Friday, May 05, 2006

The Orwell administration

It is a compliment to the writer George Orwell that his name has become a household adjective. But rather than simply applying the term "Orwellian" to some of the latest news developments, let us first consult his classic novel 1984.
Chapter Four, to be precise:

In the government's Records Department, "(a) process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs....Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was...scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary."

All history scraped clean...That sums up the Bush administration's Orwellian impulse. We have seen two fresh examples this week:

1. On Wednesday, Laura Bush sought to bring the past "up to date," as it were, by denying the factual reality of May 1, 2003 and imposing a new version.

On CNN, John King questioned her by saying, "This week was the third anniversary of what has become known as the 'mission accomplished' speech..."

But the First Lady said, "The fact is, when the president stood on the Abraham Lincoln, that Abraham Lincoln's mission was accomplished. They were coming into San Diego with all of their troops on board and that was the end of their term in Iraq..."

But clearly the Records Department hasn't done the requisite scraping, because as I look back, President Bush said nothing that day to suggest that the message on the "Mission Accomplished" banner was only about the ship. That day, the White House ensured that the banner would serve as a visual backdrop to Bush's declaration that "major combat operations" were over in Iraq.

Six months later, when it was clear that combat operations had not ended, Bush did try to shift the blame, by saying that the banner had been the Navy's idea (even though the White House arranged to have it made). The problem is, by that point he had already dug himself a hole by using the phrase "mission accomplished" in venues far from the Navy ship.

Not even Laura, with her high poll ratings, can scrape this one clean:
On June 5, 2003, Bush said to the U.S. troops in Qatar, "America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished."

2. But the Orwellian master is still Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.
On Thursday, he was ambushed in Atlanta by questioner Ray McGovern, who happened to be a retired CIA official who provided President Reagan with daily intelligence briefings. McGovern rebuked Rumsfeld for falsely claiming, during the early weeks of the war, that weapons of mass destruction had been located.

McGovern: "You said you knew where they were."
Rumsfeld: "I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were."

Memo to the Records Department: Call up all previous Rumsfeld statements and insert the words "suspect sites."

Too late. We already have the transcript of Rumsfeld on ABC. March 30, 2003.
Question to Rumsfeld: "Is it curious to you that (troops) haven't found any weapons of mass destruction?"
Rumsfeld: "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad, and east, west, south and north somewhat."

Another technique in 1984 was to simply dump inconvenient facts down the "memory hole." Rumsfeld has tried that numerous times already. One of my favorites: On Feb. 20, 2003, during the runup to war, he told PBS that the Americans "would be welcomed," a scene akin to Afghanisatan, where people were "playing music, cheering, flying kites." Seven months later, when a broadcast journalist read the PBS remarks back to Rumsfeld, the Defense secretary replied:
"Never said that. Never did...You're thinking of somebody else."

Could these myriad attempts to rewrite history have anything to do with the latest poll findings, which show that even 45 percent of self-identified conservatives are now voicing disappoval of the president?

But, speaking of history, let us pause for a minute to ponder the Kennedys.

The Kennedys have been cruising on their brand name for decades, and now we have another suspicious car incident which looks a bit like Chappaquiddik without a death or water.

Ted Kennedy's son, Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, driving with his lights off at 2:45 a.m. Thursday, crashed his car into a U.S. Capitol security barrier after narrowly missing a police cruiser. He told cops he was late for a vote.

Actually, he was very late; the House had adjourned around midnight.

Cops at the scene wanted to administer a sobriety test, because (as they said subsequently) they smelled alcohol on Kennedy's breath -- but they were overruled by supervisors who drove Kennedy home. The union that represents the cops is ticked off; president Lou Cannon said, "the officers just want to be able to do their jobs...he was extended a courtesy by virtue of his position."

Meanwhile, Kennedy took 19 hours to come up with a series of explanations. In an initial statement, he said he had consumed "no alcohol." Much later, he said he had been under the influence of two prescription drugs, both of which had been ingested at home. The problem is, the Boston Herald checked around, and discovered that he had been drinking that night at a popular Capitol Hill bar, the Hawk & Dove.

No charges have been filed, but the accident is under investigation, and the police are looking into whether Kennedy got special treatment - or, as it is euphemistically put, they are "reviewing steps taken during the initial accident investigation to ensure compliance with existing policies and procedures."

