Thursday, May 20, 2004

There was an article in Slate earlier this week in which the author details what he sees as the impending implosion of the Bush Administration in a cloud of investigations by Congress, the courts, and the media. The Senate's hearings into the prisoner abuse scandal are just the tip of that potential iceberg. But before we imagine the summer of 1974 all over again, when Republicans began bailing on Nixon and the party's "wise men" eventually had to tell him it was time to go, we need to keep in mind a couple of critical differences 30 years later. First, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate in Nixon's day. Democrat control of Congress opened investigative avenues that do not exist today. Today, Bush has a seemingly impregnable firewall in the House of Representatives, where Tom DeLay cracks the whip over a compliant majority and regularly scorches the minority for its lack of patriotism. Short of Bush being caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy, the House Republicans will protect him to the end. In Congress a generation ago, the group of people willing to support Nixon to the bitter end eventually dwindled to little more than a sad lot of crackpots.

Bush also has another kind of support unavailable to Nixon: the strong backing of popular media outlets that keep telling the faithful that everything will be all right--and/or whipping up hatred for anyone and anything that doesn't support their belief that everything will be all right. There simply wasn't as much media in Nixon's day, and audiences were broader for what there was. There was no echo chamber like today's, no place for a news consumer to go where he could be insulated from news he didn't want to hear. Everybody heard the bad news about Nixon, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. As a result, his approval rating at the time of his resignation was 24 percent (which would about cover the combined percentage of people without TV or radio who couldn't read). Even though he's in the high 40s now, for Bush to fall anywhere near Nixonian levels would seem to require a dead girl or live boy yet again.

And then there's the ultimate firewall. My post the other day about the religious group arguing against Palestinian statehood because it would delay the Second Coming is just one example of what I'm talking about. Sidney Blumenthal, writing in Salon about the role of Admiral William "My God's Bigger Than Yours" Boykin in the prison scandal, quotes some of Boykin's more ridiculous remarks about how God put Bush in office even against the wishes of the voters. So there are a lot of Americans--a minority, yes, but a significant number with power beyond their numbers--who think that Bush is God's will made flesh. That, too, is likely to make some people think twice about the effort to peel off the emperor's clothes--not necessarily because they fear offending the Deity themselves, but because they fear offending those offended when the Deity is offended. (One of the many reasons I'd like to see Kerry win in November is to douse some of the hubris of the religious right--because if Bush wins, we ain't seen nothing yet.)

To be sure, Christian charity doesn't necessarily extend to places like the press corps (now that it seems to be regrowing testicles), or to public officials with axes to grind and damaging information to leak. And it's possible that we might be in the April 1973 stage of the Iraq affair. April 1973 was when Watergate burst into the mass consciousness after 10 months as inside baseball. It took 14 more months before Nixon's demise began to look inevitable, and two more after that for it to actually happen. Bush only has to hold out for 5 1/2 more--and then it won't make a damn bit of difference what he did before. The Mission will truly be Accomplished. And even if the spiral accelerates and things get swiftly worse this summer (after all, everything else has accelerated in 30 years), he's still got his firewall.

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