Just Above Sunset
March 29, 2006 - Credibility

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Garrison Keillor seems like a nice fellow, and his radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" (everything you ever would want to know about that is here) is cool, and everyone out here loves the "Guy Noir, Private Eye" segment each week - a spoof of Raymond Chandler, Phillip Marlow (or Sam Spade if you'd like) with his office high over 1939 Hollywood Boulevard and all that - except Guy Noir works on the twelfth floor of the Acme Building in a city that "knows how to keep its secrets" - and that seems to be Saint Paul, Minnesota. Down the street we have Raymond Chandler Square - Hollywood at Cahuenga - with the "Cahuenga Building" where Marlow had his office (actually the Pacific Security Bank building). It's cool to hear the whole thing transposed to present day Saint Paul. He's got the genre down cold. Give a listen one weekend.

So what is Garrison Keillor, the gentle cultural satirist, doing saying things like this - "No president in your lifetime or mine has seen his fundamental competence - his ability to think clearly and manage the government - so doubted by the voting public as Mr. Bush has. This is humiliation of a rare sort."

That was the state of play Wednesday, March 22nd - after all the low polling, the speech in Cleveland where the president tried to say things were fine and getting better in Iraq and there really was a plan (we win), and after the previous day's surprise press conference, a combination of defiance and surly hostility. That happens when you're humiliated, of course.

What to do? How can this be made better? Over the last several weeks commentators on right have suggested Vice President Cheney needs to go. The idea is that he's a "hate magnet" - too dark, too stuck on talking points that when not just factually wrong are so combative and off-putting he's doing much more harm than good. And shooting the old man in the face didn't help, nor did how it was handled.

Cheney is dismissed? A dark cloud would be lifted from the White House, and of course this combination of Darth Vader and the evil Monty Burns of the Simpsons would no longer loom in the background of everything.

Garrison Keillor agrees –


If Mr. Bush wanted to reverse his slide, he could do it with a phone call to his vice president. Tell him, "Hey, Gunner, I'm sending over your resignation. Sign it and leave the building immediately, and don't take any floppies with you." Mr. Cheney would have a grand mal seizure right there, and be taken away to a sanitarium, and then Mr. Bush could get 1) Newt Gingrich, 2) John McCain, 3) Jeb Bush, 4) Rudolph Giuliani - take his pick. America needs a No. 2 who wouldn't give Americans a coronary if he became No. 1. The top story on the news that night is "Gunner Dumped as Veep," and a fresh breeze blows through Washington, and the American people perk up and imagine that the Current Occupant is in charge and able to connect the dots.

"Cheney Resigns" is the headline for two days, and anonymous White House sources say that Gunner was cut loose because he was blind, deaf and demented on the subject of Iraq. The suspense of Who Will the New Prince Be? occupies us for a week. The pundits and bloggers puff and blow and when finally the new man is confirmed by the Senate and gives a ringing speech about the need to put our differences behind us and all pull together, lo and behold the subject has been changed and America is no longer standing around the coffee machine talking about what a dope the president is. Nobody uses the I-word (incompetent). We're still buzzed from the big news.


But it won't happen. The joke in 2000 was that although Bush didn't know much, and didn't want to know much, at least he'd have adult supervision. Perhaps he still needs it.

And Bush doesn't turn on his people, except when they disagree with him, like Larry Lindsey or Paul O'Neill or Richard Clarke and all the others who were tossed out for saying the wrong things, or seeing things the wrong way. Alternative explanations of what is going on, what could happen, and planning for the unexpected is more than discouraged. It ends your career.

So he stays. Shrug off the humiliation. The low polls numbers and the shared and widespread idea that you're just incompetent? Bluff it out. Be strong, and resolute. Change nothing.

Yeah, it's a kind of defeat, and as Keillor reminds us, defeat is inevitable in life, "and eventually we all go shuffling off to the Old Soldiers Home and plop down in front of the TV set and doze through the shows. We're all destined to fall apart."

But Cheney should go so Bush avoids some of that - "... you don't have to do it in your 50s when everybody is looking at you. You can fall apart gently and privately. Don't go down hard like Dennis Kozlowski or Bernie Ebbers or Kenneth Lay."

