Three weeks from now, America will be marking the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. The observances will be muted in New York, but not in Kabul - because that's the privilege of victory. So, ahead of that grim date, I thought we'd revisit August 2001 with a few columns of mine from that last summer.
We began a fortnight ago with the summer of sharks, and continued with racial demagoguery then and now. For this week's entry, I see Joe Biden is under fire for taking off for Camp David as America suffered a pitiful global humiliation. He'd barely been back in Washington for a day before it was decided that he'd heading off for a long weekend back home in Wilmington, Delaware. Apparently, Sleepy Joe finds it hard to sleep at the White House: possibly Trump made sinister modifications to the MyPillows before he left the residence.
Well, it's hard to see that it makes any difference where Biden sleeps as it's only the useless US media still maintaining the pretense that he's exercising executive authority. Sot here, from The Spectator of August 25th 2001, is a column of mine about a far more leisurely presidential break. I wouldn't cite this as my best work, but, quite unintentionally, it captures well the lazy languorous quality of what came to be called America's long "holiday from history":
ACCORDING to his tanned spokesman, George W Bush will cut short his vacation in Crawford, Texas, and return to Washington next Friday, 31st August. The President arrived in Crawford on 4th August and it was thought he intended to stay at least until Labor Day, 3rd September, thus beating Richard Nixon's 1969 summer sojourn and earning his place in history as the taker of the longest-ever presidential vacation. On the other hand, even at a paltry twenty-eight days, it's almost certainly the longest vacation anyone's ever taken in the Greater Waco area. Don't try to book online: the computer will redirect you to more glamorous resorts such as Crawford, Florida, Crawfordsville, Indiana, Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, or the Crawford oil field in the middle of the North Sea between Scotland and Norway. And, if you insist that no, really, you really want to spend a month in Crawford, Texas, the entire site crashes.
Vacation-wise, Bush's place in history is already secure, as the patron of the hottest presidential resort in history: in his usual careless, brutal way, Dubya has ended the bipartisan presidential tradition of moderate vacation destinations with average August temperatures in the mid-seventies — Clinton, Martha's Vineyard (77); Bush père, Kennebunkport (75); Reagan, Santa Barbara (75). In an average August, Crawford clocks in at 97 degrees. This summer, if anything, it's a little hotter, with temperatures not dipping below three digits until well after sundown. Needless to say, the town, like the President, is teetotal.
The White House press corps breezed in three weeks ago, and discovered that Crawford — a dusty crossroads in the middle of a drought-stricken, sun-broiled plain, population 690 — has five churches but not a single hotel. So they have to stay twenty-five miles away in Waco, where the Chamber of Commerce keeps harassing them to come on its media barge cruises on Lake Waco. No reporters showed up for the first media cruise. But a couple of days later the second cruise attracted two Washington journalists, who'd evidently made the mistake of using up all the local colour in their first piece. By now I'll bet that boat is standing room only.
In Waco, by the way, the local colour consists of the charred remains of the Branch Davidian compound and the Dr Pepper Museum, a shrine to the popular non-alcoholic beverage invented in the town. In Crawford, the local colour's thinner on the ground: the school gym, seven miles from the Bush ranch, has been converted to a 'Western White House media center', where reporters can pick up complimentary brown bags from the Brown Bag, Crawford's only gift shop, so called because any gifts purchased are put in brown paper bags. Inside each bag is a small Texas flag bearing the legend 'Crawford, Texas: The Texas White House' plus a coupon entitling the bearer to a free scoop of Blue Bell Ice Cream, and a postcard of Crawford.
