- Hocus POTUS
- Melville House, 366 pp.
The plot of Malcolm MacPherson’s Hocus POTUS concerns efforts to make things appear to be something they are not. MacPherson wants the novel, about the selling of fake weapon of mass destruction to U.S. government employees searching for a way to justify the intervention in Iraq, to seem like a clever critique of George W. Bush.
Rick Gannon, like others in the group he organizes to trick those responsible for the war, speaks and thinks like a MoveOn.org-style activist. In the novel’s first pages, the charismatic con man muses about how “platoons of civilian contractors hand-picked by the Pentagon, like Haliburton…, were scamming American taxpayers” and that “the war was started far less for liberty than larceny.” Such deception, which Gannon calls “buffing the turd,” is invoked to excuse his scheme to present a modified children’s ride from a traveling circus as a WMD stand-in. “Our present government buffs turds all the time,” he explains. “They buffed a big one to justify and invasion. And we fell for it, just like they knew we would. They are expert at buffing the shit they make up to make it look like what it isn’t…. I propose to do what they do. We’ll make up a WMD and let them buff it to a shine.” Mustafa, a wealthy Iraqi aiming to enrich himself further in post-Saddam Iraq, expresses similar sentiments, in less scatological language, when he complains of American-caused blackouts, deaths and deprivation. David McNeil, a physicist who “in a flush of patriotism after 9/11” donated to the Republicans and agreed to join the WMD hunt, determines after a couple of weeks in Iraq that no such weapons exist: “Saddam’s capability for WMD is like our President saying he has the capability for making a perpetual motion machine, and he hires the engineers to make a few parts. So fucking what? I’m telling you. He couldn’t do it.” McNeil subsequently sides with Gannon and the others to sell a buffed turd back to Bush.
And here’s how MacPherson presents Bush addressing the United Nations: “We have found, find, will found WMD. It’ll be a matter of time to do so.”
Those aligned with the figure referred to in the novel’s title – the President of the United States – come across as either credulous clowns or cynical careerists. MacPherson’s satiric take on the Bush administration’s foreign policy has its origins in his work as a journalist. MacPherson contributed to a June 2003 Time magazine article about Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, who the month before had become head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Bremer admits to a lack of qualifications: “None of us has any experience in this.” The article remarks on “a slow-burning resentment of the American occupation” (like that given voice by Mustafa and other Iraqi characters in Hocus POTUS). In a follow-up Time report a year later, when WMD still had not been found, MacPherson and other reporters relay Bremer’s conviction that “he will ultimately be judged not for the violence and mismanagement that marred his administration but for the political arrangements set in place during his 13 months in Baghdad.”
With Hocus POTUS, MacPherson’s tries to prove Bremer wrong on that last point, stressing the mendacity, corruption, incompetence, and arrogance and other familiar charges frequently leveled at the CPA and Bush. In the novel, set in May 2003, newly appointed Ambassador L. Rufus Taylor “did not know the first thing about reconstruction or nation-building or even management; he did know what he didn’t know, and everybody knew it.” MacPherson calls those working with Taylor and willing to endorse fraudulent WMD “Kool-Aid drinkers.” They accept delusions as they submit to their leader. This might have worked better if he didn’t repeat the Kool-Aid line several times in the novel.
MacPherson even has the right-thinking opponents of Taylor and the POTUS pledge to use some of the $80 million they swindle to provide medical care for a severely ill Iraqi child in order “to make amends for the millions of things that are being done wrong.”
Satire, of course, does not depend on subtlety. However, there are more effective ways to wield it than like a hammer bludgeoning readers. Imagining a more plausible premise also would have helped. After all, if the WMD seekers would have accepted a bogus bomb, why wouldn’t they have used their ample resources to build their own instead of buying one from people they’d already determined were not on their team (or, to put it in the novel’s terms, “had not quaffed the Kool-Aid”)?
As a sideshow to the novel’s main event, MacPherson presents Saddam Hussein as a frustrated romance novelist. MacPherson sees parallels between bomb-making and fiction writing. “Building a book is a little like building a WMD; you need all the right pieces in the right places at the right time.” However, in MacPherson’s scenario, the dictator hadn’t stockpiled WMD; rather, he had warehouses full of unwanted novels. Thus, the author of Hocus POTUS recognizes that there’s more than one way a book can be like a bomb.