The Emperor Speaks–Sort Of


You’re not gonna believe this but I completely forgot to watch Junior’s PC last night. I was working on The Annex, transferring and uploading files, mostly for the “Voting in America” pages, and lost track of the time. When I came out of the ether, it was 10p and the PC was over. Darn.

I did read the text of both his prepared statement and the Q&A (which you can find here), though, and I spun around the blogosphere for some reactions to the PC itself. So, comments for what they’re worth.

The Opening Statement

Before I take your questions, let me speak with the American people about the situation in Iraq.This has been tough weeks in that country. Coalition forces have encountered serious violence in some areas of Iraq. Our military commanders report that this violence is being instigated by three groups. Some remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime, along with Islamic militants, have attacked coalition forces in the city of Fallujah. Terrorists from other countries have infiltrated Iraq to incite and organize attacks.

In the south of Iraq, coalition forces face riots and attacks that are being incited by a radical cleric named al-Sadr. He has assembled some of his supporters into an illegal militia and publicly supported the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

Al-Sadr’s methods of violence and intimidation are widely repudiated by other Iraqi Shia. He’s been indicted by Iraqi authorities for the murder of a prominent Shia cleric.

Etc etc etc, blah blah blah. I really don’t know what to say about this. The whole statement reeks of these puerile, mindless cliches. Either we’ve got ourselves a President so divorced from reality that he really believes this malarkey, so superficial that he’s incapable of talking in anything but samplers, so fixed on his election that even a war he started can’t jog him off his re-election campaign platitudes, or some combination of all three.

Hesiod: Counterspin Central:

[T]onight was the first time I have truly been afraid. Yes…afraid for our country.I’ve joked about how “incompetent” I thought George W. Bush was. But I’ve always dosed it with a healthy bit of respect for him as a political opponent. Namely, I thought he was shrewd, dishonest, conniving, etc.

Tonight, though…I’m not so sure.

He looked absolutely clueless. He looked like he had no way out of the problems we are facing in Iraq, and is just trying to play out the string until the election.

I was not comforted by that, at all. A chill literally ran up and down my spine when I thought that this man was in charge of protecting us, and making day to day life and death decisions on national security. It scared the hell out of me.

I know what he means but he’s late getting out of the gate. I’ve had that feeling since Bush announced. This statement does nothing but confirm it. All the explanations for a long statement at a time of crisis being this devoid of fact and anything that remotely resembles a plan to advance or an exit strategy, are bad. It’s as if he thinks his obligations to explain himself to the nation don’t exist, or worse–that he has no explanation to offer.

Ezra Klein at pandagon:

It took me awhile to figure out what upset me so much, but once I did, it made perfect sense. For me, Bush’s performance crystallized my belief that this Administration doesn’t respect the American people. Tonight was a shell game, the political equivalent of Plato’s Cave where Bush told us his answers were real responses and his statements of intent an actual discussion. But they weren’t. They were crap. They were words free of content dressed up to sound like a plan of action, phrased to seem like a substantive report. But there was nothing in them, no honest whole able to emerge from the sum total of his remarks. This was made all the more damning by his oft-repeated disgust with poll numbers. Fine, I understand there’s political merit in painting yourself as immune to political winds when you’re facing an opponent with the reputation of John Kerry. But for God’s sake, play the part.Tonight, George Bush didn’t even try. Instead, he spoke of his feelings, his intentions. He took questions on specific actions and pieces of evidence and turned them into denunciations of terrorists and paeans to freedom. And at the beginning, it sounded really good. But as the night wore on and every question met the same dodge, the same ideals, the same message, I began to feel sick.

What happened tonight was George W. Bush stood on a stage and told America what he thought we wanted to hear.

Bush:

The violence we have seen is a power grab by these extreme and ruthless elements. It’s not a civil war. It’s not a popular uprising. Most of Iraq is relatively stable.

Does he really believe that? Is this another con or has he actually convinced himself that al-Sadr is an outlaw and, really, we’re welcome in Iraq. They love us! Really. They do. Honest. It would be nice to have the answers, but the press wasn’t much help. The questions read like softballs. There’s no followup to speak of, and even when a half-decent question snuck through the barrier, Bush ducked it.

Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo:

Did you notice how after the president refused to answer Mike Allen’s question about why he and vice-president insist on appearing together before the 9/11 Commission he waived [sic) off a bunch of other questions saying “I’ve got some must-calls. I’m sorry.”He then called on Bill Sammon (of the Washington Times and Fox News) who rewarded the president by helping him regain his balance with this laughable strawman question: “You have been accused of letting the 9-11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough. First, could you respond to that general criticism?”

Clearly a must-call.

A little later, Josh added:

It’s become a bit impolitic in Washington to question whether the president really knows what he’s doing or whether he has any sort of a detailed handle on what’s going on on his watch. But I didn’t see much sign of either. I just saw a lot of push harder, freedom, we’re changing the world, ditching my policies means the terrorists win, etc. When it wasn’t that, the president expressed his willingness to go head to head with all those people who thought Saddam was doing a good job running Iraq and should be back in power. He’s also willing to go on the record disagreeing with all those critics of his policies who say that neither Muslims or “brown-skinned” people can create democracies.I saw a man on autopilot, and a pretty crude autopilot at that.

But the transcript reads like a man who thinks Superman is a real person and Narnia is a real place. In answer to this–

Mr. President, before the war, you and members of your administration made several claims about Iraq: that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators with sweets and flowers; that Iraqi oil revenue would pay for most of the reconstruction; and that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction but, as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, we know where they are.How do you explain to Americans how you got that so wrong?

–he said this:

First, the lesson of September the 11th is that when this nation sees a threat, a gathering threat, we got to deal with it. We can no longer hope that oceans protect us from harm. Every threat we must take seriously.Saddam Hussein was a threat. He was a threat because he had used weapons of mass destruction on his own people. He was a threat because he coddled terrorists. He was a threat because he funded suiciders. He was a threat to the region. He was a threat to the United States.

In a short 2 grafs, he managed to use the word “threat” 9 times in 9 sentences without once coming within shouting distance of acknowledging the actual question, never mind answering it. Asked about “the attitude of Iraqis toward the American people”, he replied:

[I]t’s an interesting question. They’re really pleased we got rid of Saddam Hussein, and you can understand why. This guy was a torturer, a killer, a maimer. There’s mass graves.I mean, he was a horrible individual that really shocked the country in many ways, shocked it into a kind of a fear of making decisions toward liberty. That’s what we’ve seen recently. Some citizens are fearful of stepping up.

What? “Stepping up”? They’re “fearful of stepping up“? What the hell does that mean? Are we into baseball metaphors now? “Step up to the plate and take a swing at Liberty!” The whole PC is riddled with inanities like that, and even Kevin Drum at Political Animal noticed the lack of response by the press to bloopers and stumbling:

I too am mystified about why reporters don’t do more followups. Bush’s evasion about why he insisted on testifying before the 9/11 commission with Dick Cheney holding his hand practically cried out for a followup. But no one took the bait.

Michael Tomasky at Tapped ties it to history:

No follow-up questions. This can’t have been a coincidence, right? I grew up watching Nixon, Ford, Carter, and then…Reagan spar at press conferences. The follow-up question was always when Dan Rather or Sam Donaldson or whomever really bore in; the questioner had the crucial opportunity to press the point after the first evasion. This second pass created press conferences that were entirely different in tenor from what we saw last night. But with Bush, the first evasion is all we get.

The contrast between what you saw last night and the kinds of PC’s other Western leaders endure was remarked by Tim Dunlop on The Road to Surfdom:

The thing I really hated about this performance was not so much the content (and I really hated that), but the sense that somehow we should be grateful that he even bothered to grace us with his presence. A press conference like this in a democracy should be mundane, commonplace, unexceptional. Instead, it is presented as some sort of gala performance, a night of nights, a privilege. It is this aura of specialness that, in part, allows him to get away with inane, contradictory and stumbling answers he gives, as if people are grateful that he says anything and that to get incoherent, meaningfulness answers is, well, disappointing, but not unreasonable. Like orphans being served gruel, people just seem too frightened to say, please sir, I want some more.Let me put it this way: a room full of journalist like that in either of the other two democracies I’m most familiar with, Britain and Australia, would have laughed out loud at some of the answers Bush gave tonight. What’s more, there would have been none of the deferential turn-taking and decorous lack of follow-up questions. And more to the point, the leaders of both countries would not have expected anything other than a grilling. Bush expects–and gets–tea and sympathy.