But that's where it's heading, and thus this –


I once saw an old Hollywood star eating breakfast in a hotel dining room in Dublin. He was touring in a play that had been reviewed rather gently and compassionately, and here he was with his famous face, grinning at a couple of tourists who came over to ask him to autograph their placemat. Once he was an icon and sex symbol, and now he was 80, an old trouper enjoying his breakfast and smiling at the world. Gerry got to that place, and Jimmy and Ronnie, I think, and George H.W. and for sure Bill has gotten there. People see Bill in public, grinning, and they can't help it, they grin back.

If you want to be beloved, don't wait too long.


Somehow one suspect this president doesn't want to be beloved. He just wants to get his way in this world where he doesn't seem to understand much. We're tagging along for the ride. And a good number of folks die, in the dust of the Middle East, or waiting for help that never came in New Orleans.

So Wednesday the 22nd we got another speech - "Before an overwhelmingly friendly audience in the rugged panhandle of West Virginia, President Bush said today he would pay no heed to 'polls, focus groups or election year politics' in deciding how many troops to deploy in Iraq."

More of the same, except that unlike the Cleveland thing and the press conference, this time he got an audience with no troublemakers. The venue was carefully chosen. Enough is enough. He's not listening to anyone now, and certainly not anyone like Garrison Keillor. He's made up his mind. In poker terms he's doubled-down. He's shoved all the chips in the middle of the table.

For a taste of what he said, you might check out the collection Tim Grieve assembled here. It illustrates the I-talk-you-listen shift from the previous day's press conference.

There's this - "My purpose is to share with you what's on my mind and then I look forward to hearing what's on yours ... I'm the commander in chief. I'm also the educator in chief. And I have a duty to explain how and why I make decisions, and that's part of the reason I'm here."

You can ask why he did something. He'll explain why he's right.

That's because he's here to remind people of the lesson - "I knew that the farther we got away from Sept. 11, 2001, the more likely it would be that some would forget the lessons of that day. And that's OK. That's OK ... And it's fine that people forget the lessons, but one of my jobs is to constantly remind people of the lessons."

Moving on? Thinking of various "what next" alternatives? Remember 9/11 and just think of that. That's the ticket. It's always September 11, 2001 in the White House (kind of like it's always 1953 in Toronto). The current slang term "stuck on stupid" come to mind.

Is he stuck in the past? Try this - "When I was coming up in the '50s in Midland, Texas, you know, it seemed like we were pretty safe. In the '60s it seemed like we were safe. In other words, conflicts were happening overseas but we were in pretty good shape at home."

The sixties were safe? A massive array of soviet nuclear missiles aimed at us, the civil right business exploding in the South, riots in the streets and Detroit and Watts in flames, the Vietnam War? The man was a history major at Yale. No wonder his grades were low.

But then - "By the way, if the president says something, he better mean it, for the sake of peace. In other words, you want your president out there making sure that his words are credible."

No. When the president says something you suppose he means it, or you assume he doesn't mean it at all but says it anyway, for diplomatic or political purposes. You know there are circumstances that can be tricky. That has nothing to do with credibility. You earn credibility be saying things that are true, that are anchored in what everyone generally agrees are the facts. Heck, anyone can say something false and say he or she really, really, really, really means it. That doesn't make it true, or credible. The man's logic is odd - what makes something credible is that you really mean it. On the other hand, when he says he's going to do something, however boneheaded, however much experts tell him this may be a really bad idea, he does it. That may be a sort of credibility. The audience bought it.

And they bought this incoherent statement of the big idea that drives the whole war, probably because he threw in God - "There's an interesting debate in the world, is whether or not freedom is universal, see, whether or not - you know, there's old Bush imposing his values. See, I believe freedom is universal ... The way I put it was, there is an almighty God. One of the greatest gifts of that almighty God is the desire for people to be free, is freedom."

By the way, there is no such debate.

And too, he needed to define things for this less than intellectually prepossessing audience - "Iraq is a part of the global war on terror. In other words, it's a global war."

Oh. Nice clarification. Of course it has been said all over that he explains things like a six-year-old because that's how things were explained to him. QED - but a sad one. Is there reason to doubt his fundamental competence - his ability to think clearly and manage the government? Maybe. Maybe he was working with the audience he had.

