Obama and the new age of sobriety

Oliver Stone’s W reminds us of the almost Catholic levels of moral disgust that underpinned the liberal critique of Bush.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics USA

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Two very different images of two very different presidents dominated the media and popular culture this weekend. On one side there was Barack Obama, the fitness freak, papped as he and his very heavily-armed security detail made their way to a Chicago gym. The media gushed over his litheness, his glossy skin, his sprightly step. ‘Obama is FIT for office’, said the Sun. He is a ‘role model for physical activity and fun’, said an American health guru. ‘Has an American president-elect ever been fitter for office?’, asked the Guardian, probably in the same tone of voice used by 12-year-old girls when they say: ‘Has there ever been anyone hotter than Zac Efron?’

On the other side there was George W Bush in W, Oliver Stone’s Dallas-style biopic of the Bush years which was released in British cinemas this weekend. Stone shows Bush and his coterie as gluttonous, hedonistic, drunken. There are close-ups of Bush (Josh Brolin) munching on cheeseburgers, the meat sticking to his teeth as he tells Laura how ‘priddy’ she is. Bush and Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) give the nod to the waterboarding of terror suspects while eating extremely chunky fries and sandwiches made with white bread (it’s so white it almost dazzles you). Bush’s home is strewn with whiskey tumblers. In the most bizarre scene in the movie, Bush’s motley crew discover that there are definitely no WMD in Iraq while eating cakes: big, juicy, creamy cakes, the camera lingering on Paul Wolfowitz’s fork as it stabs for another piece of chocolately wickedness.

It is part M&S advert, part Hieronymus Bosch, intended to portray the essential sinfulness of the Bush administration. Now, Obama, the teetotal healthy eater, is presented as America’s moral saviour after the cake-scoffing irresponsibility, greed and general drunkenness of the Bush years. As the Guardian says, where Bush was known for ‘choking on pretzels’, Obama also has a ‘favoured snack: Planters Trail Mix, consisting of nuts, seeds and raisins, washed down with organic berry tea’. One American columnist sees Obama as providing a kind of political 12-Step Recovery Programme after eight years of rule by a former alcoholic. ‘Trying to explain the Bush presidency is a bit like apologising to friends after a long night of heavy drinking’, he says. ‘[We] turned to Obama because he offered something we had missed for a long time. Sobriety.’

Stone’s immortalisation of Bush as a spoilt frat boy given to outbursts of drink-fuelled bad behaviour (we see the young Bush half-naked and being pumped with beer by his fellow university students), coupled with the celebration of Obama’s bodily purity, reveals the deeply conservative streak in the liberal critique of Bush. Over the past eight years, Bush has been slated most frequently from a moralistic standpoint: for his transgressions of good behaviour codes, and for his snub to the culture of therapy in his refusal to bow and scrape before the high priests of Alcoholics Anonymous (Bush preferred to give up booze by himself). The irony of the hysterical claims that Bush was leading a religious-right victory over world affairs is that the liberals who made a living from bashing Bush hated him primarily for sinning against their religion: the Church of Self-Denial and Self-Restraint.

The view of Bush as gluttonous and tempted by drink – and thus Sinful – is not confined to the movies of Oliver Stone. In serious public debate, too, liberal thinkers and activists have cited Bush’s former alleged alcoholism and his ‘dysfunctional’ personality as explanations for his wayward policies. Bush has denied ever having been a textbook alcoholic (whatever that might be), but he has admitted to having a ‘drinking problem’ in his younger years; he went cold turkey in 1986, when he was 40 years old, and apparently has not consumed a drop since.

However, in the deeply misanthropic and fatalistic religiosity of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, one is always an alcoholic; there is no escaping from your past. You can only manage your innate temptations by, first, admitting that you are powerless in the face of alcohol, and, second, giving yourself over to the higher power of anti-alcohol therapeutic intervention (the first two steps in AA’s 12-Step programme). Because of their slavish devotion to this gospel truth of the culture of therapy – which updates the Catholic notion of ‘original sin’ by presenting people as the eternal prisoners of their youthful follies – many liberals have argued that Bush, unlike the ‘gym rat’ Obama, was not fit for office.

