Originally published in Arthur No. 5 (July 2003)
YOU AND WHOSE ARMY?: Is George W. Bush Addicted to Cocaine?
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum
CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.
DVDs/videos discussed in this column:
o Horns and Halos, directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky
o Journeys with George, directed by Alexandra Pelosi
o Uncle Saddam, directed by Joel Soler
o What I’ve Learned About U.S. Foreign Policy: The War Against the Third World, compiled by Frank Dorrel
o Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, directed by Richard Ray PÈrez and Joan Sekler
“If George W. Bush has not used cocaine, he ought to say it. If he has, he ought to say it and then say how he overcame it.” —Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah)
Is George W. Bush a pederast? Neo-fascist? Born-again zealot? Serial rapist? The question itself brooks no compromise; to raise it is tantamount to treason. The exact incidence and degree of oral-genital stimulation tolerated by a standing president may be suitable for the Congressional Record, but try suggesting we have a Crackhead-in-Chief, and see how far it gets you.
Yet given our president’s globally mystifying behavior of the past two months, no less than the paragons of the Fourth Estate have at least flirted with the concept in polite company. Following Bush’s televised press conference on March 7t, Maureen Dowd in the New York Times labeled him “the Xanax Cowboy” and observed that, “Determined not to be petulant, he seemed tranquilized.” Tom Shales in the Washington Post put a finer point on it: “It hardly seems out of order to speculate that, given the particularly heavy burden of being president in this new age of terrorism … the president may have been ever so slightly medicated.” Another New York Times editorial, by Paul Krugman, compares Bush’s pre-war behavior to that of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, famously fondling marbles and paranoidly raging about missing strawberries.
That national leaders can be addicted to drugs may be less an aberration than the historical norm. Adolph Hitler (according to Himmler) received daily injections of amphetamines which increased steadily throughout the war, and was also fond of cocaine after 1944, when he was treated for strep throat by a doctor who may have been trying to wean him from his speed addiction. (Documented in Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography.) In our recent past, Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot reveals that John F. Kennedy had his own “Dr. Feelgood” (Dr. “Miracle Max” Jacobson) who administered amphetamine injections from the 1960 campaign on, came and went at will at the White House and finally had his medical license revoked in 1975. Lyndon Johnson was an alcoholic at the end of his life, if not long before, as was Richard Nixon, who Anthony Summers in The Arrogance of Power reports also took Seconal nightly, amphetamines occasionally, sleeping pills dating back to the 1940s, and frequently abused Dilantin, a prescription epilepsy drug which often slurred his speech and clouded his judgment.
Nor is it much in doubt that George W. Bush has at least used cocaine. Candidate Bush refused in August 1999 to state unequivocally that he had not done so, unlike his 10 Republican rivals. This gave way to a moving line in the sand as Bush sought to reassure a clamoring press, ending with his claim that he would have passed even the 15-year background check in effect when his father was sworn in as president—or 1974, when Bush was a 28-year-old student at the Harvard Business School. As USA Today stated at the time, “Bush has essentially admitted to something, but he refuses to say what.” Bush confirms he was a “heavy drinker” until 1986, when at the age of 40, he found religion and embraced sobriety; details of a long-suppressed DUI conviction later emerged during the campaign.
There is also a secondary body of evidence that Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in Houston in 1972, but that a sympathetic judge and political crony of his father allowed the matter to be suppressed in exchange for six months of public service at Project P.U.L.L., an inner-city program for underprivileged youth. This is essentially the story of Horns and Halos, a documentary on a quixotic book tour for J.H. Hatfield’s Fortunate Son, a controversial biography of the future president which was recalled by St. Martin’s and subsequently published by self-described “left-of-center, punk-rock flibbertigibbet” Sander Hicks and his Soft Skull Press, when he wasn’t otherwise engaged as the super of an East Village tenement building. (The book’s title comes from a quote by Hatfield: A complete biography should present both the good and the evil—‘the horns and halos’—of a subject.) As much as anything, the film demonstrates in real time the consummate media skills of Karl Rove, Bush’s private Cray supercomputer, who is single-handedly responsible for orchestrating both his Texas and national ascendancies. And it’s got one hell of a third-act reveal.
