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Yes, That Was the President

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

One has to go back to the lesser Roman emperors of the second century to find an imperial suzerain as dismal as Bush. Tuesday’s was surely the worst State of the Union address to Congress in the past thirty years, as the commander-in-chief stumbled through a thicket of brazen fictions towards the proposed rendez-vous with destiny of February 5, the day Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to make his way to the United Nations to present the administration’s latest “intelligence” confection on the topic of Saddam’s deceits.

If you want to get a taste of how these ramshackle “intelligence” reports are assembled, take a look at “Apparatus of Lies: Saddam’s Disinformation and Propaganda, 1990-2003”, recently issued by the White House and invoked Tuesday night by the 43rd President.

By a way of illustrating the all-round deviousness of Saddam’s propaganda machine, the White House document cites on page 23 the Pakistani news outlet Inqilab as having reported on January 27, 1991, that “The American pop star Madonna was in Saudi Arabia, entertaining US troops.” The White House comments triumphantly: “Madonna never went to Saudi Arabia.” Moral: if Saddam can lie about Madonna, he can certainly bring the Big One out of some bunker in Tikrit and drop it on Jerusalem.

Bush’s speech, if one can dignify same with a word intended to designate ordered rhetoric, was a backhanded compliment to David Frum, the former White House speech writer who was fired last year after his wife proudly disclosed that he had invented the phrase “Axis of Evil”. No such exciting phrases adorned Bush’s second State of the Union address. In the first half of the address Bush stumbled through his prescriptions to make the rich richer with the timbre of an inexperienced waiter reciting the Daily Specials. He even blew the opening and most outrageous lie of all, that “We will not pass along problems” to future generations, a pledge launched amid a vista of red ink as far as the eye can see, as those future generations pick up the tab for Bush’s hand-outs to the super-rich today, to the arms companies, the drug industry and other prime contributors.

The assembled hacks and pundits of the Fourth Estate made haste to praise Bush for his impassioned resolve, but across the country and around the world the speech was a bust. Next morning CNN went searching for Hails to the Chief in a diner somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard, but the increasingly frayed reporter could only elicit grumbles about Bush’s unconvincing performance on the economy and on why exactly the US had to go to war with Iraq. In Tokyo the Nikkei sank abruptly, followed by falls on exchanges as they came on line in every time zone. On the likelihood of a US attack on Iraq I’ve tended to be a maybe-not type of guy. But now, after all the hoopla and the build-up, how can G. Bush not launch his attack in Baghdad? He’s got no Exit strategy, even as he and the mad Rumsfeld shove their feet ever deeper into their mouths. Suppose the troops all come home with not a missile or a bullet fired? Won’t there be pressing questions to the effect of: What was all that about? Then people will look around and start noticing the mess the homeland is getting itself into on the economic front.

But is it really feasible to imagine the War Party flouting the opinions of the UN, of NATO, of much of the Congress and the huge slice of the American public opposed to unilateral action without clear evidence that Iraq is a clear and present threat? Only 29 per cent support the What-the-Hell, Let’s-Go-It-Alone path.

The coverage of anti-war protests round the world on January 18 has been scandalously bad. Many reporters and editors opted for demure phrases such as “tens of thousands”, which scarcely does justice to turn-outs in excess of quarter of a million. Friends of mine at the demonstration in Washington DC said the one last October was double that of the first, in the spring of 2002, and that the January 18 demo had doubled the crowd in October, giving a rough Jan 18 total of 300,000 (the estimate of a cop who’d been at all three). There were anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 people in San Francisco, and 20,000 in downtown Portland. There were big demonstrations in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Halifax and others in France, Japan, Pakistan, Britain, Sweden, Syria, Belgium, Egypt, Lebanon, New Zealand.

Footnote: At the December meeting in London of Iraqi exiles one Iraqi opponent of the war listened in amazement as some Iraqis deeply involved in Washington’s plans calmly agreed that a casualty rate of around 250,000 to 500,000 Iraqis was acceptable.

Patton: Fury Mounts

Spending last weekend with friends in Landrum, right on the North/South Carolina line, I found the death of the Smoaks’ dog was still very much on folks’ minds, and not just because Saluda, where the Smoaks live, was just up Interstate 25 from Landrum, north towards Asheville. You’ll recall that the Smoaks family was stopped on Jan 1 on I-40 by a posse of four police cruisers. Then while handcuffed, prostrate and imploring the berserk cops to shut their car’s doors so the dogs wouldn’t jump out, the Smoaks endured the sight of their dog Patton having its head blown off by a shotgun blast.

Patton’s killing is becoming as big an issue among the Live Free or Die crowd as the killing of Randy Weaver’s wife by an FBI sniper, one of the demonstrations of cop clout that sent the late Timothy McVeigh burrowing into his recipe book for fertiliser explosives.

Sitting with friends in Bo’s Fish Camp in Inman, S.C. eating broiled flounder and hush puppies, I listened to expert dissection of why the cops’ version didn’t stand up. For example, the bulldog mixed breed had jumped from the car and gone past the first deputy. It seems that if Patton had been harboring aggressive intentions, he’d have gone for the first cop in his path.

