Introduction: Behind the Desk
On the weekend before Election Night 2000, Saturday Night Live opened its weekly broadcast with a remarkable skit -- remarkable, mostly, for its eerie prescience. Don Pardo explained to the audience, SNL hoped to provide "A Glimpse of our Possible Future":
- Announcer: And now a Message From the President of the United States: George W. Bush.
[open on the Oval Office -- beer cans on desk, socks hung on the lamp, a barbecue grill burning on his desk ]
Voice of Advisor: Mr. President, get out there!
President George W. Bush [played by Will Ferrell]: [from under his desk ] No! No, you can't make me! You're gonna yell at me again!
Voice of Advisor: Mr. President!
President George W. Bush: [peeks out from under his desk] No! I don't want to go out, it's too hard!
Voice of Advisor: You're on, Sir!
President George W. Bush: Awww ... [jumps up and takes his seat] Hey, America! So, how we all doing out there, huh? Yeah, not so good. I broke the Hoover Dam. We had that war thing happen. But I mean, who ever heard of a Civil War, anyway? What is that? [grabs a pair of binoculars, unscrews the lens, then pours alcohol from it into his mouth] I have missed you, ol' buddy! [ pours it into his barbecue grill ] Whoo! I think we can agree, Americans, that these have been a difficult first two years of my presidency..
Voice of Advisor: You've been President for two weeks!
President George W. Bush: Really? Oh, man! I told you, this is hard! Okay, listen. I'm just gonna get this Address thing over with. As we assess the State of the American Union today, we have reason to hope, because ... [ takes out a map which shows California and Florida as islands, Texas in Communist Mexico, and the Great Lakes on fire ] Holy crap! When did all this happen?! Wow ... the Great Lakes are on fire -- even I know that's not good. [ laughs ] Okay, America, we got a lot of problems. I ain't gonna lie to you. But with the help of Vice-President Dick Cheney..
Voice of Advisor: You killed him in a hunting accident!
George W. Bush: Okay, fine! Not a problem. 'Cause I've been working hard, I got a plan that's gonna solve all of it -- from the deficit, to foreign relations, to that hole in the sun. Two words, America: Ostrich Meat.
Voice of Advisor: [ disgusted ] Oh, come on! [ exits Oval Office ]
President George W. Bush: No, no, wait, wait! Hear me out. You see, everyone gets an ostrich, and then you eat the ostrich, then you raise the ostrich. That way, no more ostriches! We are trying to get rid of all the ostriches, right? Anyone? [ ball of fire erupts outside ] Aw, screw! That big tit building is on fire again -- damn! Alright, sorry, folks ... I gotta take care of this ... [ stands up ] Come on, Blue! Here, boy! [ an ostrich ambles forward ] You all go on ahead without me. And, in the meantime, "Live, from New York, it's Saturday Night!"
Americans will be forgiven if, on reviewing that particular tape, they do not laugh. Barring its comic exaggerations, the skit's portrait of America under George W. Bush's rule has only differed in degree from the reality that has come to pass in the ensuing years:
-- A nation under attack from international and domestic terrorists, the threat of whom went blithely ignored by Bush, who was too eager to build a missile-defense system, and too eager to dismiss his predecessor's anti-terrorism work, to be bothered with the dire warnings that crossed his desk in the months and weeks before the attack.
Indeed, had the skit shown the Pentagon (rather than the Capitol) in flames and Bush hiding behind a desk, calling for his aides to get him aboard Air Force One on a flight to Nebraska … it would have been even more prophetic -- not to mention that it also would have been more accurate than the "official" version proffered by White House propagandists recently. (We'll discuss Bush's actions on Sept. 11 and afterward in detail later.)
-- An economy that has transformed, in the space of three short years, from the most robust in American history to one of the worst since the Depression, fueled in no small part by a federal budget that has gone from a historic surplus to record-breaking deficits. From an all-time low 3.9 percent unemployment, we have almost overnight created 9 million jobless Americans, sending the unemployment rate soaring to 6.4 percent by July 2003.
Bush's answer? No, not "ostrich meat," though it might as well be. Instead, the nation has been treated to the unending mantra: "Tax cuts for the rich." In fact, ostrich meat would have the distinct advantage of not actually deepening and prolonging the budget deficit and, by extension, the nation's economic malaise.
-- We have invaded a sovereign nation under false pretenses -- the most notable being that the war in Iraq is somehow an extension of the "war on terrorism", or a response to the attacks of Sept. 11, though the Bush administration's claims of an imminent threat posed by Iraq's supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction has proved the most damningly false. In the process, we have frittered away the widespread international sympathy and good will that followed Sept. 11, and have displaced it with widespread fear and loathing. Most notably, we have inflamed and deepened the radicalization of the Muslims world, where the hatred that inspired the attacks burns even brighter now.
The purpose of this war was not, as the administration sold it, part of the "war on terrorism"; nor was it, as some critics argue, about oil or electoral politics (though these factors undoubtedly enhanced the strategy). It was about establishing global American hegemony, or as the neo-conservatives who dreamed it put it, a "new American century." The formal name of this policy is the "Bush Doctrine," though what it really represents is a radical change in American foreign policy, a rejection of the diplomatic model built up through years of Cold War battles. And it was forced upon the nation by a president who lacked any kind of popular mandate (indeed, he had failed even to win the popular vote in the 2000 election) outside of the exigencies of Sept. 11, which the Bush administration gleefully wielded as a club for denouncing Democrats who questioned his actions.