As Hatfield tells it, having met Clay Johnson, a long-time Bush friend and gubernatorial advisor, in the late ’80s, he saw this as his ticket to a major publishing advance. Relying on Johnson and then Rove as his chief sources, he firmly documented Bush’s business setbacks, draft avoidance, death row roulette, professional “ratfucking” and dirty tricks in the Bush I campaign (alongside Rove and the legendary Lee Atwater), as well as every black mark against him in the public record. In June 1999, Hatfield describes how Rove takes him fishing on Lake Eustafa in Oklahoma, in a scene reminiscent of both Parallax View , seconds before an assassin’s bomb detonates a private fishing boat, and the end of Godfather II, when Fredo is dispatched out on the lake at his mother’s funeral.)
In late August, a blind item appeared on Salon linking Bush’s cocaine arrest with public service at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Center in Houston, a charge heatedly denied by the center’s director. With his book already in galleys, Hatfield intuited that a cocaine bust would have explained Bush’s tenure at Project P.U.L.L.—an assertion confirmed by both Johnson and Rove—and he highlighted the charges in an ill-conceived Afterword, attributing the claim to blind sources. What Hatfield didn’t figure was that Rove knew about the five years he had served in federal prison for conspiracy to commit murder, “the result of a workplace conspiracy gone horribly awry,” as Hicks later characterized it. When that inconvenient detail was reported by the Dallas Morning News (again from a blind source, it’s worth noting), St. Martin’s ordered the recall and abandoned the book.
The revelation effectively sealed the topic in the popular press. “Ever since the book came out, the cocaine issue has been a dead issue,” says Pam Colloff of Texas Monthly in the film. “And it’s been a dead issue, I think, because of that book.” Dying alongside of it is the consummate portrait of the future 43rd president as a short-tempered, good-time layabout who traded in the entitlement of the rich and the enablement of the cross-addicted for the messianic fervor of the born again, unleashing what Bushisms author Mark Crispin Miller so elegantly terms “the great, glowering Nixon inside of George W. Bush.”
In the parking lot outside the 2001 Book Expo in Chicago, where in a Hail Mary move he has just identified Rove as his blind source, Hatfield confesses, “I’ve known guys in prison, and the thing they always told me is that greed’ll get you every time. And maybe that’s what got me on this. I wanted to get off that mid-list of doing X-Files books. I wanted to write a really hard-hitting biography.” This is what great con men do—dangle the bait, and then wait for the mark to bite. Of course, it’s possible that Rove manufactured the entire cocaine arrest, leaked it falsely to Salon and begrudgingly confirmed it to Hatfield, his designated stalking horse, knowing that if not the speciousness of the claim, then at least the controversy surrounding the author’s prison record, would capsize the book and preclude any further discussion of drugs as a liability. Either way, that degree of manipulation is almost breathtaking in its complexity. As we too often forget, evil never sleeps.
* * *
In Journeys With George, a chronicle of the campaign trail by NBC producer Alexandra Pelosi, we see an altogether different side of Bush—the one that must certainly have appealed to his first constituency, the sundry millionaires and billionaires who comprise the voting body of the power elite, when Bush was trotted out to dazzle them one on one, after Newt Gingrich had resigned in disgrace and the right wing of the Republican Party was in danger of dying off. This is Bush the party animal and affable clown: charismatic, reasonably witty and self-effacing, the Dekes’ most successful rush chairman ever. Pelosi, who grew up inured to political celebrity as the daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D.-California), the current House Minority Leader, is able to transcend the deference most of her colleagues are hobbled by in their dealings with the candidate, and the results often border on Abbott and Costello.
