Sunday, February 08, 2004

Mush for Breakfast
Back in Jimmy Carter’s day, a joke headline about one of his speeches once made it accidentally into the Boston Globe—"Mush from the Wimp." I was reminded of this watching Bush on Meet the Press this morning. With very few exceptions, Bush dredged up the same nonsense he’s been spouting for months to answer questions of the moment, slightly retrofitted where necessary, but still straight from a tired and discredited old script.

The first half of the interview was devoted to Iraq, where retrofitting has become necessary since it became clear to everybody that the oft-repeated rationale for the war was bullshit. Nevertheless, Bush used most of the same talking points we’ve heard before. In fact, referring to “talking points” in the plural gives too much credit—it’s really a talking point, that Saddam was a madman who had to be stopped to make the world much safer. (Yada, yada, yada, repeat until safely reelected.) Tim Russert pretty much let him go, often failing to notice that Bush hadn’t really answered his questions. (Russert wasted a lot of time asking whether Bush would testify before his intelligence or 9/11 commissions. Bush didn’t say “When pigs fly,” but that had to be what he was thinking. Besides, presidents rarely testify before such commissions--Gerald Ford did once, and Bill Clinton would have been happy to if anyone had asked him, but Russert had to know this president wouldn't do such a thing even at gunpoint.)

None of this muddle on Iraq, I must note, was particularly surprising to me as a viewer. Historically, Americans have given their presidents a pass on foreign policy—until one of your loved ones gets killed in some desert or jungle hole, the idea of war and peace abroad has a certain artificiality to it, and while it engages a segment of the polity, it will never get under every voter’s skin. Russert’s greater relative success in framing the second portion of the interview, on the economy, offers some proof that pocketbook issues are just easier to understand; it’s harder to snow people when they can see the evidence for themselves. Thus the truth of Tip O’Neill’s dictum that all politics is local, and Bill Clinton’s, that “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Russert laid out the damning economic statistics—jobs lost, deficits created—and tried to get Bush to back away from his tax cuts, but Bush wasn’t having any of it. Once again, he dragged out the old familiar talking points we first heard years ago—the recession started on Clinton’s watch, our tax cuts have started to work, and besides, we’re fighting a war and that costs money. Russert noted that no president has ever cut taxes during wartime, but Bush weaseled off that hook, too.

He also weaseled off the hook when Russert noted the divisiveness he’s fostered, not only in the United States but also abroad. Bush claimed not to understand it, and dismissed the accusations as typical Washington politics. He also dismissed attempts to get him to comment on John Kerry's criticisms of him--claiming not to have known Kerry at Yale, where Kerry was two years ahead of him and they were both members of Skull and Bones--and said of the fall campaign, "I look forward to a good campaign. I know exactly where I want to lead the country. (This caused me to sourly remark to the Mrs. that he must have found Shit Creek on a map.)

There was one point in the interview where I actually—not symbolically, not rhetorically, not metaphorically, but actually—screamed at the TV. It was when Bush, in response to Russert’s questions about his National Guard service, insinuated that those who question the details of his service are actually denigrating those who serve in the National Guard. I have not heard one living soul suggest this—because not one living soul has. This insinuation is spin and obfuscation, pure and simple, an attempt to change the subject with utter vaulting bullshit so blatantly self-serving that it’s nearly indescribable except to call it a species of Nixon trick. Nixon was fond of saying “People say . . . .” then following it up with some sort of accusation or insinuation, often the product of Nixon’s own mind. Then he would say, “I, of course, do not believe this.” But the accusation or insinuation had been put into play and became part of the discussion. Thus, it won’t be long before the right-wing echo chamber starts repeating the line that questioning Bush’s service equals dissing the Guard.

Also telling was Bush’s response to the following question: “[I]s it worth the loss of 530 American lives and 3,000 injuries and woundings simply to remove Saddam Hussein, even though there were no weapons of mass destruction?” He paused. He blinked. He fumbled. And it was clear in the few seconds in which he was sorting through the briefing book pages in his brain that he had no good answer, even as he admitted he was trying to speak to the people who have lost loved ones in this war. Like he was programmed, he returned feebly to the old talking point about madman Saddam before a weird veer into fighting AIDS and feeding the hungry. It’s hard to imagine any parent could be comforted by such arrant nonsense—or that such mush passes for inspiring wartime leadership on one side of the American political spectrum.

For such a high-stakes interview at such a critical time in the Bush presidency, in the end, it’s surprising how little of substance came out of it. It was the same old same old, newsworthy only at the margins, and is likely to be forgotten utterly by about Tuesday. Click "Comments" below and tell the class what you think.

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