President George W. Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice all appeared on national television in the past week defending their wars abroad and at home, and working very hard to get another four years to continue doing more of the same. Not one of them admitted any error, misstep, miscalculation or regret. All three blamed others for the ills of the world, the mess in Iraq, the expanding terrorist threat. The only solution the three of them had to terrorism was war and repression; there was not a word about causes of terrorism or things that United States might do that did not involve force of arms or expanding powers of law enforcement. Bush several times, while evading questions, talked about how much sympathy he had for the families of the September 11 victims. He wore their victimhood like a badge of honor. Those families should be howling in outrage at the way he expropriated and exploited their pain.
Bush has given only 12 press conferences in his 39-month presidency, and only three of those took place in prime time. He began his April 13 press conference with a carefully-prepared 17-minute campaign speech in which he defended his invasion and occupation of Iraq. That was the tradeoff for his handlers: they were willing to risk him taking 45 minutes of unscripted questions in return for that prime-time speechifying in a context that didn’t look like a commercial for his re-election, which is what it was.
He took questions from about 14 or 15 reporters and answered almost none of them. Whatever the question, he came back to the same narrow themes: Saddam is bad. We’re good. Gott mit uns. Iraqis are better off now than they were. Iraqis have freedom and will be a center of freedom for the entire Middle East. The occupation will end June 30 when government is handed over to persons or parties unknown on June 30. Saddam is bad. We’re good. Gott mit uns. We’ll never quit. Quitting is bad. Saddam is bad. We’re good.
A reporter asked if this wasn’t getting more and more like Vietnam. Bush responded, “I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy is — sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy.” That is, he first dismissed the question, then said that even asking it was unpatriotic. He next went into a long non sequitur he would repeat in various ways throughout the next 45 minutes: “Look, this is hard work. It’s hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny. And yet, we must stay the course because the end result is in our nation’s interest.” Didn’t LBJ say exactly the same thing as he was pulling us deeper and deeper into the Big Muddy?
Another reporter asked, “One of the biggest criticisms of you is that whether it’s W.M.D. in Iraq, postwar planning in Iraq or even the question of whether this administration did enough to ward off 9/11, you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism? And do you believe that there were any errors in judgment that you made related to any of those topics I brought up?” Bush replied with another rambling non sequitur:
“Well, I think, as I mentioned, you know, it’s the country wasn’t on war footing. And yet we’re at war. And that’s just a reality. I mean that was the situation that existed prior to 9/11. Because the truth of the matter is, most of the country never felt that we’d be vulnerable to an attack such as the one that Osama bin Laden unleashed on us. We knew he had designs on us. We knew he hated us. But there was nobody in our government at least — and I don’t think the prior government — could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale. The people know where I stand. I mean in terms of Iraq, I was very clear about what I believed. And, of course, I want to know why we haven’t found a weapon yet. But I still know Saddam Hussein was a threat. And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. I don’t think anybody can, maybe people can argue that. I know the Iraqi people don’t believe that they’re better off with Saddam Hussein, would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power. I also know that there’s an historic opportunity here to change the world. And it’s very important for the loved ones of our troops to understand that the mission is: an important vital mission for the security of America and for the ability to change the world for the better.”
Several reporters asked if he had made any errors or had any regrets. None that he could think of. Once he paused for a long time, but just couldn’t come up with anything. Occasionally the camera cut to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who looked desperate. I imagined her thinking, “This is the guy I praised and defended in my public testimony to the 9-11 Commission last week. Now everybody knows that I am truly full of shit.”
Perhaps his silliest evasion was in response to a question about his testimony before the 9-11 Commission:
Q. Mr. President, Why are you and the vice president insisting on appearing together before the 9/11 commission? And Mr. President, who will you be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30?
A. We’ll find that out soon. That’s what Mr. Brahimi is doing. He’s figuring out the nature of the entity we’ll be handing sovereignty over. And secondly, because the the 9/11 commission wants to ask us questions. That’s why we’re meeting, and I look forward to meeting with them and answering their questions.
Q. Mr. President, I was asking why you’re appearing together rather than separately, which was their request.
A. Because it’s a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 commission is looking forward to asking us, and I’m looking forward to answering them.
Let’s see. Hold on for a minute. Oh — I’ve got some must calls, I’m sorry.
This was a question his handlers surely knew would be asked. He had no answer for it. He just blew smoke, grinned, and asked for another question. The reporters, who were packed closely into the small room, surely had sore ribs at the end of the evening from all the times they poked each other with their elbows while maintaining a professionally neutral face during the 45 minutes this slip, slide, and simplification continued.
The New York Times and Washington Post treated his remarks at the press conference seriously, which is what they have to do, I suppose, but it was mostly absurd stuff, something that could have been a bit in one of Mel Brooks lesser films. And I suppose we have to take it seriously too—not because he said anything of substance, but because the man who could utter all that foolishness is ordering other people to kill people. He starts wars and seems ready to start more. He admits no error so he does not learn from experience. He credits God with sanctioning his mission so there is really no need to question or ponder the possibility of error. He’s like Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania, in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator—absurd and laughable, until you remember that the sonofabitch is deadly.
It was hard not to see Bush’s press conference as the third act of a play, the first two acts of which were Condoleezza Rice’s and John Ashcroft’s public testimony before the 9-11 commission. Rice was argumentative and persistent, continually interrupting the questioners, answering her own questions rather than the questions put to her, chewing up the clock like an NFL quarterback in the final minutes of a tight game. She smiled now and then, girlishly, and sat with her fingers interlaced the entire time. Afterwards, commentators spoke of her style and how she conveyed an impression of competence and authority. I don’t remember anyone complimenting her substance, of which there was precious little. Ashcroft began his testimony with a spirited talk about the walls erected by prior administrations that prevented federal agencies from sharing information, walls that the USA-Patriot Act had torn down. Under questioning he admitted that the walls didn’t really exist; what existed was nervousness and pusillanimousness among administrators in the Justice Department, and the USA-Patriot Act had functioned to shore up their lack of confidence in their own decisions. Because those guys lacked cojones we got the Patriot Act? Condi’s lack of substance. Ashcroft’s red herrings. Bush’s evasions, wafflings, trivializations. None of them responsible for anything bad. Gott mit uns.
I come again, as I do so often after hearing Bush speak, to Franz Hippler, Hitler’s chief of propaganda film, who told Bill Moyers in an interview years ago, “Simplify and repetition. That is the secret of modern propaganda.” Stay on message, whatever the data. Deaths are up in Iraq? We’re bringing them freedom and Saddam was bad. No WMD in Iraq? It’s a better place now and Saddam was bad. No evidence of any connection between Saddam and terrorists? Saddam was very bad. We’re very good. We’ll stay the course. Those deaths will have been in vain if we don’t stay the course. Simplify and repeat. Simplify and repeat. Saddam was bad. We’re good. Gott mit uns. Gott mit uns. Gott mit uns.
BRUCE JACKSON, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo, edits the web journal BuffaloReport.com. His most recent book is Emile de Antonio in Buffalo (Center Working Papers). Jackson is also a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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