Published on Wednesday, Febraury 11, 2004 by TomDispatch.com
The President Enters Credibility Gap
by Tom Engelhardt
Two lines which not so long ago seemed firm as battlements -- places where a sign reading "Go no further" might well have been posted -- now seem drawn in the sand of an Iraqi desert. The first was, of course, that Florida 50% mark of an evenly divided nation of voters (quite different of course from a nation of Americans, who have, until the recent Democratic primaries, been deserting the voting booths in droves). Last year, the President's "approval" rating dropped close to the 50% mark and then held firm until the "Saddam bounce" in December drove it impressively upwards for a month.
At the end of January, however, in the space of a week his approval ratings plunged about 10 points, which in the strange world of serial polling, is a bit like an elevator dropping from an upper floor to the basement. In most polls, they plummeted, in fact, straight through the fast and firm Florida dividing line as if it had never been there and now have come to rest at perhaps 47% approval (even less in an electoral match-up with Sen. Kerry) in what is for this White House team terra incognita -- though it's territory that would be quite familiar to W's Dad. Given that Florida's about as far south as you can go in the U.S., it may not be accurate to say that Dick Cheney's vice-presidential numbers had already "gone south," but at perhaps a 20% approval level, he was already in Never-Never Land.
Why did this happen? The simplest and most compelling explanation I've found was in an Associated Press piece that made the following link:
David A. Kay may have started the great ball rolling downhill by being the first person to break through a widespread belief here that every act of this President in regard to Iraq was done because a truly satanic human being had truly satanic weaponry at his command and was somehow truly threatening our country satanically. Why Kay -- and not anyone else or any other proof, of which there's been much -- I don't know. Perhaps simply because he was seen as the President's trusted man. In any case, the message that broke through, as translated, evidently was: The President misled us; "is" isn't "is" in this case either; and that's that.
Robert Kuttner in the American Prospect magazine on-line (Presidential Endgame) suggests that Bush hit a "tipping point" -- Kay's testimony perhaps being the final straw -- which is a good way to think of it. ("After an excruciating delay, chickens are finally coming home to roost for George W. Bush. For over a year, critics have been pointing to the president's systematic misrepresentations of everything from Iraq to education to budget numbers. But the charge hasn't stuck, until very lately.") So much material piling up against the berm was bound to break through someday.
It looks like some tipping point might have been reached in the media too, judging by the sudden spate of critical reporting in papers around the country, the pile-up of investigations and possible scandals on the inside pages of our papers (but heading distinctly front-page-ward), and the remarkably fierce editorials on Bush's recent "Meet the Press" performance in my hometown paper. (See Mr. Bush's Version, and Mr. Bush's Revisionism)
Kuttner comments: "Journalists are herd animals. Conventional wisdom sometimes turns on a dime, even though the basic facts were hidden in plain view all along. I'd bet we are about a week away from newsmagazine covers pronouncing 'Bush in Trouble.' It's about time."
As it turns out, he wasn't a day too early in writing that sentence about "newsmagazine covers" -- see below -- nor in writing of the "tipping point." It's a phrase E. J. Dionne Jr., for instance, has already picked up in his Washington Post column today (…to 'War President'):
And talking about picking things up, note that word "credibility." It's suddenly everywhere, it's crucial, and I'm going to return to it.
But first let me offer a tiny pat on the back to the "media" of which I find myself part. This Sunday, Eric Margolis, the conservative and incisive columnist for the Toronto Sun, offered the following observation in his column (The Real Voice of America): "During the Iraq war, the Internet became a sort of 'Radio Free America' that gave the lie to all the White House's war propaganda promoted by the mainstream media." We -- including all those of you who have grasped the "word" and the moment simply by creating your own e-lists and passing your version of the news, your own tailored newsletters, on to relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues -- have kept alive and circulating stories and a spirit that the mainstream has until now largely avoided (on which more in a future dispatch).
