Friday, September 12, 2003

A question of character

I see that the matter of the Bush administration's crass exploitation of the Sept. 11 tragedy for political gain is starting gain some steam, as Paul Krugman observes in his latest column, "Exploiting the Atrocity":
In the first months after 9/11, the administration's ruthless exploitation of the atrocity was a choice, not a necessity. The natural instinct of the nation to rally around its leader in times of crisis had pushed Mr. Bush into the polling stratosphere, and his re-election seemed secure. He could have governed as the uniter he claimed to be, and would probably still be wildly popular.

But Mr. Bush's advisers were greedy; they saw 9/11 as an opportunity to get everything they wanted, from another round of tax cuts, to a major weakening of the Clean Air Act, to an invasion of Iraq. And so they wrapped as much as they could in the flag.

Now it has all gone wrong. The deficit is about to go above half a trillion dollars, the economy is still losing jobs, the triumph in Iraq has turned to dust and ashes, and Mr. Bush's poll numbers are at or below their pre-9/11 levels.

Apropos of these observations, I thought it might be time to resurrect a blast from the past. This is a piece I wrote for the Opinions page that was published June 27, 2002, and was up on the site for about a month. It since has vanished into the ether, so here it is:

Hitting the Trifecta

W's favorite joke about the Sept. 11 attacks has it all: It's in bad taste. It's a lie. And it shows how readily the administration uses national tragedy for political cover

By David Neiwert

Professional stand-up comedians know that Sept. 11 jokes are radioactive. Not even the bravest have tried to turn the deaths of some 3,000 people into a laughing matter.

But President Bush has forged ahead anyway. Bush has now been telling the same, spectacularly tasteless joke to a variety of mostly Republican audiences as part of his stock stump speech for the better part of four months now. This is its basic telling:
"You know, when I was running for President, in Chicago, somebody said, would you ever have deficit spending? I said, only if we were at war, or only if we had a recession, or only if we had a national emergency. Never did I dream we’d get the trifecta."

According to the transcripts, this joke usually elicits laughter from the mostly GOP crowds to whom Bush tells it.

So far, Bush has told the joke on the record at least 14 times. It originated, evidently, as an anecdote he told to business leaders Oct. 3, 2001, when he explained his three-part reasoning for going into deficit spending.

He appears to have added the "trifecta" joke for the first time before a group of visiting Republicans at the White House on Nov. 9, 2001. He pulled it out again for a huddle with congressional GOP leaders on Feb. 1, 2002. Since then, Bush apparently decided to make it part of his stump speech, beginning with a GOP luncheon on Feb. 27. The tellings have come more regularly, and have been largely at GOP fund-raising functions. The most recent appearance of the joke was June 14, at a reception for Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election campaign in Houston.

Bush appears to give "trifecta" a sort of rueful, ironic meaning. But therein also lies the morbid edge to the joke: After all, George W. Bush -- who in the weeks preceding the tragedy faced mounting questions about his ability as well as his legitimacy, all of which vanished afterward -- is possibly the only American for whom Sept. 11 was indeed a stroke of incredible good fortune.

However, the real problem with the joke is that it is a complete falsehood.

Bush never told any audience, or any reporter, in Chicago that he could foresee three conditions under which deficit spending might be necessary. In fact, throughout the entire campaign, Bush had been insistent that budget surpluses would continue, and only once does he appear to have told any public audience at any time that deficit spending might become necessary -- a Sept. 22, 2000 interview with Paula Zahn, in which he defended his tax cuts even in the face of a "short-term deficit." The only other times that Bush ever seems to have brought up the subject of deficit spending were those when he accused Al Gore of planning to resume the practice.

When reporters have sought the original remarks, the White House press office has been unable to come up with any evidence that Bush ever made the remarks that he claims. Jonathan Chait first pointed this out in the New Republic, and a number of other journalists have gone looking.

This has made for some uncomfortable moments for the administration’s defenders. Tim Russert, on Sunday’s Meet the Press, tried to confront OMB chief Mitch Daniels about it:
Russert: Now, we have checked everywhere and we’ve even called the White House as to when the president said that when he was campaigning in Chicago, and it didn’t happen. The closest he came was he was asked, "Would you give up part of your tax cut in order to ensure a balanced budget?" And he said, "No." But no one ever talked about a war, a recession and an emergency, the trifecta. … [It] was not talked about in the campaign by the president, and the White House keeps saying, "Oh, yes, he made that caveat." No one can find it.

Daniels demurred, declaring, "I’m not the White House librarian," but claimed that he had often heard Bush make those three reservations.

Bush's story, moreover, is fundamentally false as a purely chronological matter: Bush was already facing the certainty of deficit spending at the end of the summer of 2001, well before the attacks of Sept. 11. Some $4 trillion worth of budget surplus vanished over the spring and summer that year, and budget experts sounded the alarm about looming deficits then. The Congressional Budget Office warned Bush on Aug. 29 that Social Security funds would be needed to balance the books, forcing him to abandon a campaign promise not to use the retirement fund for other government spending.

Indeed, that is just what Bush proceeded to do in his actual budget, presented in January. According to the CBO, Bush’s budget plan would drain every dollar of the $527 billion surplus from the Social Security Trust Fund for the next two fiscal years even while creating a deficit. It would continue to raid the fund for varying amounts each year through 2012. Even with the fund’s help, the federal budget is expected to be in deficits through at least 2005.

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.

Perhaps because Republicans have been so open about turning Sept. 11 to their political advantage, they have created an environment in which a joke such as Bush’s "trifecta" quip seems nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, Bush keeps telling the joke even after it’s been pointed out, on national television, that he’s telling a falsehood.

In the face of that kind of chutzpah, no one inside the Beltway seems capable of pointing out that the emperor’s joke has no clothes. Given the GOP’s propensity for questioning others' patriotism, it probably isn’t politically smart for anyone working in the capital to point out that Bush might have seen a national disaster as a political jackpot. Problem is, it’s the president himself who insists on making that suggestion.


A note: Shortly after this column appeared, Bush dropped the joke from his stump speeches at the behest of "senior advisers," according to the Chicago Tribune's Jeff Zelezny, who reported on July 14:
So in recent days, some senior advisers have asked Bush to eliminate the Chicago line from the stump speech. They hope the move will quash the talk among Washington critics that Bush may be telling tall tales. One White House adviser said privately that the administration wants the label of exaggerated storyteller to remain precisely where it was in the last campaign — with Gore.

There is no small irony in this, since Al Gore, in fact, had told reporters during the campaign that he might consider deficit spending under those three conditions. [See Dana Milbank's July 2, 2002, report, "A Sound Bite So Good, the President Wishes He Had Said It," buried on Page A13.] Bush had in effect lifted the line from Gore, and then lied about it. Yet according to this same press corps, it was Al Gore, not George Bush, who had a "problem with the truth."

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