration's publicity stunts not only resemble the theater: they employ theater professionals in an unabashed attempt to glamorize its agenda. For instance, according to The Washington Post, both the 2001 and 2005 inaugurations employed stagehands from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) in order to run the inaugural festivities. The 2001 inauguration used 400 union stagehands, whereas the 2005 inauguration — which had more time to plan lavish ceremonies without the bother of court proceedings over election results — spent about $1 million on 600 IATSE workers. Even though Republicans are known for their anti-labor stance, their desire for polished stagings often overrides political ideology.

Or perhaps it's more appropriate to say that the Bush administration's desire for polished stagings have become their political ideology. The latest and most insidious instance of Bush political theater came in "the hug" seen around the world during the President's February 2, 2005, State of the Union address in the House chamber. Near the end of his 53-minute speech, Bush introduced two of the many guests planted in the audience near his wife, Laura. He introduced Janet and William Norwood of Pflugerville, Texas, whose Marine sergeant son, Byron, had been killed in the 2004 siege of Fallujah. Bush turned these audience members into supporting actors by rationalizing their grief as a noble sacrifice for the protection of American freedoms, and he made sure to select a fallen soldier who believed in the mission (as proven by a letter Bush read aloud) and parents who seemed to harbor no resentment toward the military that took their 25-year-old son. But then the supporting actors in the audience decided to improvise their roles, creating a moment that almost every newspaper in America (and, amazingly, many abroad) uncritically portrayed as "magic." Iraqi activist Safia Taleb al-Suhail, also seated near Laura Bush, bearing a purple-ink-stained finger to mark her voter status in the recent election, and present to silently testify to the atrocities of the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein (whose agents killed her father in 1994), suddenly reached out and hugged Janet Norwood. The longest standing ovation of the evening, and one of the longest in State of the Union address history, followed this highly emotional display, continuing even through the long awkward moment in which Byron Norwood's dog tags became entangled with al-Suhail's clothing and jewelry. Almost no one in the media noted the irony of this awkward entanglement, which sardonically symbolized the trap in which U.S. militarism had caught Iraqi civilians and the coerced nature of the embrace. Instead, reporters gushed over this "most dramatic moment" that stood as "the emotional high point of President Bush's speech."

Tim Reid of The Times (London) made a comment that epitomized the dangerous leap from theatricality — or recognizing the artifice of the spectacle — to uncritical emotionalism. "Although it was well scripted and choreographed," Reid wrote, "what followed caught the chamber in a collective burst of raw emotion. Mr Bush himself looked genuinely tearful." Theater scholars note the difference between political theater, which largely follows the philosophy of German theater director Bertolt Brecht and encourages critical detachment from the spectacle at hand, and realist theater, which abides by Aristotle's philosophy that drama produce an emotional catharsis that uncritically engages audience members and purges their anti-social tendencies before they leave the theater. Moments like "the hug" make it clear that the Bush administration's aspirations are not to political theater that might make its constituents think critically about U.S. militarism, but to Aristotelian catharsis that clouds constituents' vision with satisfying tears.

Perhaps the saddest casualty of Bush's "stage-struck" policies (to borrow theater scholar Shadi Bartsch's description of ancient Roman emperor Nero) may be the young men and women who are made to believe that war and military service are as glamorous and theatrical as Hollywood depicts it. The Bush administration generally and the military in particular encourage recruitment by blurring the line between the reality of military service and such slick representations. The recent documentary film Gunner Palace captures the resultant surrealism of military service in Iraq. Filmmaker Michael Tucker spent time with the U.S. soldiers stationed at Gunner Palace and said of his experience, "At times, it didn't feel like I was shooting a documentary, rather a war movie that we have all seen a dozen times. For the older officers and NCOs it was M*A*S*H. They brought aloha shirts for poolside BBQs. For others it was Platoon and Full Metal Jacket — you could see it in the way they rode in their HUMVEES. One foot hanging out the door — helicopters with wheels. For the teenagers, it was Jackass Goes to War. . . . The reality for these soldiers was stranger than any fiction, and they knew it. The trouble was, this war — any war — isn't like the movies."

Tragically, the disjunction between movies and reality has cost many soldiers their lives, as they are woefully ill-equipped for the realities of combat because their leaders back home would rather spend millions of dollars on big-budget spectacles than on needed body armor and munitions. As a theater person, I encourage government funding of the arts, but not this way.

Emily Roxworthy is a professor of theater history and dramatic literature at UC San Diego.

Sources: The San Diego Union-Tribune, January 21, 2005; San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 2005; CNN, May 2, 2003; The Washington Post, January 10, 2005; New York Daily News, February 3, 2005; The Times (London), February 4, 2005;, accessed March 4, 2005.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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