Danger Ahead - Don't Listen Carefully
You've been warned, and the French warned you - in this case AFP (l'Agence France Presse). But then it was all over the news, and the AFP item on the late wire Wednesday, August 30, was one of many that covered the basic facts -
US President George W. Bush will launch a campaign of speeches, helped by world leader visits, to defend his handling of the global war on terrorism and the conflict in Iraq.
The thrust comes as many of Bush's Republicans worry that the rising death toll and price tag from the unpopular war in Iraq may cost them control of the US Senate and House of Representatives in November 7 elections.
"They're not political speeches," Bush insisted after a political fundraiser in Arkansas Wednesday. "They're speeches to make it clear that, if we retreat before the job is done, this nation will become even more in jeopardy."
"We have a duty in this country to defeat terrorists. That's why we'll stay on the offense to bring them to just before they hurt us, and that's why we'll work to spread liberty in order to achieve the peace," he said.
The public relations push was to begin Thursday with an Iraq-focused speech to a major US veterans group, and was to culminate with a September 19 address to the United Nations, said Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino.
"The president will put the violence that Americans are seeing on their TV screens and reading in their papers into a larger context," Perino said of his remarks to the American Legion in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday.
So it's a public relations effort, with most of the speeches given a political fundraisers, but it's not political at all. Right. It must be a matter of how you define the term.
Of course, if most of these are addresses to the nation, and not "political," then the media can cover them, live, as breaking news, and the opposition, such as it is, cannot really demand equal time. Of course, since the broadcast "fairness doctrine" is long gone, that is a moot point, or as our language-challenged friends say, a "mute point." But the cable news folks will get a lot of free content to fill the twenty-four hour cycle - start the feed of the speech and grab a cup of coffee, put your feet up, and take a breather.
Will people watch, hanging on every word? That seems unlikely. It will just be a little tiresome - more of the same, with a few minor variations for specific audiences - be very frightened, and support all we do, because if you don't the bad guys are really coming for us this time, for real.
There will be no mention that what we've done has made matters worse - angry attacks are far more likely now than they ever were, as we've ticked off most of the Arab world and befuddled everyone else. That doesn't seem to matter much now. What's done is done. Now the approach is to say "look at how bad things are" and say that we cannot change anything we're doing at any level - or things will get much, much worse. That seems to be the "larger context." A cynic might say this is the administration asserting that, yes, we've stirred up the biggest hornet's nest since the Crusades, and now we have no choice but to keep doing what we're doing, because we set it up so that any change in policy or tactics at this point would have dire consequences you don't even want to think about. But who would be that cynical?
The curious thing is that there's a good-cop bad-cop thing going on - like when you're buying a car and the salesman says he can give you the great price you've both agreed on, but he has to check with his sales manager, who's a mean guy. The salesman comes back thirty-five minutes later, all hangdog, and says the shiny new car you've been staring at the whole time will have to cost a bit more. What are you going to do?
The good-cop in this case is the president - no one questions the patriotism of those who have questions, but let's look at the big picture. The bad-cop is of course the man in charge of the Defense Department, Donald Rumsfeld, and his tag-team partner, Vice President Cheney. Yep, it's kind of like cheesy "profession wrestling," and just about as professional.
There was the Rumsfeld address to the American Legion in Salt Lake City (discussed here) - those who question the president are cowards, and they are morally and intellectual confused (depraved and stupid), and the don't know their history (they're just like Neville Chamberlain, thinking you can talk with the bad guys and get anything useful from them). There wasn't as much coverage of the Cheney speech a day earlier, denouncing the "self-defeating pessimists" who oppose the war in Iraq, which is going quite well actually. Of the war in Iraq - "We wage this fight with good allies at our side." And as for the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan - "Fifty million people are awakening to a future of hope and freedom." He seems to believe both are true. He seems to have different sources of information than the rest of the world.
And Cheney was in Nebraska to do the 9/11 thing, actually - "To stand here at Offutt Air Force Base is to be reminded of how the world changed on that terrible morning. This is where President Bush came to direct the initial response to the attacks, and to conduct an emergency national security meeting by secure video."
See, you have to remember that once you thought he was competent. He still might be? That's the idea. They've got the good-cop bad-cop thing down cold.
The president addresses that same American Legion group in Salt Lake City, but does the "reasonable, simple, pleasant guy" routine. These shifts keep critics off-balance, and as uncertain at the customer waiting in the Ford showroom.
The president's warm-up for the American Legion folks was Wednesday, August 30, in Tennessee -
Linking success in Iraq with the future safety of America, President Bush said Wednesday that withdrawing US troops too quickly would lead to a terrorist state more dangerous than Afghanistan in the grip of the repressive Taliban regime.
Bush, who is beginning a series of speeches on Thursday to counter opposition to the war, spoke at a political fundraiser, which raised more than $1.5 million for the Tennessee GOP and Bob Corker, who faces a tough Senate race against Democratic nominee Harold Ford Jr.
If the United States leaves Iraq prematurely, Bush said, it would embolden an enemy that wants to harm Americans and shred US credibility internationally.
