Fidel and Me

Cuba’s maximum leader drafts Chatterbox.

He may be well-read, but he’s still Castro

BOSTON—It’s increasingly obvious that the Kerry campaign’s spinmeisters were full of it when they said that speakers at the Democratic National Convention would not attack President Bush but instead would tout Kerry’s positive agenda for the nation. We’ve heard amazingly few specifics about what Kerry would do as president and quite a few nicely turned phrases about the Bush administration’s incompetence. Even the saintly Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter got into the act, thundering that the United States “has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends, and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of ‘preemptive’ war.” Bush-bashing is a smart strategy, because the urge to rid the country of George W. Bush is, like it or not, the heart and soul of the Kerry campaign. But it’s also smart to make sure the bashing never gets personal. The convention speakers seem to understand this. Even Bill Clinton’s swipe at Bush for not serving in Vietnam was implied rather than stated—and, amazingly, couched as self-criticism.

If you want to see what a truly nasty personal attack on Dubya would look like, let’s travel south to Santa Clara, Cuba, where Fidel Castro gave a speech two days ago to commemorate the 51st anniversary of the birth of Cuba’s communist revolution. Castro speculated that Bush might be: 1) an unacknowledged alcoholic who continues to imbibe on the sly; 2) a “dry drunk” who, because he never went through rehab, is given to grandiosity and intolerance; or 3) an addict to medication he takes to wean himself from booze. These are pretty outrageous accusations for any foreign leader to make, even tentatively, against a United States president, and the speech got a fair amount of attention in the press. To Chatterbox, however, the most newsworthy thing about Castro’s peroration was that it quoted by name one Timothy Noah.

Chatterbox never before had the ear of a dictator, much less one so obviously gaga as Castro, and, judging from the persistent rumors of ill health that have stalked the comandante (who turns 78 next month), he got in just under the wire. Castro used Chatterbox to support his claims that 1) Bush’s religious fundamentalism leaves “no space for questioning” (correct); and 2) This same fundamentalism hobbles Bush’s “thought and speech patterns” with “a considerable fragility” (incorrect, the simpler explanation being that Bush just isn’t very articulate or bright).

Chatterbox can find no evidence that Castro actually reads Slate; the comandante imbibed Chatterbox’s wisdom secondhand, via a book called Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, by a shrink named Justin A. Frank. Castro quoted Frank’s book respectfully and at great length. To a lesser extent, he also quoted Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, and Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies. (Castro’s scrupulousness in citing source material puts Doris Kearns Goodwin to shame.) Castro’s speech endorsed many of Frank’s clinical hypotheses. Here is the passage of Castro’s speech in which Chatterbox’s name came up (if you prefer to read it in the original Spanish, click here):

[Frank] explains that Bush’s fear of everything—from disagreement to terrorist attacks—are sometimes painfully visible, even (or especially) through his denials, and that he is a man desperately seeking protection. Dr. Frank wonders: “But what is George W. Bush so eager to protect himself against?” and he answers the question with the following analysis:
His tightly held belief system shields him from challenges to his ideas—from critics and opponents, but, more important, from himself. Just beneath the surface, it’s hard not to believe that he suffers from an innate fear of falling apart, a fear too terrifying for him to confront.[…]For someone so desperate not to lose his way, clinging to a belief (or even a few key phrases), and sticking to them, is yet another way to protect against falling apart. President Bush’s press conferences have offered disturbing evidence of this ongoing anxiety—evidence so unmistakable that it’s little wonder that the White House has proven so hesitant to schedule such events at all. After one particularly disastrous performance in July 2003, the Slate political columnist Timothy Noah noted that “Bush seemed jangled”; in a damning editorial the following day, the New York Times noted that the president’s answers were “vague and sometimes nearly incoherent”—suggesting, perceptively, that Bush was “bedazzled by his administration’s own mythmaking.”

Chatterbox hasn’t read Frank’s book, so he can’t say whether Castro’s summary of Frank’s arguments is accurate. He has checked that second quote from Frank’s book, though, and it’s precisely as Frank wrote it. And yes, Chatterbox did state that “Bush seemed jangled” at the press conference in question, further noting,

His strategy for answering questions about why we went to war was to repeat, mantralike, that Saddam was a threat and that the intelligence on which he based that judgment was good, sound intelligence and that the United Nations had passed 12 resolutions against Saddam.

Chatterbox was making the point that Bush didn’t handle political adversity terribly well. Why he didn’t handle it well went unexplored, though (to reiterate) it probably had to do with Dubya’s being a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

However much Chatterbox may dislike President Bush, he must affirm that he very much enjoys living in a country where you can say any rude thing you like about the commander in chief. Castro is smarter and better-read than Bush, but he rules a country described thusly by Human Rights Watch:

Cuba is a one-party state that restricts nearly all avenues of political dissent. The government severely curtails basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, movement, and to a fair trial. While it has long sought to silence its critics by using short term-detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, threats, surveillance, criminal prosecutions, politically motivated dismissals from employment, and other forms of harassment, the government’s intolerance of dissenting voices intensified considerably in 2003.

Chatterbox will take America’s frat-boy ignoramus, religious fanatic, or however else you care to describe him over Cuba’s thuggish bibliophile any day of the week. So, please, Comandante, read away. But even if you follow the Modern Language Association’s footnoting policy to perfection, Chatterbox would prefer that you leave this column out of your speeches from now on—particularly those that end with the nutty cry, “Hail Caesar!”