In early March the Bush/Cheney administration rolled out new campaign ads. Most public controversy focused on their cynical use of images from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for partisan political purposes. But to some extent that misses the point. The ads praise the “steady leadership” of George W. Bush. In November Bush will face the voters in a referendum on his leadership. The “steady leadership” theme invites an evaluation.
Focusing on the hypocritical use of 9/11 imagery allows the Bush gang to avoid something they cannot honestly run on: their record. The lies this administration tells about its brand of “leadership” are numerous and persistent. It spin-doctors everything to divide-and-conquer. Amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Feloniously “outing” an undercover CIA agent. Praising the “outsourcing” of jobs to foreign countries. Several best-selling books have tried to come to grips with the Bush/Cheney team’s pattern of mendacity-as-public-policy, in service of the rich. Beginning to lose control over how their efforts are reported in the corporate media, they recently tried to suggest in an official economic report that loss of US manufacturing jobs isn’t so bad, if you just consider jobs in the fast food industry as “manufacturing” hamburgers! This first crop of campaign ads is an attempt to regain control and positive associations that have been slipping away from Bush’s handlers for the last several months.
“Steady Leadership” Confronts the Reality Gap
The Bush pirates’ looting of the economy and bankrupting of state and local governments, combined with their bedrock dishonesty, is a massive subject. For now I want to focus on the choice facing the nation in only eight months, by limiting the inquiry. One interesting period would be three months between the end of July and the end of October 2003, ending almost exactly one full year before the US electorate will go to the polls. This was when the Bush/Cheney team adjusted their single biggest initiative, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” to the brutal realities of the occupation of Iraq. It has recently been observed that George W. Bush’s much-discussed “credibility gap” is more like a “reality gap.” This was never clearer than during the events connecting Iraq, Washington, and Crawford, Texas in late summer and fall of 2003.
On July 29, in the face of steadily mounting casualties in Iraq, Bush left Washington for his annual extended Texas vacation. He reportedly claimed that “Iraq was growing more secure by the day.” Even by the amazing standards of incredulity established by the Bush/Cheney team, this would prove to be a major whopper.
Events proceeded rapidly. The month of August saw one deadly bombing after another: at the Jordanian embassy, UN headquarters and a major police station in Baghdad, and massive carnage at the Tomb of Ali in Najaf (to mention only the four biggest massacres during this period). US corporate media propaganda about plans for “transfer of sovereignty” and “democracy,” in the face of such nightmarish, bloody atrocities, occurring almost daily throughout Iraq, defied linguistic or ideological spin. The Bush/Cheney regime resorted to over-the-top rhetoric. News reports of their line on August 25, 2003 transcended satire: “From Baghdad to the White House, administration spokesmen went to elaborate lengths to argue that the presence of terrorists in Iraq was somehow a positive development.”
This blatant attempt to turn reality on its head ushered in a period of newly critical reporting and commentary, the first public test since the 9/11 tragedy of what had passed for leadership by the Bush/Cheney team. Stink bombs started to go off in the US corporate media in September 2003. On September 4 the New York Times reported that “Top White House officials personally approved the evacuation of dozens of influential Saudis, including relatives of Osama bin Laden from the US in the days just after” 9/11, when most flights were grounded. Four days later Bush asked Congress for $87 billion to pay for his Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. The second anniversary of 9/11 was followed by the emergence of the Valerie Plame affair into public consciousness, and its bizarre return to the back burner. It still simmers there today, along with the story about smuggling bin Laden family members out of the US, and many other Bush scandals. The Nation magazine’s David Corn (author of The Lies of George W. Bush) came out with a scoop. Administration officials who sought to punish CIA agent Valerie Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for publicly disclosing that Bush lied about Iraqi attempts to obtain enriched uranium from Africa, by revealing her undercover work, probably committed a felony. Such stories nourished a slightly more critical corporate mass media focus on Bush’s credibility problems, which hasn’t really let up ever since. Along with the administration’s continuing attempts to stonewall investigations, into the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and into the 9/11 disaster itself, this new-found spirit of journalistic integrity provided the media context for the “steady leadership” ads in March 2004.
Bush was publicly unfazed, advancing even further into the Big Muddy with the same bland obliviousness he demonstrates in his brief speaking parts for the new ads. On October 10, exactly six months after Baghdad had fallen to US troops, Bush said that the situation in Iraq is “a lot better than you probably think.” Four days later Bush defended himself and his team against accusations that he had lost control of Iraq policy, claiming that “the person in charge is me.” But hopefully at least one quote will not turn out to be a lie: “If the people don’t think I’m doing my job, they’ll find somebody else.”
