Review: The Chameleon President by Clarke Rountree

Four Ways of Looking at Eleven Ways of Looking

Clarke Rountree, The Chameleon President: The Curious Case of George W. Bush. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013.

Jason C. Thompson, University of Wyoming

In 1917 Wallace Stevens published “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem that, in presenting alternative perspectives of a mundane act, argues not for the narrative construction of one singular and edifying meaning, but for the intellectual possibility of perspectivism: in place of a distinct narrator’s voice, thirteen narrators speak, a literary prefiguration of the “virtual camera” that pioneered Bullet Time® in the 1999 film The Matrix.

J. Clark Rountree, Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, appears to engage in a project similar to that of Stevens: when I read on the dust jacket that Rountree proposes “eleven different versions of George W. Bush” that illustrate his multi-perspectival mode of inquiry, I got excited by the project and remembered the quote in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives: “But put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25).

I thrilled at the idea of a writer ambiguously combining various and quite possibly contradictory portraits of the controversial former president and architect of the War on Terror—the notion of an invitation to rhetoric, an incitement to a kind of Corderian spaciousness, a consideration, after Erasmus, of a political De Copia. In anticipation of a reading a modern Dissoi Logoi on a contradictory president I eagerly pick up the book and turn to read the first words of the first chapter.

II

In his Acknowledgments, Rountree sets out the nature of this unique project: The Chameleon President: The Curious Case of George W. Bush marks “a departure from [his] usual academic work—a chance to apply [his] theoretical work on the rhetorical constructions of human motives to an understanding of one of the most confounding politicians” (ix). The book also offers “a postmortem on the ugly body of work known as George W. Bush’s presidency” that aims to “get at the issue of who Bush is, and how who he is has led us to where we are to today” by comparing “several of the most popular and defensible constructions of Bush” (xvi). Rountree identifies these eleven constructions in corresponding chapters: “Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed,” “The Callow Frat Boy,” “The Born-Again President,” “The Conservative Texan,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “The Incredible Oedipal Bush,” “The Corporate Crony,” “The Evil President,” “Cheney’s Puppet,” “The Victim of Circumstance,” and “The Far-Seeing Patriot.” For each chapter, Rountree adopts the appropriate writerly persona (the voice of what he terms “an advocate” of that construction) and discursively channels that argument. He concludes the book with a short final chapter that asks “Will the Real George W. Bush Please Stand Up?”

Through his source material, experimental form, and cunning use of Kenneth Burke, Rountree intends to reach a non-academic or general audience in order to achieve his ambitious purpose of showing how rhetoric—specifically Burke’s dramatistic Pentad— can be used to illuminate motive. This light, then, artfully destabilizes the solid ground that had, just before, seemed to support the construction. By voicing dominant popular constructions of Bush—and rigorously supporting these voices with compendious endnotes (there may by 900 in all)—Rountree nicely sidesteps the difficulty that attends an academic writer arguing directly against a named authority or a known argument. Here, in creatively voicing a given construction—“Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed,” for example—Rountree inductively gathers evidence that eventually coheres. To watch it occur on the page is not only to experience the fleshing out of a commonplace (a type of argumentative z-axis emergence) but also to understand that its reconstruction (like Bakhtin’s heteroglossia or Butler’s drag performance) unveils its ontological construction. Again, an expert move for his audience.

In order for Rountree to embody the eleven most “defensible” constructions of Bush, he appropriately draws on the most widely-known material from popular, not academic, sources: biographies, autobiographies, tell-alls, and reportage written by and about Bush administration officials. When looking to articulate the construction of Bush as “The Callow Frat Boy,” for example, Rountree argues that Bush’s use of nicknames and his practice of nepotism coalesce in the infamous Katrina press conference, in which Bush “stated in front of the media, ‘Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.’” Rountree recounts how Brown had become FEMA director based on “his work as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association” (17) and along the way had earned the nickname “Brownie,” a badge identifying his status as a “loyal Bushie.” Rountree points out that Bush’s “penchant for nicknaming . . . suggests an informality that makes him as playful” but that it may also be “sinister” and, according to journalist Ron Suskind, “‘a bully technique’” (28). The cluster—callow, frat boy, nepotism, nickname, “Brownie,” bully—gets set up by Rountree. However, the quotation cementing it comes from the tell-all What Happened by longtime Bush press secretary Scott McClellan:

