The Distracted President: Bush, Stem Cells and 9/11
Within minutes of President Obama's reversal of George W. Bush's strict limits on federal support for embryonic stem cell research, the Republican noise machine was reliably regurgitating its "distracted president" talking point. But while House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's sound bite was faithfully repeated by Time's Mark Halperin, apparently lost in the phony debate which followed was history's most recent - and tragic - example of presidential distraction. That is, while George W. Bush was single-mindedly focused on stem cells during a month long Crawford vacation in August 2001, he glided over the infamous PDB warning "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."
For his part, President Obama moved quickly to undo the damage to the American economy and health care system inflicted by Bush's misguided stem cell policy. In the intervening eight years, progress has been stunted in the United States against diseases including Lou Gehrig's, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases as well as diabetes and spinal cord injuries. Meanwhile, several states including California, New York and Massachusetts invested billions in stem cell research as part of their forward looking economic development strategies. Over that span, overwhelming majorities in Congress and among the American people have consistently supported the reversal Obama announced Monday.
But while President Obama used exactly one day to advance the science that could save lives and generate future high paying jobs for Americans, GOP talking heads and media pundits alike claimed he was distracted from rescuing the nation from the catastrophic economy bequeathed to him by President Bush.
But in a pathetic irony, it is Bush himself who is the model of presidential distraction. As he, too, wrestled with stem cell research throughout the summer of 2001, he ignored the 7 word warning that changed the course of his presidency and American history:
"Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
As Slate detailed five years ago, "while Bush vacationed, 9/11 warnings went unheard." Those missed alarms not only took the form of that bone-chilling August 6, 2001 presidential daily brief (PDB) but in CIA briefings that never occurred. While George Tenet, Richard Clarke and others told the 9/11 Commission they were running around that summer with their "hair on fire" about potential terrorist attacks from Al Qaeda, Tenet acknowledged that in August, "I was not in briefings at this time." President Bush, as he told Commissioner Tim Roemer, "was on vacation."
And what a vacation it was.
As USA Today told Americans on August 3, 2001:
"Six months after taking office, President Bush will begin a month-long vacation Saturday that is significantly longer than the average American's annual getaway. If Bush returns as scheduled on Labor Day, he'll tie the modern record for presidential absence from the White House."
For their part, Bush White House officials argued "the president is never off the clock," describing his journey to his Crawford, Texas ranch as a "working vacation." And more than anything else, what George W. Bush was working on was stem cell research.
As biographer Robert Draper details over several pages in his 2007 book, Dead Certain, Bush was preoccupied with the stem cell decision before and during his Crawford getaway. On July 9th, Bush told bio-ethicists Leon Kass and Daniel Callahan, "I am wrestling with a difficult decision." Wary of alienating the Republican Party's social conservative base, Bush and his advisers convened a series of meetings to plot a course on the stem cell issue. Their conclusion - harsh restrictions which limited federal funding to a handful of existing stem cell lines - was delivered by President Bush in a nationally televised address to the nation on August 9th, 2001.
The next day, Bush's counselor and long-time spin master Karen Hughes told CNN:
"Several people told him, 'This may be the most important decision of your presidency,' or, 'This is one of the most important decisions you will make. This has more ramifications than almost anything else you will do as president.' A number of people made that point to him."
Which, as Draper concluded, "said a lot about the state of the nation in August 2001."
Of course, at that same time, a host of other people frantic about American national security made another point to George W. Bush. On August 6th, 2001, Bush received and was briefed on the now notorious PDB which ominously warned just five weeks before the September 11 attacks that Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States. President Bush's response to the briefing, as Ron Suskind revealed in June 2006, was one for posterity:
"All right. You've covered your ass, now."
For all of Presideny Bush's vulgar cynicism, his administration's nonchalance about the growing threat from Bin Laden was perhaps best expressed by then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Rice, who held the first principals meeting to discuss the Al Qaeda danger only on September 4, 2001, was asked about the PDB memo in April 2004 by Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste:
BEN-VENISTE: Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?
RICE: I believe the title was, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
As we fast forward to the mushrooming economic crisis that is the Bush recession, President Obama on Monday moved quickly to overcome the draconian Bush stem cell policy that was needlessly killing American jobs and American citizens alike. Then he moved on.
As for George W. Bush, the very model of the modern distracted president, he never moved on from his failure to protect the nation against the grave and growing danger from Al Qaeda.
Neither did we.