Unlike the Bushes and their Orwellian impulse, the Kennedys have no interest in changing the past or flushing stuff down the memory hole. Quite the contrary. They'll hang onto Camelot as long as they can.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bits about Mitt and more

I am currently traveling in Connecticut, working on a weekend column about Senator Joe Lieberman's political woes (President Bush's favorite Democrat will be challenged in an '06 primary by a well-financed antiwar candidate), so my time this morning is limited. But there are some items in the news that cry out for comment.

1. I mentioned some weeks ago that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a likely Republican president candidate in '08, might have problems with evangelical Christian voters who are suspicious about his Mormon faith. (Many of them view Mormonism as a cult.) Now it appears that Romney is acknowledging this danger to his ambitions.

He seems to be preparing the ground for a speech patterned after the 1960 John F. Kennedy speech about his Catholicism. Romney says: "I think if I decided to go national that there will probably be a time when people will ask questions, and it will be about my faith, and I'll have the opportunity to talk about the role of religion in our society and in the leadership of our nation."

There's no indication why Romney is acknowledging this issue now, but I bet Robert Novak has something to do with it. Novak, the conservative columnist, who is often dismissed by the left as "the prince of darkness," but the guy has good conservative sources, and those sources have been sounding the alarm on Romney. Here's what Novak wrote last week:

"Prominent, respectable Evangelical Christians have told me, not for quotation, that millions of their co-religionists cannot and will not vote for Romney for president solely because he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Romney is nominated and their abstention results in the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton, that's just too bad. The evangelicals are adamant, saying there is no way Romney can win them over. "

Romney, at the very least, understands that he needs to neutralize their hostility if he expects to survive crucial early primary tests in Iowa and South Carolina. Christian conservatives vote heavily in those two GOP contests.

2. Much attention has been paid lately (by me, as well) to the military generals who have been assailing Donald Rumsfeld and the war. But, lest we forget, they were preceded by others. Take, for instance, retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, who also ran the National Security Agency for Ronald Reagan.

Odom has a piece in the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine, entitled, "Cut and Run? You Bet." Among his arguments: "Only with a rapid withdrawal from Iraq will Washington regain diplomatic and military mobility. Tied down like Gulliver in the sands of Mesopotamia, we simply cannot attract the diplomatic and military cooperation necessary to win the real battle against terror. Getting out of Iraq is the precondition for any improvement."

Perhaps the White House can find a way to shrug off this Reaganite military man by tying him to Cindy Sheehan or the "angry left."

3. Another congressional Democrat, William Jefferson of Louisiana, is undercutting his party's attempts to link the GOP to "a culture of corruption." A business executive has pleaded guilty to charges of bribing Jefferson, starting in 2001. The New York Times contends today that the current federal probe of Jefferson "has given Republican leaders an opportunity to try to divert public attention from recent federal corruption investigations involving House and Senate Republicans and their ties to corporate lobbyists."

Can't argue with that.

On the other hand, maybe this corruption stuff is just inside baseball to most voters; in the '06 congressional election, they may be more focused on issues like Iraq and gas prices. And, concerning the latter, nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook made an interesting point the other day. He said that high gas prices might hurt the GOP big time, because it's a matter of demographics:

"Studies show that voters in Bush-friendly red states drive significantly more miles each month than those in blue states, and it's a pretty logical assumption that gasoline usage is much greater in the predominately suburban, rural and small town congressional districts most often represented by Republicans, than in more compact, urban districts usually held by Democrats. That means the longer gasoline prices remain high, the worse it will be for GOP candidates."

4. Just a teaser for my weekend piece on Joe Lieberman: The antiwar liberals up here are mighty ticked off at the guy for his unapologetic embrace of President Bush's Iraq mission. And he's being pecked to bits by the liberal Connecticut bloggers.

I'm skeptical that they actually will drum him out of the party in the August primary -- my home state, after all, is known as The Land of Steady Habits -- and replace him on the November ticket with cable TV entrepeneur Ned Lamont (who is affluent, articulate, and outspokenly antiwar), but it's entirely possible that they will embarrass him. This is one situation that bears watching.