Even Brown looked embarrassed, and no wonder . . .. For Bush to commend him publicly suggested either that the president’s well-known belief in personal loyalty was overwhelming his judgment or that he still didn’t realize how bad things were on the Gulf Coast. Either way, the incident said something bad about the Bush administration. (38)

Given that Rountree’s audience lived through both Bush terms, they likely recall the many press conferences held by Bush’s longest-serving press secretary. Hurricane Katrina, in addition to being the costliest domestic disaster, affected millions of people and generated thousands of rhetorical identifications that would have been consumed by Rountree’s audience. Also, administrative mishandling of Katrina came to exemplify Bush’s disconnection from the American people, particularly his detachment from suffering Americans. In McClellan’s assessment, either Bush accidentally revealed how loyalty trumped judgment (supporting the voice of Chapter 2: “The Callow Frat-Boy”), or how incuriousness trumped fact (supporting the voice of Chapter 1: “Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed”). It is worth noting here that this interpretation of presidential motives comes from the former press secretary, the official manager of popular rhetorical constructions of the president. Surely the audience reading The Chameleon President must think back to that particular press conference and to the many defenses of Bush policy outlined by McClellan over the years. “If a former, official apologeticist can be such a chameleon,” Rountree’s reader might wonder, “how changeable must Bush himself be?”

Throughout the book, Rountree offers some masterful deployments of the work of Kenneth Burke, particularly of Burke’s theory of human motivation as given in the Grammar of Motives. However, though his book relies on the Pentad, Burke is not named until page 147, when the Pentad gets summarized without the familiar terms Act, Agent, Scene, Agency, Purpose, (and Attitude). Burke is named again on page 217, in order to introduce pentadic ratios. Given his audience and purpose—not to mention the unwieldy nature of harnessing Burke—this choice to downplay helps the project. Finally, Rountree returns for a third time to Kenneth Burke, the idea of terministic screens and the pentadic elements, in order to reveal his higher purpose: the 11 constructions of Bush can be related to agent (“Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed,” “The Callow Frat Boy,” “The Born-Again President,” “The Evil President”), to scene and act (“The Conservative Texan,” “The Victim of Circumstance,” and possibly “Cheney’s Puppet”), to purpose (“The Incredible Oedipal Bush,” “The Corporate Crony,” and “The Far-Seeing Patriot”), and attitude (“The Man Who Would Be King”). In other words, the Pentad itself is revealed as the scene of the act of popular presidential construction. Readers among Rountree’s intended audience will likely find satisfaction in this conclusion: in addition to offering a way out of the maddening binaries and high volumes that currently mark popular political discourse, it creates a feeling of anagogic arrival. Rountree’s “eleven Bushes” serve a pedagogic function, one designed to improve our politics by destabilizing unitary understandings of our forty-third president. In this, it does resemble a political Dissoi Logoi, and that accomplishment deserves high praise.

III

Academic audiences, especially ones familiar with Kenneth Burke, may find aspects of RountreeÕs project problematical: his title and chapter constructions might be read for tensions of a work at cross-purposes.

For example: the title of Rountree’s book, The Chameleon President: The Curious Case of George W. Bush, smashes rhetoric (in the implied sophistry of a president best characterized as a lizard, a reptile able to change its color to match its surroundings) and literature (in the salute to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who ages in reverse). If, as Kenneth Burke argued, “To call a person a murderer is to propose a hanging,” then Rountree’s title calls Bush a lowly reptile, a natural liar whose very adaptability suggests no essence. Aligning Bush’s life and presidency with Benjamin Button proposes that the reader see Bush as out of time, backward, a child’s mind controlling a grown man. Neither association—lizard nor liminality—proves complimentary to George W. Bush. To borrow from Kenneth Burke’s Counter-Statement, before beginning Rountree in his choice of form creates a contradictory appetite in the mind of his reader: as a president, Bush’s lack of essence allowed him to become invisible; also as a president, his anachronisticity makes him conspicuous.

