[FoRK] The Penny Dropping?

Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) fork at ianbell.com
Fri Aug 6 14:35:06 PDT 2004

Ron Regan on George W. Bush, in Esquire Magazine


August 4th, 2004 11:37 am
The Case Against George W. Bush - by Ron Reagan

by Ron Reagan / Esquire

It may have been the guy in the hood teetering on the stool, electrodes 
clamped to his genitals. Or smirking Lynndie England and her leash. 
Maybe it was the smarmy memos tapped out by soft-fingered lawyers 
itching to justify such barbarism. The grudging, lunatic retreat of the 
neocons from their long-standing assertion that Saddam was in cahoots 
with Osama didn't hurt. Even the Enron audiotapes and their celebration 
of craven sociopathy likely played a part. As a result of all these 
displays and countless smaller ones, you could feel, a couple of months 
back, as summer spread across the country, the ground shifting beneath 
your feet. Not unlike that scene in The Day After Tomorrow, then in 
theaters, in which the giant ice shelf splits asunder, this was more a 
paradigm shift than anything strictly tectonic. No cataclysmic ice age, 
admittedly, yet something was in the air, and people were inhaling 
deeply. I began to get calls from friends whose parents had always 
voted Republican, "but not this time." There was the staid Zbigniew 
Brzezinski on the staid NewsHour with Jim Lehrer sneering at the 
"Orwellian language" flowing out of the Pentagon. Word spread through 
the usual channels that old hands from the days of Bush the Elder were 
quietly (but not too quietly) appalled by his son's misadventure in 
Iraq. Suddenly, everywhere you went, a surprising number of folks 
seemed to have had just about enough of what the Bush administration 
was dishing out. A fresh age appeared on the horizon, accompanied by 
the sound of scales falling from people's eyes. It felt something like 
a demonstration of that highest of American prerogatives and the most 
deeply cherished American freedom: dissent.

Oddly, even my father's funeral contributed. Throughout that long, 
stately, overtelevised week in early June, items would appear in the 
newspaper discussing the Republicans' eagerness to capitalize (subtly, 
tastefully) on the outpouring of affection for my father and turn it to 
Bush's advantage for the fall election. The familiar "Heir to Reagan" 
puffballs were reinflated and loosed over the proceedings like (subtle, 
tasteful) Mylar balloons. Predictably, this backfired. People were 
treated to a side-by-side comparison—Ronald W. Reagan versus George W. 
Bush—and it's no surprise who suffered for it. Misty-eyed with 
nostalgia, people set aside old political gripes for a few days and 
remembered what friend and foe always conceded to Ronald Reagan: He was 
damned impressive in the role of leader of the free world. A sign in 
the crowd, spotted during the slow roll to the Capitol rotunda, seemed 
to sum up the mood—a portrait of my father and the words NOW THERE WAS 

The comparison underscored something important. And the guy on the 
stool, Lynndie, and her grinning cohorts, they brought the word: The 
Bush administration can't be trusted. The parade of Bush officials 
before various commissions and committees—Paul Wolfowitz, who couldn't 
quite remember how many young Americans had been sacrificed on the 
altar of his ideology; John Ashcroft, lip quivering as, for a 
delicious, fleeting moment, it looked as if Senator Joe Biden might 
just come over the table at him—these were a continuing reminder. The 
Enron creeps, too—a reminder of how certain environments and particular 
habits of mind can erode common decency. People noticed. A tipping 
point had been reached. The issue of credibility was back on the table. 
The L-word was in circulation. Not the tired old bromide liberal. 
That's so 1988. No, this time something much more potent: liar.

Politicians will stretch the truth. They'll exaggerate their 
accomplishments, paper over their gaffes. Spin has long been the lingua 
franca of the political realm. But George W. Bush and his 
administration have taken "normal" mendacity to a startling new level 
far beyond lies of convenience. On top of the usual massaging of public 
perception, they traffic in big lies, indulge in any number of 
symptomatic small lies, and, ultimately, have come to embody dishonesty 
itself. They are a lie. And people, finally, have started catching on.

None of this, needless to say, guarantees Bush a one-term presidency. 
The far-right wing of the country—nearly one third of us by some 
estimates—continues to regard all who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid 
(liberals, rationalists, Europeans, et cetera) as agents of Satan. Bush 
could show up on video canoodling with Paris Hilton and still bank 
their vote. Right-wing talking heads continue painting anyone who fails 
to genuflect deeply enough as a "hater," and therefore a nut job, 
probably a crypto-Islamist car bomber. But these protestations have 
taken on a hysterical, almost comically desperate tone. It's one thing 
to get trashed by Michael Moore. But when Nobel laureates, a vast 
majority of the scientific community, and a host of current and former 
diplomats, intelligence operatives, and military officials line up 
against you, it becomes increasingly difficult to characterize the 
opposition as fringe wackos.

