Former Texas Air National Guard Lt. George W. Bush showed up on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. He was trim, the result of long daily workouts. He was dressed immaculately, the result of having aides, valets, and costumers. For the sailors returning from Gulf War II, he gave a speech, the words written by taxpayer-funded speech writers. In his flight suit, he looked like a Navy flyer, maybe even a commander-in-chief; he said what a president should say all of it recorded for probable use in a forthcoming election campaign.
This was the same George W. Bush who told the nation in his January State of the Nation address that the U.S. needed to make a pre-emptive strike against Iraq the only time in American history such warfare was condoned by Congress because, he implied, Iraq not only was tied into al-Qaeda and the 9/11 plot but because, he definitively cited, it had and was planning to build nuclear weapons of mass destruction. There is no question the President had been trying to justify why he was determined to go to war against Iraq, thus completing unfinished business from his father’s one-term presidency.
A few writers and members of the opposition argued there was no evidence to substantiate such claims and substantial evidence that actually disproved the President’s assertions. They pointed out that the State department’s intelligence operation, the National Security Council, and the CIA itself as much as a year earlier had noted that the documents the President cited about Iraq buying uranium from Niger, and which were later proven to be forgeries, were suspicious. But, most media just reported what the President said, their role no different from that of a dutiful stenographer.
Most of the Democrat presidential candidates and most of Congress put their pinky fingers into the wind. They decided it was too risky to challenge the President, especially since the politically-adept administration the one that created the Patriot Act made sure the media and the people knew that opposition to this president was nothing short of unpatriotic treason.
When it became apparent after the war the President lied to the people, the President’s political action team went into overdrive. It wasn t the President’s fault, they moaned. Others, like the CIA, gave him bad information, they whined. The British were at fault, they blamed. The president doesn t have responsibility for anything, they wailed.
Instead of sending war-mongering lieutenants Cheney and Rumsfeld out to face the media, the commander-in-chief sent Colin Powell. The secretary if state, a much more sympathetic figure, had protested the war until, good soldier that he is, accepted the Bush doctrine as his marching orders. To nail the claim he had no responsibility, the commander-in-chief sent out his other minority aide, Dr. Condoleeza Rice, to try to explain in a one-hour news conference why the commander-in-chief and his entire senior White House staff, including her, was merely a dupe of bad intelligence. In a sniveling response, she even claimed that had the CIA told the President to take out the inflammatory 16 words, he would have. Of course, by the time the State of the Union was ready for presentation, there was no doubt the President wanted, needed, and expected to utter those 16 words, and hundreds of others, to justify his plans two months later. The CIA’s first mission, according to its charter, is to support the President. And so CIA director George Tenet fell upon his sword to keep his boss from looking bad. In remarkable candor which should earn the respect of every CIA staffer, Tenet said simply, I am responsible for the approval process in my Agency. The President, for his part, said that he had full confidence in the director of central intelligence. CIA takes the blame; the President squeaks past. Even if the information was wrong, said the Bush political machine, at least the U.S. got rid of a dictator. One down. Dozens to go. (Perhaps if the White House had been as careful in preparing the State of the Union as it was in preparing a photo-op on an aircraft carrier, there may not have been a reason to launch a war that killed more than 300 American and British military, and more than 7,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians.)
Perhaps President Bush could learn something from a culture other than Texan. In the Jewish culture, the story is told about the son who had done quite well in business and thought he should be entitled to owning a boat. Not just any 21-footer, but a 41-foot yacht. With teakwood floors and cabinets. With a flybridge, radar, and global navigation systems. Even took a Coast Guard safe boating course. Hired two deckhands to care for his boat. Joined the local yacht club. And, to make sure he looked the part, he went out and bought a captain’s jacket and a captain’s hat. He looked the part. He even acted the part.
When everything was in place, he went to his parents home, then took them in his Mercedes to the yacht club, first for lunch, then onto his newest purchase. His parents, who had worked and struggled their entire lives to be part of the middle class, were pleasantly surprised at their son’s success. Aboard this marvel of the bay, the son said he was now a captain.
His mother was proud, as are all Jewish mothers. But she looked at him. With his new boat, and his new uniform, he really looked like a successful captain. To your father you are a captain, she said. To me, you are a captain. Her son beamed, for all Jewish sons like approval, especially from their parents. But to another captain, she asked, are you a captain?
George W. Bush may look like a president. And, in our media-rich nation, we may prefer people who look the part. George Lite, who failed one of the most important tests of command, that of taking responsibility not only for his own actions but those of his subordinates, will not be able to walk with Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, or Truman who forthrightly told the nation, the buck stops here.
Walt Brasch’s latest book is “The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era.” You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.