But he did say a bit about this fundamental competence - his ability to think clearly and manage the government - "My buddies come from up from Texas ... And they come up from Texas and they're, kind of, looking at you, like, 'Man, are you OK?' Yes, you know. And I tell them, I say, you know, 'I can't tell you what an honor it is to do this job.' They often ask, 'What's the job description?' I say, 'Making decisions.' And I make a lot."

Yeah, he sounds like an idiot. But then, as the novelist Jane Smiley notes here


Bush is a man who has never been anywhere and never done anything, and yet he has been flattered and cajoled into being president of the United States through his connections, all of whom thought they could use him for their own purposes. He has a surface charm that appeals to a certain type of American man, and he has used that charm to claim all sorts of perks, and then to fail at everything he has ever done. He did not complete his flight training, he failed at oil investing, he was a front man and a glad-hander as a baseball owner. As the Governor of Texas, he originated one educational program that turned out to be a debacle; as the President of the US, his policies have constituted one screw-up after another. ... From his point of view, he is perfectly entitled by his own experience to a sense of entitlement.


So he makes decisions, for us all. They told him he should. So he does. Then they do what they want anyway and the things he doesn't understand, like the Dubai port deal, get done, one way or another.

All this does not inspire confidence.

But then he did get all intellectual - "De Tocqueville, who's a French guy, came in 1832 and recognized and wrote back - wrote a treatise about what it means to go to a country where people have - associate voluntarily to serve their communities."

Grammar and sense aside, he's read de Tocqueville? Interesting. Not one of de Tocqueville's main points, but then he did cite him. One suspects, however, that bit of academic fluff came from a staffer and found it's way onto a cue card. But maybe not. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He has read de Tocqueville. And he's citing a Frenchman, even if somewhat incoherently. As Yogi Berra famously said, "Who'd have thunk it?" Or maybe that was Casey Stengel. It wasn't de Tocqueville.

The audience must have been puzzled. Good ol' boys don't cite nineteenth century French guys.

His best line? This - "Thank goodness Laura isn't here; she would be giving me the hook."

No kidding.

There's more at the link. But you get the idea. Except for select audiences who cheer wildly, the evidence is mounting that he's in way over his head. That idea may have been confined to only the anti-Bush left for years. But as the polls show, it's gone mainstream now.

The Wheeling event didn't make thing better. It made things worse.

The Washington Post that same morning, in its lead editorial, said the president should have more press conferences. He should get out more. They like his swagger and new openness. It's probably a trick. They want him to sound like a six-year-old in public, day after day. They have it out for him. But then, they did seem serious. Maybe they were serious.

The Wall Street Journal, that same morning, in its lead editorial sort of bypassed the whole question of whether the guy was a fool in way over his head and give us this - "The third anniversary of U.S. military action to liberate Iraq has brought with it a relentless stream of media and political pessimism that is unwarranted by the facts and threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophesy if it goes unchallenged." We have to win the war in Iraq, however winning is defined. We can't bug out. Bad things would happen. Forget Bush. This is serious.

Yep, we bought it. We own it.

But then you cannot get away from for the idea these guys got us into real trouble with their wild-ass ideas. There's this - North Korea kind of likes our new idea of preemptive war. And they say, now that they have nukes and missiles, that we don't have the monopoly on that concept. Heck, we didn't trademark or patent it or anything. They say since they feel threaten by us, they have the right to lob some nuclear weapons over on our west coast. And they just might have to. It may be necessary.

Well, we said we have the right to start a war with any nation that threatens our national security - if they could harm us and we think they just might, they're gone. Screw the UN and international law. We have the right to protect ourselves. You know the arguments - WWII wouldn't have happened if we took out Hitler in the early thirties, or some special ops team assassinated his mother before he could be born or some such thing. Sometimes you have to act before bad things happen, so they don't happen.

North Korea claims that right now. Fair is fair.

Great. We say we will wipe you out before the awful act you might commit. You talk that way, and you're gone, buddy.

Now this.