“Stop filming me. You’re like a head cold,” Bush tells her early on, in one of their many encounters on the press bus. When he admonishes her to get serious, she counters with the infamous Barbara Walters chestnut, “If you were a tree, what kind of a tree would you be?” “I’m not; I’m a Bush,” he answers immediately. “See, I’m a little quicker than you think, Alexandra.” Noting her fondness for “Newsweek Man,” her fellow journalist and confidante, he takes the camera and interviews her on her love life. When she comes to an impasse with the more convivial revelers in the back of the press plane, it is Bush who brokers an armistice, marshalling his own wild-dog past. “Look, these people were just trying to have a good solid margarita,” he tells her. “They wanted to get hopping here at 45,000 over Nebraska. Innocent fun. And you stepped in and you rained on their parade, man.” Once the peace is restored, Bush brandishes a Buckner’s non-alcoholic beer and proclaims, “These are my people. Back here with the animals. With the tequila drinkers. Yeah!”
“So much of it has been about pack journalism,” admits British journalist Richard Wolffe of the Financial Times. near the end of the film. “And I’ve just got this nagging feeling that the pack wasn’t always doing the right story. The Gore press corps was all about how they didn’t like him, how they didn’t trust him, and that sort of filtered through into the stories. We were writing about trivial stuff because [Bush] charmed the pants off us.” Yet in an odd time-lapse fashion, we see the gregarious Bush fade and a more familiar figure take his place—the stiff, repetitive, pre-fab statesman, who speaks in platitudes and the austere cadences of the Sunday morning sermon, and whose personality is slowly leeched out of him under the weight of encroaching responsibility. “Bush has changed as this election has gone along,” notes one of the boys on the bus. “He has grown much more mature. But now he’s constantly aware of everything he says, his body posture. Sometimes he becomes so self-aware that it’s actually sort of uncomfortable watching him.”
Bush’s most appealing moment by far comes on the heels of the margarita party, after Pelosi’s private poll revealing that most of the press believe Bush will lose is leaked to the New York Post. When her peers ostracize her out of fear of reprisal, Bush makes a point of greeting her the next morning with a hug—an action that seems oddly couched in the recognition of his own slow-leaking transmutation. “When they see me talking to you, they’re going to act like they’re your friends again,” he whispers to her off-camera. “But these people aren’t your friends. They can say what they want about me, but at least I know who my friends are.”
* * *
Extending the benefit of the doubt for a moment, no criticism of U.S. foreign policy is complete without the requisite admission that Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a very bad man. No matter how ill-conceived this latest port-of-call freebooting may seem, it’s quite impossible to champion the opposition. For a litany of exactly how this is true, we need look no further than Uncle Saddam, a cheeky profile of the tinhorn despot and opera buffo dastard du jour, shot mostly inside Iraq at considerable peril to its director, Joel Soler, a French national of Arabic descent.
On a guided tour of Saddam’s 30-year quest to deforest the family tree and erect modern pyramids to himself, we learn that the Butcher of Baghdad is rumored to have almost been aborted by his mother; married his first cousin and murdered another cousin, his brother-in-law and both his daughters’ husbands; systematically gassed Kurds in the north, attacked Shiites in the south and organized public hangings of Jews; routinely removes the teeth of rivals; fishes with grenades; wears goofy, often bulletproof hats; dyes his moustache; insists the entire population go on diets with him; owns 21 palaces (containing private casinos and an underground runway for private jets); has rebuilt Babylon, designed a new Tower of Babel and planned to build a mosque bigger than the one at Mecca (taller than the Eiffel Tower, with a private lake in the shape of his thumbprint, stocked with dolphins); is terrified of germs, and prefers to be kissed near the armpits; and is a stickler for hygiene (“It is not appropriate for someone to attend a gathering or to be with his children with his body odor trailing behind him emitting sweet or stinky smell mixed with perspiration,” he declares on camera). If anything, the film actually downplays the casual sadism of his incumbency.