The nation's reward for all this is a military caught up in a quagmire in Iraq that leaves them sitting ducks in a rapidly deteriorating and hostile environment. Whatever "exit strategy" the Bush administration may have had for departing Iraq was built on a fantasy of well-hailed conquering heroes whose sources turned out to be as reliable as the claims of nuclear capabilities. And of course, American taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill for this misadventure, to the tune of (at least) $87 billion -- while Bush's plans for a $100-billion plus tax cut for the rich remain intact.
-- Not only have we failed to capitalize on any of the opportunities presented by the attacks of Sept. 11, we have failed to address any of the serious challenges raised by the event. Instead of forging the kind of international unity that clearly is the only effective long-term response to terrorism, Bush's unilateralist arrogance has isolated the United States in the world community and made the environment for cultivating terrorism even more volatile. And at home, instead of leading the nation in making the kinds of real sacrifices that would reflect a thoughtful response to terrorism, he has proceeded as though the only costs Americans should expect to shoulder in the "War on Terror" are mounting national debts and the lives of our soldiers.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Bush's abysmal failure to mount a serious energy campaign that would reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil sources, particularly those in the Middle East. Bush's entire program in this direction has been to pus for opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge -- whose total resources would do little more than dent foreign demand for a few short years, none of them soon. In the meantime, Bush has done nothing to genuinely encourage alternative energy sources, and contravened efforts to reduce American consumption of oil, rising by the tankful as SUVs increasingly crowd the freeways. And what energy policy he has put forth has only contributed to the nation's problems, including last summer's massive power blackouts.
-- Not only have efforts to improve environmental values in America come to a screeching halt, but the quality of both the American and the global environment has been quantifiably degraded -- and the nation's ability to slow the long-term degradation of both has been significantly harmed. Bush's handling of the ANWR -- which typifies both his overt willingness to sacrifice our national treasures for a quick buck, and his gleeful exploitation of the Sept. 11 attacks in pursuit of his own agenda -- was only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The litany of the Bush administration's attacks on the environment is both exhaustive and damning.
Perhaps the action -- or rather, inaction -- that most typifies Bush's disastrous approach to the environment has been his handling of the global-warming phenomenon. After spending most of his campaign and the first two years of his Oval Office tenure denying that the problem even existed (a la Rush Limbaugh's typically hallucinatory assertions), the administration did a stark about-face and admitted that global warming indeed is real. However, the Environmental Protection Agency's report said that -- even though the phenomenon is certain to destroy many of the nation's natural resources, particularly forested areas, alpine lakes, glaciers and wetlands -- no serious steps were warranted outside of "voluntary" efforts by corporations to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, and typified those looming disasters as requiring mere "adjustments" on the part of Americans. A couple of days later, Bush dismissed the report as the work of "the bureaucracy."
-- Americans' civil rights have come under steady attack, both from the Justice Department in its post-Sept. 11 response to terrorism, and from the White House's legal broadsides against a number of key components of the nation's system of civil and minority rights. Again, the administration has openly exploited the Sept. 11 attacks to pursue this right-wing agenda. The notorious Patriot Act has come under substantial scrutiny in this regard, but of equal if not greater concern has been the White House's assertion of "enemy combatant" status for terrorism suspects, and its use of military tribunals for American citizens suspected of terrorist activity.
While Bush's assaults on affirmative action have also been well observed, what has gone largely unremarked is the extent to which the Bush White House has pursued a number of initiatives seemingly aimed at overturning many of the gains in civil rights made in American society since the turn of the last century -- from attempting to overturn the Miranda Warning to appointing judges who are openly hostile to the concept of privacy rights. At the same time, Bush has demonstrated the deepest contempt for Americans' free-speech rights by creating "First Amendment zones" that have forced critics of his administration into fenced-off areas far removed from his appearances -- while Bush himself has studiously ignored any of the voices of protest raised against his war policies.
-- As a consequence of all these disasters, the nation, rather than being more united, is now more divided than it has been at any time since the Vietnam War. Bush's self-description as "a uniter, not a divider" has turned out precisely to be an inversion of reality. A recent poll found that the nation remains deeply polarized, even more than it was before Sept. 11.
Instead of using the role handed him by the 2000 election -- recognizing that he lacked a mandate, and reaching out to his opponents by stressing moderation in his politics and compromise in his policies -- Bush has veered sharply to the right in nearly every facet of his administration. Instead of using the tragedy of the Sept. 11 attacks to bring the nation together in a healing process, Bush has chosen to exploit nearly every aspect of his agenda under the aegis of his "war on terror," and at the same time has demonized any political opponent who has questioned his policies as treasonous and "un-American," sympathizers with the "evildoers."
The record is unmistakable: George W. Bush's presidency has been an unmitigated disaster from nearly the day he took office, and it has compounded exponentially with every week the man occupies it. Even if he is defeated in 2004, Americans will be paying the price for his spectacularly misbegotten ascension to the nation's highest office at one of the most critical junctures in history for years, perhaps even generations, to come. Which makes the thought of him winning election for the first time, thereby handing him another four years in which to deepen the problems beyond the point of recovery, even more chilling.
Bush's tenure to date has comprised three of the most tumultuous and divisive in American history, and his responsibility for the chaos is inescapable. The image of Bush ducking under his desk while the Capitol burns behind him may have been funny in November 2000, but in November 2003, it is all too real.
Viewers may remember that in contrast, the same Saturday Night Live skit also showed "our possible future" under President Al Gore: A schoolmarmish Gore lecturing Americans on economics, while Bill Clinton wanders in and out of the picture. Annoying, tedious, boring.
If only we had been so lucky.
Next: Inauguration Day and Illegitmacy