In any case, a President who, in the first three years of his presidency, largely refused to answer questions from the press (even over ribs in the Nothin' Fancy Café in Roswell, New Mexico) suddenly appears on "Meet the Press" "voluntarily"… Call it panic and you won't be far off, though no one's likely to say so. The Florida line crumbled in a week -- it proved the Maginot line of polling landmarks -- and the Bush team promptly gunned the President's motors and drove him directly onto Tim Russert's Sunday talk show, where he declared himself a "war president" and according to ABC's Cokie Roberts, who bothered to count (which I didn't), used the word "war" 33 times in the course of an hour's interview, most of the second half of which focused on the domestic economy. Of course, he might just as easily have called himself a science-fiction president because he managed to go where no president had gone before, mixing science and fiction together as he went in a fabulously bizarre concoction of staggering illogic.
At its Klingon heart lay the strange new concept of "capacity." Having proposed the following non sequitur, "We remembered the fact that [Saddam] had used weapons, which meant he had weapons," he went on to suggest to Russert that even if Saddam's regime didn't have the weapons of mass destruction the administration, in the persons of the President, vice president, and secretary of state among others, had pronounced a fact of life:
Now, some of this was quite true. Saddam had once had chemical and biological weapons and had used some of the chemical ones in his war with Iran (and against Kurdish populations in Iraq) with the full knowledge of the Reagan administration -- with, in other words, the knowledge of a number of key figures in the present administration who at the time continued to back his regime anyway, which helps perhaps account for the "memory" (or the memory lapses). Bush went on to define Saddam as a "madman," the Middle East as a playground for madmen, and then to give a new and original twist to the concept of "imminent danger":
(By the way, despite how they read, all quotes are guaranteed to be as transcribed.)
Now, as for "capacity" or "the ability to make weapons" in this world of ours: As the Aum Shinrikyo cult that sarin-gassed the Tokyo subways showed, any half-baked, malign group with money, access to people with some scientific training, and labs of any sort now has such a "capacity." "Capacity" is essentially knowledge plus money -- and as the recent Pakistani case of nuclear proliferation indicates, where money can be flashed, knowledge is increasingly easily transferable. In that sense, there is hardly a country around the world that doesn't pose a potential danger, as soon enough will kids in high-school labs.
But back to the President's capacity:
The ability to make a weapon. Of course, the missing factor here, the one unmentionable factor in this strange, wobbling, web of presidential explanations (which sounded a bit better when spoken than they look on the page) is that Saddam's regime had been targeted for destruction long before any administration official asked the intelligence agencies for information on the subject of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And when the request was made, it was expected that the Information provided would support policy, which meant supporting an imperial desire for war, which was why the "intelligence" had to be cherry-picked by the team around our sci-fi president. He then claimed the "capacity" to do the one thing human beings do dreadfully -- see into and predict the future and act on that. He appointed himself the equivalent of a "precog" in Stephen Spielberg's version of Philip Dick's Minority Report, and gave himself permission to spot the crime long before it could be committed.
Here was the president's summary of his precog position:
Here then is the essence of Bush's war policy, when everything else drops away: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda… Did.
Note, by the way, that key "over time" in the last quote, even though, as we headed into this administration's preordained war, its key officials were carefully placing rhetorical mushroom clouds over all-too-real American cities. There's no point, of course, in arguing about this hodgepodge of desire, aggression, and sci-fi fantasy. We now know that Saddam had no nuclear program left of any significance, nor any possible way to make such a weapon in the reasonably foreseeable future, nor any way to actually use such a weapon to endanger us.
My own favorite presidential line from the Russert interview, however, was this: "In my judgment, when the United States says there will be serious consequences, and if there isn't serious consequences, it creates adverse consequences."
Though a unique way of putting the matter, it still added up to a very old-fashioned and deeply familiar formula, one so familiar that I almost broke into a heartwarmingly nostalgic round of "Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot." If this is our "war president" with "war on my mind," as he swore early on in the interview, then he implicitly cited one of our great war words in this little formulation. That word is "credibility." Of course, along with the word goes the war that still really matters to Americans -- Vietnam -- and the presidents (Johnson and Nixon) who, with advisors like Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, were quite literally obsessed with the "serious consequences" of the U.S. not appearing "credible" in the eyes of enemies and allies alike.
