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POTUS in the Well


Last night he performed a duty required by the Constitution, addressing the State of the Union in remarks to Congress—as the Washington Post tells us “probably” for the last time (perhaps the Post knows something about his intentions it should be sharing with its readership). Presidents before him used the occasion to inspire and provide a vision for the future. But for Bush, it was an opportunity to revisit the false messages of the past, to cajole and to incite fear. It wasn’t bad as the summing up for a miserably failed presidency that the American public now earnestly wishes gone and forgotten. The months are ticking down until it is gone. That will happen soon enough. But Americans will live in its wreckage for many years to come. The New York Times delivers an excellent summation:

Monday night, after six years of promises unkept or insincerely made and blunders of historic proportions, the United States is now fighting two wars, the economy is veering toward recession and the civilized world still faces horrifying dangers — and it has far less sympathy and respect for the United States.

The nation is splintered over the war in Iraq, cleaved by ruthless partisan politics, bubbling with economic fear and mired in debate over virtually all of the issues Mr. Bush faced in 2002. And the best Mr. Bush could offer was a call to individual empowerment — a noble idea, but in Mr. Bush’s hands just another excuse to abdicate government responsibility.

But even more revealing is the relationship between the trinity of our government that sat assembled in the stately chamber of the House of Representatives last night. In the well stood POTUS, a man of decidedly modest abilities crazed by power, convinced of the rectitude and clarity of his own vision. “A Challenge to Keep,” he quoted himself, referencing the painting that hangs in his office, by W.H.D. Koener–but alas, whereas he sees in it the story of a Methodist minister riding circuit, in fact it’s a Saturday Evening Post illustration to a story about a horse thief.

Immediately behind him sat Dick Cheney, the Shogun, the real power in Washington’s shadows, whose manipulations have kept Bush surrounded by weak advisors and far from the voice of the people. In the banks to his right, the justices of the Supreme Court, led by Roberts and Alito, the image of a new judiciary which is in fact precisely the monster the Bushies have steadily attacked: a political judiciary, intent on upholding the political vision of the movement conservatives at the expense of justice and a fair reading of the law. They, and the hundreds of “loyal Bushie” federal judges confirmed by the Senate over the last seven years will be Bush’s legacy, long after his departure.

And then the Legislative Branch before him. Bush came to Washington telling the nation he was a “uniter, not a divider.” But in fact he has been a more divisive president than any in the last hundred years, far exceeding the toll and wreckage of his closest rival, Richard Nixon. In speeches on the campaign trail in 2000, Bush outlined how he had worked with the Texas legislature to build consensus and to move towards sensible policies. But the Bush who arrived in Washington, with Karl Rove at his side, was a “my way or the highway” leader, who spurned dialogue, compromise and reason, and who pouted like a spoiled child when he didn’t get exactly what he wanted.

As the California Republican Dana Rohrabacher put it in an interview last week with Congressional Quarterly, “I am a Republican, and at times I am embarrassed by the lack of cooperation that this president and his appointees have had with the legislative branch. There is a seething resentment by members of Congress who are Republicans by the fact that this administration has not even cooperated with us, much less with . . . members of some other party.”

Bush spurns the tools of a democracy—building consensus through dialogue and reason. Instead he favors the tools of tyranny—governance through fear and intimidation, laced with a strong reserve of hypocrisy. Those tools glistened repeatedly as Bush plowed through his speech.

The people’s trust in their Government is undermined by congressional earmarks — special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute, without discussion or debate.

A well-aimed attack pointing to an imminent threat. And how sincere is this? The truth is that under a Republican president and a Republican Congress, pork barrel politics exploded, and deficit spending has reached unprecedented levels. The truth is that Bush himself is a great aficionado of the pork barrel. As the Center for American Progress notes:

In 2007, Bush stuffed approximately 580 earmarks worth $15.6 billion into his appropriation request for military construction and veterans affairs. Bush’s earmarks included $24 million for the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program and “$8.9 million for the Points of Light foundation, a pet project started by his father, former President George H.W. Bush.”

