by Elizabeth Cady Brown and Anna Jane Grossman
THE NEW YORK OBSERVER
"The show opens with an empty stage and the unmistakable voice of George W. Bush over the loudspeakers: "A aspect of poverty is food." Then a tall man with drooping shoulders and close-cropped dark hair lopes onto the stage. He’s wearing a nicely tailored brown suit and natty redwood-colored leather shoes. "A aspect of poverty is food," the man says, slowly. "Please say it with me, everyone." The audience obliges: "A aspect of poverty is food."
The man looks at the audience. "Did he really say that? ‘A aspect of poverty is food.’ He says things like this all the time—things that make me feel I am losing my mind."
The man onstage is Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University and the author of The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder. Like many New Yorkers, the 53-year-old Mr. Miller has found himself uneasily adrift, while the rest of the country seems to be just wild about W. For someone who believes, as Mr. Miller does, that the 2000 election was fraudulent, that the Iraq war was a crime against humanity and that the current policies of the Justice Department are a death knell for American democracy, these are bleak, maddening times. To cope with his own bubbling rage and reach other despairing blue-staters, Mr. Miller is performing his one-man comedic play, Operation American Freedom, at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village to sold-out crowds every Saturday night through June. The show could be seen as a response to the lament that rings out from Unitarian pot-luck dinners, indie rock concerts and sociology departments across the land: that the Democratic Party has been struck dumb by the Bush administration’s audacity.
"Without a doubt, what is most troubling to me about this administration is the near-total and apparently systematic denunciation of the truth in matters large and small," Mr. Miller said over lunch recently. "It is the mind-boggling mendacity of these people who tell you that black is white and white is black."
The show is a largely improvised rant each week—more like a bitch session in your friend’s apartment than an evening at the theater, with topics ranging from W.’s reputed prowess at lighting his flatulence during parties at Yale to the Pentagon’s public-relations machine. Indeed, Operation American Freedom grew out of a bitch session between Mr. Miller’s wife, Amy Smiley, and her hairdresser, Antonio. When Ms. Smiley told Antonio that her husband was having difficulty finding public forums outside academia post-9/11, Antonio said that not only was he himself a radical Italian socialist, but he had contacts in the city’s arts scene. Prego! He was able to get the alienated academic into the Cherry Lane Theater, and he and Mr. Miller plan to take the show to a larger venue this fall.
Mr. Miller is encrusted with a thicker level of learning than political comedians like Michael Moore or Bill Maher. He studied literary criticism at Johns Hopkins in the 1970’s and wrote his doctoral thesis about courtliness in the Renaissance. He subjects Mr. Bush’s malapropisms to the same textual scrutiny he once applied to Henry VIII.
"There was a moment during the second debate with Al Gore," Mr. Miller said, "when they were talking about a hate-crimes bill in Texas. Bush launched into this thing about the murderers of James Byrd and how the state was going to fry them. There was a look of glee on his face. He spoke with ease and conviction, completely unscripted. That was a revelation to me. I realized that he is capable of speaking cruelly."
His take on the G.O.P.: "They are pathologically concerned with purifying themselves, and they project the hatred they have for themselves onto others."
One point Mr. Miller makes repeatedly during his show is that George Bush is not stupid. "He is proud of his ignorance, proud that his mind is shut tight like an oyster, but he’s not stupid," Mr. Miller tells his audience.
"If Bush were just a laughingstock, just a boob who happened to be dumped on the throne by the forces of evil and bore no other relation to them, it would be cruel to do what I do," Mr. Miller said. "I’d be mocking the afflicted. But it’s not cruel because he has much in common with the people around him, and the movement he represents is pure vindictiveness. They want to win, and they want the loser to suffer."
To prepare his book and his show, Mr. Miller has probably ingested more words of George W. Bush than any other American. "It’s not easy to be immersed in this stuff," he said. "But I have this compulsion to set the record straight. I can’t stand the constant lying. I believe we are obliged to speak out, if for no other reason than it’s easy to imagine a future where people will berate themselves for having gone about business as usual."
He’d rather have them berate themselves now. Or better yet, berate others. At the start of his show one night, he told the audience, "I hope you want to leave here tonight and pick a fight, not crawl home and cry."