The worst storm in our history proved perfect for exposing this president because in one big blast it illuminated all his failings: the rampant cronyism, the empty sloganeering of “compassionate conservatism,” the lack of concern for the “underprivileged” his mother condescended to at the Astrodome, the reckless lack of planning for all government operations except tax cuts, the use of spin and photo-ops to camouflage failure and to substitute for action.
In the chaos unleashed by Katrina, these plot strands coalesced into a single tragic epic played out in real time on television. The narrative is just too powerful to be undone now by the administration’s desperate recycling of its greatest hits: a return Sunshine Boys tour by the surrogate empathizers Clinton and Bush I, another round of prayers at the Washington National Cathedral, another ludicrously overhyped prime-time address flecked with speechwriters’ “poetry” and framed by a picturesque backdrop. Reruns never eclipse a riveting new show.
The most odious image-mongering, however, has been Mr. Bush’s repeated deployment of African-Americans as dress extras to advertise his “compassion.” In 2000, the Republican convention filled the stage with break dancers and gospel singers, trying to dispel the memory of Mr. Bush’s craven appearance at Bob Jones University when it forbade interracial dating. (The few blacks in the convention hall itself were positioned near celebrities so they’d show up in TV shots.) In 2004, the Bush-Cheney campaign Web site had a page titled “Compassion” devoted mainly to photos of the president with black people, Colin Powell included.
Like his father before him, Mr. Bush has squandered the huge store of political capital he won in a war. His Thursday-night invocation of “armies of compassion” will prove as worthless as the “thousand points of light” that the first President Bush bestowed upon the poor from on high in New Orleans (at the Superdome, during the 1988 G.O.P. convention). It will be up to other Republicans in Washington to cut through the empty words and image-mongering to demand effective action from Mr. Bush on the Gulf Coast and in Iraq, if only because their own political lives are at stake. It’s up to Democrats, though they show scant signs of realizing it, to step into the vacuum and propose an alternative to a fiscally disastrous conservatism that prizes pork over compassion. If the era of Great Society big government is over, the era of big government for special interests is proving a fiasco. Especially when it’s presided over by a self-styled C.E.O. with a consistent three-decade record of running private and public enterprises alike into a ditch.
What comes next? Having turned the page on Mr. Bush, the country hungers for a vision that is something other than either liberal boilerplate or Rovian stagecraft. At this point, merely plain old competence, integrity and heart might do.
WHEN President Bush went to the virtual ghost town of New Orleans on Thursday to champion a plan for its recovery, his words – “This great city will rise again” – carried familiar echoes. The American way of facing these calamities: get up off the ground, dust (or dry) yourself off and start over. Dream big, and take back what nature took.
Yet shadowing Mr. Bush’s plans for a new New Orleans is an uncomfortable notion. Hurricane Katrina was a brutal natural disaster, but it also touched off a manmade one. The chaos and mismanagement, the violence and the racial tensions broadcast to the world recalled not earlier natural disasters, but something else: the strife in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992; the race riots in Detroit and Newark in 1967, from which neither city fully recovered.
In his speech from the French Quarter, Mr. Bush promised “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen,” and the federal government will undoubtedly inject tens of billions of dollars into New Orleans.
But whatever the financial and engineering challenges in reviving New Orleans, the harder truth is that cities often have difficulty bouncing back from manmade misfortune that throws into doubt their potential as safe places to live and work and invest, urban affairs experts say.
In 1954 Mr. Hunter, 23, blond-haired and blue-eyed, the perfect product of a popular imagination as free from cynicism and care as a sky can be cloudless and clear, was No. 1 at the box office with “Battle Cry.” By 1957 he was also No. 1 on the pop-music charts with “Young Love,” toppling Elvis Presley.
Invented by Hollywood and its press after being discovered shoveling manure in a stable in Los Angeles, Mr. Hunter, whose name at birth was Arthur Gelien, ruled the country’s obsession with celebrity, and especially teenage America, which became, with stars like Mr. Hunter and his most famous co-star, Natalie Wood, the audience that the entertainment industry would fight over to this day. He was as beautiful to look at as he was virtuous to dream about, the pinup prototype for every male idol who was to come after, from Ricky Nelson to Brad Pitt.
By 1959 his reign was ending. Troy Donahue appeared, Hollywood’s next version of Tab Hunter, and Mr. Hunter, old at 28, began a 46-year descent through an actor’s circles of hell: spaghetti westerns “that were short on meat sauce,” as he described them, television guest shots, dinner theater and infomercials. There were still movies: a co-starring role in “Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood.”
Mr. Donahue, once asked about the confusion about the two men and their careers, replied, “I’m the straight one.”
Mr. Hunter said that Hollywood in the 1950’s had its version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which was “Don’t complain, don’t explain.” Or, let the studio take care of you, and let the public draw its conclusions.
“There was a lot written about my sexuality, and the press was pretty darn cruel, but people believe what they want to believe,” he said. What moviegoers wanted to hold in their hearts were the boy-next-door marines, cowboys and swoon-bait sweethearts he portrayed.
[Director John] Waters agreed, adding that America couldn’t come to terms with something it knew little or nothing about.
“The public didn’t know Tab was gay,” he said. “The public didn’t know what gay was. Newspapers wouldn’t print the rumors. Liberace sued a newspaper, and won.” Despite the acceptance of gay characters in television today and big-release movies like Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” a cowboys-in-love story starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, which opens on Dec. 9, Mr. Waters said he thought Hollywood is more heterosexual than ever.
“I never thought Tom Cruise was gay,” he said, discounting the rumors. “The A-list?” he said. “I don’t think any of them are.” And teenage audiences, the same demographic group that Mr. Hunter appealed to, are not as open to the issue as is assumed, Mr. Waters said.
“In rich-kid schools, gay’s cool,” he said. “In poor-kid schools, it’s not cool.”
There have obviously been rewards, as Mr. Hunter calls them, and they kept him in the game, even after “Timber Tramps,” a stroke and quadruple bypass surgery. A fountain splashed peacefully at the back of his manicured yard. His newest horse, Harlow, named for her flaxen mane, is being raised in New Mexico for show.
But to sit with Mr. Hunter, a handsome man who hugged himself protectively, as if he were still fighting old ghosts, is to feel that anything he has has been hard earned.
“People will just take you, chew you up, spit you out, dump you on the side and go on to the next, and it’s kind of tragic,” he said of his profession. But his voice rose in heat as he spoke, as if he realized as he studied the part that it was really just Tab Hunter he was talking about.
I hope Lance Michaels reads this story.