The Smallness of King George
Robert F. Kennedy once said, "Richard Nixon represents the dark side of the American spirit." Well, RFK never met George W. Bush.
Not since the days of Tricky Dick has the White House seen such a secretive, paranoid and vengeance-filled occupant. President Bush may not have the Plumbers, CREEP (the Committee to Re-elect the President), or the "Enemies List", but in its essence his administration has all the same hallmarks as the Nixon team. The politics of retribution, secrecy, and infallibility are eerily familiar, only the names (Haldeman, Erlichman, and Mitchell versus Cheney, Rove and Ashcroft) have changed.
George W. Bush, a man who came to office pledging to bring honor and integrity back to the White House and who claimed to be "a uniter, not divider", has proven to be small, petty, mean-spirited and venal as president. His politics first and foremost are characterized by the "Payback Principle," with vengeance for those crossing him or his team, even, it seems, to the point of breaking the law. Second, the Bush team's paranoia manifests itself as extreme political cowardice, and an almost pathological refusal to admit error, as we'll see in the case of Iraqi WMDs and 9/11 below. By comparison, the administration's fixation with secrecy seems merely idiosyncratic.
Hell Hath No Fury Like a W Scorned
The Payback Principle, George W. Bush's almost unquenchable need for revenge, was first and amply demonstrated in his 1994 campaign for governor of Texas. His race against Ann Richards was more than a quest for power. It was fundamentally to seek retribution against Richards, whose barbs at the 1992 Democratic Convention ("poor George…he was born with a silver foot in his mouth!") he saw as part of his father's defeat by Bill Clinton. Bush defeated Richards in a savage campaign, one that among other niceties featured GOP rumor mongering of Richards' alcoholism. (Given Bush's own history of a DUI and an ultimatum from his wife, this is all the more galling.)
As President, Bush's penchant for intimidation and punishment has reached new heights. The case of Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame is probably the most notorious and most serious, but hardly an isolated instance. Wilson's op-ed piece on July 6, 2003 in the New York Times debunked the administration's claim in the 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger. He noted that his investigations there on behalf of the White House in 2002 showed that documentation of Iraqi contacts were fraudulent and without foundation.
In response, the Bush team sought retribution against Wilson. Through a leak to conservative columnist Robert Novak, administration personnel public revealed the identity of Wilson's wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame. The revelation not only effectively ended Plame's career and potentially put her life at risk, it also likely broke the law. Breaching national security, violating the law and jeopardizing the life of an American agent are apparently all in a day's work for a Bush team for whom payback is job one. (The investigation into the leak, which featured a belated recusal from Attorney General Ashcroft, is now centering on aides to Dick Cheney.)
An early indication of the vindictiveness of this administration came with the saga of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP in 2001. This is a tale of double-retribution. First, Jeffords refused to back the Bush tax cut plan in 2001. As The New Republic reported in June 2001, the White House responded by gutting special education programs supported by Jeffords and by threatening the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact critical to the Vermont milk industry. To add insult to injury, the Bush team took the unprecedented step of not inviting Jeffords to a White House event honoring a teacher from Vermont. They even denied Jeffords' office White House tour passes for his constituents. His departure from the GOP seemed understandable then and now; his one-time colleagues of course are making his tenure as an independent a lonely one.
The Bush White House, like Nixon's before him, reserves a unique brand of venom for the press. It's not just that this administration limits access to the President, has had the fewest press conferences of any in recent memory, and featured an often dissembling and frequently out-of-the-loop press secretary in Ari Fleischer. As bad as those failings are, worse still is the administration's punishment of those who dare to write or report negatively on Bush and his policies.
Consider the case of Dana Milbank of the Washington Post (and formerly of The New Republic). Whereas Bob Woodward was given carte blanche with Bush and his White House for his hagiographic book Bush at War and his earlier article, "10 Days in September", Milbank, who has written critical pieces in the past including coverage of the energy task force and Salvation Army discrimination policy, was hounded by Karl Rove and the Bush team even before taking on the White House beat. As the American Prospect reported in March 2002, Rove called Milbank's editors at the Post and asked that Milbank not be assigned to the White House, a request they refused. The press office regularly attacks his reporting and continues to complain to his editors. As one White House correspondent who would not be quoted by name for the American Prospect story said:
"I don't know if there's a physical blacklist - I'm sure they wouldn't be stupid enough to actually put it down in an e-mail. But there seems to be a system within the White House of retribution. Basically, if you write something [negative], it's like at the communication meeting with [Bush senior adviser] Karen Hughes the message goes out that so-and-so's on the blacklist -- in some cases for that day, in some cases for that week."
