From: Michael M. Butler (
Date: Tue Jul 31 2001 - 16:53:51 MDT

Forwarded by a friend. Reminds me of the "self-confident incompetents" studies, too.




      That clueless stare in George W.'s eyes?

      A whole generation of graying 'wise' guys

      know all about it.

by Ian Frazier May/June 2001

Whenever George W. Bush opened his mouth in public during last year's
presidential campaign, a thrill ran through observers all across the
country and beyond. The thrill -- not pleasant, but exciting
nonetheless -- was the thrill that comes over us in the presence of a
person who does not know what he is doing. Electronically present to
more or less the whole world, Bush kept everybody in a state of
fearful uncertainty and expectation. Sometimes the feeling was so
strong that it began to grow even before he spoke. Before the
presidential debates, people were wondering if he would make it
through without some fatal blunder. At every slight fumble or
mispronunciation, we held the arms of our chairs: Would this be the
one that finally revealed how utterly at sea the man was? Watching a
person fake it is so nerve-wracking that I believe whenever he got
through these ordeals halfway okay, even his enemies were secretly

In former times, that particular thrill was often aroused by his
father's vice president, Dan Quayle. Looking into Quayle's eyes on
the TV screen when he had no idea of the answer to a question he'd
just been asked -- what a spine-tingling experience that was! To
glimpse the cluelessness in those eyes! For an instant we were up
there with him, in the common nightmare: The audience looks at us in
anticipation, but we have lost our speech, forgotten our lines, and
improvidently dressed in only our underwear. The Dan Quayle
deer-in-headlights clueless stare proved a bit too scary to be
exciting, finally. Part of what George W. Bush offered was the old
Dan Quayle frisson , but in a less concentrated, commercially
acceptable form.

I am a few years younger, but I belong to the same generation as W.
Bush and Quayle. I know how many classes we skipped, how much we
partied, how much TV we watched. (What great work, I wonder, do those
many hours of "Baretta" and "Hee Haw" prepare you for?) I have a
generational sense of the vacancy in their stare, because I share it.
I myself don't know what I am doing a good forty percent of the time.
I am now the kind of white-haired, thick-waisted, superficially
presentable male who people give huge responsibility to and ask
directions of on the street. And often, I'm just making it up. The
situation is one I've become quite familiar with -- I'm asked a
question, no answer presents itself in my brain, and I begin to
answer anyway. My mouth moves and words come out, propelled perhaps
by pure syntax or by the momentum of the language, while I watch from
a distance, as curious as anybody to hear what I'm going to say. And
somehow words do emerge, and my listeners accept them as an answer
representing thought and knowledge, and I alone, apparently, know
that no thought or knowledge was involved.

I go into a fancy wine store and buy a good bottle of wine. I stop by
the bank and listen to a lady there tell about interest points on my
home loan. I see the guy who does my taxes and I have a conversation
about the new tax laws. I run into a health-conscious friend who
discusses some kind of fatty acid and what it could do for me. I go
home and answer a homework question from my son having to do with the
surface tension of water. I sit down to dinner and talk to my wife
about the purchase of some bathroom tile. At no point during any of
these encounters do I have more than the vaguest idea of what I am
talking about. Nor do I understand in any clear way what is being
said to me; instead I listen to the general sound of the sentences,
hoping no one has noticed that I am actually lying down someplace in
the back of my head, leafing through an old copy of a magazine. And
if, God forbid, I actually have to do something -- make a decision,
provide real information -- I close my eyes and just guess.

I won't describe the messes this gets me into. With my almost-teenage
daughter, I have agreed to complicated plans that later caused me to
curse and fume when I discovered what they actually were. But these
are personal disasters, probably of no danger to the public at large.
Anybody who watches TV or movies knows that Dad will always be an
idiot; but what if Dad is the president? Cluelessness multiplied by
power is what puts the secret message of dizzying terror in W. Bush's
eyes. (Recently, of course, he has kept to his script and hasn't
shown the clueless stare; to see him hiding it only scares me more.)