Credibility, as Jonathan Schell so famously wrote in his book about the Nixon presidency, The Time of Illusion, was a strange, ephemeral quality -- something that could only be measured in the eyes of others. And though it was a foreign-policy obsession and a word much in play in those days among elite policy-makers and the journalists who wrote about them, it soon enough descended from the high realms of the strategists into the living rooms of everyday Americans where, once again, our embattled leaders handed over to others the right to judge their actions. Lyndon Johnson felt it first. Among the various "gaps" of that era which ranged from the (nonexistent) "missile gap" that may have helped win John Kennedy the presidency to the "generation gap," there was said to be a "credibility gap" -- an increasingly yawning chasm between what our leaders said and did, between their claims and their actions, between high ideals pronounced and bloody endpoints.
Credibility, hard as it was to grasp, was the currency of the Vietnam era. I don't know whether the Russert interview gave the President what might be called an instant "Saddam blip" in his polling figures or not, but the return of "credibility" and its instantaneous descent to the opinion polls is startling. The President may swear he's presiding over "the war on terror," but it looks to me like -- as with every other post-Vietnam president -- he's now presiding over just another twisted version of the American Vietnam experience that won't go away. As Paul Harris of the British Observer succinctly put the matter, "Despite the rising casualties in Iraq, it is the Vietnam War that is dominating the headlines."
And in the process it seems that he's walked right into "credibility gap" and been ambushed. The actual Russert interview, of course, came to rest on a literal Vietnam issue -- the President's Vietnam-era record in the Texas Air National Guard (versus Kerry's wartime record in Vietnam itself). By the way, with the administration releasing some presidential records today that don't seem to account for various gaps in his service, the best explanation I've seen so far of that record -- less than conspiratorial but thoroughly embarrassing -- is at the Calpundit weblog; there's also a striking timeline of Kerry's and Bush's tours of duty at Mother Jones on-line ("Spring 1971: Bush is hired by a Texas agricultural importer. He uses a National Guard F-102 to shuttle tropical plants from Florida."); and in the Washington Post today columnist Richard Cohen offered a blunt description of what it really meant to be in the Guard, as he was, in those years (From Guardsman…):
In the Russert interview, the President even managed to offer his own interpretation of the Vietnam War and its presidents -- too involved in micromanaging the fighting, he said. He can't stay away from the war either, and small wonder for, as if on cue, "credibility" gunned its motors and roared into town.
What once was a domestic charge about actual territory -- who lost China (the great debate of the McCarthy era) or who might lose Vietnam (the great fear of all Vietnam-era presidents) instantly became in our moment, "who lost credibility" and how much.
When I turned to my hometown paper the morning after "Meet the Press," there was Richard Stevenson's front-page lead piece (Bush Offers Defense on Iraq and Economy in Interview) already using the word twice: "Democrats and liberal groups responded to the interview with further attacks on Mr.. Bush's credibility… Much of the interview covered Iraq and, implicitly, whether Mr. Bush had lost credibility by having asserted that Iraq had weapons that it now appears not to have had." While Elisabeth Bumiller's accompanying piece of analysis, Bush States His Case Early, had this to say:
And that was just the beginning. I was surprised to discover that AOL was already highlighting its own instant "Bush Credibility Meter"; that Time magazine -- Kuttner is a precog -- had a cover headlined, Believe Him or Not, Does Bush Have a Credibility Gap? with two Bush profiles staring each other down, and an article to match, When Credibility Becomes a Campaign Issue ("For a President, trust is the one asset that, once lost, he can't buy back. This may be especially true for George W. Bush, whose appeal has always been personal as much as political. "); that Charlie Rose last night was deep into the Big Muddy of credibility with reporters from Time and the Washington Post as well as the political director of ABC News; and that perhaps the first direct KO punch re: credibility had actually come from the right.