Does anyone really favor an administration that so shamelessly lies? 
One that so tenaciously clings to secrecy, not to protect the American 
people, but to protect itself? That so willfully misrepresents its true 
aims and so knowingly misleads the people from whom it derives its 
power? I simply cannot think so. And to come to the same conclusion 
does not make you guilty of swallowing some liberal critique of the 
Bush presidency, because that's not what this is. This is the critique 
of a person who thinks that lying at the top levels of his government 
is abhorrent. Call it the honest guy's critique of George W. Bush.

THE MOST EGREGIOUS EXAMPLES OF distortion and misdirection—which the 
administration even now cannot bring itself to repudiate—involve our 
putative "War on Terror" and our subsequent foray into Iraq.

During his campaign for the presidency, Mr. Bush pledged a more 
"humble" foreign policy. "I would take the use of force very 
seriously," he said. "I would be guarded in my approach." Other 
countries would resent us "if we're an arrogant nation." He sniffed at 
the notion of "nation building." "Our military is meant to fight and 
win wars. . . . And when it gets overextended, morale drops." 
International cooperation and consensus building would be the 
cornerstone of a Bush administration's approach to the larger world. 
Given candidate Bush's remarks, it was hard to imagine him, as 
president, flipping a stiff middle finger at the world and charging off 
adventuring in the Middle East.

But didn't 9/11 reshuffle the deck, changing everything? Didn't Mr. 
Bush, on September 12, 2001, awaken to the fresh realization that bad 
guys in charge of Islamic nations constitute an entirely new and grave 
threat to us and have to be ruthlessly confronted lest they threaten 
the American homeland again? Wasn't Saddam Hussein rushed to the front 
of the line because he was complicit with the hijackers and in some 
measure responsible for the atrocities in Washington, D. C., and at the 
tip of Manhattan?

Well, no.

As Bush's former Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, and his onetime 
"terror czar," Richard A. Clarke, have made clear, the president, with 
the enthusiastic encouragement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and 
Paul Wolfowitz, was contemplating action against Iraq from day one. 
"From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking 
at how we could take him out," O'Neill said. All they needed was an 
excuse. Clarke got the same impression from within the White House. 
Afghanistan had to be dealt with first; that's where the actual 
perpetrators were, after all. But the Taliban was a mere appetizer; 
Saddam was the entrée. (Or who knows? The soup course?) It was simply a 
matter of convincing the American public (and our representatives) that 
war was justified.

The real—but elusive—prime mover behind the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin 
Laden, was quickly relegated to a back burner (a staff member at Fox 
News—the cable-TV outlet of the Bush White House—told me a year ago 
that mere mention of bin Laden's name was forbidden within the company, 
lest we be reminded that the actual bad guy remained at large) while 
Saddam's Iraq became International Enemy Number One. Just like that, a 
country whose economy had been reduced to shambles by international 
sanctions, whose military was less than half the size it had been when 
the U. S. Army rolled over it during the first Gulf war, that had 
extensive no-flight zones imposed on it in the north and south as well 
as constant aerial and satellite surveillance, and whose lethal weapons 
and capacity to produce such weapons had been destroyed or seriously 
degraded by UN inspection teams became, in Mr. Bush's words, "a threat 
of unique urgency" to the most powerful nation on earth.

Fanciful but terrifying scenarios were introduced: Unmanned aircraft, 
drones, had been built for missions targeting the U. S., Bush told the 
nation. "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," 
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice deadpanned to CNN. And, Bush 
maintained, "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological 
or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists." We 
"know" Iraq possesses such weapons, Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney 
assured us. We even "know" where they are hidden. After several months 
of this mumbo jumbo, 70 percent of Americans had embraced the fantasy 
that Saddam destroyed the World Trade Center.

ALL THESE ASSERTIONS have proved to be baseless and, we've since 
discovered, were regarded with skepticism by experts at the time they 
were made. But contrary opinions were derided, ignored, or covered up 
in the rush to war. Even as of this writing, Dick Cheney clings to his 
mad assertion that Saddam was somehow at the nexus of a worldwide 
terror network.

