October 7, 2004

Getting Junior's Goat


New York Times

How strange that George W. Bush had his appointment in Samarra: his commanders taking a stand against the relentless Iraqi insurgents, trying once more to turn the corner in a war with endless corners.

Mr. Bush is reminiscent of the protagonist of "Appointment in Samarra," by John O'Hara - Julian English, the son of a WASP-y, aristocratic, renowned, ineffectual father. Julian's pals were "the spenders and drinkers and socially secure, who could thumb their noses and not have to answer to anyone except their own families."

Bristling with filial tension and nurturing the chip on his privileged shoulder, the son refuses to follow in the proper father's footsteps and instead engages in, as John Updike put it, "impulsive bellicosity," falling into a self-destructive spiral that starts when he throws a drink into an ally's face at the club.

O'Hara prefaced the novel, his most brilliant, with a quotation from Somerset Maugham about the futility of using a reverse playbook to avoid your fate: The servant of a Baghdad merchant runs into Death at the marketplace and gallops off as fast as he can to Samarra, thinking Death will not find him. But, it turns out, their appointment is not for Baghdad on that day, but for Samarra that night.

W. has rocked the nation and the world as he gallops fast, frantically trying to avoid his dad's electoral fate.

He no longer has to chafe at his father's imposing shadow. If he wants to go to war with Saddam without even discussing it with his dad, he can. If he wants to keep his dad from having a speaking slot at the Republican convention, he can.

Even though the president, waving off any attempts to put him "on the couch," refuses to acknowledge any Oedipal sensitivities, John Kerry artfully drilled into the sore spot in the first debate.

Senator Kerry evoked the voice of Bush 41 to get under 43's thin skin. The more Mr. Kerry played the square, proper, moderate, internationalist war hero, the more the president was reduced to childish scowling and fidgeting, acting like a naughty little boy who refuses to sit in his seat and eat his spinach and do all the hard things a parent wants you to do.

"You know, the president's father did not go into Iraq, into Baghdad beyond Basra," Mr. Kerry said, as W. blinked and burned. "And the reason he didn't is, he said, he wrote in his book, because there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land. That's exactly where we find ourselves today. There's a sense of American occupation."

Mr. Kerry told the now-and-then Guardsman about the "extraordinarily difficult missions" of our troops in Iraq: "I know what it's like to go out on one of those missions where you don't know what's around the corner. And I believe our troops need other allies helping."

Playing the Daddy card was part of the Kerry makeover by the Clintonistas - Bubba eye for the Brahmin guy.

In their '92 debate, Bill Clinton used the same psychological trick to rattle Bush 41. Objecting to the Republican pinko innuendo about a trip he had taken as a young man to Moscow, Mr. Clinton reminded the first President Bush that his father, Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, had stood up to Joe McCarthy: "Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism."

The Bushes get very agitated when confronted with the specters of fathers who made them feel that they never measured up.

And even though Mr. Kerry is more of a stiff loner than Poppy Bush, they share enough - that patrician, dutiful son, star of the class and the playing fields, hero on the killing fields, stuffed résumé, Council on Foreign Relations, multilateral mojo - that he can easily get W.'s goat.

It was a sign of how unnerved W. was that he had to rely on his own dark, foreboding and pathologically unapologetic surrogate Daddy, Dick Cheney, to clean up his debate mess and get the red team back in the game.

The vice president shielded the kid by treating John Edwards as even more of a kid.

Mr. Kerry may take on the voice of Daddy Bush again in Friday's domestic debate, pointing out that W.'s father tried to fix the deficit, rather than mushrooming it to $415 billion.

The Clintonistas have infused the Kerry campaign with a new motto: "It's the couch, stupid!"

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com