The pettiness of the Bush team manifests itself in so many ways as to prevent cataloging them all here. For example, for over a year, Bush shunned German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as payback for his lack of support in the war against Iraq. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, in addition to his "Old Europe" comments, also turned his back on our leading continental NATO ally, refusing to sit or speak with his German counterpart during a meeting of European defense ministers. Not surprisingly, following the war, President Bush flatly refused to allow German, French or Russian companies to bid for Iraqi reconstruction projects. This childish behavior is beyond embarrassing; government by temper tantrum is no way to run the world's lone superpower.
This president's smallness and partisanship even extend to the dead. Commenting in the tragic death of the popular Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone in an October 25, 2002 plane crash, this was the best Bush could muster for an opponent:
"Paul Wellstone was a man of deep convictions, a plain-spoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country. May the good Lord bless those who grieve." [Italics mine]
Compare to that to his glowing words on June 27, 2003 for the late Republican Senator from South Carolina, the racist and segregationist Strom Thurmond:
"Senator Strom Thurmond led an extraordinary life. He served in the Army during World War II, earning a Bronze Star for valor and landing at Normandy on D-Day. He served his country as Senator, Governor, and state legislator and was a beloved teacher, coach, husband, father, and grandfather. While campaigning across South Carolina with him in 1988, I saw first hand the tremendous love he had for his constituents, and the admiration the people of South Carolina had for him. He was also a friend and I was honored to have hosted his 100th birthday at the White House. Laura joins me in sending our prayers and condolences to the entire Thurmond family. He will be missed. [Italics mine]
In 1994, President Bill Clinton spoke eloquently of the late Richard Nixon, a man who disgraced the White House and sought to subvert the Constitution. President George W. Bush apparently felt no such obligation for Wellstone.
Being W Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry
Vindictiveness is far from the only character flaw of this president. Just as irresponsible and unacceptable in our democracy is his absolute unwillingness to admit wrong. George W. Bush and his handlers believe an aura of infallibility is an essential part of political strategy, an approach previously limited to the Vatican. From foreign policy and national security to domestic issues and the culture wars, this refusal to take responsibility for mistakes is posing an increasing danger for the country.
In April 1961, President Kennedy addressed the nation to accept responsibility for the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba (an operation he inherited and did not question from Eisenhower's administration and CIA). In that speech, he said, "There's an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan" and proceeded to state that responsibility for the debacle was his alone.
The contrast could not be more stark with February 2004 and President Bush's Iraqi weapons of mass destruction denial. As the Iraq Survey Group turned up no evidence of the weapons that he cited as the casus belli in his 2003 State of the Union speech (and seconded by Colin Powell at the UN on February 5th, 2003), the President said nothing. Facing the turnabout by David Kay, his former head of the ISG, Bush and his team admitted no error, instead laying the groundwork to blame the intelligence community. His abysmal 2004 State of the Union speech and subsequent statements have been ex post facto justifications for the removal of Saddam, citing not WMD, but humanitarian concerns and the need to liberate the Iraqi people.
Facing mounting public pressure, only on February 6th did he name a panel to investigate U.S. intelligence capabilities, naming as its chairman Laurence Silberman, a well-known right wing partisan who as a district judge overturned the convictions of Oliver North and John Pointdexter, and later supported the Arkansas Operation against Bill Clinton. The panel, of course, is not to deliver its findings until March 2005, limiting potential damage to the president during his reelection campaign. Apparently, understanding the reasons for the loss of over 500 American soldiers, the expenditure of over $100 billion, an armed services stretched to the breaking point, and an Iraqi occupation on the brink of disaster is not a subject for the American electorate.