Otherwise, nothing much happens in the gym: by week two, the press were reduced to taking artistic shots of the switched-off microphone on the empty lectern behind the big 'Western White House' sign. Reporters interviewed each other about what they liked best about Crawford: 'You don't have to pay to park your car,' CBS correspondent Mark Knoller told USA Today. You barely have to pay to park your house: a three-bedroom, air-conditioned home in Crawford costs $30,000, but don't worry; if that sounds a bit steep, you can get a couple of acres and a double-wide trailer for about a fifth of the cost.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, George and Laura are in relaxed, non-newsmaking mode. Don't forget, these reporters are guys who've spent the last eight summers with Bill and Hill on the Vineyard and in the Hamptons. And, if you need to ask, 'Which Vineyard? Whose Hamptons?', there's a rusting double-wide in Waco with your name on it. My favourite Clinton vacation photo was from the summer of '98: after his disastrous mea sorta culpa re Monica — the Slicker's worst ever three minutes on network TV — he flew up to the Vineyard to be comforted by all the beautiful people. At the airport, Carly Simon embraced him and the puffy-eyed Bubba gratefully returned the compliment, smothering her and pressing his pudgy fingers into the gorgeous tanned expanse of her back. I was once in a packed elevator with Carly in a backless dress — Carly, I mean, not me — and I can tell you she has one of the all-time great backs — fabulous shoulder-blades, the small of her back glistening with the faintest perspiration like a shimmering desert mirage you long to dive into.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, Clinton. Anyway, the thing is, if you're a White House reporter and you're used to hanging out with Bill and Hill and Carly and Steven Spielberg and Alec Baldwin, it's something of a culture shock to have to spend a month trying to wring a quote out of Bill Sparkman, who's been Crawford's barber for 41 years. So unsurprisingly the media moved on to musing, 'Why would Bush do this to us?'
The obvious answer, given the general tenor of his press cuttings, is why wouldn't he? But the media guys are working on the assumption that, like them, Bush would rather hang out with Alec Baldwin than Bill Sparkman and that therefore this Crawford business is part of some political calculation. In 1996, Bill Clinton famously got Dick Morris to take a poll on where he should go for a vacation, and wound up having a miserable time pretending to camp and hike and fish on the Snake River near the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming. This was supposed to appeal to swing-voter soccer moms with kids who liked to camp out. True to Morris form, after the polldriven vacation Clinton's numbers went down, and thereafter he stuck to kibitzing with Carly and co.
In such a world, Bush is naturally assumed to be doing the same thing. 'This is the anti-Clinton presidency, so you go to the anti-Clinton vacation spot,' says Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute.
'Some analysts see careful image control behind his decision to eschew wealthy escapes such as Martha's Vineyard,' reported Anne Kornblut in The Boston Globe.
'Maybe George W. Bush is carrying this "I'm-not-Bill-Clinton" thing too far,' wrote Ronald Brownstein in The Los Angeles Times. 'Spending a month in the Texas dust seems an overly emphatic recoil from Clinton's preference for chic vacations around the beautiful people.'
Bush, it seems, is only in Crawford as part of an ongoing White House campaign to boost his non-Washington image and connect him with rural, heartland values.
Now I like spin and cynicism as much as the next guy, but in this instance Brownstein, Wittmann and the gang are only spinning themselves. The idea that Bush bought 1,600 acres of Texas dust-bowl and then built a ranch on it just on the off-chance that, in the event he became President, it would piss off the media is, to say the least, a little far-fetched. Isn't it more likely that, incredible as it seems, he actually likes the town?
We can't say we weren't warned. During Campaign 2000, while Al Gore was running around hitting three states every twenty-four hours, Bush was back in Crawford, the first presidential candidate in history to spend election year working on his retirement home. At the end of August, the White House press corps gets to go back to Washington. But this is where George W Bush will be spending the rest of his life. Voluntarily.
'When you're from Texas and love Texas, this is where you come home,' Bush told the press corps, as they rolled their eyes. Yet having a home is what made him President. If Gore had won his alleged 'home' state of Tennessee, he'd be in the White House now. But, of course, it wasn't his home, and since the election he's shown little inclination to make it one. Likewise, Bill Clinton, whose only home in Arkansas will be the penthouse apartment his official library is being fitted with (the first presidential library in the Republic to be so accessorised). Clinton's like one of those 1-900 phone-sex lines: he has no area code; he's from everywhere and nowhere.