"If we leave Iraq before the job is done, it will create a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, a terrorist state much more dangerous than Afghanistan was before we removed the Taliban, a terrorist state with the capacity to fund its activities because of the oil reserves of Iraq," Bush said.
Let's see, we know now that Iraq was not working on any weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical or biological - that Iraq had no ties to al Qaeda, and Saddam Hussein actually feared them (they hated him and could cause no end of trouble), that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, as the president said directly the week before. So how did this incipient terrorist state much more dangerous than Afghanistan was before we removed the Taliban come to be?
Don't ask. What's done is done.
The twist in this warm-up speech is the idea that rethinking all this and trying something new would "shred US credibility internationally." Like we have any? That seemed to be a dispatch from another planet, not this one. But he has his pride, so you have to allow him some harmless delusion. Let him think everyone loves us and agrees with us. What harm can that do? Heck, Cheney thinks we have allies, and the whole world is with us.
And of course the president just wants to bolster support for the war in Iraq, as "a senior administration official" describes it - "Terrorism is on the minds of Americans, and as we go into the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it's appropriate and necessary that the nation continue to hear about the state of the war and the nature of our enemy."
That's from an analysis (Tim Grieve) that continues with this -
As the Wall Street Journal notes, there's been something of an evolution in the president's rhetorical approach to the war. While earlier rounds of speeches tended to focus on claims of progress in Iraq, Bush will speak more this time about the "high stakes and changing nature of the battle." That's an inevitable result of the facts on the ground, both there and here. There isn't a lot of good news to report from Iraq these days - a roadside bomb killed at least 24 people in Baghdad today [August 30] - and Americans aren't buying happy talk about the war anymore: Sixty-two percent of the public says that things are going badly for the United States in Iraq.
But there's a second sort of rhetorical evolution going on here, too. The public no longer sees the war in Iraq as part of the war on terror, let alone as its "central front," and even the president has now conceded that Iraq had "nothing" to do with 9/11. That won't stop the White House from wrapping the war in memories of 9/11 - see the words at the top of this post, or Donald Rumsfeld's speech yesterday, or Dick Cheney's speech the day before that - but it does seem that the approach is changing a bit: The war isn't right just because we're striking back against the enemy who attacked us (even if we're not); the war is right because it's being brought to you by the man you liked so much in the days after those attacks occurred.
So when the facts don't work, they're painting pictures now of scenes they want you to remember - the president in lower Manhattan with the bull horn, saying we'll get the bad guys, and a year ago in Jackson Square in New Orleans, saying we'd fix all this, and get rid of poverty and racism and all the rest while we're at it. They're selling nostalgia, just like Ford sells the retro-cars, the Mustang and Thunderbird - relive the past in a nicer version of what you remember fondly.
Grieve remembers it differently -
Yeah, Bush looked better with the bullhorn and the rubble than he did in the bizarre blue light of Jackson Square, but it took him a while to get to either place. And once he was there? The results, practically and politically speaking, have been pretty much the same. Afghanistan and Iraq are in chaos, and bin Laden is still on the loose. New Orleans is a mess, and the president seemed to acknowledge this week that the "quick" recovery he promised could take a decade to complete - if it ever happens at all.
Bush may have peaked in popularity after 9/11, and Katrina may have added to his steady slide in the polls. But in the midst of these dual anniversaries, more Americans approve of Bush's handling of the hurricane than they do of his handling of Iraq, his signature response to the attacks of 9/11. A majority of Americans disapprove of both.
… That's why the White House and the Republican National Committee hope that as you head to the polls in November, you'll forget about the president who led his country into a phony and failed war and fiddled while a great American city drowned. They want you to remember the president you saw just after the United States was attacked and just before he actually did anything about it. There was glory in that moment, and the GOP wants it back.
It may work. We're suckers for nostalgia.
Too the idea here is to rediscover the charm of the president - it's not all formal speeches, whipsawing us between pleasantries and insults, and telling us not to believe what we see. There are, and will be, relaxed one-on-one interviews, like MSNBC chat - Brian Williams and the president chatting like two buddies on the streets of New Orleans on the one-year anniversary of Katrina landfall.
The transcript is here, but this video clip is much better - you get a sense of the "ah shucks" thing the president has going - including answering questions about his reading Camus, and how he just read "three Shakespeares." He explains his reading habits are eclectic, but he gets the word wrong and it comes out sounding something like "epileptic." That may be supposed to be endearing - he's just a regular guy and such words are really unimportant. It may be a Freudian slip. It doesn't matter.
As for the Shakespeare thing, over at Wonkette you'll find this - "And 'three Shakespeares?' What kind of reporter doesn't ask which ones? Because 'Lear' would be awesome. Especially if he tried to divide the Crawford ranch between Jenna and Barbara (and, for the hell of it, Pierce)."
That too doesn't matter much. It's just odd.
The meat of the interview is this, but it doesn't make much sense either -
WILLIAMS: When you take a tour of the world, a lot of Americans e-mail me with their fears that, some days they just wake up and it just feels like the end of the world is near. And you go from North Korea to Iran, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and you look at how things have changed, how Americans are viewed overseas, if that is important to you. Do you have any moments of doubt that we fought a wrong war? Or that there's something wrong with the perception of America overseas?