And then there was Abu Ghraib. Our "war president" may have been 
justified in his assumption that Americans are a warrior people. He 
pushed the envelope in thinking we'd be content as an occupying power, 
but he was sadly mistaken if he thought that ordinary Americans would 
tolerate an image of themselves as torturers. To be fair, the torture 
was meant to be secret. So were the memos justifying such treatment 
that had floated around the White House, Pentagon, and Justice 
Department for more than a year before the first photos came to light. 
The neocons no doubt appreciate that few of us have the stones to 
practice the New Warfare. Could you slip a pair of women's panties over 
the head of a naked, cowering stranger while forcing him to masturbate? 
What would you say while sodomizing him with a toilet plunger? Is 
keeping someone awake till he hallucinates inhumane treatment or merely 
"sleep management"?

Most of us know the answers to these questions, so it was incumbent 
upon the administration to pretend that Abu Ghraib was an aberration, 
not policy. Investigations, we were assured, were already under way; 
relevant bureaucracies would offer unstinting cooperation; the handful 
of miscreants would be sternly disciplined. After all, they didn't 
"represent the best of what America's all about." As anyone who'd 
watched the proceedings of the 9/11 Commission could have predicted, 
what followed was the usual administration strategy of stonewalling, 
obstruction, and obfuscation. The appointment of investigators was 
stalled; documents were withheld, including the full report by Major 
General Antonio Taguba, who headed the Army's primary investigation 
into the abuses at Abu Ghraib. A favorite moment for many featured John 
McCain growing apoplectic as Donald Rumsfeld and an entire tableful of 
army brass proved unable to answer the simple question Who was in 
charge at Abu Ghraib?

The Bush administration no doubt had its real reasons for invading and 
occupying Iraq. They've simply chosen not to share them with the 
American public. They sought justification for ignoring the Geneva 
Convention and other statutes prohibiting torture and inhumane 
treatment of prisoners but were loath to acknowledge as much. They may 
have ideas worth discussing, but they don't welcome the rest of us in 
the conversation. They don't trust us because they don't dare expose 
their true agendas to the light of day. There is a surreal quality to 
all this: Occupation is liberation; Iraq is sovereign, but we're in 
control; Saddam is in Iraqi custody, but we've got him; we'll get out 
as soon as an elected Iraqi government asks us, but we'll be there for 
years to come. Which is what we counted on in the first place, only 
with rose petals and easy coochie.

This Möbius reality finds its domestic analogue in the perversely 
cynical "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" sloganeering at Bush's EPA 
and in the administration's irresponsible tax cutting and other fiscal 
shenanigans. But the Bush administration has always worn strangely 
tinted shades, and you wonder to what extent Mr. Bush himself lives in 
a world of his own imagining.

And chances are your America and George W. Bush's America are not the 
same place. If you are dead center on the earning scale in real-world 
twenty-first-century America, you make a bit less than $32,000 a year, 
and $32,000 is not a sum that Mr. Bush has ever associated with getting 
by in his world. Bush, who has always managed to fail upwards in his 
various careers, has never had a job the way you have a job—where not 
showing up one morning gets you fired, costing you your health 
benefits. He may find it difficult to relate personally to any of the 
nearly two million citizens who've lost their jobs under his 
administration, the first administration since Herbert Hoover's to post 
a net loss of jobs. Mr. Bush has never had to worry that he couldn't 
afford the best available health care for his children. For him, 
forty-three million people without health insurance may be no more than 
a politically inconvenient abstraction. When Mr. Bush talks about the 
economy, he is not talking about your economy. His economy is filled 
with pals called Kenny-boy who fly around in their own airplanes. In 
Bush's economy, his world, friends relocate offshore to avoid paying 
taxes. Taxes are for chumps like you. You are not a friend. You're the 
help. When the party Mr. Bush is hosting in his world ends, you'll be 
left picking shrimp toast out of the carpet.

ALL ADMINISTRATIONS WILL DISSEMBLE, distort, or outright lie when their 
backs are against the wall, when honesty begins to look like political 
suicide. But this administration seems to lie reflexively, as if it 
were simply the easiest option for busy folks with a lot on their 
minds. While the big lies are more damning and of immeasurably greater 
import to the nation, it is the small, unnecessary prevarications that 
may be diagnostic. Who lies when they don't have to? When the simple 
truth, though perhaps embarrassing in the short run, is nevertheless in 
one's long-term self-interest? Why would a president whose calling card 
is his alleged rock-solid integrity waste his chief asset for 
penny-ante stakes? Habit, perhaps. Or an inability to admit even small 