But we're confused now about a lot of this, even on minor levels, as Dahlia Lithwick explains here


Last week Robert Weisberg and I tried to highlight the central flaw of the government's conspiracy theory in the Zacarias Moussaoui penalty phase: You can't easily stretch lying into a capital federal criminal conspiracy to murder. The government's contention that Moussaoui actually caused the 9/11 deaths because he lied to federal investigators about details of the plot might satisfy some definition of criminal conspiracy. But it's a hard argument to sustain under the federal conspiracy and death-penalty rules. The causal link between Moussaoui's acts and the actual murders is just too stretched out to work under the federal laws involved in this case.

Then something funny happened at the sentencing trial: The prosecutors switched theories. Somewhere along the way, they stopped arguing that Moussaoui's lies had caused 9/11 and began to argue that his failure to tell the truth was the cause. In other words, the deaths happened not as a result of the false information Moussaoui gave FBI investigators (that he was taking lessons in flying 747s for fun, had worked in marketing research in London for a company called NOP, and had earned the money in his terrorist bank account) but as a result of the true information he withheld.


Is this obscuring clear moral matter with "legalese?" No –


There is a clear moral distinction between telling a lie and withholding the truth. Government claims that Moussaoui's lies were distinct acts in furtherance of a conspiracy are one thing. Claims that great airy fistfuls of truths might have stopped the attacks is a screenplay. A lie that misdirects or diverts government prosecutors from foiling an attack is arguably a criminal act. The decision to withhold the truth is (Fifth Amendment problems notwithstanding) a non-act.


Did we invade Iraq, replace its government and occupy the place because of what we thought they might do, a non-act? Yes. We said we had to, or that was what we said at the time. We had to change the reason a few times. But for all the talk there was no act of aggression, putting aside there were no chemical weapons, biological weapons or nuclear weapons. We did that because of what we said were their intentions. And the Moussaoui is the same thing, on a small scale.

It's complicated in this case –


The defense team urges that to be eligible for the federal death penalty, Moussaoui needed to have committed an "act" (lying) as opposed to an "omission" (not confessing). They remind the judge that the decision to withhold the truth (and thus refuse to inculpate oneself) is constitutionally protected in ways that lying is not. Why? Because what kind of legal regime would force you to choose between confessing and implicating yourself (thus making you eligible for the death penalty), or electing to be silent (thus also making you eligible for the death penalty)?

Most important, the defense lawyers remind the court about the dangers of testifying in a parallel universe of what-might-have-been: How can any witness know, and how can the jury weigh, when and how in this imaginary conversation between Moussaoui and the government the right information leading to the correct conclusions might have been conveyed? What if, in this imaginary conversation, Moussaoui revealed only some details of the 9/11 plot but not all of them, or not the ones that later proved accurate? Is he eligible to be executed for the parts he withheld? What if this imaginary confession happened too late to stop the attacks? And what if, in light of this week's testimony, Moussaoui had had this conversation with someone higher up in the chain of command than the arresting agent, Harry Samit, whose warnings, as it appears, were largely ignored? Is Moussaoui responsible for having not-confessed to the low-level guy who was not-heard at the bureau? Is every person in America who chose not to come forward with any small detail about a possible 9/11 attack now eligible for the death penalty?


Yep, logic is a bitch. Two weeks ago the judge said this - "I will warn the government that it is treading on very delicate legal ground here. I don't know of any other case in which a defendant's failure to act has been a sufficient basis for the death penalty as a matter of law."

Wednesday, March 22nd she told the jury to be careful - "Juries cannot decide cases on speculation. Nobody knows what would have happened."

But 9/11 changed everything. With Moussaoui it's a matter of life in prison or the death penalty. Those are the two choices. It's not like he walks. He's guilty. He's a vile person.

But we went to war on speculation - we said we just knew what would happen if we didn't. North Korea is claiming that right too.

The guys in charge have made a mess on many levels. And the president is not big on logic and details. But then he does say what he means.

There's even more cleanup to do when you disregard details and logic. As you recall when the administration seemed headed for a legal problem last year regarding its right to hold a citizen as and "enemy combatant," it bypassed the legal by moving Jose Padilla out of military custody just before the Supreme Court was to decide whether or not to hear his case. Note here that they do that now and then.

And Wednesday, March 22nd the Wall Street Journal, again, reports here that the administration has decided to prohibit military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay from using evidence obtained through the use of torture. The new rule, coming next week, would reverse previous policy, the one Cheney was big on and was formalized in a White House decision last summer.

