Explaining the sticky subject of war to a naïve, adorably helpless commander-in-chief is one of the most daunting tasks a concerned adult can face. Unlike the rest of us, presidents lack the life experience and highly developed value systems to comprehend the full implications of global conflict. But the following suggestions (tendered by our blue-ribbon panel of psychologists) can make the inevitable heart-to-heart chat far less awkward ... for both you and your "leader."
When should I broach the subject of war with my president?
Try to get him when he's at his happiest and most secure. Strike up a conversation just before he settles in for his afternoon nap, or raise the issue over s'mores during a long, restful weekend at Camp David. Or you can wait until his weekly stock tips come in, then pounce.
What do I tell him? What does a president most need to hear during periods of international turmoil?
Presidents are textbook innocents, and as such are primarily concerned with their own safety. Reassure yours that he is surrounded by people who (queer though it may seem) love him dearly and won't let anything bad happen to him. Use history as a guide. Have him think back to the Vietnam War, and how much fun he had tooling up and down the highway at 90 m.p.h. and shotgunning Stroh's instead of cooling his heels with the National Guard. Cement the memory with those six magic words that have taken the sting out of many a rubella vaccination: "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
The more complex the world situation becomes, the worse my president misbehaves. What can I do to stop his acting out?
Though presidents may at times seem willful or even hostile, most of the things they do are motivated by deep-seated feelings of powerlessness. Keep this in mind when dealing with yours. Be sensitive of his emotions. Remember that war may be something his friends have bullied him into, particularly if they are older and know his parents.
To compensate, indulge his need to be viewed as a formidable figure on the world stage. Salute when he enters a room. Mention how that mean Saddam kid sure stopped acting so high and mighty when your tough little guy came on the scene. The more potent your prexy considers himself, the less motivated he will be to stir up trouble. We think.
How can I be sure that he receives an accurate picture of current events?
Odds are your president isn't spending enough time watching TV. And if he is, he's seeking out programming that appeals to his baser impulses, rather than stimulating his overdue intellectual growth. Many cable providers offer a lock box that restricts access to undesirable channels, like FOX News and CNN. Get one.
To counteract the corrupting influence of the mass media, do everything you can to reinforce the reality of the situation. Make sure your president knows war is not a movie he can pop in the VCR to watch over and over again. Nor is it a video game -- no matter how cool it is that those industrial targets blow higher than Old Faithful when you hit them right on the money.
What if I'm worried about the world situation myself?
Be honest. Not only do presidents know when they're being lied to, they greatly resent the role reversal. They respond better to frank discourse that doesn't talk down to them. Try this example:
"I'm scared shitless. You?"
Of course, your misgivings may run deeper than mere fear. You might have sincere moral reservations about a particular conflict. If so, be completely open and up front about those feelings, too. You never know how receptive your president might be. Practice by pouring your heart out to an olive loaf.
How do I explain the concept of civilian casualties?
This is a good time to teach your president the true meaning of that hawk-approved aphorism, "You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs." To do so, take him to the kitchen and enlist his aid in cooking an actual omelet.
Remove a carton of fresh eggs from the refrigerator, and break the first egg against the side of a mixing bowl. Call this egg "collateral damage." Take the next five eggs and liquefy them in a blender. Identify the result as "collateraler" damage. Splatter the remaining six eggs on the floor, walls and ceiling. Term the effect "collateralest." When all 12 eggs are accounted for, whip out a box of Fire Chief matches and dispose of the empty carton. Explain that what looked like a chemical-weapons plant was actually the eggs' humble home. Finish preparing omelet and enjoy. Serves four people.
I'm not sure my president knows the difference between the Geneva Convention and the Silver Convention. To be honest, I'm not certain I know, either.
The Geneva Convention is an international accord that dictates standards of acceptable wartime conduct. The Silver Convention scored a No. 1 R&B crossover hit in 1975 with "Fly Robin Fly." Confusing the two is a common mistake.
Even though my president can be a real handful sometimes, I don't want to see him hurt or humiliated in front of the entire world. Sooner or later, he's going to discover that anti-war protesters are mobbing the streets, denouncing his aggressive postures. Then what do I do?
It's important to reassure your president that people who are critical of his policies are not rejecting him personally. (We've already established how dangerous he can be when he feels disrespected.) Say anything to calm him down, no matter how convoluted. Tell him that some people may not support the war, but they do support the troops who are fighting the war. Except they don't support the troops who are lobbing grenades into the tents of the other troops who are fighting the war. But let him know how joyful you always are to hear him say that America speaks with one voice.Steve Schneider writes for the Orlando Weekly, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]