Mr. Bush's tendency to meander beyond the bounds of truth was evident 
during the 2000 campaign but was largely ignored by the mainstream 
media. His untruths simply didn't fit the agreed-upon narrative. While 
generally acknowledged to be lacking in experience, depth, and other 
qualifications typically considered useful in a leader of the free 
world, Bush was portrayed as a decent fellow nonetheless, one whose 
straightforwardness was a given. None of that "what the meaning of is 
is" business for him. And, God knows, no furtive, taxpayer-funded 
fellatio sessions with the interns. Al Gore, on the other hand, was 
depicted as a dubious self-reinventor, stained like a certain blue 
dress by Bill Clinton's prurient transgressions. He would spend 
valuable weeks explaining away statements—"I invented the 
Internet"—that he never made in the first place. All this left the 
coast pretty clear for Bush.

Scenario typical of the 2000 campaign: While debating Al Gore, Bush 
tells two obvious—if not exactly earth-shattering—lies and is not 
challenged. First, he claims to have supported a patient's bill of 
rights while governor of Texas. This is untrue. He, in fact, vigorously 
resisted such a measure, only reluctantly bowing to political reality 
and allowing it to become law without his signature. Second, he 
announces that Gore has outspent him during the campaign. The opposite 
is true: Bush has outspent Gore. These misstatements are briefly 
acknowledged in major press outlets, which then quickly return to the 
more germane issues of Gore's pancake makeup and whether a certain 
feminist author has counseled him to be more of an "alpha male."

Having gotten away with such witless falsities, perhaps Mr. Bush and 
his team felt somehow above day-to-day truth. In any case, once 
ensconced in the White House, they picked up where they left off.

  IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH and confusion of 9/11, Bush, who on that 
day was in Sarasota, Florida, conducting an emergency reading of "The 
Pet Goat," was whisked off to Nebraska aboard Air Force One. While this 
may have been entirely sensible under the chaotic circumstances—for all 
anyone knew at the time, Washington might still have been under 
attack—the appearance was, shall we say, less than gallant. So a story 
was concocted: There had been a threat to Air Force One that 
necessitated the evasive maneuver. Bush's chief political advisor, Karl 
Rove, cited "specific" and "credible" evidence to that effect. The 
story quickly unraveled. In truth, there was no such threat.

  Then there was Bush's now infamous photo-op landing aboard the USS 
Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent speech in front of a large banner 
emblazoned MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. The banner, which loomed in the 
background as Bush addressed the crew, became problematic as it grew 
clear that the mission in Iraq—whatever that may have been—was far from 
accomplished. "Major combat operations," as Bush put it, may have 
technically ended, but young Americans were still dying almost daily. 
So the White House dealt with the questionable banner in a manner 
befitting a president pledged to "responsibility and accountability": 
It blamed the sailors. No surprise, a bit of digging by journalists 
revealed the banner and its premature triumphalism to be the work of 
the White House communications office.

  More serious by an order of magnitude was the administration's 
dishonesty concerning pre-9/11 terror warnings. As questions first 
arose about the country's lack of preparedness in the face of terrorist 
assault, Condoleezza Rice was dispatched to the pundit arenas to assure 
the nation that "no one could have imagined terrorists using aircraft 
as weapons." In fact, terrorism experts had warned repeatedly of just 
such a calamity. In June 2001, CIA director George Tenet sent Rice an 
intelligence report warning that "it is highly likely that a 
significant Al Qaeda attack is in the near future, within several 
weeks." Two intelligence briefings given to Bush in the summer of 2001 
specifically connected Al Qaeda to the imminent danger of hijacked 
planes being used as weapons. According to The New York Times, after 
the second of these briefings, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack 
Inside United States," was delivered to the president at his ranch in 
Crawford, Texas, in August, Bush "broke off from work early and spent 
most of the day fishing." This was the briefing Dr. Rice dismissed as 
"historical" in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission.

  What's odd is that none of these lies were worth the breath expended 
in the telling. If only for self-serving political reasons, honesty was 
the way to go. The flight of Air Force One could easily have been 
explained in terms of security precautions taken in the confusion of 
momentous events. As for the carrier landing, someone should have 
fallen on his or her sword at the first hint of trouble: We told the 
president he needed to do it; he likes that stuff and was gung-ho; we 
figured, What the hell?; it was a mistake. The banner? We thought the 
sailors would appreciate it. In retrospect, also a mistake. Yup, we 
sure feel dumb now. Owning up to the 9/11 warnings would have entailed 
more than simple embarrassment. But done forthrightly and immediately, 
an honest reckoning would have earned the Bush team some respect once 
the dust settled. Instead, by needlessly tap-dancing, Bush's White 
House squandered vital credibility, turning even relatively minor 
gaffes into telling examples of its tendency to distort and evade the 

