Lives of the Cannibals: Secret Talents of the Bush Administration

It’s easy to reduce our political leaders to the sum of their policies, to regard them as no more complex than the glib pronouncements of op/ed contributors. It’s much more difficult to acknowledge the totality of their humanity, to regard them as family men and women, as enthusiasts and hobbyists, individuals of many interests and varying depths. The Bush Administration in particular is susceptible to this reductive tendency. The attacks of September 11th shattered America’s image of itself as invulnerable superpower, and the Bush Administration, in responding to the new challenges of asymmetric warfare with non-state terrorist entities, exposes itself to caricature on a daily basis. But dangerous times require bold new policies, and the men and women that formulate and implement those policies make easy targets for late-night talk-show hosts and comedy-prone pundits. What follows is a small attempt to correct the one-dimensional views so much in fashion these days. Of course, it is only a beginning, and a superficial one at that. Readers will be at fault to imagine that the depths of the four individuals briefly discussed below are so easily plumbed. 

Much has been made of Condoleezza Rice’s musical talents. She is a gifted pianist who, at one time, planned to make a career of music. Today, as Secretary of State, she has less time to devote to her first passion, but still she maintains her skills, regularly meeting with four lawyer friends in her home in downtown Washington, D.C., to practice and perform chamber music. A recent profile in the New York Times Magazine quoted her response to a frequently asked question, namely, does playing music relax her? “It’s not exactly relaxing if you are struggling to play Brahms,” she answered. “But it is transporting.” Commenting on their choice of music, Robert Battey, a former professor of cello at the University of Missouri and current member of the group, said, “We generally like to start off with a nice finger-buster for the secretary.” But for true relaxation, Ms. Rice depends on an altogether different hobby, though one that is no less demanding of precision. For more than a decade, she has exercised her nimble fingers and her nimbler mind with Origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper-folding. Throughout her apartment in the tony Watergate complex, nestled between the family photographs, advanced degrees and other mementoes of a life of academic and inside-the-Beltway achievement, are samples of her meticulous work: a prancing Pegasus, a foil-backed crane, even a remarkably detailed rendering of an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet. Recently, Ms. Rice has expanded her repertoire to include Kirigami, a branch of the art that allows cuts to be made in the paper in order to create symmetrical objects, such as snowflakes and pentagrams. As with her music, the secretary is not reluctant to share her paper-folding talents. Upon Margaret Beckett’s appointment to the position of Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Foreign Secretary) for Britain in May, 2006, Ms. Rice presented her with a stunning orchid blossom. She has made similar gifts for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and the Bush family, upon the college graduation of daughter Jenna.

Richard Bruce Cheney, 46th Vice President of the United States, is often characterized as a vicious political in-fighter and soulless pragmatist. He is a leader of the neocon movement currently in power in Washington, and has been at the center of America’s conservative elite since the mid-seventies, when he became the youngest chief of staff in U.S. history, serving in President Gerald Ford’s administration, along with his political fellow traveler Donald Rumsfeld (see below). He is thought to be the driving force behind an effort to expand executive power to an unprecedented degree, exemplified by the Bush administration’s regular use of signing statements to selectively ignore constitutional and legislative restraints, its fight for warrantless wiretapping, and its skirting of international standards of humanitarian treatment of war prisoners. An intensely private man, little is known about his family life with wife Lynne, and still less about his recreational preferences (except the hunting of oxygen-deprived quail). But to the residents and shopkeepers of Mackinac Island, Michigan, there’s no mystery to this Vice President. Mr. Cheney is just another “fudgie,” one of the thousands of fudge enthusiasts who descend on the tiny island each summer to sample its famous candy. According to classmates at the University of Wyoming, Mr. Cheney regularly spurned frat parties and college mixers in favor of concocting new fudge recipes in his dormitory’s kitchen, and endeared himself to his fellow students for his generosity with the product of his efforts. He has made several pilgrimages to Baltimore, Maryland, and Poughkeepsie, New York, both of which lay claim to the title Birthplace of Fudge, and he boasts senior membership in the North American Fudge Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preparation and enjoyment of what has been called “America’s favorite sinful snack.” But Mr. Cheney’s affinity for sweets extends beyond the world of fudge, to include peanut brittle, taffy and even some varieties of hard candy. He is widely believed to reward political allies and business associates with small “sampler” gift boxes of homemade sweets, anonymously delivered, each one bearing the mischievous inscription “Love, DLC.”

Curiously, Origami is not the only secret Bush administration talent with roots in the early Edo period (1603-1867) of Japan. John R. Bolton, current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, is a practitioner of the Japanese tea ceremony, and a devoted student of sadō or chadō, literally “the way of tea.” Mr. Bolton, known for his gruff demeanor and blunt criticism, makes for a highly unlikely ambassador, and is infamous for remarking that the U.N. would be no different if ten of the Secretariat building’s 38 stories were lopped off. In addition, he is known for his leadership position among the neoconservatives who encouraged the invasion of Iraq, and for his part in the manipulation of intelligence relating to Iraq’s efforts to obtain uranium for the creation of a nuclear weapon. With these facts in mind, it’s all the more remarkable that he should devote himself to the delicate complexities of the tea ceremony, which requires substantial knowledge of calligraphy, ceramics, flower arrangement and incense. A friend of Mr. Bolton, speaking on condition of anonymity, was quick to point out that his personality is widely misunderstood. “He values simplicity and refinement above all,” this friend said, “and he’s got a very eastern notion of beauty. Very formal, very restrained.” Mr. Bolton and the members of his tea circle gather at least once a month to engage in the ceremony, usually at his residence in New York. The Ambassador wears kimono and hakama, which is the most traditional of prescribed wardrobes, and prepares the tea room with tatami, a calligraphic scroll, and a simple arrangement of seasonal flowers. Whenever possible, a facilitator or teacher is invited to participate, and provides instruction on various aspects of the ceremony, including the hanging scroll, tatami placement, and the elaborate service motions required of the skilled practitioner.

There is a bit more obvious justice to Donald Rumsfeld’s secret talent. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is widely known for his oracular speaking style, unique vocal cadence and undeniable charisma. Indeed, in the early days of the Iraq War, he managed to charm many in the press corps and the public with his witty pronouncements on the status of the conflict, notwithstanding the grim subject matter. So it is perhaps not a surprise to learn that Mr. Rumsfeld is a widely respected Laurel (a title of achievement in the Arts & Sciences) in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), Middle Kingdom (comprising Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and parts of several other states). The SCA is familiar to many for its presence on American college campuses, and is best described as a Medieval and Renaissance-themed arts revival organization. Members of the SCA gather for festivals and demonstrations in full costume, and participate in combat tournaments, arts exhibits, classes, workshops, dancing and feasts. Mr. Rumsfeld, whose SCA persona is Wilhelm von Steublen, is renowned in the Bardic Arts, specifically poetry and storytelling. He excels in creating ribald, historically appropriate ballads, set to Gregorian Chant tunes and performed during regional and national festivals. He is also noted for his “fyrewalking” at nighttime events, in which a performer moves from campsite to campsite offering entertainment, in exchange for food, drink and other, bawdier refreshments. The secretary is unusual within the SCA for joining as a full-fledged, dues paying member at the late age of 44, in 1976, during his first tenure as Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford. But it wasn’t long before he was fully invested in the organization: Honored with the title of Laurel in 1980, he quickly became the Middle Kindom’s principal authority on the Bardic Arts (including poetry, storytelling and early music), and has received numerous awards and honorary titles since then. In 1992, he was selected to sit on the SCA’s Board of Directors, and continues to serve in that position to this day.