In 2002, Katherine van Wormer, an American professor of social work and author of Addiction Treatment: A Strengths Perspective, argued that Bush was clearly suffering from ‘Dry Drunk syndrome’. ‘Dry drunk’ is a derogatory term used by the leaders and followers of AA to describe someone who is a ‘recovering alcoholic, who is no longer drinking, but whose thinking is clouded’. It is primarily used against those who gave up drinking without submitting themselves to AA: that is, individuals who have not truly been ‘saved’ from the devil of alcoholism because they have not been coached in the ways of therapeutic renewal by the demigods of AA. Van Wormer warned that Bush is ‘dry, but not truly sober’ (rough translation: ‘good, but not truly saved’), and said his ‘dry drunkenness’ exhibited itself in his ‘extreme language: crusade, infinite justice, evildoers, axis of evil’. ‘Something about the polarised thinking and the obsessive repetition reminded me of many of the recovering alcoholics/addicts I had treated’, said van Wormer. It’s worth noting that van Wormer’s piece was published, not in a journal of psychobabble, but in Counterpunch, a radical left news-sheet.

The view of Bush as a potentially dangerous ‘dry drunk’ spread fast. In the American Politics Journal in the run-up to the Iraq war, columnist and author Alan Bisbort described Bush as a ‘drunk’ and Congress as his ‘enabler’; only a ‘dry drunk’, said Bisbort, could get so ‘fumble-tongued, incapable of stringing more than two coherent sentences together, and snippily irritable with anyone who dares disagree with him’. Even serious tomes on the Bush years have cited his alleged alcoholism (the state of mind, that is, not actual drinking) as his most dangerous trait. The authors of The Four Freedoms Under Siege: The Clear and Present Danger from Our National Security State argued that Bush fits the description of the ‘dry drunk’, since he tends to be ‘rigid in outlook and judgement, and impatient’.

The popular Imperial Overstretch: George W Bush and the Hubris of Empire – a book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan! – devotes half a chapter to discussing Bush’s innate alcoholism, his dysfunctionalism, and ‘what psychologists might call his authoritarian personality’ (which apparently springs from his ‘relationship with his father, a powerful and complex factor in his life’). Bush the ‘dry drunk’ is apparently given to ‘exaggerated self-importance and pomposity’ and a ‘rigid, judgemental outlook’, claim the authors of Imperial Overstretch. The implication is clear: even the destruction of Iraq may have been triggered by Bush’s moral failings, by his refusal to confess that he has a drinking problem, submit to therapy, and cleanse himself of deluded self-conviction and arrogance. So AA doesn’t only save individuals – it can save the world!

The essentially elitist, even dictatorial, nature of therapeutic intervention was revealed in the argument that Bush should be removed from office, or at least ‘offered help’, on the basis of his disease of alcoholism. ‘Bush needs an intervention’, said Bisbort. ‘Let’s be his interveners. Let’s raise our sober voices.’ Michael Moore, the supposed defender of liberal values against Bush extremism, wrote a message for Bush in Stupid White Men: ‘Get help. Join AA.’ Dr Justin A Frank, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical School in DC and author of the bestselling Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President – a book which drew together much of the pyschogarbage about Bush’s mental frailty – even suggested that Bush should be disempowered in the name of therapy.

‘Bush is an alcoholic who has never been treated’, said Frank. ‘[H]e needs an intervention… I think the only way to deal with him is to isolate him, and neutralise his behaviour, which would mean blocking everything he proposed, and refusing to go along with it: sanctioning him, quarantining him, censuring him, and impeaching him. He needs to be removed from office. He’s a very destructive man, who is not in touch with his destructiveness.’ Well, what are the democratic wishes of 50million American voters compared with the diagnosis of one doctor? The demand to treat Bush, or quarantine him, even to topple him, reveals the reactionary streak in the moralistic, borderline Catholic critique of his sinfulness. Many of the liberals who criticised Bush for his denigration of liberty and democracy in the name of politics seem happy to denigrate liberty and democracy in the name of therapy.

Obama, in contrast to Bush, is not only healthy and organic, he has also talked openly about his former ‘abuse’ of drink and drugs (though he still struggles with his addiction to cigarettes). This is one of the essential differences between Obama and Bush, argues the influential commentator Juan Cole: Obama wrote about his personal problems, and ‘honesty is the highest form of leadership’. In other words, Obama seems to accept the Gospel According to Oprah, built upon the Old Testament of Alcoholics Anonymous, which decrees that we must all accept our personal powerlessness and open ourselves up to external intervention. The spectre of the religious right was always partly the product of fevered liberal minds; the far more powerful religious force in the US today is the religion of therapy, with its emphasis on self-esteem over self-belief and meekness over ambition. At least part of the reason why members of the cultural elite are loudly celebrating the victory of healthy Obama over self-destructive Bush is because he better represents their irrational faith.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA


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