Did I say Connecticut is my home state? It is. I was a guest on a Hartford talk show yesterday, talking about Lieberman, and I took calls from drive-time listeners. One caller screeched: "So you come to town and you don't even call me??" It turned out to be my cousin.
As Thomas Wolfe said, You can't go home again.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Pump gas, curse Clinton

Any day now, I am expecting to hear that the beleagured Republican leaders in Washington have set up a website called Or perhaps he can be retroactively impeached on a new list of charges.

Bill Frist, the lame duck Senate leader, is the latest to play the blame Bill game, seeking to turn back the clock to the '90s as a way to shift responsibility from today's governing party. But as we shall see in a moment, factual reality can make that game very difficult.

On the Today show yesterday, Frist said we wouldn't be having gasoline problems today if President Clinton had decided 10 years ago to permit oil drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge. Frist told Katie Couric:

"We passed it last month in the United States Senate. It has overwhelming — maybe you don’t support it — but it has overwhelming support. We passed it in the legislature back in 1996. President Clinton vetoed it. Unbelievable. Passed the House. Pass the Senate. And if President Clinton had not vetoed that, we would have more than a million barrels of oil coming here every single day. That’s more oil than we import from Saudi Arabia right now. It’s a matter supply and demand. Right now we would have increase supply if it had not been vetoed by President Clinton."

(Just a quick digression. You've got to love his little side comment, "maybe you don't support it." Translation: Katie's also to blame, Katie must also be ganging up on the Republicans. In the ensuing exchange with Frist, she had to interject, "I don't have a position.")

Anyway, Frist's problem was that he omitted a few important facts about price and supply:

1. Two years ago, President Bush's federal Energy Department concluded that any price drop triggered by a larger domestic oil supply would be "negligible."
2. And the U.S. Geological Service has concluded that, at the peak of production (probably 20 years after the refuge was even opened), the amount of extracted oil would satisfy roughly one to two percent of Americans' daily consumption.

It's easy to understand why the Republicans are anxious to try the Clinton card. Their best hope for 2006 is to frame the congressional elections as a series of local contests, whereby voters who are fed up with Congress in the abstract will nevertheless re-elect their own individual congressman. But the gas issue (along with Iraq) is threatening to frame this election as a national referendum on the incumbent governing party. Clearly, the idea of throwing $100 at every motorist hasn't gone over well (that's less than two tanks of gas for the SUV-addicted), and that helps to explain Frist's Clinton fixation.

And even GOP strategists are warning that the Republicans better come up with something that can sell. Party pollster David Winston, who deals with both the GOP Congress and the White House, recently argued that the local-contest scenario is dead and gone. I can't link his piece (it's behind a subscription wall), but here are key excerpts:

"(K)keeping things local today is virtually impossible in an age of cable news, web logs and talk radio. When was the last time Rush Limbaugh talked about local issues?....we've got a national campaign environment and probably a permanent one....Democrats have spent the past year trying to ensure that this will be a national election. With issues including the war in Iraq, rising gas prices, immigration, health care, the economy and taxes driving the current right track/wrong track numbers and the president's job approval, they likely will get what they want....the first step toward winning in November for Republicans is to acknowledge the reality of the situation: We are going to play in a national arena this fall, not a local sandlot."

And I question whether "Clinton did it, not us" will resonate as a national message.


The Charlie Wilson for Congress campaign in Ohio has managed to erase one of the more knuckleheaded political acts of the year (see yesterday's post). In a highly competitive congressional district - crucial to the Democrats' national '06 prospects - Wilson needed to persuade Democratic voters to write his name onto the ballot last night so that he could win a crucial party primary and become the nominee. This was because his earlier failure to get a mere 50 verifiable petition signatures had kept him off the ballot.

But he and his organization got their act together and pulled off a tough feat, because voters are generally averse to writing in names. Wilson, a state senator, has been highly touted by the national party, and no wonder: Ohio's sixth district features a conservative-leaning electorate, and in the 2004 presidential race, the voters there chose President Bush over John Kerry by one percentage point.

The seat is now held by a Democrat who is leaving it to run for governor, and Wilson's challenger will be a state House Republican leader. But, now that he's finally on the ballot, he can be expected to invoke the same national issues that GOP pollster Winston mentioned earlier.


Yesterday I griped about the smug insularity of the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner. Today I discover that the editor of the American Journalism Review seems to share that view, and is even arguing that the event should be scrapped entirely.

