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The Gist: Bush's Road Show
Improvised Presidential Device

When he realized that both his cause and Vietnam’s were lost, Lyndon Johnson had the good sense to retreat to the White House and wait out his term. He made the obligatory rounds of the speech circuit, but he gave up the road show. No more “We can turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley,” his words to Henry Graff in a New York Times Magazine piece from March 1966. In March 1968, Johnson’s approval rating was at 36 percent. His Vietnam policies had been murderous. His retreat was, in William Buckley’s words for America’s cluster-gag in Iraq these days, a necessary “acknowledgment of defeat.” It eked at least a watt or two of nobility out of his supernova-sized failure.

President Bush’s approval is at 36 percent according to the latest Gallup poll, the lowest point of his presidency. His disapproval rating is at 60 percent. No reflection necessary, no change of course. Certainly no retreat. Just a new road show. What was remarkable about his George Washington University episode on Monday (the first of three this week) wasn’t that it was scripted as just another evangelical schmooze around a continuing atrocity of his design; that was merely in character. But that, despite the carnage of the last few days in Iraq, he managed to be virtually celebratory of the fact that GI deaths from “improvised explosive devices” are down. “Our plan,” he said, as if mouthing off the mission statement of a middling company in Houston or narrating a Military Channel documentary, “has three elements: targeting, training, and technology.” He goes on, at astounding lengths, to describe the each element, each less relevant to Iraqis than the next, each revealing a focus of energy and care Iraqis wish had been lavished on their concerns in the last three years: “We are putting the best minds in America to work on this effort. The Department of Defense recently gathered some—gathered 600 leaders from industry and academia, the national laboratories, the National Academy of Sciences, all branches of the military, and every relevant government agency to discuss technology solutions to the IED threat. We now have nearly a hundred projects underway.” He not only does not retreat. He attacks with salvo after salvo of irrelevant sideshows.

Stars and Stripes, the American military’s daily, headlined the IED story, appropriately enough one guesses, for the sake of military families and their cannon fodder hoping for any sort of silver lining that might lessen their fears. The Stars & Stripes article also hinted at Bush’s facility with lies, even, and especially, about GIs’ safety. “An analysis by The Associated Press released Monday of U.S. forces killed in Iraq,” the paper reports five paragraphs below Bush’s claim, “showed IED casualties from the bombs are still increasing, despite better armor and tactics.” Several news sources have picked up on Bush’s homage to mythical IED-busters. None have pointed out the creepiness of the president’s little victory dance in camouflage even as Iraqis have been victimized by one of the bloodiest stretches of war since the early weeks of the invasion. The juxtaposition deepens the gaping disconnect between Bush’s perceptions and the realities his willful blinders enable, but also between his rhetorical bravado and his utter inability to grasp the catastrophic dimensions of his war in human terms. Bodies litter the streets of Baghdad; he talks IED busting. And looks forward to the next stop in the road show.

—Pierre Tristam

 

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