On February 2, Robert Novak, conservative columnist and the reporter credited with outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent due to administration leaks, wrote a stunning column entitled Bush's Credibility Problem:
It was always pretty obvious that Iraq was not Vietnam, whatever it might be and whatever comparisons might be drawn. But it was also obvious that we in the U.S., having never quite faced the deeper realities of that war, were never able to rid ourselves of it either. We, not the Iraqis, were still "in" Vietnam and the longer the Iraqi fighting and associated troubles went on, the more Vietnam was bound to reassert itself as the reigning trauma and paradigm of 21st century America. Now we have a presidential campaign roaring into the 1960s full speed ahead. It is, in a word, incredible.
Oh yes, and speaking of Iraq, I promised you a second line crossed as if it had been drawn in the sand. Actually, it kind of was, when you think about it. The Bush administration had made clear that only one date remained sacrosanct in Iraq -- June 30th, the bottom-line date for handing over "sovereignty" to an Iraqi governing body. How that was to be done -- via caucuses, elections of some sort, or an Iraqi "Loya Jerga" (I find the idea of using the Afghan model and term for creating a new national government in Iraq risible) leading to an expanded Governing Council, or some other method entirely -- turned out to be ever more negotiable. But what was nonnegotiable -- so swore everyone in sight in this administration and in the CPA in Baghdad -- was when the turnover had to happen, since Bush's men were determined to go into the electoral campaign with a sovereign Iraqi government at their backs. However, just recently, even that June 30th date has begun visibly to wobble and now, with a UN team in Iraq assessing the situation, the administration is madly signaling that it's ready to negotiate that too. Anything, anything, just to put Iraq to bed. Fat chance. (I'm including below, by the way, a strong piece by Gary Younge of the British Guardian on the inability of our "democratic" politicians to take responsibility for anything that's happened on their watch.)
For George, now ambushed in Credibility Gap, I have a word to offer that has special meaning to his vice president: Duck!
Conservative freak out
It's not just the President's obvious critics to his left who are lining up to have a go at him. Conservatives of various stripes are beginning to freak out as well. Of course, a lie of a budget, a nation seemingly saddled with mountainous debt until the sun rises in the West, a federal government bigger than the nearest planet, and a pile of lies and evasions that add up to an imperial war from hell can do that to anyone, especially since this administration isn't -- never has been -- into conserving a thing except power; and, even there, they may have overstepped the limits. After all, most conservatives weren't trying to elect a king or even a family.
Kevin Philips, former conservative and the mastermind behind the "southern strategy" that has anchored every winning Republican presidential campaign since Nixon, but now a populist critic, commented on the nature of the Bush "dynasty" this Sunday in a piece in the Los Angeles Times. With the tongue-twistingly long title, Four generations have created an unsavory web of links that could prove an election-year Achilles' heel for the president, it said in part:
"Top 1% economics: Over four generations, the Bush family has been involved with more than 20 securities firms, banks, brokerage houses and investment management firms, ranging from Wall Street giants like Brown Brothers Harriman and E.F. Hutton to small firms like J. Bush & Co. and Riggs Investment Management Corp. This relentless record of handling money for rich people has bred a vocational hauteur. In their eyes, the economic top 1% of Americans are the ones who count…
Top 1% economics and dynasty, of course, add up to something other than conservative. As Paul Krugman recently commented in reviewing American Dynasty, Phillip's latest book, in the New York Review of Books (The Wars of the Texas Succession):
"And George W. Bush, as the scion of this dynasty, is the first president to, in effect, inherit the office. For four generations the Bush family has thrived by exploiting its political connections, especially in the secret world of intelligence, to get ahead in business, as well as exploiting its business connections, especially in finance and oil, to get ahead in politics. And whatever the public and the pundits may have thought about the 2000 election, for the Bushes it was a royal restoration…
Actually, some of those old-line Republicans, it seems, are no longer holding out for 2005. And I did promise you conservatives freaking out, didn't I? So how about starting with that old right-wing warhorse of the Washington Post, George Will, who wrote a column the other day (For Bush, It's Game Time), claiming that the President was not in "midseason form" and adding:
"Republicans are swiftly forfeiting the perception that they are especially responsible stewards of government finances. It is surreal for a Republican president to submit a budget to a Republican-controlled Congress and have Republican legislators vow to remove the "waste" that he has included and that they have hitherto funded…"
On the lies of Bush war-making, Will commented:
"Such casualness, which would be alarming in any president, is especially so in one whose vaulting foreign policy ambitions have turned his first term into Woodrow Wilson's third term, devoted to planting democracy and "universal values" in hitherto inhospitable places. Once begun, leakage of public confidence in a president's pronouncements is difficult to stanch."