I also noted yesterday that the New York Times story on the dinner conveniently omitted any mention of Steven Colbert's scalding performance, including his swipes at the Washington press corps for going too easy on Bush. (The Monday article was written by Elizabeth Bumiller, who remarked a few years ago that sometimes, when war fever is high, it's intimidating to ask Bush tough questions at press conferences.)

Well, today I see that the Times has found a way to mention Colbert after all - thanks to the tried and true "second-day story" device. The bloggers have been kicking up a fuss about Colbert, so that gives the Times media writer a chance to report on the fuss about Colbert. As Dana Carvey used to say when he played Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, "How conveeenient!"

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Of knuckleheads, 9/11 mythologists, and rude dinner guests

Some observations today about a few noteworthy politicians:

The competition for Democratic Knucklehead of the Year has been pretty intense - my previous nominees on this blog, here and here, have been Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and West Virginia congressman Allan Mollohan -- but another strong contender has to be a state senator in Ohio named Charlie Wilson.

By way of introduction, here's a TV ad for Wilson that has been running in Ohio's Sixth Congressional District, in advance of today's primary to choose a Democratic candidate for Congress in November:
"Democrats need to write in his name for Congress. Charlie Wilson. In the (state) legislature, he fought Governor Taft and lowered the cost of prescription drugs. Charlie Wilson. In Congress, he'll stand up to the Republicans and President Bush. Charlie Wilson. Saying 'no' to privatizing Social Security and 'yes' to real health care reform. Charlie Wilson....We need to write in Charlie Wilson."

Get the message? Democratic primary voters need to write in his name on the ballot today. But if the guy is so good (and apparently he's far more qualified than two other Democrats who did make the ballot), then why is he not on the ballot?
This is where the Knucklehead nomination comes in.

If the Democrats, nationally, hope to achieve their ambition of retaking the U.S. House, they absolutely need to hang on to their seat in Ohio's sixth district. Right now it's being vacated by Ted Strickland, who is running for governor. Wilson was tapped as the national party's best hope to keep that seat. His first step, back in February, was to get on the May 2 primary ballot. All he needed to do was collect enough petition signatures. And, under the lenient rules, all he needed was 50 signees.

He got 46.

So he's not on the ballot.

Apparently, by all accounts, Wilson's campaign manager (who is also his son) screwed that one up, flunking Politics 101. And as a result, Wilson's chances of winning the nomination are vastly reduced, because most voters generally don't write in names. And that would mean victory for one of the underqualified Democrats, either of whom reportedly would have a tough time beating the Republican challenger, a state legislator named Charles Blasdel. And that would mean a seat pickup for the GOP in November.

Maybe Wilson will prevail, who knows. But his knuckleheaded gaffe has already forced the national Democrats to spend nearly half a million dollars on mail, ads, and phone banks, just to ensure that people know he's a write-in candidate. And he has opened himself up to the lawyers, because Ohio officials say it could take 10 days to read all the write-in names, in all 12 counties, and determine whether they say "Charlie Wilson." Scrawled handwriting can be challenged.

Perhaps this final anecdote says it all:
At a meeting in the district the other night, labor leaders had to conduct a session to teach voters how to write Wilson's name on the ballot. Wilson himself was supposed to show up at the session.
He never made it. He had car trouble.


Rudy Giuliani has been floating on a wave of positive publicity ever since he donned a hard hat on 9/11. His latest foray, yesterday, was to the state of Iowa -- the first stop on the presidential primary trail, and a favorite destination place for politicians who deny they have any interest in the presidential primary trail.

It is generally assumed that Giuliani, if he chose to embark on that trail, would be a long shot for the GOP nomination because his pro-choice, pro-gay rights stances would play poorly with the conservatives who tend to dominate early primaries. It is also generally assumed that he might have a shot anyway, because (as the New York Times story says today), his "personal popularity" has been "burnished by his leadership of New York City during and after the Sept. 11 terror attack."

But if he does become a candidate, some of his competitors will try to de-burnish his 9/11 popularity. And they will have some ammunition.

Start with the book "102 Minutes," by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, two New York reporters who have written the best account of the World Trade Center disaster. Go to pages 58-60. Here are some excerpts: Despite the fact that Giuliani became mayor in the mid-'90s by stressing the issue of public safety, "the city did not organize a single joint drill involving all the emergency responders at the trade center in the eight years after the (initial) 1993 (terrorist) attack."

