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It was almost that comical, but for the consequences

The Grimmest Generation
Bush Co-Hosts D.C. With Osama

“I never read the proclamations of generals before battle,” George Orwell wrote in 1941, “the speeches of fuehrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.” The season of raspberries has replaced the season of hurricanes: George Bush is making speeches on his terror war, a fetish for fear and panic as lurid as the media’s debauch over Katie Couric’s debut on the CBS Evening News, with a couple of noteworthy differences. Couric is more believable than Bush. And Couric’s influence on the United States is about as significant as the baritone pitch of David Hasselhoff’s burps during a Verdi opera. If she were to declare one day that she no longer believes in the war on terror, the way her forebear Walter Cronkite once declared that he no longer believed in the Vietnam War, she might at best garner a joke or two from a very late show host.

If only it were so with Bush, who for the next two years still has The Button at his command. And he still commands the fealty of a press corps that transcribes his words unchallenged, as if they were new commandments from Mt. Sinai. Unlike 2002 and 2004, the minnows aren’t biting. He was at Washington’s Capital Hill Hotel on Tuesday, lobbing verbal shells at Iran, conflating al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq, declaring himself the world’s savior if not lord, and getting interrupted twenty-three times by applause, the audience having been, as per the usual protocol, carefully culled from the ranks of donors richest in lucre and debasement and—from the scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours department—fresh procurement contracts. He had at his side Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for obvious reasons: his speech was torture on all ears, his attorney general was needed to justify it and call “quaint” those who would dare disagree.

But like Couric in this regard, Bush’s relevance has waned. Couric is a pretty face on network TV. Bush is a goon in camouflage. His trust is in shards like so much broken glass on an Iraqi street after the afternoon suicide bombing. He’s replaying the speeches that worked so well for him in 2002 and 2004, jacking up the frights and the threat levels, but with a desperation too blatant not to pity. In his Washington speech on Wednesday He mentioned or quoted bin Laden seventeen times—seventeen times!—suggesting to some extent how much he misses his old speechwriter, Michael Gerson, a Bible fetishist-cum-verse-dropper in his own right. Lacking for wrath and Leviticus, there’s always Osama.

But it’s much worse than that. Bush misses Osama. His infatuation has reached stalking proportions (minus the actual stalking). He went at it full blast in an address that lasted 44 minutes, borrowing saying after saying from Osama in a performance astounding for its obvious paradox: left without words, ideas, means or solutions of his own, Bush is reverting to giving his “enemy” the stage at his own show. Bush can no longer conjure up the fear he could rely on. He can always conjure up Osama. Has there ever been a presidential performance so craven for its want of a boogey man? Yet for every ring of the alarm, the sound had the tinny quality of a backfire: “…hear the words of Osama bin Laden earlier this year: ‘Death is better than living on this Earth with the unbelievers among us.’” But isn’t that standard Wednesday evening fare at the corner Baptist church? “And they’re targeting America’s financial centers and economic infrastructure at home, hoping to terrorize us and cause our economy to collapse. Bin Laden calls this his ‘bleed-until-bankruptcy plan.’” Anyone who can spell “debt” and “tax cuts” calls it Republican economics. Bush again: “Bin Laden concludes from this experience that ‘ America is definitely a great power, with… unbelievable military strength and a vibrant economy, but all of these have been built on a very weak and hollow foundation.’ He went on to say, ‘Therefore, it is very easy to target the flimsy base and concentrate on their weak points, and even if we’re able to target one-tenth of these weak points, we will be able [to] crush and destroy them.” With Bush as an ally, bin Laden would be hard-pressed to fail. The United States has had no weaker point since that trio of Republican presidents, abetted by Chief Justice Taft’s corpulently corporate Supreme Court, hollowed out its foundations at Wall Street’s behest in the 1920s.

“… [A]long with this campaign of terror,” Bush went on, “the enemy has a propaganda strategy. Osama bin Laden laid out this strategy in a letter to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, that coalition forces uncovered in Afghanistan in 2002. In it, bin Laden says that al Qaeda intends to ‘[launch],’ in his words, ‘a media campaign… to create a wedge between the American people and their government.’” Now we know where Bush got the idea of launching a media campaign in Iraq to invent and plant stories in the Iraqi press that make the war look like a WPA plan on the Euphrates and use video outtakes of goons like Zarqawi “in an effort to turn Mr. Zarqawi's own propaganda against him by mocking him as an uninspiring poseur” (as the New York Times reported last May, not long before Zarqawi’s killing in a U.S. air strike). Anyway, Bush went on quoting Osama again and again, reaching for the old turban’s words as if it’s the closest he has ever managed to get to the man in five years. Which, of course, is exactly true. Bush is down to having a pissing contest with bin Laden before the world and calling it his resolve: “Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?”

The comparison to Stalin and Hitler is key to making the desperation stick. But it only worsens the analogy. Stalin and Hitler had some of the world’s most powerful economies and arsenals behind them. Osama has a cave and a cell phone, and a stashed up bank account. But the point is that we never paid attention to what he and his burnous-wearing bandits said, and we still don’t. It’s not about their “hatred” of the west, or of its “freedoms,” of its “decadence,” of its soft-porn channels in late-night motel rooms. Again, those sideshows of American life are no less rhetorically condemned and reviled by your corner Baptist church. It’s about their hatred of American presumptions abroad, a hatred shared by a few hundred million people, if not a billion or more: the question isn’t why Baptists aren’t blowing themselves up in cafés to make a point; it’s why terrorists aren’t blowing up Swedish massage parlors in Stockholm or pizzerias in Sicily.

This is no justification of terrorism, merely a condemnation of its willing enablers, its like-minded destroyers but for means far superior, if equally unsubtle and overwhelmingly more deadly. “The great ideological struggle of the 21st century”? “The calling of our generation”? Hear these raspberries roar.

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