It’s a pity the Bush-bashing book genre is dominated by screeds that have as much to do with their authors’ personal vanities as their politics. In fact, it could easily be argued that purchasing many of these titles is as much an act of political affirmation as an attempt to challenge your worldview. While this vitriolic subgenre took its cue from the spate of titles birthed during those seemingly innocent years when Clinton-hatred constituted its own ideology, they seldom make for substantive reads. In the context of today’s starkly polarized electorate—where pollsters claim only about 18 percent remain persuadable—a book that, while anti-Bush, also doles out bitch slaps to milquetoast Democrats (paging Tom Daschle!) and robotic radicals (Chomsky, anyone?) seems destined for the pulper in the stampede of partisan fervor.
Which is too bad, because Sore Winners is a great read, a wickedly funny revue of the culture engendered by George W. Bush, but not at the expense of depth. Powers is the resident media critic at the LA Weekly and also pinch-hits on NPR as a film critic for Teri Gross’ “Fresh Air.” If you’ve winced at his hideously geeky voice, the sort that punctures each syllable as thoroughly as a 9-year-old working a yard of bubble wrap, well, just flush it from your memory for now, because homeboy goes down silky-smooth on the page. Though Sore Winners is hardly boilerplate anti-Bush (that’s because it’s not written by a celebrity or a Bush administration apostate) it does, on occasion, bash succinctly. Check it:
“[Bush] sticks to the script as rigorously as Bob Hope. In the process, he has achieved a level of redundancy previously reached only by a handful of monks who spend their lives chanting the same few syllables into the Himalayan void.”
Though it doesn’t contain much in the way of new information (Powers is a critic after all, not an investigative reporter), the analysis is first rate. The title refers to practitioners of what might be called the “cultural politics of gloating.” Being a “sore winner” is not just limited to a president who runs as a uniter and then proceeds to divide with a vengeance. As he famously tells Bob Woodward in Bush at War, “I do not need to explain why I say things…Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”
No, George Bush’s ugly America permeates all spheres. Take the NFL, where after scoring a touchdown, the 49ers’ Terrell Owens busts a marker from his sock, signs the ball and hands it to his financial advisor. Or Random House CEO Peter Olson, who shamelessly brags to a New York Times Magazine reporter at a publishing industry confab about the reams of people he’s fired. And then there’s the reality TV that, though compulsively watchable, is rooted in humiliation. As Powers says, “Bush Culture has become one long schadenfreude spree.”
The relationship between Bush World and the actual policies of the administration are at times tenuously established, though it’s not hard to connect the dots between an administration that offers perpetual war with tax cuts and a population bent on myopia. As Powers notes, when Islamic radicals exploded a bomb at a Jakarta hotel killing 14 people, the news played second to Kobe Bryant’s first courthouse appearance. As the country continues to scratch its head wondering “Why do they hate us?” Powers explains: “They hate us because we don’t even know why they hate us.”
Sore Winners is stronger in its casual observations than in any overarching analysis. From a lesser writer, such an effort might grow tiresome; Powers, however, packs more sense in a jabbing sentence than others can fit into an entire book. Discussing the post 9-11 fatwa that “the age of irony is over,” Powers notes how such a declaration is less indicative of a cultural sea-change (because clearly things did become the same again) than the tumor of sanctimony in the mainstream media:
“As the British demonstrated during the Blitz, you can fight the enemy and be ironic at the very same time; in fact, humor helped keep things bearable when the bombs were hitting London. Only dullards think you must be earnest to be serious.”
Sadly, the Left embodies such sanctimony as much as the Right. In a hilarious chapter, Powers notes how, despite his political leanings, reading William Kristol’s neoconservative Weekly Standard is infinitely more fun than perusing the Left’s longstanding organ, The Nation. While the Right has a sense of play and energy, The Nation’s pages are like “trying to gobble dry muesli.” Powers shrewdly notes that the Left is united by “patterns of consumption” and fawning over celebrity radicals like Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Jim Hightower: “What these folks have in common is not a vision of the world—but fame.”
While Sore Winners is no more likely to partisanize a swing voter than an endorsement from Bea Arthur, it serves as a thoughtful and irreverent scrapbook of what American culture has become under the rule of a man who thought that Friends was a movie, yet still manages to convince half the country he’s a Man Of The People.
“Countless Americans of his generation followed a similar youthful path and wound up working for John Deere or standing in the unemployment line,” Powers notes. “Somehow, he wound up a rich man (estimated worth: $9–$26 million) and President of the United States.”
Only in Bush World.