But in Crawford the ordinariness of Bush takes on an epic quality. I don't mean 'ordinary' in a disparaging way. As anyone who's spent any time around celebrities will know, they can be just as dull as any Crawford hairdresser or short-order cook, the tedium only augmented by their obsession with status. And, if you ever get into big celeb parties, you're often struck by the knots of forlorn superstars making halfhearted attempts at stilted small-talk far more boring than anything you'd hear at the Elks' Lodge or the Ladies' Aid. Clinton, after all, does not hang out with great scientists or philosophers, but with Alec Baldwin. Is the notion that Bush might find Alec and Steven and Carly's company boring and unrewarding really so absurd?
Apparently so, And not just absurd but offensive to the media's insistence that the presidency should be a starring role. Fortunately for them there's always America's new Ex-President-For-Life. Marvelling at Bill Clinton's delirious reception in Harlem the other day, the New York Times's star columnist, Maureen Dowd, gushed that he was the 'Sinatra of politics' — unlike his pygmy successor:
Just as W always seems smaller than his station and surroundings, Bill always seems bigger. One leaves no footprints and the other is all footprints.
Like Fay Wray in one of King Kong's craters, Ms Dowd seems to be having difficulty clambering out from Bill's massive footprint: 'I've got you under my shin,' as the Sinatra of politics would no doubt sing. Bush, sniffs Ms Dowd, is 'Eisenhower with hair'. All hairless Ike did was win the Second World War; but he'd have looked like a dork trying to groove along with Stevie Wonder.
The Crawford summer seems to have been the final straw for Ms Dowd, raising the suspicion that across the fruited plain there might be far more Crawfords and Wacos than Harlems and Hamptons. Last Sunday she bemoaned that Bush's crabbed vision is leaving its non-existent footprints everywhere you look. 'America has grown insular, isolationist, paranoid,' she despaired. 'Nothing leaps ahead. Power clings to the passé, retreating from the cutting edge. . . Everything from Washington's trashed international treaties to the coal-and-drill Bush environmental policy to Hollywood's tedious remakes and endless parade of second-world-war and Cinderella-themed movies — looks backward, not forward. Our missile shield, more science fiction than science, has become a metaphor for our passive, defensive, retro crouch.'
Oh dear, oh dear. 'Power clings to the passé' is actually the perfect summation of the average Clinton fundraiser guest-list: Spielberg. Streisand, Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg.. . .
Not exactly 'cutting edge', is it? Indeed, it's positively squaresville, like an especially lame issue of People. Come to that, isn't there something a little — dare one say — hicky in Clinton's need to cling to celebs and the media's need to cling to him?
We right-wing types are notoriously hard to please, and you won't be surprised to hear that policy-wise I've got grave doubts about this administration — the cave-in to Ted Kennedy on education, a zillion other things. But Bush the guy I like more and more. In fact, the man himself is at least as radical a project as missile defence: everything he does — or doesn't do — is a rebuke to the Clintonian notion that the role of the American people is to be the studio audience on The I'm The President! Show. So instead of preening with 'us' on the coast, he's out there with 'them', plonked in the middle of flyover country. Bush, Ms Dowd insists, is 'narrow, isolated and elitist'. Well, Crawford is certainly isolated. But if Bush were as elitist as they say, the Times set would be seeing a lot more of him at the Vineyard this summer.
~from The Spectator, August 25th 2001.
Many of Mark's pieces from this period can be found in his anthologies Mark Steyn from Head to Toe and The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore. And, if you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, don't forget to enter your promotional code at checkout for special member pricing.
Please join Mark later today, Thursday, for the latest episode of his current Tale for Our Time - Jack London's Burning Daylight.