A few days later The Tennessean ran a story on computer enhancement of the video of the episode recorded by one of the police cruisers. The Cookeville cop who killed Patton didn’t shout “get back!” before firing, as he and another officer wrote in police reports. Instead, Officer Eric Hall yelled as he fired the shotgun. Nor was there barking on the audio track. Two officers said in their reports that the dog barked before advancing on Hall. Pamela Smoaks can be heard warning the police that Patton was not dangerous, saying, “That bulldog is not mean. He won’t hurt you,” about 20 seconds before Hall fired. The audio portion of the video was analyzed by Doug Mitchell, an associate professor in the department of recording industry at Middle Tennessee State University, at The Tennessean’s request.

Airstreaming Across America

I was in South Carolina to haul a 1968 22-foot Airstream back to California behind my Ford 350 one-ton. Interstate 40 would have been a logical route west but out of respect for the late Patton, the bulldog martyr to cop violence, I headed north from Knoxville into Kentucky. Rolling out of Lexington towards St Louis at dusk I could see graceful horses nibbling at the snow covered pastures as the sunset turned the western sky red.

All the way across the Great Plains I listened to radio reports of the cold about to roll down out of Canada. There’s nothing between you and the North Pole out there on the prairie. “Not even a tree to hide behind,” as one 19th century pioneer homemaker plaintively wrote home to her European mother as she and her family cowered in their sod cabin amid the terrible blizzards of 1886 and 1887 that finished off the cattle boom and sent Teddy Roosevelt scuttling east from his ranch on the Little Missouri.

The snow and ice finally caught up with me 100 miles east of Denver where I sat in the lobby of a Comfort Inn listening to a Cherokee Christian denounce the mean-spirited arrogance of the millionaires of Jackson Hole, whence he had just driven as he headed home to Atlanta. His main business was the mass production of diapers, but as an expert die maker he was also producing high end western chandeliers, the metal cut with water jet and ruby dust and selling at $45,000 a pop.

I ground my way up into the Rockies in low gear and burst into sunshine somewhere just short of the Eisenhower tunnel, at 10,000 feet. A few miles further on I caught sight of a dejected human settlement south of the interstate that at first glance resembled miners’ houses in some old photo of coal country in Appalachia. Then I realized that these were the condominia of Vail where huddled but well-fed masses of ski people and snow-boarders were praying for snow.

Downtown Salt Lake City reminds me of Moscow: big, fifties- style buildings, wide boulevards (as stipulated by Brigham Young, who said a waggon should be able to turn round on one), and at the heart SLC’s answer to the Kremlin in the form of the Mormons’ Temple. SLC’s substantial gay and lesbian population was up in arms about legal threats to the status of their civil marriages. The next day, amid the bare expanses of the great salt lake, a taxi with a For Hire sign bowled by, followed shortly thereafter by a white stretch limo. The answer to the puzzle came a few miles later at the Nevada line and the gambling town of Wendover, with the first slots and blackjack tables available for gamblers since they left Colorado.

The weather gods stayed kind. I left Winnemucca at 5am, and five hours later went over the Donner Pass in 60 degree weather. I stopped at the summit and was gazing down on Donner Lake wondering whether the cannibals had seasoned their ribeyes, when a woman climbed out of her pick-up, said she was a hippy, liked Airstreams and asked Would I care to share “a bowl” with her. She didn’t look like a narc and anyway, why would a narc bother with a Airstream type? But it seemed early in the day for marijuana which I don’t greatly care for anyway. Besides, I still had a couple of hundred miles of northern California mountains to get across.

The bowl-offerer pointed out the Blue Star memorial put up at the Donner summit by some California garden clubs in honor of America’s fallen warriors. She added a few uncomplimentary words about G. Bush. I was home by midnight, a week after leaving South Carolina. Along the way, two people offered to buy the Airstream. No one I met was keen on war with Iraq. The mayor of Salt Lake City said publicly it’s a lousy idea, as did the entire city council of Chicago, with one dissenting voice. Mostly the local papers were filled with stories about state budget crises. After all, only two states are solvent: New Mexico and Wyoming, courtesy of their natural gas. Texas has a deficit of around $9 billion this year, $11 billion next, in part the long shadow of Bush’s favors to the rich down there when he was governor.

The night after I got home my friend and neighbor Joe Paff strongly recommended an amazing poem by Walt Whitman, written just after the Civil War, titled “Respondez!”. It makes Ginsberg’s Howl sound like some uplifting jingle on the back of a corn flakes packet:

Respondez! Respondez! / (The war is completed ? the price is paid ? the title is settled byond recall;) / Let there be money, business, imports, exports, custom, / authority, precedents, pallor, dyspepsia, smut, ignorance, unbelief! / Let judges and criminals be transposed! / Let the slaves be masters! Let the masters be slaves! / Let all the men of These States stand aside for a few smouchers! / Let the few seize on what they choose! / Let the rest, gawk, giggle, starve, obey! / Let shadows be furnished with genitals! / Let substances be deprived of their genitals! /

Jeffrey put it up on this site a couple of days ago.

Also in the poem is the line, “Let him who is without my poems be assassinated!” Lucky for Whitman he didn’t live in the dawn of the 21st century. Most likely the feds would lock him up as an Enemy Combatant. The First Lady certainly wouldn’t ask Walt to that jamboree of loyal poets she’s currently organizing.

I used to think W’s better half, Laura, would save the day and command her dismal partner to knock off the war talk. But she looked wan and defeated on Tuesday night, even she looked adorable in those hot photos with the Scotty, featured in every checkout counter in every supermarket in America, next to the Star’s story about Joe Millionaire who maybe has a gay page in his resume.

Now that’s news!

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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