Column: Bush Whacked

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

It's getting harder to know if the chaps in charge of things are grounded in seriousness or merely possess an odd sense of humor, for increasingly it seems they're intent on running the country on the basis of preppie-Ivy League farces and pranks. (As we all know George W. showed up at Yale, Dick Cheney studied smugness at the same institution, and Donald Rumsfeld did advanced undergraduate work in looking stern at Princeton. I think I'll send my daughter to a state university, thank you very much.) I realize W. in particular has been emboldened by unexpected popularity--who woulda thunk it, especially the White House--but his"aw-shucks" politics are getting truly bizarre, even for the already bizarre world of politics.

11W. served up his latest knee-slapper at a White House breakfast for congressional leaders. He said--with that lovable, goofy innocence which only he and Mortimer Snerd can pull off--that"now is not the time to be playing politics, or using the debt ceiling as an excuse for some individual's cause" because"we're at war." He was referring to his recent request to extend the nation's credit-card limit by another $750 billion to $6.7 trillion. Of course this unfortunate necessity sprang from the administration's deliberate surplus-disappearance act which the media have deemed less deserving of critical coverage than a stain on some gold-digging intern's dress, but what the hell. We live in a brave and oblivious new world.

Naturally our prankster in chief made no mention of the frivolous politics he himself played last summer in punching through the very legislation that got us into this impecunious mess. But W. is out to show the rest of a benighted planet how the demagogic game of democracy can in fact be romping good fun--and it appears about 85 percent of his audience actually approves of being tricked, bamboozled, and hoodwinked. But after all, they're too busy plastering flag decals on their gas-guzzling SUVs in fits of patriotic orgasmic enthusiasm to notice the fiscal bullet that someday will part their scalps.

The aw-schucks admonition to Capitol Hill residents to check politics--and their brains--at the door came on the heels of other frolicsome executive branch behavior. Worried that the popularity of our rather selective war on terrorism might begin to wane among friends abroad, the administration decided the best course of action would be the same taken last year in guaranteeing fiscal suicide. It would, quite simply, disseminate lies. As head of the new impressively sounding Office of Strategic Influence, Air Force General Simon Worden's mission was to" coerce" overseas journalists into writing bogus Stars and Stripes-style articles and"punish" those who wouldn't play along. A built-in by-product of the planted propaganda would be that some would find its way into the American press for unsuspecting domestic consumption--a kind of brainwashing bonus, if you will.

The possibilities of official mirth-making were boundless, but party-poopers got in the way. Bordering on comic understatement, the New York Times noted on February 18 that" critics of the new Pentagon office ... argue that governments allied with the United States are likely to object strongly to any attempts by the American military to influence media within their borders." Furthermore, the fallout quickly took its toll at home. Said a Pentagon spokesman:"Every day now reporters ask me if I've lied to them." The only news there is that they're just now getting around to asking. If I covered the Pentagon I'd have the question preprinted on every page of my notepad.

Within days, of course, Rumsfeld closed the misbegotten Ministry of Propaganda. Not out of scruples, mind you, but only because it had"been so damaged that it is pretty clear ... it could not function effectively." Yet the obvious question remains: Does anyone honestly believe the Defense Department won't find other, less publicized ways to poison press reports?

The administration's scheme to feed military fictions to us lesser sorts was hardly out of character. Its penchant for disinformation and distortion has become legend in record time, and if W. is playing Mortimer Snerd with his aw-shucks politics, then sidekick Dick Cheney is playing the cynical, conniving Charlie McCarthy. Most notably the Vice POTUS persists in spreading the brazen falsehood that the General Accounting Office is demanding his energy task-force"notes," when it is merely after the list of whom he met with. (According to latest reports, the task force entertained the ideas of 158 energy firms and only 13 environmental groups.) No shame, no honesty, and not a dram of virtue. Cheney's wife, Lynne--that renowned watchdog of historical truth in textbooks--once characterized him as a"straight-shootin, straight-talkin sheriff." Care to dabble in a little revisionism yourself, Mrs. Cheney?

And then there's Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior, whose concept of calculation is as curious as Mitch Daniels's over at the Office of Management and Budget. Speaking recently of proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, she huckstered the fairy tale that its"impact will be limited to just 2,000 out of 1.9 million acres." What Norton omitted in her numbers were 1) the road acreage required to connect all those drilling rigs and 2) the ground acreage underneath all those oil pipes careening throughout the wilderness. As I previously commented about this crowd: Integrity, always integrity.

The tawdriness of Bush II's official dissimulation is hardly new in White House politics. Lyndon Johnson, for example, practiced the worst sort of deception in fostering the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and Richard Nixon along with a closely knit group of aides spent a good deal of his second term piling lie on top of lie. What distinguishes this administration, however, is that its fabrications and falsehoods are pervasively systemic. From the Oval Office to the secreted recesses of the vice presidency to the departments of Defense and Interior and on to Health and Human Resources and Justice (where plenty more tales of deceit abound), the executive branch conducts itself not only with an air of privileged preppiedom, but with a firm inclination toward manifest and at times laughable lies--even when the simple truth would be far more effective. There's a deep-seated pathology at work that goes beyond your garden-variety hypocrisy and double-talk. If left unchecked, it will do more harm to the body politic than any external enemy ever could.

© Copyright 2001 P. M. Carpenter

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Sr. Mary Elizabeth CHS - 3/8/2002

The really frightening thing to me about the creation of a government department to spread 'disinformation' is that it seems only one symptom among many of an appalling preference for the easy and superficial rather than the messy and real. Surely there is something similar going on in the corporate world, not only at Enron but at many other companies as well, to judge by the way major accounting firms are reacting. Charges of plagerism among historians, the posting of ads for 'help in thesis or term paper writing' near (and perhaps on the grounds of) major universities, point to slippery ethics not only among professionals but among the young people who should be learning to seek and value truth, not merely to harvest good grades. Can any of the people involved in these or other maneuvers find real joy in their activiites? As a graduate student, first under Julius Pratt at Buffalo, then under William Hutchinson, Avery Craven, Daniel Boorstin and others at the University of Chicago, I was excited by the search for facts and then for the leap of understanding that could take place in the face of incomplete and messy but real evidence. To put this together in a way that conveyed something of that reality to others was hard work, often dull or even boring as is any job of any kind, but well worth the effort. As a teacher since then, I have done no historical research and published nothing. Now in retirement I am finding the same excitement (and dull, boring moments) in putting together my community's archives and beginning to find within that material the makings of at at least one article of value. I seem to know a lot more about taking notes, writing and footnoting than some professional writers, and I guarantee none of them can have more fun at their work than I'm now having at mine.

jerfees - 3/5/2002

I sit here in awed amazement. I wondered when and if we would get around to talking some straight truth in this country. Say hello to the FBI when they show up at your door for writing and publishing this masterpiece. This column hits me like the return of a long lost son. Welcome back reality! Welcome back truth!