But note Soler’s capsule description of his profile subject, taken from a separate interview packaged as a special feature on the DVD: “I think Saddam’s weakest point is that he doesn’t know anything about the world. He didn’t really travel outside of Iraq. Yeah, he went to France in the ’70s, to India, but he doesn’t know much about the world. And because the people around him are always praising him, I think he’s disconnected from reality. And I think also his weakest point, and what’s going to lose [it for] him, is his ego. He has such a big ego that he’ll never admit he’s wrong. Or he’ll never admit, okay, now it’s time for me to give up. He’ll fight until the end.”
Who does that remind you of?
(For his next project, Soler promises to reveal links between Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Stay tuned.)
* * *
In a larger sense, Bush inherits a military-steroid state and perpetual expansion machine that is—according to the title of Joel Andreas’s cartoon expose—Addicted to War. As is cogently outlined in this 70-page primer and its companion DVD, What I’ve Learned About U.S. Foreign Policy: The War Against the Third World, compiled by the book’s publisher, Frank Dorrel, the extent of U.S. military incursios lays successfully camouflaged in the mists of history. Made up of excerpts from Bill Moyers’ The Secret Government, Coverup: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair, The Panama Deception and more, the tape labels this ongoing piecemeal invasion “the Third World War,” since it is literally an incidental war waged against Third World bystanders, with an estimated six million casualties over the last half century. Nor is addiction an ill-chosen metaphor. Drug smuggling repeatedly surfaces as a means of financing U.S. covert operations—against China in the ’50s; Cambodia, Laos and Thailand in the ’60s and ’70s, via the Golden Triangle heroin trade; Afghanistan in the ’80s, which created the Golden Crescent; and the contra war in Nicaragua. As intensively detailed in Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance and elsewhere, the latter not only capitalized on, but in effect created the crack epidemic in South Central Los Angeles in the mid-’80s. Until his death in 1993, Medellin cartel head Pablo Escobar maintained he possessed a photograph of George Bush, Sr. posed in front of suitcases full of money, which he regarded as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It was taken when Vice-President Bush was the head of Reagan’s War on Drugs.
When the possibility of George W. Bush’s cocaine use was first raised, it was always in the context of his drug and prison policies, and the hypocrisy such an admission would belie, or else just the wasted opportunity—that of Bush’s own “Nixon in China,” the one issue he was amply qualified to make his own, and now never would. A recent column by Alan Bisbort in American Politics Journal suggests Bush might be what Alcoholics Anonymous terms “a dry drunk,” someone who exhibits the behavior of an alcoholic in every way but imbibing.
“Of course, he may just be an immature bully who will gladly sacrifice thousands of lives to get his way, even against the advice of the most respected and mature members of his own party,” the column posits. “[However], the question is begged, and seems to at least deserve some pause for pondering: How did he, at age 58, get so fumble-tongued, incapable of stringing more than two coherent sentences together, snippily irritable with anyone who dares disagree with him or even ask a question, poutily turning his back on the democratically elected president of one of our most important allies because of something one of his underlings said about him (Germany’s Schroder, of course), listlessly in need of constant vacations and rest, dangerously obsessed with only one thing (Iraq), to the exclusion of all other things (including an economy that is slowly sucking the life from the nation as well as the retirement savings of anyone reading these words)? Furthermore, why is Bush so eager to engage in violence and so incapable of explaining why?”
But what if this complex of behaviors can be attributed not to addiction in the abstract, but to a specific addiction—one which can at least be circumstantially tied to the president’s past, his social milieu and his family legacy?
The National Institute of Drug Abuse claims that in the short term, “large amounts [of cocaine] may intensify the user’s high, but may also lead to bizarre, erratic and violent behavior.” It lists as among the short-term side effects of cocaine abuse “increased energy, increased heart rate and blood pressure and dilated pupils.” Long-term symptoms are listed as “irritability, mood disturbances, restlessness, paranoia and full-blown psychosis.” A co-study conducted by NIDA and John Hopkins University found that chronic, heavy cocaine use (defined as two or more grams per week) is associated with long-lasting impaired functions such as “drug users’ ability to make choices and decisions, skill at long-range planning, verbal memory, manual dexterity and other cognitive skills.”
