Disaster experts will tell you that a key to surviving a catastrophe is to quickly discard the old paradigm of normalcy and to act with urgency and creativity in facing the new reality. There is no time for fretting or wishful thinking; decisiveness and imagination are crucial.
The same holds true for nations. History has taught us that sometimes when a leader has made catastrophic choices, others – from within the ruling elite or from without – must do something to shatter the old paradigm of normalcy and protect the nation.
The United States may have found itself in such a predicament. Figuratively at least, the flood waters are surging through the first floor and – while some say the water won’t rise much more – others think it’s time to grab the kids and seek higher ground.
The stark question now before the country is: Should it sit still for the next three-plus years of George W. Bush’s presidency or demand accountability, including possibly the removal of him and his political team from office?
Though it’s true that impeachment of both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would be an extreme step, this constitutional option must be judged against the alternative of a continued national leadership that is facing worsening crises while known for a trademark refusal to admit mistakes or to make meaningful adjustments to its policies.
Over and over, Bush has made clear that he has no intention to reverse himself on any of his core decisions, which include the Iraq War, tax cuts weighted toward the upper incomes, tolerance of record budget deficits and rejection of the chief international agreement on global warming, the Kyoto Treaty. (Bush even questions the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming.)
So, the hard choice is whether the country would be better off starting this political battle now with an eye toward a change in control of Congress in 2006 or simply waiting for the next presidential election in 2008.
At this point, the Washington consensus is that Bush’s impeachment or a forced resignation is unthinkable. Even columnists, who judge Bush as unfit – both by intellect and temperament – to lead the country, refuse to entertain the notion of impeachment.
For instance, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that the Katrina disaster had exposed Bush’s incompetence and phoniness, but Rich still wouldn’t take the logical next step and urge Bush’s removal from office.
“Once Toto parts the curtain, the Wizard of Oz can never be the wizard again,” Rich wrote. “He is forever Professor Marvel, blowhard and snake-oil salesman. Hurricane Katrina, which is likely to endure in the American psyche as long as L. Frank Baum’s mythic tornado, has similarly unmasked George W. Bush.
“The worst storm in our history proved perfect for exposing this president because in one big blast it illuminated all his failings: the rampant cronyism, the empty sloganeering of ‘compassionate conservatism,’ the lack of concern for the ‘underprivileged’ his mother condescended to at the Astrodome, the reckless lack of planning for all government operations except tax cuts, the use of spin and photo-ops to camouflage failure and to substitute for action.” [NYT, Sept. 18, 2005]
But Rich’s column – like similar ones – avoids the question of what it means for the United States to leave Professor Marvel in the Oval Office for more than three years pulling the levers.
Political moderates also are having second thoughts about Bush. Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who has supported the Iraq War and other elements of Bush’s foreign policy, concluded that Katrina has left Bush’s ship of state rudderless and its sails in tatters. He wrote:
“Katrina deprived the Bush team of the energy source that propelled it forward for the last four years: 9/11 and the halo over the presidency that came with it. The events of 9/11 created a deference in the U.S. public, and media, for the administration, which exploited it to the hilt to push an uncompassionate conservative agenda on tax cuts and runaway spending, on which it never could have gotten elected. That deference is over.”
Friedman said Bush’s only chance for recovery is a “Nixon-to-China” policy reversal, such as imposing a 50-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax to finance rebuilding New Orleans and achieving American energy independence. But Friedman acknowledged, “I know it is a stretch.” Indeed, Bush has already ruled out any tax increases. [NYT, Sept. 21, 2005]
Yet, to follow Friedman’s reasoning, the United States will be faced with more than three years of a government adrift in the doldrums as conditions grow more desperate and possible solutions recede over the horizon.
Doubts on the Right
Even some conservatives appear to have grown weary of defending Bush and his ham-handed handling of Iraq, the federal budget and the Katrina disaster.
Right-wing columnist Robert Novak said he was stunned by the Bush-bashing that he encountered at an annual conference in Aspen, Colorado, sponsored by the New York investment firm Forstmann Little & Co.
“The critics were no left-wing bloggers. They were rich, mainly Republican and presumably Bush voters in the past two elections,” Novak wrote. “Longtime participants … told me they had not experienced such hostility against a Republican president at any of the previous events.” [Washington Post, Sept. 22, 2005]
The Katrina crisis also brought into the light many of Bush’s unpleasant personality traits that had been hidden behind the P.R. curtain during his first term.
In a retrospective on the Katrina disaster, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas disclosed “it’s a standing joke among the president’s top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States, or, as he is known in West Wing jargon, POTUS.”
On Aug. 30, after Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans’ levees and flooded one of America’s preeminent cities, the White House staff was in full cringe-mode because someone was going to have to tell Bush that he needed to cut short his five-week vacation at his Texas ranch by a couple of days.
Though Bush readily agreed to return to Washington, he remained in a protective bubble about how bad the Katrina news really was. Before devoting his attention to the catastrophe, he fulfilled speaking commitments in San Diego and Phoenix – even clowning with a gift guitar – before heading back to Washington.
Since Bush famously shuns reading newspapers or watching the news, his staff decided that the best way to clue Bush in on how bad things were was to burn a special DVD with TV footage of the flood so he could watch the DVD on Air Force One, Newsweek’s Thomas reported.