Looking more closely at the eleven constructions, too, a reader might observe that nine propose flatly negative rhetorical identifications that range from simple stupidity (“Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed”) to cosmic malevolence (“The Evil President”); only the final two chapters offer positive identifications, iambically starting on the weak foot of victimage (“The Victim of Circumstance”) and ending on the strong foot of Promethean exceptionalism (“The Far-Seeing Patriot”). A quick tally of endnotes mirrors this: whereas “Cheney’s Puppet” offers the most—129 notes in support of 25 pages—the final two chapters combined share only 104 notes in support of 35 pages. In fairness, it may be that Rountree in selecting the most popular rhetorical constructions simply found more evidence to support the initial nine Bushes; alternatively, it may be that Rountree was disinclined to apply de Gourmont’s La Dissociation des Idees to associations for which he advocates.

This disproportion could lead one to question the project. For example, in his Introduction Rountree maintains that “While constructions of Bush’s motives are always rhetorical—persuasive attempts to convince other to see Bush as the author sees him— they run into limitations” of fact and cohesion (xvi); in this light, one could read Rountree’s book for the way it tacitly proposes a twelfth rhetorical construction of Bush. This finds support in the Conclusion, in which Rountree writes, “So who is George W. Bush? This book offered 11 possible answers to that question. If I’ve done my job well, my readers should not be able to identify which profile I personally endorse” (235).
After working so diligently to offer this needed lesson on the productive nature of multiple perspectives and their import for political discourse, the conclusion—that one “essential” Bush has been disclosed but successfully obscured by the author—like the book’s title, seems at cross purposes. An academic might find in the book’s conclusion the Psychology of Information, relying as it does on suspense (“Who is this ‘humanist thinker’ Kenneth Burke? Which is the real George W. Bush?”)—and surprise “This book is about rhetoric!”). What eloquence here marks the Psychology of Form? Other formal difficulties: if the reader accepts that each of the eleven chapter voices is written in a persona voice, does it follow that Acknowledgements, Introduction, and Conclusion are not? What might a reader make of an exculpatory statement contained within a persona chapter but presented prior to its articulation as when, in “The Far-Seeing Patriot,” Rountree asserts “I cannot attribute this particular construction to the 43rd president”? (219). The ambiguities brought on by these questions may enliven the project; on the other hand, they may be taken for intratextual signs that make some readers wonder if an academic, too, can become an unreliable narrator.

I submit that these dangers, however compelling, grow directly from the ingenious methodology Rountree employs in pursuit of his monumentally difficult task.

IV

In his final sentence, Rountree hopes, “Perhaps in seeing these constructions side-by-side we can engage in a more thoughtful conversation about this man who has had such a significant impact on our country, for better or worse” (239). Given the increasingly polarized and shrill nature of US political discourse, Rountree implies, here we have a modern president whose ultimate meaning has not yet been established. In terms of Burke’s Definition of Man: despite an overabundance of rotten symbol-using, Bush escapes perfection. This destabilization of Bush constructions recalls Burke’s own rejection of strongman rule and his advocacy of the messy, many voices of a polyvocal parliamentary. Rountree’s book takes us back to the Scramble, “the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard . . . the War.” Rhetoric must lead us through.

I close Rountree’s book and re-read the Wallace Stevens poem. In part V he writes, “I do not know which to prefer, / the beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.”

When I first read the description of Rountree’s book I imagined what would happened if Burke himself undertook to explode the multiplicities of George W. Bushes contained and obscured in those singular constructions. In my mind’s eye I pictured a sort sol, the “black sun” of a million birds as they form, deform, and reform in flight: a spectacle of profound identification and division together.

I applaud anyone willing to engage the messy, irascible, and indefatigable intellectual curiosity of Burke, and I absolutely stand and salute anyone who, after such engagement, succeeds in reaching a non-specialist audience. The beauty in Rountree’s book is the beauty of inflections, in his facility with explaining how motives shape real- world constructions of presidency. If his experimental form is a departure, we should not only applaud his courage but this: we should entertain how formal ambiguity might inform our own future projects as we pause to enjoy its enthymematic effect—the beauty of innuendoes, the “just after” that occurs in that silence when the back flap folds over, a blackbird’s wing.>/p>

* Jason C. Thompson is Assisant Professor of English at the University of Wyoming

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