The Importance of Stories: How George W. Bush Won
When I speak before Republican groups these days, I usually begin with a story I was told by the former congressman Jim Rogan, now a member of the Bush Administration: A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. Reducing his altitude, he spotted a woman on the ground below and asked for help. “Excuse me,” he said when she was within earshot. “Can you help me? I don’t know where I am and I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago.”
The woman looked up at him and said, “Sure. You are in a hot air balloon, about thirty feet above the ground. Your location is between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.”
Hearing this, the man in the balloon became irritated. Looking down at her he asked, “Are you a Republican?” “Yes,” she replied. “How did you know?”
“Well,” he snapped, “the information you’ve given me is probably technically correct, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what to do with it. I’m still lost, my friend is still waiting for me, and frankly you haven’t been any help at all.”
“Are you a Democrat?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” he said. “How did you know?”
“Easy,” she answered. “You don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you’re going. You’ve risen to your present position on a large quantity of hot air, you’ve made promises you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. Moreover, you’re in the same position as when we met, but you’ve found a way to blame your predicament on me.” Republicans laugh at this joke, even though it’s on them. The purpose of this book is to change the attitude that inspires the laugh and the behavior behind it.
What the joke tells us is that politics is about stories—and human aggression. The purpose of the stories is to arouse emotions that work in your favor and against your opposition. The stories work for you if you are the victim or if you are helping someone who is perceived to be a victim. Americans like heroes who care, and they identify with underdogs. Aggression is an emotion associated with justice, with getting satisfaction for those who deserve it. In politics, stories work for you if you are the compassionate warrior helper. They work against you if you are the cause of someone’s distress.
Democrats are clever at making up stories in which they are the victims and Republicans are the bad guys—the ones you know to blame. Republicans are not story driven at all; they are fact oriented. They are policy wonks who know about latitudes and longitudes, but not how to speak to people who don’t. Republicans are abstract and cerebral, rather than visceral and concrete. Nobody understands them except those who share their cultural limitations. As a result, they feel injured and misunderstood, but nobody cares.
Why did George Bush win the presidential election in 2000? He had two stories to tell that reversed these stereotypes and inspired powerful emotions. The first story was that he is a Republican who cares about the weak and the helpless. He was “going to provide a helping hand to every willing heart.” He was “not going to leave any child behind.”
The second story was perhaps even more important. It is a reason not only why George Bush won the presidency in 2000, but why he will win the presidency again in 2004. This is the promise he made to restore dignity to the White House. If there is one thing that every American voter knew about George W. Bush by the end of the presidential race, it was the words he repeated almost every time he spoke: “If you make me your president, I will restore dignity and honor to the White House.”
This was meant, of course, as a reference to Bill Clinton and his transformation of the Oval Office into a site of squalid scandal, casual prevarication, and reckless behavior. Talk show host Chris Matthews, a Democrat, was one of Clinton’s toughest but most appreciative critics during the impeachment debate. Matthews himself had once worked as a young staffer in the White House. He had been impressed by the reverence that those who worked there had felt for “the people’s house.” As a result, Matthews could never understand why the White House had failed to reform the juvenile delinquent in Bill Clinton. “I do not understand,” Matthews wrote when it was over, “why a man like Bill Clinton, blessed as he is with extraordinary political skills, did not use those same political skills to become not just president, but a great president. Instead he contented himself with a reign as the country’s prom king.”1
Americans love a rogue, and for a while it looked as though Americans would love a rogue president, too. But the poll numbers during the 2000 election campaign said something different. Clinton’s approval ratings as president hovered near 60 percent throughout the campaign. But his personal approval ratings stayed just as firmly at an abysmal level of 30 percent. Put another way, 70 percent of the American people disapproved of Bill Clinton the man and the way he had abused his high office. Somewhere deep down they suspected that the good times the country seemed to be enjoying might be built on foundations of sand. The lying and the irresponsibility were piling up debts that one day would have to be paid, and it was the people who eventually would have to pay them.
What George Bush was saying through his story about dignity and honor was this: The President is the nation’s commander in chief. He is accountable for the safety and security of us all. George Bush was saying to the American people, “Send me to the White House and I will honor your trust. I will be your commander in chief. I will be responsible for each and every one of you.” What George Bush was saying was “I care about you and your children, and the dangers that may lie ahead.”
Everyone who heard George Bush speak during that election campaign heard his message. And everyone who lived through September 11, 2001, understands what he meant.