Hail-to-the-Chief Show

Article excerpt

This Administration may not know how to rule the world, but it sure can run a ritual. No President in recent history has been so adept at using pageantry to invest a radical new agenda with the authority of the past. Yet there is always a moment in these ceremonies when the symbolic web of tradition tears, revealing the snarling reality of the present.

In the Bush inaugural, that moment came when the presidential motorcade headed down Pennsylvania Avenue enclosed in a phalanx of police vehicles. "It looked like a military occupation proceeding through a hostile city," snapped ABC's George Will. Only after the event did we learn just how martial it was. Along with 13,000 officers, secret commando units were at large in Washington, and sharpshooters with state-of-the-art assault weapons were stationed on rooftops along the parade route. The President was riding in an armored limo with bulletproof tires and, reportedly, an oxygen system that could be activated during a chemical attack. None of this showed on TV. In the new surveillance society, nothing is more important than maintaining the illusion of normalcy.

TV commentators play an important part in this arrangement. They must reconcile the signs of ominous activity with the smooth surface. On Inauguration Day, that meant duly noting the barriers, checkpoints and protest cages while regarding them as a rational response to terrorism--a tad paranoid, at worst. If anything, the locked and loaded ambience gave weight to Bush's speech, with its exhortation to endless war in the name of freedom and security. No pundit pointed out that this exercise in control was also a pretext for staging the most tightly managed inauguration in American history. Hundreds of thousands of spectators thought they were participating in a public event, when in fact they were extras on a giant set. Not even Goebbels could have imagined such a theater of actuality, but then, he didn't live in the era of reality TV.

When W. finally left his tank to walk a block or so, he strolled past a select crowd of admirers who had paid up to $300 for their VIP bleacher seats. The few demonstrators who managed to lob hostile comments within official range were hauled away, off camera. These protesters "rattling their cages," as Peter Jennings put it, were "in the great American tradition." Instead of focusing on their confinement, television presented their dissent as a tribute to democracy. Instead of addressing the racist taint of having Trent Lott host this event, the media focused on the many mentions of the civil rights struggle in the President's remarks. …