Analysis from Tim Greive here


Has the White House come to understand the immorality and unreliability of evidence obtained through torture? Maybe. Or maybe, as the Journal notes, the White House is paying some attention to the Supreme Court's docket again. The court hears oral arguments next week in a case challenging the legality of the military tribunals. Prohibiting torture evidence now could help the administration's lawyers then, the Journal says, by allowing them to argue that the tribunals comply with the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The Marine colonel who heads the team of military lawyers appointed to represent detainees doesn't seem to be impressed. Col. Dwight Sullivan tells the Journal that he hasn't seen the new rule yet, but that the devil will be in the details - in particular, whether the rule requires detainees to prove that torture occurred or the government to prove that it didn't. And even if the burden-of-proof part of the rule is favorable for the detainees, Sullivan says, hearsay evidence would still be admissible during tribunal proceedings, possibly providing a "mechanism to launder tortured evidence."

But wait, you might be saying to yourself, doesn't the Bush administration insist that the United States doesn't do torture in the first place? Well, yes, it does. But a Defense Department spokesperson tells the Journal that the new rule is designed to "eliminate any doubt" that the tribunals will comply with the U.N.'s torture convention.


This is cleaning up after the elephants. Or, as Jane Smiley implies above, cleaning up after the spoiled, mildly sadistic kid who doesn't know much and screws things up. He doesn't get subtleties. But then he does say what he means. He's resolute, or something. Choose your word.

But he is a moral man, as we see here - President Bush said Wednesday that he is "deeply troubled" that an Afghan man is being tried for converting to Christianity.

That's about Abdul Rahman, the fellow in his forties who faces a possible death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity sixteen years ago.

But then there's this


An Afghan man facing a possible death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity may be mentally unfit to stand trial, a state prosecutor said Wednesday amid growing international condemnation of the case.

Abdul Rahman, 41, has been charged with rejecting Islam, a crime under this country's Islamic laws. His trial started last week and he confessed to becoming a Christian 16 years ago. If convicted, he could be executed.

"We think he could be mad. He is not a normal person. He doesn't talk like a normal person," prosecutor Sarinwal Zamari told The Associated Press.

Moayuddin Baluch, a religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai, said Rahman would undergo a psychological examination.

"If he is mentally unfit, definitely Islam has no claim to punish him," he said. "He must be forgiven. The case must be dropped."

A Western diplomat in Kabul and a human rights advocate - both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter - said the government was desperately searching for a way to drop the case.

The United States, Britain and other countries that have troops in Afghanistan have voiced concern about Rahman's fate. President Bush said Wednesday he was "deeply troubled" and expects the country to "honor the universal principle of freedom."

NATO's top diplomat, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said he would call Karzai to insist the case be dropped.

A spokesman for Karzai, Khaleeq Ahmed, said the government would not interfere in the case but that the government "will make sure human rights are observed."


Make of that what you will. We're in an odd holy war with even odder allies.

But the president is a born again Christian. And things should be clear.

They're just not.

In these pages in early March there was this - out here in Los Angeles, on Ash Wednesday, Los Angeles' Cardinal Roger Mahoney ran the old Christian myth up the flagpole, and no one saluted - if Congress passes legislation to criminalize the act of offering support to an illegal immigrant, he will instruct his priests and Catholic parishioners to ignore the law.

The bill is moving forward and we get this


Invoking Biblical themes, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton joined immigration advocates Wednesday to vow and block legislation seeking to criminalize undocumented immigrants.

Clinton, a potential 2008 presidential candidate and relative latecomer to the immigration debate, made her remarks as the Senate prepares to take up the matter next week.

"It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures," Clinton said, "because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."


So even the Jesus stuff is harder than it seems. Bush cannot catch a break.

Perhaps he should listen to the likes of Garrison Keillor - do something, anything, to show the American people they really should "perk up and imagine that the Current Occupant is in charge and able to connect the dots."

That seems unlikely. The man who said those things in Wheeling isn't good with dots.

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

The inclusion of any text from others is quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Legal Notice Regarding Fair Use for the relevant citation.
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