James Pinkerton in the Post this Sunday (The Bush Budget, All Bulked Up) offered a similar lament. ("Conservatives and other limited-government types are furious at President George W. Bush for his big-spending ways… The Cato Institute calculates that Bush has presided over the largest increases in discretionary spending since President Lyndon B. Johnson's budgets of the late '60s.") He blamed it all on the neoconservatives who, in his eyes, have betrayed the conservative movement by seeing "the growth of the state as 'natural, indeed inevitable.' They have no interest in a minimalist Goldwaterian state; it's 'National Greatness' they crave."
Or take Quin Hillyer, columnist for the Mobile Register in Alabama, in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle Insight section. His piece begins (Conservatives wonder if Bush is their guy):
"Guns and butter. Lots and lots of both. A major expansion of entitlements. Unprecedented increases in domestic spending. The national government taking more and more responsibilities (and authority) from the states. Judicial nominations used as wedge issues (especially as part of a "Southern strategy"). A politically cynical crafting of policy to buy the support of one particular interest group after another. A White House licking its chops at the prospect of an election opponent seen as an extremist, after a previous election marked by a tremendously close popular vote. Talk of putting men on the moon, fergoshsakes. Ethics aside, welcome to the presidency of Lyndon Milhous Bushson."
And he ends: " George W. Bush is a conservative in the same way Britney Spears is a virgin: only when it suits his marketing."
Or consider Peter Eavis of American Conservative magazine, the title of whose piece tells all: Spending Like a Drunken Democrat, Bush drives the nation towards bankruptcy, and concludes: "Like a credit-card thief, the President of the United States is going on a shopping binge and making other people pay. If history gives Bush a nickname, it will be Deadbeat Dubya."
Point made, I hope, and it could be multiplied with other examples of the same. But all these outraged articles, and others like them, read more or less as one: They cite budget bankruptcy, compare Bush to LBJ (note that conservatives in crisis also hark back naturally to Vietnam-era analogies), mock his budget "cuts" (which do add up to nada, will not be passed by Congress, and would, of course, cause immense suffering among some of the unfavored 99% of America, though this is not much emphasized in such conservative pieces), bemoan bloated Pentagon budgets and failed imperial wars, and so on.
If you then turn to the other side of the "aisle" by returning to the Kuttner article cited above, you'll find a devastating analysis of the real budget that lurks behind this administration's budgetary curtain of lies, an analysis that fits quite well with those by angry conservatives and which begins:
"All of the administration's mendacity comes together in the latest Bush budget. According to the White House, the deficit, now $521 billion, will be halved over the next five years. But the administration achieves this sleight of hand by excluding future costs of occupying and rebuilding Iraq, claiming large savings as yet to be identified, failing to adjust revenue projections, and presuming program cuts so unpopular that Congress is sure to reject them."
Big government, giant budgets, all aimed at profiting that 1% -- plus various military contractors (and other "security" corporations that have slipped in under the "Homeland defense" rubric), energy companies and companion servicing businesses -- throw in dynastic power and you have the Bush version of imperial America 2004. It's also starting to look like a precarious and increasingly unpopular construct, left, right, or center. So just watch out. You don't want to be standing underneath (as most of us are), if it comes tumbling down.
Tomdispatch.com is researched, written and edited by Tom Engelhardt, a fellow at the Nation Institute, for anyone in despair over post-September 11th US mainstream media coverage of our world and ourselves.
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