Could preternaturally self-composed National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice actually have a roiling inner life? Is she tormented by needs, longings, embarrassing fantasies? So the world wondered after New York reported what it benevolently called a "poignant faux pas" committed by Rice at a recent D.C. dinner party. What Rice reportedly said was this: "As I was telling my husb—" before abruptly breaking off and correcting herself: "As I was telling President Bush." Jaws dropped, we're told. And though nobody thinks Bush and Rice are "actually an item," we were nevertheless reminded that the unmarried Condi does regularly spend weekends with the president and first lady.
Whether this happened exactly as reported has since been questioned in a second leak—and in fact it seems that while Rice said the first thing, she didn't go on to say, "As I was telling President Bush." But as we see, whenever politicians make (or are suspected of making) Freudian slips, the media get very wound up. But how should we construe the meaning of such unintentional locutions in the political classes? The conventional understanding of what Freud himself called "parapraxes"—slips of the tongue or the pen, also losing, forgetting, and mishearing things—is that what emerges in these moments are glimpses of something repressed or unconscious. We're composed of an inside and an outside in this account, the outside being the thin veneer of socialization and repression that holds all manner of pleasure-seeking urges and infantile wishes at bay. (You know, marry dad … or the boss.) And as everyone knows, because pop Freudianism permeates our culture's understanding of how selves operate (even as psychoanalysis itself fast becomes a doctrine in decline), such slips aren't random or innocent, they reveal something.
This view is now so standard that it can serve as a regular premise for sitcom humor without requiring the least explication of the principle. But even those who reject the premise generally still adhere to some version of the inner-life/outer-life dichotomy, and whether it's a soul or just some vague inner being residing in there, what's "underneath" is invariably understood to be more true than what's exterior. You do find the occasional dissenter who rejects the whole model, notably Oscar Wilde, for whom surfaces were far more interesting: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."
But living as we do in an era when political speech has been reduced to slick messages produced by consultants and pollsters, and staying "on message" is a politician's ultimate goal, the question of how to assess surfaces is the political question of our time. Put politicians under oath in front of special truth-seeking tribunals, and they still dissemble and spin—as we recently saw when Rice herself testified before the 9/11 commission. In such a milieu, the unintentional slip becomes far more meaningful as a cultural moment than it might otherwise be. Indeed, it's the only reason to watch presidential press conferences (when this president deigns to hold one) since aside from slip-ups, they're invariably devoid of content. Or so a New York Times "Week in Review" piece following the last Bush news conference acknowledged. Reporters have one goal, David Rosenbaum wrote, "to lure the president into committing a gaffe or divulging something he shouldn't."
Whatever such slips may mean is actually a different issue than what they signify, which seems to be the feeble hope that a politician might, if inadvertently, say something true. Given the vapidness that passes for political speech, it's easy to see how error becomes conflated with truth. If politicians say something revealing only by mistake, then every mistake becomes big news. A zeal for exposure—exposure of anything—sets in, meaning that reporters start prowling through political candidates' trash cans and love lives in search of something that supposedly reveals the "real person." The faux revelation substitutes for political substance, exactly because substance has been evacuated from political speech.
If ours is a scandal-obsessed society, one reason is that scandal-mongering does have a certain resemblance to truth-telling. The mechanics of scandal requires that something previously hidden be involuntarily exposed. And (as in every surface-depth paradigm) the hidden thing is presumed to have truth value. No doubt the quest to expose politicians also contains a certain ambivalence about power. Thus Condi's dinner-party slip provided the opportunity to vent some antagonism at her, but for all the wrong reasons. Bloggers ran the item alongside news photos of Bush embracing Rice; Condi was "wanting some hot monkey love from the Chimpanzee in Chief"; she'd probably better avoid Laura Bush for a while.
This was mildly funny, but Condi's devotion to Bush in other respects is not so amusing. Take Rice, standing by her man as usual, responding to Tim Russert's questions about Bush's refusal to speak to the 9/11 commission for more than an hour.
Rice: The president, of course, is the president, and he does have a schedule to keep, but he has said that he will sit with the chairman and with the co-chairman and that he will answer whatever questions they have. And I'm quite certain he will take as long as they need to answer those questions.
Russert: Several hours a day if they need?
Rice: Well, I would hope that they would recognize that he's president and that people would be judicious in the use of his time.
When Russert pointed out that the president seemed to have time enough to go to rodeos, Rice repeated, "Well, I would hope that they would recognize that he's president and that people would be judicious in the use of his time." When Russert pushed her, Rice stuck right to that script: "As I've said, Tim, I believe the president is prepared to spend whatever time they need to answer their questions, but I hope that people will be judicious with his time."
And about her own unwillingness to testify under oath:
Rice: Tim, this is not a matter of preference; this is a matter of principle. It has long been a legal and constitutional principle that assistants to the president, the presidential staff, do not testify before legislative bodies. But this is not a matter of preference …
And on she went, and the interpreters supplied the obvious interpretation, which was that the administration was stonewalling. And when Rice finally did testify under oath, what did we hear? Meaningless generalities, right on script.
If the media get whipped up when politicians make slips of the tongue, lining up to play the interpretation game, it's like co-dependents handing a corkscrew to an alcoholic: a form of complicity. Bush and Rice assure us that we're winning the war as the body count mounts, the administration vastly expands presidential power and executive secrecy, and the press keeps busy parsing sentences and monitoring slips, including jumping all over Bush for stumbling on the dumb press conference question about his "biggest mistake" since 9/11. As if there were one mistake that could be singled out?
But we want to know the inner man—you know, who George Bush really is. Except that it's not the slips and errors that reveal the truth about this man, Condi's Stepford-wife act, or this political moment: That's a game. Everything to know is right there on the surface.