Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Credibility: The Speech

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson threw in the towel his presidency, that had produced landmark Civil Rights and Anti-Poverty legislation, shattered by a misbegotten war that cost 58,226 young American lives. We still haven’t fully recovered from it, the 2000 lb. guerrilla in our national room. In the end Johnson’s biggest problem was that he had lost credibility with the public. After years of being told that, despite its cost, we were on the way to victory, we simply didn’t believe him. Nixon, it is said, lost his presidency because of a cover-up, not because of a crime. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s clear that his words had also lost credibility. We didn’t believe him. Nothing is more devastating for a leader, nothing more unnerving for a citizen. Our lives are in the hands of a president. When we don’t agree with his policies, that’s OK. Democracies for better or worse are subject to partisan dispute, frustrating, but acceptable. When we don’t believe what he says, the line has been crossed.

In the end, this is George W. Bush’s problem. We went to war rationalized by two lies. The first faded away for lack of evidence. The second is still with us. No one can deny the brutality of terrorist acts, nor their real threat to all of our well being. There is also no question that they are increasingly being used in Iraq much as they have been tools of the tragic Intifada. But terrorism is not the thing, but the modality, a distinction that too few of us are making these days. It is both simplistic and inaccurate to gloss over the insurrection in Iraq as terrorism and part of our war on it. One of the bad habits of the Bush administration is to make contentions as if they were fact. A military analyst assessing the President’s latest address for PBS, suggested that the foreign fighters who the speech implied were the primary enemy in Iraq may in fact represent only 5% of the combatants. That may or may not be the case, but the fact is I simply don’t believe George Bush. It’s not that I disagree with him (which I do), but that he has no credibility.

I don’t know about you, but hearing 9/11 (now a combination of brand and a code-word) weave in and out of speeches in such a manipulative way is getting a little sickening. No one who lives in New York has to be convinced of the horror of that day but nothing is more repulsive than hearing it being used as a rhetorical device to justify every controversial foreign policy action of this administration. I can live with the argument that we can’t just cut and run when we’ve mucked up a country and served as a catalyst for such destruction, such misery (even if there are places in Iraq that remain relatively tranquil). What I can’t buy into is doing it under some false premise, some blatant lack of candor justified time and again by 9/11. The fact that Bush and his people are incapable of admitting and mistakes and of taking responsibility for their actions makes it all the worse.

One more thing. The last thing I would want to see is more terrorist actions in my city or my country. In that everyone “red and blue” can agree. That said, there is something very disturbing about hearing over and over again from the President, his Secretary of State and others that we’re fighting there so we don’t have to fight here. The implicit message that sends is it’s OK for the people over there, not the combatants but the innocent caught in the crossfire, to die as our surrogates. There is something perverse in such an idea, as is the call for raising the flag and calling someone else’s kids to arms, but not our kids. I don’t think anyone in the next Bush family generation is in uniform. They don’t take responsibility, and they want to make us feel grateful, to take comfort, that others are suffering rather than the homeland. That makes me angry and frustrated but perhaps worse of all it makes me terribly sad.

Post Script: More on Gitmo from the President and Secretary of Defense. Not only does it serve great food, it's a modern facility situated in an inviting warm climate. Some kind of Marriott resort, I guess.

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