Back in April, I started to think that Bush was finally heading for the public fall that he so richly deserves. I was remembering how slowly and inescapably Nixon’s political opponents built his gibbet during the months of the Watergate hearings, a public hanging to which he himself brought all the rope his opponents would ever need. In that case there was no rapier thrust of public exposure that suddenly toppled the presidency, but an careful, insidious death of a thousand cuts. The closest moment to an explosion was the revelation, offhandedly, by Alexander Butterfield, that Nixon had compulsively taped himself. As dramatic as that was, it had to be followed by weeks of legal bickering and counter-maneuver before the tapes themselves started to add inexorably, conversation by conversation, to the President’s political doom. (Then Justice Rehnquist abstained from the Supreme Court vote in United States v. Nixon which sustained the special prosecutor’s subpoena of the White House tapes.)
It is a game that Washington insiders understand very well as an art form, especially as it does not produce, at first, any of the publicity that is their lifeblood. As the wounded victim bleeds, more sharks circle, with no need for planning or coordination. This phenomenon is at the root of Hillary Clinton’s "gigantic right-wing conspiracy", for example—its practitioners can claim that they never breathed together, while it inescapably appears to be a well-coordinated attack.
One of the signs, for me, was the bolting on Bolton. This was followed by the bi-partisan anti-filibuster Gang of Fourteen. None of these events were in themselves enough to halt the administration in each particular moment. But in sequence they sent the blood-in-the-water signal that should tell the target that it would be a good time to stay out of the water.
The administration has been veering more sharply away than ever from the planet on which its Iraqi war is happening. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the public is starting to veer away from the line of fantasy and spin that has been pumped out of the White House like toxic waste from the scene of a chemical accident. It is no longer possible to imagine that combat operations are over, or even that the "insurgents" are killing more people out of a feeling of being desperately cornered.
The only thing holding the show together, the only thing that has ever held this show together, is the administration’s ability to manufacture and dominate its own publicity. This started with the PR campaign that stole the 2000 election and buffaloed the Supremes into bowing down before a bogus concept of recounting as a national emergency.
In this circumstance, the ultimate signs of catastrophic failure of the political machine can be seen in a number of public processes and moments. The last pseudo-justification for invading Iraq must surely have evaporated in front of even the eager fantasists in the White House if the chilling post hoc ergo propter hoc argument of enduring more death in order to honor previous deaths is now emerging from the press room. And how thin must they feel the ice is under their feet to avoid simply walking down the driveway at the ranch to hear out Mrs. Sheehan? Finally, how incredibly disconnected must they all be to allow their poster boy to fly over the flood damage en route from weeks of vacation back to the eye of the storm of ineptitude in Washington DC?
What political country are these guys living in? I really don’t mean that as a rhetorical question. Just imagine you are the president. You are in Texas, next door to Louisiana, where the worst natural disaster in living memory is rapidly unfolding. Don’t you head right for the scene, even if you are the most cynical political manipulator in the history of American politics? With what mindset would his handlers allow the President to conduct a fly-by, much less to let pool photographers capture him looking pensively out the window?
Jim Watson / AFP – Getty Images
Can you imagine an image better calculated to show a lack of engagement—a stratospheric indifference? Now he could be viewing things from a couple of hundred feet—his handlers should never have let this image out of the privacy of their own little Air Force One world, and he never should have been merely flying past, by the standard of any cynical political manipulator.
In all the bullshit that has emanated from the Administration since this (latest) disaster, the most symptomatic text so far has been the one embedded in this Bumiller/Nagourney piece from the NY Times September 3rd:
In a sign of the mounting anxiety at the White House, Mr. Bush made a rare Saturday appearance in the Rose Garden before live television cameras to announce that he was dispatching additional active-duty troops to the Gulf Coast. He struck a more somber tone than he had at times on Friday during a daylong tour of the disaster region, when he had joked at the airport in New Orleans about the fun he had had in his younger days in Houston. His demeanor on Saturday was similar to that of his most somber speeches after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"The magnitude of responding to a crisis over a disaster area that is larger than the size of Great Britain has created tremendous problems that have strained state and local capabilities," said Mr. Bush, slightly exaggerating the stricken land area. "The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans. And that is unacceptable."
A rare Saturday appearance. More somber than his jolly self on Friday while visiting the disaster region, when he joked around. His geography, like everything else, is inaccurate. But the phrase that for me captures the essence of this administration’s dysfunction is that "tremendous problems…have strained state and local capabilities".
The reason that the feds didn’t jump into furious action on this is simply that from the top, the view is that this sort of situation is a state and local problem. The federal government exists to defend the republic from external aggression—no more, no less. The fundamental New Deal view of federal government power and purview is so deeply ingrained (even on the right, where activist conservatives long for a far right majority on the Court) that few of us can reflexively understand how fundamentally at odds with most of the rest of America this President really is. Thus it is only in a disaster which has a major aspect of external aggression that the President is ready to mobilize federal power. With much of the Homeland Security apparatus, not least FEMA itself, riddled with patronage and campaign rewarded appointees (how else would one take advantage of the newly created and massive cabinet department?), we can’t be surprised that they get the message beaming out from their Maximum Leader and his evil amplifier Mr Rove: big government is when you use the power of federal authority to solve problems within the boundaries of the states.
There is no other explanation for an administration that leaves no child behind but spends nothing on education. That kisses Veterans’ asses every VFW chance they get, and allows the VA health system to crash and burn. That pretends to protect us from terrorist threats while ignoring the thousands of gaping security holes across the domestic landscape. In fact, so basic is this view of domestic neglect that, far from ensuring a healthy national guard is available for action during the projected next domestic terror incident from hell, the Bushrovers have happily airlifted the National Guard over to Iraq, committing the fraud of extending their tours to encompass career-military deployments in order to continue the war without stirring up too much domestic political trouble, otherwise spelled D-R-A-F-T.
Now, in the wake of Katrina, Bush is not only suffering from the thousand cuts of summer, but from his own radical amputation of his lower political legs at the knees. Bill Clinton, that king of smiley-faced snark, counseled us to wait a while before judgment. "It’s an appropriate thing to look into, but not at this time – they’re still finding bodies there." But there is no fearsome alien enemy to face here, no way to accuse Bush’s accusors of lacking patriotism. What is more patriotic than communal aid? Perhaps now, with the aura finally dissolved in the stench of those bloated domestic corpses (since the stink of foreign ones hasn’t apparently penetrated far enough inland) we can get down to cases. Voter fraud, widespread influence peddling, war profiteer corruption, criminal military incompetance, the cover-up of human rights abuses, a far too well integrated relationship with large oil companies and their Saudi brothers, the illegal lobbying tactics of Rove’s close allies, the use itself of the first large-scale attack on domestic soil since Pearl Harbor as a way to misdirect our defensive reaction toward a wholly unrelated war on Iraq—why can we not reasonably hope for articles of impeachment?