The September 11 commission has followed a similar story line. President Bush initially opposed the commission, only giving in to public pressure, especially from victims' families. His initial appointment as chairman, Henry Kissinger, the mastermind of the secret invasion of Cambodia, eventually withdrew, due to concerns over potential conflicts of interest with his consulting clients. Forced to accept a more moderate chairman in former Republican governor of New Jersey Tom Kean, the administration has stonewalled at every turn. Its obstruction has included delays in providing documents, the refusal to turn over the president's daily intelligence briefings, and worst of all, refusing to extend the commission's life beyond May 2004. Again, the president caved to public pressure, though only agreeing to a 60-day extension that would keep the commission's findings out of the election.
The Wilson/Plame episode shows all the same hallmarks. The administration dragged its feet, President Bush saying only that he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter and identify the leakers. The White House even bought a mysterious 24-hour reprieve from the Justice Department request for all email communications. Later, Attorney General Ashcroft recused himself from the affair.
In no case did the administration ask for, or even contemplate, an independent counsel. The Bush administration, though, can be credited with a sense of urgency in addressing one of its scandals. With the revelations by Paul O'Neill in his 60 Minutes interview regarding the Ron Suskind book "The Price of Loyalty", the Treasury Department commenced an investigation the next day. In this case, the probe was looking into how O'Neill may have acquired confidential documents and what actions to take in response against him and the book's author.
Secrets and Lies
Given his knack for political payback and his staggering cowardice in acknowledging failure, Bush's intense need for secrecy should come as no surprise. His energy plan, currently stalled in Congress, was the work of a Dick Cheney commission in 2001 that formulated the strategy in conjunction with industry lobbyists behind closed doors. After facing down the GAO, Cheney refused demands from Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club to release the names of participants and records related to their discussions, claiming executive privilege. The case is now awaiting resolution by the Supreme Court.
The confrontation over the energy plan shows the shocking arrogance, sheer chutzpah, and massive cajones of this administration. It is in fact a rare triple irony. First, the conservatives defending Cheney are the same ones who pilloried Hillary Clinton in 1993/4 for holding private hearings on health care reform. (That plan, of course, was later scuttled by insurance industry lobbyists and a GOP worried that a Democratic victory on health care could make them the majority party for a generation.) Second, while the commission was putting in place its energy plan benefiting producers in the spring of 2001, Bush's Federal Energy Regulatory Commission refused to assist California in the face of obvious market manipulation by Enron, Duke and other companies. The bitter result was Karl Rove's wet dream; the recall of Democratic Governor Gray Davis in the wake of the budget devastation that the previous Republican administration's energy deregulation policy created. Last, a Supreme Court featuring close Cheney friend and fellow duck-hunter Antonin Scalia is now poised to decide the case of In Re Richard B. Cheney.
In a perverse way, the many forms assumed by Bush's secrets and lies are impressive. For example, extremist judicial nominees such as Miguel Estrada and Charles Pickering are coached to not reveal their personal beliefs or answer hypothetical questions from the Senate committee members. Democrats, of course, are then charged with obstruction. And only two months after passage of the Medicare reform bill, the administration upped the price tag by $140 billion, a jump of one-third. (Apparently, that's a small price to pay for gutting the Medicare program.) Most spectacularly, Bush, who over years has received over $500,000 dollars from Ken Lay, said following the Enron implosion on January 10, 2002 that Pioneer Lay supported Ann Richards in 1994:
"I got to know Ken Lay when he was the head of the-what they call the Governor's Business Council in Texas. He was a supporter of Ann Richards in my run in 1994. And she had named him the head of the Governor's Business Council. And I decided to leave him in place, just for the sake of continuity. And that's when I first got to know Ken."
Perhaps most intriguing is W's penchant for taking credit where it is not due. This dates back to his days as Texas governor, when he took credit for a Patients Bill of Rights, which passed over his veto. It also includes federalizing airport screeners and creating the Department of Homeland Security, Democratic initiatives he initially opposed. (Bush later bludgeoned the Democrats with the DHS issue in the 2002 mid-term elections when they opposed his gutting of civil service protections.) In addition, Bush claims his tax reforms are helping drive the current jobless recovery; the only component of near-term stimulus was the $300 rebate originally advocated, as with DHS, by Democrat Joe Lieberman. Sadly, Bush is now trumpeting the prescription drug benefit included with Medicare reform, a benefit he opposed and only eventually accepted in exchange for the privatization of Medicare starting in 2010.
During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush said that his favorite philosopher was Jesus, because he "changed my heart." If only it were true.