The rest of the month of October 2003 provided no relief. On October 26 a missile struck the Al-Rasheed Hotel, where deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, principal architect of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” was staying at the time. On the next day, the beginning of Ramadan, four coordinated suicide bombings in Baghdad killed around 40, and injured more than 400 people. Bush’s crackpot optimism for public consumption was unflagging. He insisted the US was making progress in Iraq, arguing vacuously that “American successes are actually spurring the violence by making insurgents more desperate.”
The Real Issue
Bush’s calculated exploitation of the 9/11 disaster is neither surprising, nor the biggest weakness in his case for election, this time without the aid of a judicial coup. The issue is not John Kerry’s lukewarm record or unappealing personality either. The issue is what a democracy does about dangerous, dishonest, and perhaps even borderline psychotic leaders who abuse power, in ways that threaten continued viability of that democracy. Focusing primarily on their propaganda styles and bad taste lets them off the hook for what they are doing to the US and the world, in the name of “We the People.”
The essential reality behind Bush’s brand of “steady leadership” was recently described by two especially keen observers: Indian activist and author Arundhati Roy, and Assistant UN Secretary General Hans Von Sponeck, in their initial reactions to Bush’s 2004 “State of the Union” (SOTU) speech. Such international opinion has sometimes differed substantially from how Bush’s scripted ramblings play to potential voters at home. But this time polling data indicated that the US public received Bush’s January 2004 SOTU no more warmly than they had his $87 billion Iraq fiasco speech about four months earlier.
Hans Von Sponeck: “My immediate reaction is that there is a truly frightening disconnect between rhetoric of president Bush and the reality, as it exists, as we see it, as you know it, as we know it in Europe, as the Iraqis know it, the reality outside the White House. I would say that president Bush’s assessment of that reality is really deeply, deeply flawed. One is presented with facts which really are fantasies. Very, very dangerous fantasies. One wonders whether there is an element of psychosis here in the White House.”
Arundhati Roy: “[W]e used the word ‘psychosis’ to describe what’s going on: it is not the lies, the quality of the lies that has become so insulting, it really is beyond argument now, you know, it’s really beyond being able to say anything, because the description of the kind of world that president Bush is proposing in America sounds like a nightmare, tracking terrorist threats, bombing airline passengers, homeland security department patrolling. Doesn’t it sound Orwellian and doesn’t it sound like something that people should run a mile from? It sounds like he’s trying to recreate Afghanistan with the Taliban there, you know, like this kind of religious right wing sentiment that’s overtaking everything in the world today.”
Along with the oft-noted influence of religious fundamentalism on what is sometimes referred to as George W. Bush’s “thinking,” and the unbridgeable gap between his rhetoric and reality, there is the dramatic difference between the pious words and venal actions of leading figures in his administration. As an illustrative example of this administration’s acts of “steady leadership,” it’s hard to improve on the saga of Halliburton Corporation and its swollen corporate/military welfare subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root (better known as “Burn & Loot” to Vietnam-era GIs). Dick Cheney’s former employer has grown unimaginably wealthy on no-bid contracts to supply the US military with everything it needs in the imperial killing fields. The casualness of the corporate war profiteering is breathtaking. An anonymous businessman with close ties to the administration told a reporter from The New Yorker magazine: “It’s like Russia. This is how corruption is done these days. It’s not about bribes. You just tell your friends to get access. Cheney doesn’t call the Defense Department and tell them, ‘Pick Halliburton.’ It’s just having dinner with the right people.”
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, quoted in the same New Yorker magazine piece, put it most succinctly when he said “the war is being used by people close to the Bush Administration to make money for themselves.” There you have it. At last a clear, simple and compelling explanation for the Bush/Cheney administration’s willful blindness and continuous mendacity in the face of catastrophes of its own creation. “Steady leadership” means corporate piracy, pathological lies, psychotic detachment from reality, economic injustice, cover-ups, fantasies of power, and of course ruthless mass killing to get whatever they want from the least among us. The “messianic incompetence” of a miserable failure at everything, except taking money from his corporate fat cat financial backers. It’s how corruption is done these days. Let the buyer beware.
“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human Gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without lookin’ too far
That not much is really sacred
“Advertising signs that con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on all around you
“Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex they dare
To push fake morals insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk it swears
Obscenity who really cares
Propaganda all is phony”
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
TOM STEPHENS is a lawyer in Detroit, Michigan. He can be reached at lebensbaum4@earthlink.