When E.L Doctorow Looked into GWB's Eyes

And saw emptiness

I spent all of GWB’s years ranting online—incognito, of course. There were plenty of places to rant but eventually I settled into AARP’s political boards, where so many of us, not just the old, cut our teeth on political opinionating—almost always under phony names.

Mine was ‘Good Gracia’. I used it, I admit, to piss off my opponents—a play on ‘Goody Two Shoes’, along with using my middle name, which sounded just Hispanic enough to piss them off even more. I never would have been brave enough to use my real name back then, or to even give a hint of who I was or where I lived.

Without those years of hiding behind a pseudonym to hone my opinionating skills I could never have pulled off a political blog that ran for 12 years. I grew more confident by hiding my true personage in order to bring out my true self. After awhile I stopped being afraid to express my thoughts. I stopped holding back on what I believed.

It was the times: The Iraq War happened in spite of millions of us protesting our hearts out. We woke up angry and went to sleep angry (sound familiar?) and when we woke again, nothing had changed. We were in a war that never should have happened—a murderous, unjust war—and, even as we spouted off, we knew nothing we said would ever make a difference.

Then, in 2004, after a few years of this, I read an unusual essay by E.L. Doctorow. It was called The Unfeeling President, and I was floored by the simple but damning truths he managed to hammer out without once expressing his rage—a palpable but unspoken rage that became the theme of his entire piece. I’ve never forgotten it. (Link below) It changed me. I began to understand the value of patience and clarity and the folly of simply yelling to be heard. I became a better witness.

It often takes the words of a great writer to show us where we need to go. Doctorow wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last for me, but I’ll always be grateful for what he gave me at a time when I was floundering and needed it.

In Praise Of E.L. Doctorow, The Man Who Looked Into GWB's Eyes And Saw Nothing.

Posted first at Ramona’s Voices July 23, 2015:

I heard the sad news yesterday that E.L. Doctorow has died. I've read and loved several of his books, so of course I feel as if I know him personally.  I loved Ragtime and The Book of Daniel and Billy Bathgate.  I couldn't get into Loon Lake, but I'll accept that as my problem and not his. World's Fair and Homer and Langley are both sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

His writing is what I would call "luscious with an edge". It's stylistic and mesmerizing but you know there is something dark lurking nearby. There is no relaxing with a Doctorow novel, even in the midst of the quiet, beautiful parts. He will grab you and hold you and take you to places unexpected and thrilling. He will force you by sheer wordsmithing to accompany him. He will make you stop and read over and over again the same brilliant, awesomely brilliant, passage.

He was, as everybody knows, quite a writer.

But, of everything I've read of his, one essay stands out from the rest.  It’s the piece he wrote in 2004 called "The Unfeeling President".  It references George W. Bush but never mentions him by name.  In it he says:

But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the weapons of mass destruction he can't seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man. 

He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country 

But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the 1,000 dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be.

This was near the beginning of the Iraq war, when, as noted, the death toll was still around a thousand.  Before it was over the American death toll would be just over 58 thousand.

When I read this essay, right around the time it was first published, I was new to fighting online for passionate causes.  I was feeling emotionally battered, never before having experienced the kind of ruthless, hateful vitriol that comes of arguments where attackers can hide behind a safe cloak of anonymity.

I was against that war and I was at a loss: How could so many people back a war that had been built on lies, a war that had put America in a position where, for the first time, we had invaded a country that had done nothing to us, a war that was bankrupting us, both morally and monetarily?


And then I read Doctorow's assessment of George W. Bush and I knew when I woke up in the morning I would put on my battle gear (no nametags, of course) and go at it again.  And again.  And again.

It wasn't the first time he had managed to annoy the Republican establishment by outing the real George Bush.  Earlier that year Peggy Noonan went after him in the Wall Street Journal after Doctorow railed against Bush and the Iraq war at his May commencement address to the graduates at Hofstra.

Fast Eddy Doctorow told a story at the commencement all right, and it is a story about the boorishness of the aging liberal. An old '60s radical who feels he is entitled to impose his views on this audience on this day because he's so gifted, so smart, so insightful, so very above the normal rules, agreements and traditions. And for this he will get to call himself besieged and heroic--a hero about whom stories are told!--when in fact all he did was guarantee positive personal press in the elite media, at the cost of the long suffering patience of normal people who wanted to move the tassel and throw the hat in the air.

I'm only guessing, of course, but I'll bet E.L. Doctorow got a huge kick out of her piece.  Probably even used it as a jumping-off point for another go at trying to stop that dishonest, unnecessary, murderous war.  We know now that it couldn't be stopped.  We didn't have the power.  But writers like Doctorow used words to energize us and gave us reason to keep trying.  We understood from them that in the right hands words can be formidable weapons.

Doctorow may no longer be with us but he left a legacy that can't be ignored.  To some of us that's more than just comforting.

As always, I want to know what you think—even if politics isn’t your thing. Do you see what I’m saying here, even all these years later? Let’s talk.

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