Saturday, May 13, 2006

The question of character

Remember how, when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore back in 2000, we kept hearing about his superior "character" -- emphasized constantly by references to his supposed religiosity -- as such a refreshing contrast from the Bill Clinton years?

Well, now the worm has turned:
In a new poll comparing President Bush's job performance with that of his predecessor, a strong majority of respondents said President Clinton outperformed Bush on a host of issues.

... Respondents favored Clinton by greater than 2-to-1 margins when asked who did a better job at handling the economy (63 percent Clinton, 26 percent Bush) and solving the problems of ordinary Americans (62 percent Clinton, 25 percent Bush).

On foreign affairs, the margin was 56 percent to 32 percent in Clinton's favor; on taxes, it was 51 percent to 35 percent for Clinton; and on handling natural disasters, it was 51 percent to 30 percent, also favoring Clinton.

Moreover, 59 percent said Bush has done more to divide the country, while only 27 percent said Clinton had.

When asked which man was more honest as president, poll respondents were more evenly divided, with the numbers -- 46 percent Clinton to 41 percent Bush -- falling within the poll's margin of error.

It's too bad it's cost us the well-being of the nation and a growing mountain of bodies to discover that, perhaps, Bush's character wasn't all it was quacked up to be.

Especially since that was clear even before he was elected. And it has been manifest since the day he assumed office.

Back then, Gail Sheehy provided an insight that seems rather prophetic:
Even if he loses, his friends say, he doesn't lose. He'll just change the score, or change the rules, or make his opponent play until he can beat him. "If you were playing basketball and you were playing to 11 and he was down, you went to 15," says [Doug] Hannah, now a Dallas insurance executive. "If he wasn't winning, he would quit. He would just walk off.... It's what we called Bush Effort: If I don't like the game, I take my ball and go home. Very few people can get away with that."

The chief problem, as I observed at the time, is that no one in the press was willing to point out that the emperor had no character:
What has become painfully clear is that for no one in the Washington press corps do George W. Bush's absolute ruthlessness and his unwillingness to win or lose by the rules of the game raise a character question. Instead, they look at the guy, Al Gore, who has made abundantly clear his willingness to abide by the rules, to play fairly and squarely at every turn, and deride him for his wimpiness in comparison.

Then there was the "trifecta" joke, in which all of Bush's character flaws came rushing to the fore:
Most economists peg the source of these nagging deficits on Bush's tax-cut plan, the deepest portions of which loom ahead. The administration sternly denies this. Yet it's clear that while Sept. 11 may have deepened and broadened the budget-deficit problem, the administration was faced with chronic budget deficits no matter what.

And that gets to the heart of the "trifecta" joke, whose entire purpose clearly is to blame the deficit on Sept. 11 and its aftermath. Thus it lets Bush escape any serious questions about either his failure to balance the budget or, particularly, his campaign pledge to use the Social Security Trust Fund to pay down the national debt. The national tragedy gave him unparalleled political cover for his administration's failures -- and Bush, to no one's surprise, has displayed no hesitation whatsoever about using it. Indeed, it has become his favorite joke.

Never mind that it is perhaps the most tasteless and insensitive joke in the annals of the presidency, nor that it is ultimately a falsehood. What's really noteworthy about Tale of the Trifecta is that the in-your-face political opportunism it represents is not out of the ordinary for this administration.

Since Sept. 11, Bush and his Republican colleagues have at every turn used the threat of terrorist attacks as cover for the administration's difficulties:

-- Attorney General John Ashcroft attacked critics of his anti-terrorism measures in December by telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that opponents of the administration "only aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to America’s enemies."

-- When Democratic leaders in the Senate -- particularly Majority Leader Tom Daschle -- questioned Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism, they drew accusations of "aiding and abetting the enemy" and dark suggestions about the critics' patriotism.

-- When questions emerged in early May about what Bush and his advisers knew about terrorist threats before Sept. 11 and Democrats began pushing for an independent investigation, a series of warnings of yet more imminent terrorist attacks were issued from the administration. The criticism largely subsided.

-- Four days after proposing, amid skepticism, a Cabinet-level Homeland Security department, the administration announced the arrest of a man suspected of plotting with Al Qaeda agents to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb" in an American city. As it happens, the actual arrest had occurred a month before.

There have been other, less clear incidents suggesting a willingness to use Sept. 11 and its aftermath as not just a political shield, but a weapon. This probably should not be a surprise: after all, one need only recall Karl Rove’s instructions to the Republican National Committee last January to make the war on terrorism a political issue.

And, lest we forget, the question of Bush's character came clearly to the surface with his military-records questions, which raised red flags about his character both as a young man and as president:
[T]he gross character flaw that the AWOL matter reveals is also very much part of what we have gotten from this presidency. There is no sense of accountability to the public anywhere in this administration; if something goes wrong [Can you say, "Weapons of mass destruction?" I knew you could.] it places the blame elsewhere. It falsifies budget figures and misleads the public about the grotesque debt load its deficits are placing on future generations. And it distorts intelligence estimates so that it can convince the public to participate in a war it had planned even before winning election. It bullies its opponents, and traffics in the most transparent way in keeping the public in line by fanning its fears of terrorist attack.

This is a presidency sold to the public on the phony image of Bush as a man of superior character -- a straight shooter, a veteran, a man who understands and respects duty and honor. (This was meant to contrast with Bill Clinton and, by extension, Al Gore.) But as we have explored at length previously, Bush's family connections are not any source of superior character; and as the AWOL episode demonstrates rather starkly, his personal history gives no evidence of having developed it either.

This personal character of Bush's has been a cornerstone of his entire governing style. Should we go to war? Trust Bush -- he's a "good man." Economy's in the dumpster? "He's working hard to make things better." Wrecking the environment? "How can you impugn our motives?" Valerie Plame? "That's just politics."

This style gives way to the kind of arrogance that can dress Bush up in a flight suit and send him jetting out to the deck of an aircraft carrier, in way specifically designed to emphasize his own phonied-up service record, for the sake of a photo op prematurely announcing "Mission Accomplished." It's what lets Bush get away with posing for all the world as a veteran "war president" with a real respect for the suffering of average soldiers. And it's what lets him and his minions get away with impugning the motives and patriotism of the people who question his leadership.

In the intervening months years, the same flaw comes up time and again: Fumbling the Katrina disaster; flouting both the Geneva Conventions and American law by claiming the power to ignore them both at will; allowing oil and energy companies to run roughshod over consumers; handing out huge tax breaks to the wealthy while the budget deficits pile up; and most of all, invading a nation on false pretenses and then incompetently failing to either conceive or carry out an adequate occupation or withdrawal.

So it should be clear that character does indeed count. But it should also be clear that neither the mavens of the media nor the movement-conservative propagandists who sold the nation on Mr. Bush are any judges of it.

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