Dec 27, 2003 1:43 am


Here's Gene Lyons's column for the week:

Advice to Bush: Quit While You're Ahead

Shortly before 9/11, a worldly-wise philospher on the seacoast of Maine made me a prediction."Remember where you heard it," he said."George W. Bush will never run for a second term. He'll resign the presidency. It's his life story: his father's friends get him a job he doesn't deserve, he screws it up, somebody else takes the blame, he quits, then father's friends buy him a bigger job he doesn't deserve and he does it all over again."

It's true the man has always failed upward. Bush even messed up his cushiest job ever, as Texas Rangers'"owner." In reality, he was like a glorified Wal-Mart greeter, a minority shareholder playing tycoon in the box seats. Even so, he had a role in the worst trade of the 1990s, sending Sammy Sosa to Chicago for the equivalent of $49.95 and a litter of kittens. As a happy Cubs fan, perhaps I should show more gratitude.

The obvious problem with predicting his resignation, however, is that there are no bigger jobs for sale than President of the United States. Bush couldn't quit without admitting abject failure. Unlike Lyndon Baines Johnson, the last Texan in the White House, there's no indication he's got the intestinal fortitude. So I rang up my Down East friend to see if he'd revised the forecast. Returning my call after a hard day of tending his lobster pots, he was even more emphatic.

"Read any newspapers lately?" he asked."He'll cut and run."

I remain dubious. Still, it's good Bush doesn't read newspapers or watch TV news, as he told FoxNews recently, instead relying upon briefings by his trusty aides. The evidence of his failures is all over the front page. Even as the jobless economic recovery continued, consumer confidence dropped and the stock market declined. Poverty levels have risen sharply on Bush's watch; Americans are losing health insurance in record numbers. Polls show near majorities agreeing that Bush is"in over his head."

But it's fallout from Bush's excellent adventure in Iraq that's causing him the most trouble. Months after he swaggered across an aircraft carrier under a banner reading"Mission Accomplished," Americans continue to kill and die there. Meanwhile, the adminstration can't keep its story straight. For months, the White House insisted that a forthcoming report by U.S. arms inspector David Kay would unearth Saddam Hussein's vaunted weapons of mass destruction. Now they say it may never be released.

Australian journalist John Pilger found a videotape of Secretary of State Colin Powell telling diplomats in Cairo in early 2001 that the U.S. had Saddam in a box:"He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction," Powell said."He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors."

Without explaining how a country powerless to menace Jordan posed a threat to the U.S., Bush and Powell alibied that 9/11 had changed the equation. Except that Bush had recently admitted that"we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with Sept. 11." Made after a blustering performance on"Meet the Press" by Vice President Cheney, the belated confession must have come as news to the reported 69 percent of Americans who'd been encouraged to think Saddam bore personal responsibility. Indeed, Bush's March 18, 2003 letter to Congress justifying war stipulated that Iraq was among"those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

With Americans still reeling from the $87 billion price tag to pay Bush and Cheney's pals at Halliburton and Bechtel to rebuild Iraq, the president's speech at the United Nations was received coldly. Calling people ingrates and cowards, then asking them to risk lives and treasure cleaning up the mess you've made is generally a poor marketing strategy.

Meanwhile, bureaucratic warfare has broken out all over Washington. The House Intelligence Committee rebuked CIA director George Tenet for his agency's role in touting Iraq's non-existent WMDs. The Defense Intelligence Agency faulted the Pentagon's--i.e. Rumsfeld and Cheney's--credulous reliance upon imaginary"intelligence" from defectors affiliated with Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.

But the story that has Washington journalists all worked up is what some see as Tenet's revenge: the CIA's insistence upon a criminal investigation to determine which White House operatives fingered Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife Valerie Plame as a spy to columnist Robert Novak. The proverbial"senior administration official" told the Washington Post it was done"purely and simply for revenge" over Wilson's role in exposing the administration's phony claim that Iraq sought to buy African uranium. At least six other journalists were also told.

Which means two things: first, the leak was calculated and deliberate; second, scores of media insiders already know the leaker's identity, and suspect that the scandal may reach very close to the top.

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