And if I don't know what I'm doing and W. Bush doesn't know what he's
doing, what does that say for the human species as a whole? Clearly,
a lot of human history must have been the result of major world
figures drawing a total blank at key moments and simply blurting out
the first thing that came to mind. Big events as well as small have
turned on a neurological roll of the dice. Thomas Jefferson, for
example, seems to have improvised a lot more than the textbooks would
have us believe. A friend of mine who teaches a college course on
Jefferson has examined his famous "life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness" statement from the Declaration of Independence, and she
concludes that he planned the "life, liberty" part beforehand, but
"the pursuit of happiness" part he merely added on the spot to round
out the phrase, a flourish at the end. Jefferson himself, she
believes, had no intention of mentioning "the pursuit of happiness"
until he saw the words flowing from his pen. It may be that for 225
years now we've been trying to live up to a founding concept of our
country that was thrown in at the last minute because it sounded nice
and the author couldn't think what else to say. That it happened to
be a phrase of poetry and genius was one of the best breaks America
ever had.

People who don't know what they're doing often get by on their
supposed freshness and spontaneity. Indeed, the idea of the New, so
central to our lives, sets us up for this trick all the time. To
devotees of the New, incompetence and unpreparedness are actually
good; what we want is a mind uncluttered by previous experience. As a
writer, I sometimes get calls from magazine editors who ask me to
write articles on subjects about which I am completely uninformed.
When I admit my ignorance, the editors always say that's exactly what
they're looking for, because someone who understands the subject
can't see it with fresh eyes, and it's actually far better that I
know nothing, and so on. Usually I don't take these assignments, but
once in a while I do. I've noticed that when I submit the article,
the editors never say, "Wow! I loved it! You had no idea what you
were talking about at all!"

When people believe they're creating the New, they even make a virtue
of not knowing what they're doing. And now that everything is new all
the time, the most thorough kinds of ignorance are accepted as
routine. Not long ago I came across a hint of how this bizarre system
first began. It's in the Bible, in the Book of Matthew, just a few
pages into the New Testament. Jesus is telling the disciples how they
should travel about the land preaching, and he says they should not
carry money or supplies or extra clothes, because all will be
provided for them as they go; and if they are brought before
officials to explain themselves, he says, "Take no thought how or
what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what
ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your

I can sympathize with someone trying to start a new religion and not
wanting to get tangled up in the details. You want your disciples to
go out there and preach, instead of wasting time on travel plans. But
telling them not to bother making some notes beforehand about what
they're going to say... that's irresponsible, it seems to me. Imagine
the millions of hours of dreadful sermons that particular advice has

Once on an airplane I happened to sit in front of two preachers --
Southern evangelicals, on their way to seek souls in Russia -- and I
heard one say to the other, "I didn't have a sermon prepared, so I
just stood up there and started ramble-preaching." Ramble-preaching
-- they even have a term for it! I have sat through many hours of
ramble-preaching, in church and not, and it's an ordeal I cannot
bear. The moment I realize the minister is just making it up as he
goes along is the moment I look for the door. I feel the same about
onstage improvisation of any kind. Please, performers, let's not just
see what pops into your head. Give me a wooden, pre-scripted speaker
any day.

So, naturally, in the presidential race I was for Gore. I loved how
stiff and prepped and pat he was. Even the makeup I didn't mind. I
found the whole Gore approach wonderfully un-spontaneous and restful.
As I so often do, when he spoke I listened to the sound rather than
the meaning while drifting in a pleasant reverie. Then suddenly on
the TV screen W. Bush would appear. Somehow I could never avoid
looking into those frightened, terrifying eyes. It was as if there
were swirly spirals going into them like in a science fiction movie,
causing a whirlpool effect into which I feared I'd fall. In his
cornered-animal gaze darting back and forth I saw mirrored my own
deep unpreparedness for so many of the tasks I'm faced with in life.
My Gore reverie evaporated as I unwillingly looked and looked again.
With dumb luck, and completely unintentionally, Bush's old-guy
Republican handlers had created a compelling piece of reality TV
simply by the confusion in their candidate's eyes.

W. Bush's visible confusion and lostness during the campaign, oddly enough, may help explain why he did as well in the
election as he did. Lost, he may have seemed more real, more live; we watch the tightrope walker more closely when it
appears he is about to fall. Bill Clinton, a political prodigy, held our attention by staying one step ahead with
hard-to-categorize deeds we kept having to judge and argue about. W. Bush is a more average person, as unremarkable as
the generation to which he belongs. It's a generation that doesn't have a lot to show for itself; so far, it hasn't
started a new country, ended slavery, won a world war. Maybe we will still accomplish something great. Maybe the best we
can hope for is just not to do too much wrong. When I look in W. Bush's eyes I see our clock ticking, and the chances
for true inspiration slipping away.


Partner, Creative Director
Sp3d, Inc.
Media Design & Production
(415) 864-3302 - VOX
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