Monday, February 16, 2004

Why AWOL matters

A lot of people -- conservatives especially, who are eager to talk about anything other than George W. Bush's military record, but liberals too, who would rather we could talk about important things like the Valerie Plame affair, -- are wondering what's the big deal with "the AWOL question."

After all, they reason, it was thirty years ago, right? Hasn't the statute of limitations on political stupidity, as Peggy Noonan recently put it, expired for Bush?

The problem, however, isn't George W. Bush's behavior in 1972. It is his behavior, and that of his administration and his campaign officials, in the very recent past that is at issue here.

Because the AWOL matter, first of all, demonstrates clearly that Bush has been lying to the American public about his behavior then, in an attempt to cover it up; and secondarily, in an extension of the first behavior, his military records appear to have been tampered with. The latter, we hardly need remind the critics, is a violation of federal law.

At the same time, the 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.

That style of governing goes out the window when the "duty and honor" guy turns out to have disobeyed orders, violated his oath and kissed off his duty by skipping his physical and unilaterally taking off for Alabama (where it seems increasingly unlikely he even put in any time). It crumbles when the people currently running the administration evade and attack rather than answer simple questions, and others baldfacedly lie in trying to maintain the facade. This is behavior that is quite current. And as Atrios points out, it is increasingly apparent that Bush's files were indeed "scrubbed" for public consumption.

AWOL matters because it reveals how this administration not only has no respect for the truth, but it lies -- repeatedly, without conscience, and so far without consequence.

The AWOL matter is only the first consequence. Once it has become clear that the president's credibility deservedly is nearly nonexistent, then a number of other issues -- Plame, the economy, the environment -- come into much clearer focus.

Before Bush's critics walk, they have to take those first steps first.

[Juan Cole has some further thoughts.]

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