December 15, 2002
BUZZFLASH SPECIAL GUEST COMMENTARY
"There's only one person who is responsible for making that decision [to go to war], and that's me. And there's only one person who hugs the mothers and the widows, the wives and the kids on the death of their loved ones. Others hug, but having committed the troops, I've got an additional responsibility to hug, and that's me, and I know what it's like." -- GWB to Barbara Walters, ABC "20/20," 12/13/02.
This recent statement of our president may be the most outrageous thing he's ever said (in public). Its grammar and its syntax are okay, and yet it is so imbecilic, morally, that it could blow your mind, if not your lunch.
Here Bush, in his current effort to pretend he's undecided on the coming war, was trying to demonstrate "compassion" -- specifically, to show that he does care about the welfare of our troops. (The Iraqis are another matter.) No, he is not cavalier about the consequences, for Americans, of another war against Iraq. (One could think otherwise, if one might happen to have learned that all of the protective gear our soldiers will be using in Iraq -- the gas masks and body suits, the vaccines and anti-chemical alarms -- is faulty, and yet Bush, just like the major media, has failed even to mention it, much less try to rectify it.)
No, as he makes this grave decision to send men and women to their deaths, Bush is not indifferent to the pain that it will cause their families (the way he was when having all those men and women executed in the state of Texas). No, Bush does take this whole thing very, very seriously. He really does. No kidding.
That half-hearted stab at looking like "he cares" recalled the many efforts of his dad to come across as "agonizing" during the long build-up to Operation Desert Storm. Bush I was always very taken with what he might call "the Agony Thing" -- that Christ-like scene of major presidential angst before the storm. "Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff," as he put it a year after Desert Storm. That heroic ordeal was always on his mind.
A few months before he sent the Army down to kidnap Gen. Noriega, Bush, escorting Diane Sawyer through the White House for a special "tour" on ABC, likewise marveled at the thought of Lincoln agonizing -- being "tested by fire," as he put it. And all throughout the months of Desert Shield, when his administration was pretending that there might not be a war (and the media went along with it), his propagandists kept insisting that the president was all racked up about this super-tough decision. But every time we caught a glimpse of him, he looked like he was feeling pretty salty. (Toward the end, in fact, Bush's "eyes looked scary," Prince Bandar told Bob Woodward. "For months, Bandar had seen both the public and private anger building, resulting in an eerie accumulation of willfulness.")
While it appealed to that president's colossal vanity, moreover, that tormented pose of his helped strengthen the illusion that the war might not come after all. (Sound familiar?) As Bush was repetitiously depicted, by Marlin Fitzwater, as torn apart and losing sleep, so were we told, over and over, that his team was desperately pursuing every diplomatic possibility in order to give peace a chance. (As a matter of fact, the White House was very busily subverting every diplomatic overture then being made, in good faith, by other nations.) The whole charade helped build suspense, so as to keep the audience, both here and in Iraq, completely terrorized, and then to make the final victory seem that much more divine. (The US "victory" was not as marvelous as advertised, but that's another matter.)
There is a trace of the Bush operation's stunning cynicism in a bit from Dan Quayle's diary for Jan. 10, 1991 -- the day of the much-hyped last "negotiation" between James Baker and Tariq Aziz. Many soldiers in the Gulf, and their families back at home, believed that sit-down was in earnest -- but the White House knew it was a sham, as Quayle made clear in private: "Baker-Aziz meeting. Went as planned. Baker failed."
At the time, of course, you had to watch Bush carefully to see that he was really into it, so good a job did Marlin Fitzwater (and the reporters) do at making him seem sort of Lincolnesque. Bush the First got very good at weeping out in public, right on cue -- just like Nixon getting teary-eyed over Checkers -- whenever the subject of our dead and wounded soldiers might come up. This despite his much-belabored WASP reserve, which many members of the press have dutifully remarked as if it always made crude politicking kind of hard for him. The Bushes are in general quite good at feigning tears -- they are, after all, "the first family of frauds," as Noelle Bush has allegedly, bitterly referred to them. Even her remorseless father, Jeb, got to blubbering on camera over her predicament (although he couldn't find the time to sit beside her at her court drug hearing, because he was out campaigning with his brother).
But while the Bushes tend to be not all that bad at faking grief and gravity, when necessary, the Bush now occupying the Oval Office simply cannot pull it off -- as the above quotation makes so clear that you would have to be a sociopath yourself not to perceive it. Trying to sound as if he cares, he sounded only like a monstrous egomaniac, this "Big He" being the exclusive focus of his would-be cri de coeur: "There is only one person ... and that's me .... and there's only one person .... I've got an additional responsibility." Trying here to sound like a protective parent, Bush could only tell us who was boss -- as usual, this being the first American president to say, consistently, not "we" but "I," not "this administration," but "my administration," and so on.
Not only does the president believe himself to be "the only person" who decides to take this nation into war -- a view at odds with what our Constitution has to say -- but he's claimed as well to be "the only ... person who hugs the mothers and the widows, the wives and the kids on the death of their loved ones." Does Bush actually believe that he's "the only person" who can comfort the bereaved? ("Others hug," he added quickly, but too late.) Whether or not he does, the remark betrays a blinkered view of what it's like in time of war, when many folks lose "loved ones" every day -- far too many for a president to hug with safety.
That Bush thinks he can pull it off suggests that he envisions a great "war" that's really just like 9/11, a big (but not too big) one-shot catastrophe, after which the President and Mrs. Bush can meet up for a teary photo-op with the survivors. But he has soldiers fighting now all over the globe, where -- thanks mainly to the policies of his cabal -- the USA is more unpopular than ever; and his Secretary of "Defense" has casually expressed the need for some 1.5 million troops to fight this "war on terrorism." And then there's the long-planned occupation of Iraq (and, perhaps, Saudi Arabia). It all adds up to a vast, protracted conflagration, of the kind that's bound to leave the people none too interested in getting touchy-feely with the man who sent their kinfolk off to die for no apparent reason. Instead of posturing as our Comforter-in-Chief, this president should think a little bit about how people came to feel about his predecessors, LBJ and Nixon. When Bush has long since made that Big Decision, it's probable that most Americans will want a hug from him about as much as the Iraqi people want one from Saddam Hussein.
But it is finally not the statement's lethal lack of foresight that is galling but its wholly cynical paternalism. Bush thinks, evidently, that one public hug from him will make it all okay for people who, because of his "decision," will have lost their husbands, brothers, sons and fathers -- or, in some cases, we might add, their daughters, mothers, wives and sisters. For them, as far as he's concerned, the gesture is enough. Although he tries (and tries) to talk the talk of what he calls "compassion," Bush never walks the walk, because he simply doesn't care, and doesn't want to spend the money. This is, after all, a president who recently slashed spending on the needs of veterans. Hugging a few victims on TV costs nothing, on the other hand, and can even pay off handsomely in ratings points, as we have seen since 9/11. And yet such easy and self-serving theater is, he tells us, "an additional responsibility." "I know what it's like," he said grimly, as if sitting there a minute looking solemn were as difficult for him as what a mourner, or a soldier, must go through."
Although it tells us more than we might want to know about him, the statement tells us even more about these witless and immoral times. Can anyone imagine Clinton coming out with it, or Reagan, or even Bush's father? In fact, no other of our presidents -- no other leader in the world, perhaps -- could get away with saying such a thing, and this one shouldn't, either.
A BUZZFLASH SPECIAL GUEST COMMENTARY
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