BUSH: Well those are two different questions, did we fight the wrong war, and absolutely - I have no doubt - the war came to our shores, remember that. We had a foreign policy that basically said, let's hope calm works. And we were attacked.
WILLIAMS: But those weren't Iraqis.
BUSH: They weren't, no, I agree, they weren't Iraqis, nor did I ever say Iraq ordered that attack, but they're a part of, Iraq is part of the struggle against the terrorists. Now in terms of image, of course I worry about American image. We are great at TV, and yet we are getting crushed on the PR front. I personally do not believe that Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said, "al-Qaida, attack America."
This seems like a bad parody of Samuel Beckett, or as Digby of Hullabaloo says here -
Talk about dumb and dumber. I know the president is intellectually handicapped and I don't expect much from Williams either. But couldn't someone have written down the questions for him beforehand so he doesn't ramble incoherently when he's interviewing the president?
And why, oh why, can't somebody pin the codpiece down when he says in one breath that the war came to our shores and that's why we're fighting in Iraq? Couldn't Williams have followed up with, "but if Iraq wasn't involved in the attacks, in what way was it part of the struggle against terrorism? Until we invaded, Iraq didn't have any terrorists." Bush would blather on about weapons of mass destruction and our oceans not protecting us, but at least it would be out there. That would be too much to ask, I guess.
The thing about how we are "great on TV but getting crushed on the PR front" is just bizarre. I have no idea what he meant by it other than it's something someone said about himself and he applied it to the country. I can't figure out any other explanation.
The problem is expecting logic. Perhaps the president's handlers, approving such an extended interview, know the secret of public discourse - no one really listens. They watch the body language, and catch the tone of voice, and then approve or don't approve of the speaker. A few catch phrases help too - buzz words, but people don't need the whole sentence. Just the buzz words will do. So look relaxed and say things like, "I think pro-life squirrels could probably roller-skate and sing opera in Milan, in Italian, for the march of freedom, which is God's gift to everyone, and toasters and Idaho - they hate us for our freedoms." No one notices much but the key stuff. The trick is not to get too close to total nonsense - don't cross the line - but have fun skirting it. Think of it as a game. This set of responses is, of course, close to the edge, but the president is a risk-taker. Or maybe he's actually a fool.
And it's hard to make this make sense -
WILLIAMS: Is there a palpable tension when you get together with the former president, who happens to be your father? A lot of the guys who worked for him are not happy with the direction of things.
BUSH: Oh no. My relationship is adoring son.
WILLIAMS: You talk shop?
BUSH: Sometimes, yeah, of course we do. But it's a really interesting question, it's kind of conspiracy theory at its most rampant. My dad means the world to me, as a loving dad. He gave me the greatest gift a father can give a child, which is unconditional love. And yeah, we go out and can float around there trying to catch some fish, and chat and talk, but he understands what it means to be president. He understands that often times I have information that he doesn't have. And he understands how difficult the world is today. And I explain my strategy to him, I explain exactly what I just explained to you back there how I view the current tensions, and he takes it on board, and leaves me with this thought, "I love you son."
He loves is dad, the simpleminded old fart. He pats him condescendingly on the head and the old guy smiles. It's cool.
But this is really odd -
WILLIAMS: The folks who say you should have asked for some sort of sacrifice from all of us after 9/11, do they have a case looking back on it?
BUSH: Americans are sacrificing. I mean, we are. You know, we pay a lot of taxes. America sacrificed when they, you know, when the economy went into the tank. Americans sacrificed when, you know, air travel was disrupted. American taxpayers have paid a lot to help this nation recover. I think Americans have sacrificed.
Dear God. He brags endlessly about lowering taxes and then calls it a sacrifice for the war effort. It's true that having air travel disrupted for a week was truly a lot to ask of us but we rose to the occasion. The economy he's been pumping as being great for years is now seen to have "tanked" and caused Americans great suffering. I won't even mention the war we didn't need to fight that's costing hundreds of billions of dollars - which he promised would be paid for with Iraqi oil revenues and which will instead cost every American child more than can even be calculated.
Yeah, well, the president has his view, which certainly isn't how another writer sees it here -
It's often claimed that George W. Bush has asked for no sacrifices in this time of war. On the contrary, he's asked us to sacrifice our humanity and our compassion. He's asked us to sacrifice our privacy and freedom, and our respect for our fellow citizens. He's asked us to sacrifice every irreducible ideal - and there were few enough of them, God knows - on which this country was founded, and whatever fragile steps we've taken towards implementing them under the law. He's asked us to sacrifice any religious truth that would interfere with the dreary, mechanical pursuit of redundant wealth and false security. He's asked us to sacrifice our souls and our conscience, in exchange for his snake-oil promise that we'll never have to suffer the consequences of our own inhumanity. He's asked us to sacrifice our present for his future, and our future for his present.
But he such a nice guy. At one time that seemed enough.
As well, the speeches will turn it all around. Or not.