This year four illustrious writers – Susan Faludi, Russ Rymer, Jaed Coffin, and Sarah Braunstein – have joined Professor of English Brock Clarke to teach courses in fiction and creative nonfiction at Bowdoin. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 2 (“The Return of Superman”) in Faludi’s book The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America.
America will need more “heroes,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Armed Forces one day after 9/11, and however reliable his intelligence on matters of actual defense, on this point he proved prescient. The press, for its part, heeded Rumsfeld’s pronouncement by nominating him to the role, in the process dressing him up in some curious costumes. National Review’s December 31, 2001 cover story featured a drawing of Rumsfeld in Betty Grable pose, beside the headline, “The Stud: Don Rumsfeld, America’s New Pin-Up.” “Reports have it that people gather round to watch Rumsfeld press conferences the way they do Oprah,” the story claimed. “Women confide that they have . . .well, un-defense-policy-like thoughts about the secretary of defense.” Fox called Rumsfeld a “babe magnet,” and People named him one of the “sexiest men alive.” Conservative doyenne Midge Decter penned a book-length valentine, Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait, which included beefcake shots of the young “Rumstud” as a bicep-bulging wrestler and a socialite’s breathy confession that she kept his photo tacked to her dressing-room wall. “He works standing up at a tall writing table,” Decter marveled, “as if energy, or perhaps determination, might begin to leak away from too much sitting down.” His secret, she wrote, was “manliness.”
However odd the idolatry, Rumsfeld wasn’t alone in receiving the best actor in an unconvincing role award. The media seemed eager to turn our sober guardians of national security into action toys and superheroes. The President’s vows to get the “evildoers” won him media praise because it sounded cartoonish. Wall Street Journal columnist and former Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan enthused that she half-expected Bush to “tear open his shirt and reveal the big ‘S’ on his chest.” Time dubbed Bush, approvingly, our “Lone Ranger.” Newsweek called him America’s “dragon slayer” and “a boyish knight in a helmet of graying hair.” St. George hadn’t slain any cave-dwellers yet, but he was primed, Newsweek said, pointing, for lack of better evidence, to the President’s exercise regimen. Bush was “in the best shape of his life,” Howard Fineman wrote, “a fighting machine who has dropped 15 pounds and cut his time in the mile to seven minutes.”
A Vanity Fair cover-story photo essay featured Bush as steely-eyed cowboy-in-chief, sporting a Texas-sized Presidential belt buckle—and assigned all the President’s men superhero monikers: Dick Cheney was “The Rock”; John Ashcroft “The Heat” (“Tough times demand a tough man”); and Tom Ridge “The Protector” (“At six feet three, with a prominent Buzz Lightyear jaw, he certainly has the right appearance for a director of homeland security”).
Not to be outdone on the action-hero front, Bush’s handlers enlisted screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (“Hanoi Hilton” and “The Heroes of Desert Storm”) to make a docudrama championing Bush’s post-9/11 valor. Chetwynd received full access to Bush, Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, and the rest of the White House champions. “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis” aired on Showtime in the fall of 2003. The film featured a Kryptonite-proof Commander in Chief who, when he is not pumping iron at the butterfly press and running a “three hard miles,” is barking out lines like, “Rummy, high alert status! Delta. Military. CIA. FBI. Everything! And if you haven’t gone to Def Con 3, you oughta.” Rummy: “Done.” The Showtime Bush was part Hulk-Hogan–“We’re gonna kick the hell outta whoever did this! No slap-on-the-wrist game this time!”—part Rambo—“This will decidedly not be Vietnam!”—and part Dirty Harry–“If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come over and get me! I’ll be at home waiting for the bastard!” Like all good superheroes, he saves the girls, consoling an adoring and weepy Condi, ordering “full security” on Laura and his daughters, and guiding his nearsighted wife to safety in the White House basement (Laura’s lack of contact lenses is presented as a Helen-Keller situation. Laura: “I can’t see!” Bush, leading her down the steps: “You OK?”). Later, Bush visits a hospital and consoles a woman injured in the World Trade Center collapse. “Take care of us,” she whispers. Bush: “You count on it!”
Cover and excerpt “The Return of Superman” from the book The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America by Susan Faludi. Copyright © 2007 by Susan Faludi. Cover reprinted courtesy of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. Henry Holt and Company, LLC.