Thursday, February 6
THE BASEBALL PRESIDENCY: The Making of George W. Bush
Tony Castro, Inside Houston, 2001
“Baseball,” Bush said in an interview during the presidential campaign, “has been a part of my life since before I can remember. It is a pursuit for optimists. To come to the park every day, you have to believe you can win.”
Perhaps it is the optimism built on baseball that, in part, explains how Bush became president, surprising critics who said he wasn’t smart enough, defeating a Democratic candidate who had been bred for the presidency, confounding journalists who almost universally opposed him in the sanctity of their own private voting booths. How else is this second Bush presidency to be explained? Had it been not enough Clinton in Al Gore’s campaign or too much Clinton hijinks in the public consciousness? How had Bush done what few thought he could do? And if this marks the end of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called the "imperial presidency," as Washington pundits are saying, what will the Bush years be called?
Call it perhaps the Baseball Presidency. What Bush himself might say is that it just goes to show how far the America of soccer moms and hip-hop sports culture mentality has strayed from its traditional national pastime. The America that Bush grew up in and the America that brought major league baseball to Houston and built the Astrodome remains an America with an undying game that has been slowly reclaiming its place as a cultural expression of the national character. As cultural historian Jacques Barzun once observed about the country and baseball: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”
Perhaps part of understanding Bush is understanding baseball — that the game has the image of stability and conservatism, that it is individualistic but still emphasizes teamwork, that it is anti-intellectual but cannot be won through sheer brute force or strength or emotion but through cleverness, thought, guile, and technical mastery of small details. [...]
More importantly, during this period, Bush gained an intangible quality from his family’s competitive nature and from having to overcome his limited physical talent to acquit himself as a Little Leaguer.
“The blind drive to win is a hallmark of the Bush family clan,” says Gail Sheehy, who wrote the controversial profile on Bush for the October 2000 Vanity Fair, claiming he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia. “One thing that G.W.’s childhood friends told me repeatedly was that he has to win, he absolutely has to win and if he thinks he’s going to lose, he will change the rules or extend the play. Or if it really is bad he’ll take his bat and ball and go home. So I had very little doubt that he would win this election in the end, no matter how long he had to play it out.” [...]
Tales of the Tyrant
Mark Bowden, The Atlantic Monthly (Online), May 2002
What does Saddam Hussein see in himself that no one else in the world seems to see? The answer is perhaps best revealed by the intimate details of the Iraqi leader's daily life
The tyrant must steal sleep. He must vary the locations and times. He never sleeps in his palaces. He moves from secret bed to secret bed. Sleep and a fixed routine are among the few luxuries denied him. It is too dangerous to be predictable, and whenever he shuts his eyes, the nation drifts. His iron grip slackens. Plots congeal in the shadows. For those hours he must trust someone, and nothing is more dangerous to the tyrant than trust.
Saddam Hussein, the Anointed One, Glorious Leader, Direct Descendant of the Prophet, President of Iraq, Chairman of its Revolutionary Command Council, field marshal of its armies, doctor of its laws, and Great Uncle to all its peoples, rises at about three in the morning. He sleeps only four or five hours a night. When he rises, he swims. All his palaces and homes have pools. Water is a symbol of wealth and power in a desert country like Iraq, and Saddam splashes it everywhere—fountains and pools, indoor streams and waterfalls. It is a theme in all his buildings. His pools are tended scrupulously and tested hourly, more to keep the temperature and the chlorine and pH levels comfortable than to detect some poison that might attack him through his pores, eyes, mouth, nose, ears, penis, or anus—although that worry is always there too.
He has a bad back, a slipped disk, and swimming helps. It also keeps him trim and fit. This satisfies his vanity, which is epic, but fitness is critical for other reasons. He is now sixty-five, an old man, but because his power is grounded in fear, not affection, he cannot be seen to age. The tyrant cannot afford to become stooped, frail, and gray. Weakness invites challenge, coup d'état. One can imagine Saddam urging himself through a fixed number of laps each morning, pushing to exceed the number he swam the previous year, as if time could be undone by effort and will. Death is an enemy he cannot defeat—only, perhaps, delay. So he works. He also dissembles. He dyes his gray hair black and avoids using his reading glasses in public. When he is to give a speech, his aides print it out in huge letters, just a few lines per page. Because his back problem forces him to walk with a slight limp, he avoids being seen or filmed walking more than a few steps.
He is long-limbed, with big, strong hands. In Iraq the size of a man still matters, and Saddam is impressive. At six feet two he towers over his shorter, plumper aides. He lacks natural grace but has acquired a certain elegance of manner, the way a country boy learns to match the right tie with the right suit. His weight fluctuates between about 210 and 220 pounds, but in his custom-tailored suits the girth isn't always easy to see. His paunch shows when he takes off his suit coat. Those who watch him carefully know he has a tendency to lose weight in times of crisis and to gain it rapidly when things are going well.
Fresh food is flown in for him twice a week—lobster, shrimp, and fish, lots of lean meat, plenty of dairy products. The shipments are sent first to his nuclear scientists, who x-ray them and test them for radiation and poison. The food is then prepared for him by European-trained chefs, who work under the supervision of al Himaya, Saddam's personal bodyguards. Each of his more than twenty palaces is fully staffed, and three meals a day are cooked for him at every one; security demands that palaces from which he is absent perform an elaborate pantomime each day, as if he were in residence. Saddam tries to regulate his diet, allotting servings and portions the way he counts out the laps in his pools. For a big man he usually eats little, picking at his meals, often leaving half the food on his plate. Sometimes he eats dinner at restaurants in Baghdad, and when he does, his security staff invades the kitchen, demanding that the pots and pans, dishware, and utensils be well scrubbed, but otherwise interfering little. Saddam appreciates the culinary arts. He prefers fish to meat, and eats a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. He likes wine with his meals, though he is hardly an oenophile; his wine of choice is Mateus rosé. But even though he indulges only in moderation, he is careful not to let anyone outside his most trusted circle of family and aides see him drinking. Alcohol is forbidden by Islam, and in public Saddam is a dutiful son of the faith.
He has a tattoo on his right hand, three dark-blue dots in a line near the wrist. These are given to village children when they are only five or six years old, a sign of their rural, tribal roots. Girls are often marked on their chins, forehead, or cheeks (as was Saddam's mother). For those who, like Saddam, move to the cities and come up in life, the tattoos are a sign of humble origin, and some later have them removed, or fade them with bleach until they almost disappear. Saddam's have faded, but apparently just from age; although he claims descent from the prophet Muhammad, he has never disguised his humble birth.
The President-for-life spends long hours every day in his office—whichever office he and his security minders select. He meets with his ministers and generals, solicits their opinions, and keeps his own counsel. [...]