But if Bush’s address offered a single, unifying vision last night, then it was taken straight from the nightmarish future described by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-four. It was a future driven by a massive private-public partnership focused on surveillance on the citizenry, invading every remaining trace of privacy and quiet. A government run wild in its snooping and meddling. And all of this has been and will in the future be justified by invoking the mantra “terrorism.” He said:

The Congress must pass liability protection for companies believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend America. We have had ample time for debate. The time to act is now.

Note the strange language: “Believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend America.” As I understand it, his advisors have discouraged him from admitting that the telecoms actually worked hand-in-glove with the National Security Agency to engage in surveillance of millions of Americans, because this would be cited in pending lawsuits around the country against the telecoms. Isn’t it telling that Bush’s highest priority now is not national security or the safety of American citizens, but shielding telecommunications companies from liability for their past criminal conduct? As Leo X sold indulgences to the masses in order to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s, so Bush peddles immunity to his corporate sponsors who work tirelessly with him in the consecration of a new imperial presidency, no longer accountable to law. Criminality must be rewarded, Bush reasons, and he calls on Congress to do it, and in so doing, to make a mockery of its Constitutional role as definer and protector of the law.

One of the most important tools we can give them is the ability to monitor terrorist communications. To protect America, we need to know who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning. Last year, the Congress passed legislation to help us do that. Unfortunately, the Congress set the legislation to expire on February 1. This means that if you do not act by Friday, our ability to track terrorist threats would be weakened and our citizens will be in greater danger. The Congress must ensure the flow of vital intelligence is not disrupted.

And then he pulled from his tool box the squeeze play. This is an exercise in fear-mongering of the purest, vilest sort. Yesterday, the forces dedicated to the protection of the Constitution and our tradition of civil liberties scored two significant victories in the Senate, as a Republican-sponsored effort to filibuster the extension of the Protecting America Act failed. So did the measure that the Democratic leadership put forth, a simple extension of the old act. That measure failed, I regret to note, not because of opposition to the unchecked powers it accords to the Executive Branch, but because the president and his party opposed it—insisting that no measure could be accepted unless it offered the Holy Grail of telecom immunity. The Protecting America Act expires on February 1. Bush has thus set up a classic squeeze play through which he hopes to achieve what he wants for his telecom buddies and which he recognizes he could not obtain without some fancy trickery. Yesterday, calls flooded the Congress at the rate of thousands per hour, and they demanded almost without exception that senators oppose telecom immunity.

Without popular support, and without reason or even cogent arguments which could sustain his position, Bush turns to his most trusted technique: fear-mongering. If Congress doesn’t give me just what I want, then Congress will be responsible for whatever attacks befall the country, he reasons. It’s time at length for Bush’s tactics to be understood for the shameless bullying they are. It’s time for Congress to reject them and demonstrate a bit of backbone.

And let’s not lose track of the challenge put to Bush by Harry Reid and his response. What did Bush, the torture president, have to say about the practice of torture which has so badly degraded the safety of Americans? Not a word. But his former national security tsar, John Negroponte, stepped up to the plate in his stead. In an interview with National Journal, Negroponte acknowledged that the Bush Administration’s palette of torture techniques in fact included waterboarding, and it was used. He says that at some point in the past the Bush Administration discontinued using it. But notwithstanding this, Bush and his cronies adhere to waterboarding the way the Spanish Inquisition adhered to the rack. They just can’t give it up. And this explains why Attorney General Mukasey, when he appears tomorrow before the Senate Judiciary Committee, won’t be able to answer any of their questions about torture.

No, history will know George W. Bush by one moniker above all others. He is the “torture president.” And yesterday he stood not in the well of the House, but at the bottom of a well, indifferent to the concerns of his countrymen and the world, oblivious to a nation’s best traditions, intent on bringing everyone down to his level. But the water is rising.

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