And remember how Giuliani and his emergency officials were roaming the streets after the attack? It was because they were essentially homeless. Here's why:
The book reports that his Office of Emergency Management was unable to orchestrate the 9/11 rescue efforts, because it had been forced to evacuate its new, $13-million "bunker" headquarters. That bunker had been located at 7 World Trade Center.
A few years earlier, a number of emergency-response efforts had insisted that this was a dumb place to build the agency bunker, given the fact that the WTC had been targeted by terrorists before. But, the book notes, "the mayor brushed off the critics as people mired in the 'old ways' of thinking. His aides described the bunker as state of the art and imagined it as impregnable."

Meanwhile, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission report has also concluded that the city response, while heroic, was woefully inadequate. The commission staff, in a report, stated: "Effective decision-making in New York was hampered by limited command and control and internal communications."

And one of the 9/11 commissioners, former Navy secretary John F. Lehman, specifically went after Bernard Kerik, the city police commissioner on that fateful day. Lehman said that the emergency response was undercut by turf warfare between Kerik's cops and the fire department, and that Kerik's perfomance was "a scandal."

Kerik was Giuliani's former driver, and a business partner, and the 9/11 Commission's harsh verdict did not dissuade Giuliani from getting Kerik nominated (with President Bush's OK) as the new Homeland Security secretary in late 2004. But Rudy's pal had to withdraw his name after it was revealed that, among other things, he had met with several mistresses in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero that was supposed to be a haven for exhausted firefighters working at the site.

The point is, Giuliani's 9/11 hero profile will stay pristine as long as he remains a non-candidate. If his status changes, factual reality may intrude.


Finally, an observation about that famed Washington institution, the White House Correspondents Dinner. It was held last Saturday night, and there has been great debate in recent days about the performance of Steven Colbert, the Comedy Central star who unleashed his barbed ironic humor on the grand sachems of the Beltway establishment and earned few laughs as a result.

You go, Steven.

Maybe it's just because I don't live and work in Washington, but I find myself baffled by that event. I attended once, back in 2000, and that was enough. Too much smug self-satisfaction. Too much ritualized chumminess between press and newsmakers.

The tradition is to hire comics who will poke some fun but without drawing too much blood. Jay Leno, for example.

Steven Colbert, on the other hand, shattered the politesse. (C-Span has it all.) He said this about President Bush, who was sitting a few feet away:

"I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world...You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change, this man's beliefs never will."

Then he went after the journalists in the audience, some of the same Washington journalists who didn't ask sufficiently probing questions during the runup to war. They have since acknowledged that, but they squirmed anyway when Colbert said:

"Here's how it works. The President makes decisions, he's the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home.Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction."

It's interesting to note that Colbert wasn't even mentioned in the New York Times writeup on the dinner yesterday. Clearly, Colbert won't be invited back any time soon. Good for him.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Maybe it all depends on his definition of "major"

Today marks the third anniversary of the "Mission Accomplished" banner, the presidential flight suit, and the President's announcement that "major combat operations have ended" in Iraq.

If anyone is still wondering why his political standing as a credible leader has waned since that day, just consider these statistics:

Ninety-four percent of all U.S. military deaths have occurred since that day.
And 97 percent of all wounded U.S. troops have suffered their injuries since that day.

Why did Bush get tripped up by his own triumphalism? Perhaps his former Secretary of State can answer that.
Colin Powell told a British TV interviewer over the weekend that "just because you didn’t foresee (an insurgency), doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have planned for the unforeseen. I have always been one who favored a larger military presence in an operation to make sure that you can deal with the unforeseen, but in the case of the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, you had institutions being destroyed, you had ministries being burned down, and I have said on many occasions I don’t think we had enough force there at that time to impose order. That’s what we were responsible for, because when you have taken out a government, a regime, then you become responsible for the country."

And now we learn that the top U.S. general on the ground in Iraq is openly disputing the notion that major combat operations have ended. In the words of Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli,
"There's nothing about this that I would [call] peacekeeping," he said. "We're in a fight."

The best coda for today's anniversary comes from conservative commentator Rich Lowry, who wrote last week in the National Review magazine, "The Iraq war promises to be the Lewinsky scandal of George W. Bush's presidency."

And when a conservative compares Iraq to Monica Lewinsky, you know this war must be turning into something serious.