Immediately before his televised speech of March 17 announcing the commencement of combat, the president reportedly took a moment alone to collect and center himself, outside the watchful eyes of aides and Secret Service. Moments later at the podium, according to eyewitnesses, he pumped his fist in the air repeatedly and shouted, “I feel good!” The disturbing incongruity of quoting James Brown moments before launching America’s first unprovoked war was not allayed by his fixed, unblinking stare and eerie intensity, weirdly reminiscent of Oliver North at the Iran-Contra hearings. “Bizarre, erratic and violent behavior” might characterize our nominal allies’ assessment of our latter-day diplomacy, and “irritability and mood disturbances” could easily come from the internal memos of Jacques Chirac or Hans Blix. Under certain optimal conditions, “restlessness” could lead to an expansion of empire, just as “paranoia” might cause one to overestimate or fabricate a foreign threat. “Verbal memory” and “manual dexterity” would both seem challenged if failing to marshal a cogent argument for one’s actions, or even convincingly read a Teleprompter. And a breakdown of the “ability to make choices and decisions, skill at long-range planning and other cognitive skills” is copiously on display in contemporary Iraq.
Just think back to the ’80s, when cocaine recreationally ruled our culture: Wall Street was besotted with greed. Our literature was populated by masters of the universe and brand-name monsters (Bonfire of the Vanities; Bright Lights, Big City; American Psycho); our music was overblown, empty, deeply superficial (Foreigner, Robert Palmer, Madonna); our movies were bombastic and shrill (Heaven’s Gate; Howard the Duck). Arrogance, blind ambition and a carapace-like narcissism were the hallmarks of the era. That’s exactly the character on display in Unprecedented, a 50-minute procedural autopsy of the 2000 election process executive produced by liberal flame-keeper Robert Greenwald (Steal This Movie), and co-directed by Richard Ray Perez and Joan Sekler. From Jeb Bush’s 1994 campaign stump retort on what he’d do for Florida’s blacks if elected (“Probably nothing.”), to dragon lady Katherine Harris’s manipulation of the voting rolls to purge black voters, through the borderline election fraud of butterfly and caterpillar and absentee and military ballots, to Republican congressional staffers for Tom DeLay, Fred Thompson, Don Young and others shutting down the Miami-Dade recount (all identified by name for easy reference)—to the fratboy smirk of the candidate himself—it’s all here. (The DVD promises an extra 40 minutes of material, including interviews with Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Michael Parenti and others.)
This is the institutional face of what might be interpreted in a previous era as a chemically induced hubris. As such, it would represent an irrefutable link between drugs and theft.
Source materials for this column may be located courtesy the following companies:
o Horns and Halos: Currently in limited release; DVD out next year; http://www.hornsandhalos.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also: Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President (3rd ed.), by J.H. Hatfield, available for $16.50 + $3.00 S/H from Soft Skull Press, http://www.softskull.com, as well as finer bookstores everywhere.
o Journeys with George: Video only available for $25 from Purple Monkey Prods., 45 W. 11th St., P.O. Box 6D, New York, NY 10011; http://www.journeyswithgeorge.com.
o Uncle Saddam (Xenon Entertainment; http://www.xenonpictures.com): DVD/video widely available at better retail outlets (app. $11.25); http://www.unclesaddam.com.
o What I’ve Learned About U.S. Foreign Policy: The War Against the Third World: DVD/video (please specify) available for $10 from Frank Dorrel, P.O. Box 3261, Culver City, CA 90231-3261;
Also: Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Military Can’t Kick Militarism, by Joel Andreas, available for $10 from same.”
o Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (Shout! Factory, a division of Retropolis): DVD/video widely available June 24, 2003 (DVD $20, video $15); http://www.unprecedented.org.