“How this could be – how the president of the United States could have even less ‘situational awareness,’ as they say in the military, than the average American about the worse natural disaster in a century – is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace,” Thomas wrote. [Newsweek, Sept. 18, 2005, issue]
Despite the DVD, Bush treated his first trip to the stricken Gulf region on Sept. 2 as a chance to pat his disaster team on the back and chat up the locals about how everything was going to turn out just great.
As tens of thousands of mostly poor and black citizens were trapped in fetid waters sloshing through New Orleans – and while hundreds of bodies rotted in the heat – Bush praised his inept Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown.
“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush famously remarked, just days before Brown was relieved of command and resigned from FEMA.
Bush also consoled Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who had lost one of his homes to the flood. “Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house – he’s lost his entire house – there’s going to be a fantastic house,” Bush joshed. “And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”
Even as he was departing, Bush still wasn’t connecting to the magnitude of the horror. At a press briefing before boarding Air Force One, Bush recalled his past hard partying in New Orleans, which he called “the town where I used to come … to enjoy myself, occasionally too much.”
Only after his approval ratings dove to record lows did Bush revise his approach to the crisis, ordering up more trips to the region, posing with more African-Americans and vowing a vast rebuilding project on par with what he has promised for Iraq.
Trying to regain his Sept. 11, 2001, magic, Bush gave a nationally televised speech in shirt sleeves in New Orleans’ Jackson Square with special generators and lighting flown in to give the president a dramatic backdrop.
“We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes,” Bush declared on Sept. 15, 2005, in phrasing reminiscent of his pledges about Iraq.
But his poll numbers continued to fall and he returned to the scene again to demonstrate more concern and compassion.
“There’s nothing more pathetic than watching someone who’s out of touch feign being in touch,” observed New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “On his fifth sodden pilgrimage of penitence to the devastation he took so long to comprehend, W. desperately tried to show concern. He said he had spent some ‘quality time’ at a Chevron plant in Pascagoula and nattered about trash removal, infrastructure assessment teams and the ‘can-do spirit.’
“‘We look forward to hearing your vision so we can more better do our job,’ he said at a briefing in Gulfport, Miss.” Dowd wrote. “The more the president echoes his dad’s ‘Message: I care,’ the more the world hears ‘Message: I can’t.’” [NYT, Sept. 21, 2005]
Future historians will face the task of explaining how and why the world’s supreme nation of the late 20th Century – at the height of its power and affluence – put itself into this fix. Why were the reins of national power turned over to a man who possessed so few qualifications for the job? [For my perspective on how it happened, see Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
But the more immediate question for Americans now is what to do next. Should the nation drift for three-plus years while Bush and his allies continue their strategy of consolidating political power (in large part by installing likeminded individuals in the federal judiciary)? Or should the country begin, as best it can, demanding accountability?
For the second option to be viable, however, a number of changes would be necessary.
1. Bush’s critics must finally take seriously the need to build a media infrastructure that can explain to a broad cross-section of the American people why they should strip the Republicans of control of Congress in 2006. While progressive talk radio and liberal Internet bloggers have advanced this process, more resources would be needed if the nation’s current media imbalance, heavily tilted to the Right, is to be corrected.
2. The Democrats must lay out a national vision for Election 2006 that is based on the principle of public accountability, not just a potpourri of issues aimed at finessing their way to incremental gains. The Democrats would need to make clear that they want a decisive congressional majority so they can investigate the Bush administration – and act on whatever wrongdoing is discovered.
3. The part of the American electorate that is outraged by Bush’s actions over the past five years must get engaged in the political process and show both consistency and toughness. If the nation’s future is indeed at stake, then the intensity of the political participation must match the importance of the goals.
Even with these steps, the task of holding the Bush administration accountable would be daunting. The conventional wisdom may well be right, that the idea of impeaching Bush and Cheney is simply unrealistic.
After all, the Right possesses a huge media infrastructure built over the past three decades and now rivaling the mainstream (or corporate) media in political influence. Despite some recent cracks, the Republicans have long demonstrated a lock-step discipline, especially when the party’s institutional power is threatened. Much of Bush’s base also remains intensely loyal, with some viewing him as a messenger from God.
But the stakes are high as well for the majority of Americans who disapprove of Bush’s performance in office. One only need consider what might have been if all the legally cast votes in Florida were counted in 2000 and Al Gore became president. [For details on the election results, see Consortiumnews.com’s “So Bush Did Steal the White House.”]
Gore was a leading advocate in the fight against global warming and for alternative energy sources; he was an experienced hand on the dangers of international terrorism and a supporter of multilateral strategies to address international problems; he played a key role in using technology to streamline government and to create new economic opportunities; he was part of an administration that was running surpluses so large that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan fretted about problems that might arise from paying off the entire federal debt.
Despite the shortcomings of Gore’s campaign and the goofiness of the U.S. news media’s coverage, the American voters did choose Gore over Bush both nationally and in the swing state of Florida. The reversal of that outcome put the nation on its present course.
In contrast to Gore, Bush disputed the science on global warming and rejected the Kyoto Treaty; he ignored warnings about an imminent attack on the U.S. mainland from al-Qaeda terrorists; he chose unilateralism over multilateralism in asserting U.S. supremacy; he placed political loyalists in key government jobs; he advocated major tax cuts even if they would balloon the federal debt; he pushed for a faith-based approach to problems.
In the past few months, some of the consequences of Election 2000 have become painfully apparent. One after another, catastrophes have swept across America’s political landscape. The question now before the nation is whether it will shed the old paradigm of normalcy and act with urgency and creativity.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It’s also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth.’