Published: 13 August 2005
A small but telling drama of this war-blighted summer is playing out on a roadside some five miles from the ranch called Prairie Chapel where President Bush likes to spend his long summer holiday. For more than a week now Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq and fiercely opposed to the war, has been camping out as near to the ranch as the secret service will permit. She insists she will not leave until she meets the President in person.
These are the dog days, and a bored White House press corps, marooned in central Texas with precious little news to report, is giving her more attention than she would probably otherwise get. But there is more to it than that. Cindy Sheehan is the ghost at the Bush vacation feast, the ghost of reality suppressed.
Consummate news managers that they are, the Bush crowd have long kept the brute at arms length. No administration in my memory has ever kept so relentlessly on message. None has boasted more proudly that the subtle greys of real life do not fit in with their Manichaean view of the universe. For them, it's either black or white, good or evil, with us or against us. "We're not big on nuance," they loved to say, to distinguish themselves from those over-clever Clintons who preceded them.
But this White House goes further with its manipulation of reality. Of the billions of words that have issued from it since January 2001, the ones that haunt me most were delivered not by this faith-based President but by an anonymous official just before the last presidential election, as he explained to the journalist Ron Suskind how the world worked.
The media, he said, were in the "reality-based community" - people who believed that "solutions emerged from judicious study of discernable reality". But that was no longer the case, continued this official with breathtaking arrogance. "We're an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality... we're history's actors and you [humble scribes and historians] will be left to just study what we did." And that pretty much is what's happened.
Circumstances, of course, have played into the Bush team's hands. The great paradox of our times is that when facts have never been more plentiful, it has never been easier to sever oneself from reality. You simply confine yourself to the evidence, and the interpretation of the evidence, that suits your views, and ignore the rest.
This is the internet age, but in the virtual reality of cyberspace, the trashiest blog has a superficial equivalence with the websites of the BBC or The New York Times. And on our television screens it is much the same, where hard news has increasingly been supplanted by opinion shows, in which victory goes to he who shouts the loudest.
Bush and his handlers understand this universe perfectly and navigate it superbly. But does he ever hear another point of view? His aides portray him as a man of the people. For him, no fancy chardonnay-sipping on smart islands off Massachusetts where liberals, the Clintons and other affluent devotees of the Enlightenment spend their summer holidays. The 43rd President prefers to spend his vacations chopping brush in the dry gulches that crisscross his ranch, perspiring like a he-man. And not only do he-men know their own minds. They don't change them.
But all this is far easier if you do not mingle with the real world. Every president lives in a bubble. However, the one that insulates Bush from the rest of us is especially thick. His "press conferences" are little more than glorified photo-ops. His "public meetings" are ticket-only affairs, where everyone in the audience is pre-vetted to ensure that the President is not exposed to hostile views. As for brush clearing, it is basically a solitary occupation.
In short, Bush is never forced to argue his corner. And inside the bubble he inhabits, where the bracing winds of conflicting facts and views are not permitted to enter, the alternate reality of Iraq has blossomed. This Iraq is set to become a beacon of democracy for the Middle East. In this Iraq Sunnis, Kurds and Shias will joyfully coexist. In the conduct of policy in this Iraq, no mistake is ever made. In this war, no official who counts is ever punished, even for outrages as egregious as Abu Ghraib.
Even this White House cannot dispute that the insurgency is killing ever more Iraqis and Americans. But this is not because the insurgency is becoming better organised and deeper rooted. It's "because they're desperate". More American troops are dying - but that's because they're getting to grips with the enemy as never before. The logic is veering dangerously close to the lunacies of Vietnam, where entire villages were destroyed "in order to save them".
The same is true of domestic policies. In the Bush-reality, humans have nothing to do with global warming. An energy bill is passed - but one which refuses to address the single step that would do most to reduce US dependency on ever more costly imported oil, higher mandatory mileage standards for cars. This President has expended much energy on social security reform, but closes his eyes to the far more immediate, far greater problem of runaway healthcare costs.
But America may remember this sweltering summer of 2005 as when the game was finally up. Possibly, the dark-windowed presidential motorcade will stop by Ms Sheehan's camp, and the meeting that she demands will take place.
It should be noted, however, that already the White House is using the well-tried tactic of insinuation and whispered denigration that it employed against Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador who first blew the whistle on the manipulation of WMD intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (another egregious example of how an "alternate reality" can be created). In the case of Ms Sheehan, might not grief be distorting her judgement, causing her to become the unwitting pawn of the anti-war movement?
But this time, I suspect, reality cannot be denied. The polls show that a majority of Americans now believe that the 2003 invasion was a mistake, that the war is making them less, not more, safe from terrorist attacks, and that some or all of US troops should be brought home. This time, the blithe post-modernist musings of the aide who lectured Ron Suskind have collided with harsh, irrefutable facts. For what fact, what reality, is harsher and more irrefutable than the futile deaths of 24-year-old Casey Sheehan and 1,850 other young Americans in the deserts of the Middle East?