There are many things American democracy does well, but publicly questioning the President isn’t one of them.

Tim, read Michael T’s post–it wasn’t always thus.

But there was one piece of hard news that came out of this PC, and Ted Barlow at Crooked Timber nailed it:

To me, the most dismaying Q&A wasn’t the part where Bush couldn’t come up with any mistake he had made, or his inability to explain why he and Cheney were insisting on appearing together before the 9/11 commission. It was this:

QUESTION: Mr. President, who will we be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th?

BUSH: We’ll find that out soon. That’s what Mr. Brahimi is doing. He’s figuring out the nature of the entity we’ll be handing sovereignty over.

That’s the whole answer, and it’s not good enough. June 30 is 77 days from today. Both of these statements cannot be true:

(1) We don’t know who we’re handing soverignity to on June 30.

and

(2) We have done a reasonable job of planning Iraq’s transition to a stable, democratic state.No, they can’t, and it’s indicative of the BA’s rampant confusion and the ideological maze they’ve got themselves caught in that they don’t understand that. Committed to a course of action that is daily proving to be just as disastrous as critics warned it would be starting a year before the invasion, they are locked into a paradigm that doesn’t allow for any gear-shifting or acknowledgement of mistakes. Kevin Drum again:

His answer to the question “After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?” Warning: the transcript doesn’t do his answer justice. You have to watch the video to see him stumbling and stuck for words for nearly a full 30 seconds.

I’d rather not. I’ve seen it before.

A final note on the press: A lot has been said about the NYT’s blatant back-downs from and cheerleading for Bush. Atrios, for one, has been all over them of late. Going through the Times this morning, the differences between the reporting of the PC and Bush’s performance in it was startlingly at odds with the view on the editorial page–more so than usual. For instance, David Sanger, who, since the reputational demise of Judith Miller, has stepped into the role of the NYT’s resident Bush-Booster, had this to say about the PC:

Facing a moment of political peril unlike any in the more than one thousand days of his presidency, George W. Bush made the case on Tuesday night for staying the course in Iraq with the language and zeal of a missionary and combined it with a stark warning that failure would embolden America’s enemies around the world.

But he didn’t stop there:

He could have simply talked Tuesday evening about the crimes of Saddam Hussein or the fear that chaos in Iraq would breed terror in one of the most volatile corners of the world.But he did far more, reaching for the kind of language about America’s moral mission in the world that seemed drawn from the era of Teddy Roosevelt, whose speeches he keeps on the coffee table of his ranch in Texas. He described an America chosen by God to spread freedom.

Comparing Junior to Teddy Roosevelt is like comparing a creek-bed in your back yard to the Grand Canyon. To call this flattery is to dignify it. Richard Stevenson, another resident Booster, described Bush’s demeanor somewhat differently than everyone else:

Appearing somber but relaxed as he confronted what he called tough weeks — and what his advisers acknowledge has been one of the most trying periods of his presidency — Mr. Bush cast the conflict in Iraq as an integral part of the broader fight against terrorism and suggested that any failure to follow through would be unthinkable and have dire consequences for Americans.

Different even from the Times’ own editorial board, which put it this way:

Mr. Bush was grave and impressive while reading his opening remarks, which focused on the horrors of terrorism and the great good that could come from establishing a free and democratic Iraq. No one in the country could disagree with either thought. But his responses to questions were distressingly rambling and unfocused. He promised that Iraq would move from the violence and disarray of today to full democracy by the end of 2005, but the description of how to get there was mainly a list of dates when good things are supposed to happen….[H]is rhetoric, including the repetition of the phrase “stay the course,” did not seem to indicate any fresh or clear thinking about Iraq, despite the many disturbing events of recent weeks….Mr. Bush seemed to entertain no doubts about the rightness of his own behavior, no questions about whether he should have done something in response to the domestic terrorism report he received on Aug. 6, 2001.

The United States has experienced so many crises since Mr. Bush took office that it sometimes feels as if the nation has embarked on one very long and painful learning curve in which every accepted truism becomes a doubt, every expectation a question mark. Only Mr. Bush somehow seems to have avoided any doubt, any change.

(emphasis added)

I think the Board gets the last word.

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