Politics and the Art of Distraction

by Joshua H. Liberatore

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen Wag the Dog (1997), or if you’ve never seen it, now is the ideal moment to give it a fresh viewing. Two days before Americans go to the polls in what are expected to be record-high numbers, I can’t think of a better two-hour syllabus for gaining an appreciation of just to what lengths our political system will go to make sure its vested interests remain entrenched and secure. And if you are finding yourself a bit weary of the campaign talking points – the numbing idealism of the Obama catwalk, the sinister depravity of McCain’s stumping – a good political satire might be just enough to energize your trip to the voting booth. But satire done right is never soothing, nor is it meant to be. While there are laughs to be had in Wag the Dog, the dark realities that our laughter is meant to cast in new light are as troubling as they are true.

    First, a quick synopsis. In order to quell the breaking story of alleged sexual impropriety involving the president and a Firefly Girl, a crack public relations team gathers in the bowels of the White House to devise a plan that will deflect the attention of the ravenous media and the swayable American public. It is less than two weeks before election day, and the popular incumbent must be allowed simply to coast his way into a second term. Any scandal, no matter how dubious or absurd, could destroy him at the polls and bring to power an opportunistic senator lacking scruples. Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is the specialist tactician called in to lead the effort, and in his beard, wool hat, and cozy sweaters, he is calm, decisive, and ruthless – an unusual but attractive picture of the backroom Washington operative. Within hours, he concocts the basic plan: with the help of a Hollywood production squad led by Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman), the White House will fabricate a war against Albania – chosen because Americans are expected to know nothing of the place – and finesse the news cycle away from pedophilic sex toward the firm ground of national security, a guaranteed bestseller.

    The media campaign necessitates the full suite of propaganda tools: memorable but meaningless catchphrases, calculated symbolism, staged photo opportunities, even a few theme songs. In the single best scene of the movie, songwriter Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson) directs a mixed-race gospel choir in a rousing rendition of “Guarding the American Dream” with what looks like a glockenspiel mallet as Stanley watches gleefully from behind the glass of the recording booth. By all calculations (poll data cited throughout), Americans seem to be buying the ruse. When the rival candidate, with the help of the CIA and FBI, tries to counter the media blitz by announcing not that the war is a sham but only that it has abruptly ended, a new twist shifts the focus onto the frenzied rescue of an American sergeant, William Schumann (Woody Harrelson), said to be caught behind enemy lines (in actuality, he’s incarcerated in a U.S. military prison). To keep the public entranced and emotionally attached to this narrative, Conrad and Stanley initiate a hilarious national trend that involves jettisoning pairs of old shoes onto tree branches and electrical wires to show solidarity with “Old Shoe” while a second theme song is hurriedly recorded and stuffed into the stacks of the Library of Congress for convenient “discovery.”

    What’s perhaps most shocking about watching Wag the Dog in 2008 is to observe its uncanny prescience. Made a year before Bill Clinton asked lawyers to parse the word “is” in the Monica Lewinsky show trials, and a full five years before George W. Bush was transformed overnight from a pathetic silly-billy into a messianic warmonger, the film reveals some curious insights about our perennial political games and some particulars about our lamentable present. In Wag the Dog, the creative Hollywood minds to whom we entrust so much of our credulity function as plausible foils for the real-life think tanks and lobbyists that influence our policy and budget appropriations. They are organized, they are supremely well funded, and they know how to meet tight deadlines. Those that do the job well are those that best captivate audiences with the most compelling narratives. Success is not predicated on rational strategy or commonsense problem solving but on effective storytelling. And when the story itself sags, sound, image, and special effects collaborate to wash away the leaks in the design.

    This November, our national story is certainly sagging. A serious financial crisis is at hand. Wars against abstract nouns rage on without cease, with an overextended military straining the operational budget and inflating the mounting debt. Unemployment plagues many states and cities. In short, there’s a lot indeed to be distracted from. In the past week, U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan conducted cross-border raids into neighboring Syria and Pakistan, respectively, killing eight “militants” in the former, and at least two dozen in the latter. If anyone noticed these signs of an escalating war on terror, nobody seemed to be talking much about it, nor has the U.S. government recognized the likelihood of civilian casualties. The presidential campaigns failed to make mention of them, or if they did, nobody watching cared. Given that Obama and McCain locked horns over the theoretical advisability of widening the war on the Taliban and al Qaida in two televised debates, their subsequent neglect of an actual air strike on Pakistani soil seems both bold and willfully dishonest.

    Other unsavory news includes the breakdown in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement with the “sovereign” Iraqis, who understandably have serious concerns about the draft resolution they’ve been presented and will be unlikely to approve it before the expiration of the current U.N. mandate that grants U.S. forces legal authority to remain in Iraq on December 31st. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the various factions putting pressure on him are haggling over the precise date of withdrawal of forces and the matter of jurisdiction over coalition misdeeds. McCain likes to scold Obama for his unwillingness to recognize the success of the mythical surge. Obama wisely demurs; perhaps he has read reports from the many informed experts who argue that the troop surge’s association with decreasing violence is a classic instance of correlation without causation. In fact, ethnic cleansing – the systematic dismantling of mixed Shi’a and Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and other cities – is chiefly responsible for whatever calm is said to exist. The other factor is the rarely-discussed program by which 100,000 Sunnis, many of them former insurgents, are simply paid – with U.S. supplied funds – to halt their resistance and instead join the employ of the goverment-sponsored militias, the Awakening Councils. Not very democratic these trends, but this war was never about spreading democracy, regardless of what President Bush chooses to believe.

    Mere details, you say? For the Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, and Pakistanis at the core of these untold stories, the details matter. Of course, few Americans want to be reminded that our wars are not going well: the “bad” war of choice that Bush will bequeath his successor is no nearer to “victory” than it was before the much-lauded “surge” came into effect; the “good” war in Afghanistan is deteriorating with each week of continued violence. These are unpleasant stories, and on the eve of the most important election in a generation, few seem interested. Meanwhile, our candidates make appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and “Letterman” and pay sportsmanlike homage to the studio altars of our national obsessions. Our news media track stories about Sarah Palin’s costume allowance, Obama’s immigrant aunt, and John McCain’s eight houses. We are caught up in hundreds of narratives at once and the endless patter of competition simply overwhelms us, exactly as it is meant to. Who will prove the more successful manipulator of our affections is still hard to tell, but the prodigious fortune spent toward this end projects a very ugly trend that is neither new nor necessary, as some have suggested. It turns out that truth imitates fiction in strange ways, in a striking inversion of the premise of Wag the Dog: instead of a phony war distracting American voters from the antics of an insipid political campaign, we have an increasingly superficial political campaign distracting us from the fallout of an ignoble war.

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