But image is everything in this White House, and the image of George 
Bush as a noble and infallible warrior in the service of his nation 
must be fanatically maintained, because behind the image 
lies...nothing? As Jonathan Alter of Newsweek has pointed out, Bush has 
"never fully inhabited" the presidency. Bush apologists can smilingly 
excuse his malopropisms and vagueness as the plainspokenness of a man 
of action, but watching Bush flounder when attempting to communicate 
extemporaneously, one is left with the impression that he is ineloquent 
not because he can't speak but because he doesn't bother to think.

  GEORGE W. BUSH PROMISED to "change the tone in Washington" and ran for 
office as a moderate, a "compassionate conservative," in the 
focus-group-tested sloganeering of his campaign. Yet he has governed 
from the right wing of his already conservative party, assiduously 
tending a "base" that includes, along with the expected Fortune 500 fat 
cats, fiscal evangelicals who talk openly of doing away with Social 
Security and Medicare, of shrinking government to the size where they 
can, in tax radical Grover Norquist's phrase, "drown it in the 
bathtub." That base also encompasses a healthy share of anti-choice 
zealots, homophobic bigots, and assorted purveyors of junk science. 
Bush has tossed bones to all of them—"partial birth" abortion 
legislation, the promise of a constitutional amendment banning marriage 
between homosexuals, federal roadblocks to embryonic-stem-cell 
research, even comments suggesting presidential doubts about Darwinian 
evolution. It's not that Mr. Bush necessarily shares their worldview; 
indeed, it's unclear whether he embraces any coherent philosophy. But 
this president, who vowed to eschew politics in favor of sound policy, 
panders nonetheless in the interest of political gain. As John DiIulio, 
Bush's former head of the Office of Community and Faith-Based 
Initiatives, once told this magazine, "What you've got is 
everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm."

  This was not what the American electorate opted for when, in 2000, by 
a slim but decisive margin of more than half a million votes, they 
chose...the other guy. Bush has never had a mandate. Surveys indicate 
broad public dissatisfaction with his domestic priorities. How many 
people would have voted for Mr. Bush in the first place had they 
understood his eagerness to pass on crushing debt to our children or 
seen his true colors regarding global warming and the environment? Even 
after 9/11, were people really looking to be dragged into an optional 
war under false pretenses?

  If ever there was a time for uniting and not dividing, this is it. 
Instead, Mr. Bush governs as if by divine right, seeming to actually 
believe that a wise God wants him in the White House and that by 
constantly evoking the horrible memory of September 11, 2001, he can 
keep public anxiety stirred up enough to carry him to another term.

UNDERSTANDABLY, SOME SUPPORTERS of Mr. Bush's will believe I harbor a 
personal vendetta against the man, some seething resentment. One 
conservative commentator, based on earlier remarks I've made, has 
already discerned "jealousy" on my part; after all, Bush, the son of a 
former president, now occupies that office himself, while I, most 
assuredly, will not. Truth be told, I have no personal feelings for 
Bush at all. I hardly know him, having met him only twice, briefly and 
uneventfully—once during my father's presidency and once during my 
father's funeral. I'll acknowledge occasional annoyance at the pretense 
that he's somehow a clone of my father, but far from threatening, I see 
this more as silly and pathetic. My father, acting roles excepted, 
never pretended to be anyone but himself. His Republican party, 
furthermore, seems a far cry from the current model, with its cringing 
obeisance to the religious Right and its kill-anything-that-moves 
attack instincts. Believe it or not, I don't look in the mirror every 
morning and see my father looming over my shoulder. I write and speak 
as nothing more or less than an American citizen, one who is plenty 
angry about the direction our country is being dragged by the current 
administration. We have reached a critical juncture in our nation's 
history, one ripe with both danger and possibility. We need leadership 
with the wisdom to prudently confront those dangers and the imagination 
to boldly grasp the possibilities. Beyond issues of fiscal 
irresponsibility and ill-advised militarism, there is a question of 
trust. George W. Bush and his allies don't trust you and me. Why on 
earth, then, should we trust them?

Fortunately, we still live in a democratic republic. The Bush team 
cannot expect a cabal of right-wing justices to once again deliver the 
White House. Come November 2, we will have a choice: We can embrace a 
lie, or we can restore a measure of integrity to our government. We can 
choose, as a bumper sticker I spotted in Seattle put it, SOMEONE ELSE 
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