The WaPo’s Peter Baker seems to be bidding fair to replace Elizabeth Bumiller as Biggest Bush Sycophant Journo of the Week, and considering the competition, that’s saying something.
On Friday, Baker tugged at our heartstrings with a moving narrative about a beleaguered president who, though once jaunty and good-natured, now faces depression and defeat. I tell you, I had all I could do to fight back the tears as our plucky Hero bravely faced his destiny.
He looked uncharacteristically dejected as he approached the lectern, fiddling with papers as he talked and avoiding the sort of winking eye contact he often makes with reporters. And then President Bush did something he almost never does: He admitted defeat.
[F]or a president who makes a point of never giving in, even when he loses, it was a striking moment, underscoring the depth of his political travails. It took almost two years before Bush acknowledged, just months ago, that his effort to reshape Social Security had failed. Now he has surrendered in what was probably his last chance of securing a legacy-making second-term domestic victory.
The desultory appearance in a college hallway here after a speech on Iraq may have marked the death of ambition in Bush’s legislative agenda. The paradigm shift that senior adviser Karl Rove saw after the 2004 election has now proved illusory. The Ownership Society that Bush promised to build in 2005 is rarely mentioned these days. Even the hope-against-hope optimism of finding bipartisan common ground after the 2006 elections has officially evaporated.
Cue the violins.
On Sunday, Baker concentrated on Putin’s visit to Walker’s Point, the modest Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and Poor George’s valiant attempt to forge a “bond” with the unreasonable Russian leader.
[R]elations began to shift in 2003 with the launching of the Iraq war, which Putin opposed, and worsened months later with the Russian government’s politically charged arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin rival, just weeks after he had been in Washington to meet with U.S. officials and opinion leaders. Pifer recalled a memo sent that fall to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warning of problems with Russia. Powell later published a biting critique in a Russian newspaper.
Subsequent events left Bush increasingly disturbed: Putin’s cancellation of gubernatorial elections after the Beslan school siege; his attempts to dominate neighboring Ukraine by influencing its elections and cutting off its natural gas; and, most recently, the polonium poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London.
Yes, it was all very disturbing. Six years ago. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul, and it was Good. Did Plucky George make a mistake? Perhaps, but if so, he was led astray by the most honorable of motives: his deeply-held faith.
Many in Washington believe Bush misread Putin, and was captivated at their first meeting by the Russian leader’s attachment to a cross his mother gave him.
Naturally, it’s understandable if Our Hero “misread” Putin. After all, who could possibly have expected that an ex-KGB colonel would have had the unmitigated gall to use a Sacred Symbol of Christianity as a political prop? No one could have seen that coming. (I did, but I’m not, you know, religious and don’t understand these things.)
Today, Baker’s soap opera synopsis reveals that Our Hero is “looking for answers”, reaching out to “authors, historians, philosophers and theologians”, listening and learning. What a guy!
At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.
Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I’m facing? How will history judge what we’ve done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?
These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration. For all the setbacks, he remains unflinching, rarely expressing doubt in his direction, yet trying to understand how he got off course.
*sniffle* When I read Baker’s haunting description of how our Dear Leader is so bravely facing his failure, trying to understand how he could possibly have been so wrong, I am almost ashamed to be the kind of cynical bastard who wonders why Georgie didn’t ask these questions a little earlier. Like, say, before he invaded another country in the childish belief that God told him to do it.
But of course, as Baker reminds me, it’s not Georgie’s fault.
These sessions, usually held in the Oval Office or the elegant living areas of the executive mansion, are never listed on the president’s public schedule and remain largely unknown even to many on his staff. To some of those invited to talk, Bush seems alone, isolated by events beyond his control, with trusted advisers taking their leave and erstwhile friends turning on him.
“You think about prime ministers and presidents being surrounded by cabinet officials and aides and so forth,” said Alistair Horne, a British historian who met with Bush recently. “But at the end of the day, they’re alone. They’re lonely. And that’s what occurred to me as I was at the White House. It must be quite difficult for him to get out and about.”
You could say the same about Elvis. The two have much in common.
The events that have pushed Our Boy Hero into isolation and besieged him in his White House bunker were “beyond his control”. Apparently Baker has discovered, working alone and isolated, that it must have been someone else who started the war, someone else who lied about WMD’s and then made jokes about it, someone else who ignored the reality of a complicated country and insisted that the “free market” and “democracy” would take care of everything in a few weeks, someone else who ordered illegal wiretaps, someone else who ordered a secret prison system, someone else who canceled the ancient right of habeus corpus, someone else who OK’d the torture of hundreds of people who turned out to be innocent of anything except being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bush is innocent, a humble man caught in a flow of events he could have neither predicted nor altered.
Since winning reelection 2 1/2 years ago, Bush has had few days of good news, and what few he has had rarely lasted. Purple-fingered Iraqis went to the polls to establish a democracy but elected a dysfunctional government riven by sectarian strife. U.S. forces hunted down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, but the violence only worsened. Saddam Hussein was convicted, but his execution was marred by videotaped taunting. Perhaps the only unalloyed major second-term victory for Bush has been the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices who have begun to move the court to the right.
Other presidents have been crushed by the pressure. Lyndon B. Johnson was tormented by Vietnam War protesters outside his window shouting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Nixon swam in self-pity during Watergate, talking to paintings and once asking Henry Kissinger to pray with him. Bill Clinton fumed against enemies and nursed deep grievances during his impeachment battle.
But if Bush vents like that, no one is talking. Kissinger, who advises Bush, said the president has never asked him to kneel down with him in the Oval Office. “I find him serene,” Kissinger said. “I know President Johnson was railing against his fate. That’s not the case with Bush. He feels he’s doing what he needs to do, and he seems to me at peace with himself.”
It’s tragic, is what it is. Just tragic. Why, it’s almost Shakespearean, it’s so tragic. How could I have sunk so low as to blame Poor George, a simple man of faith trapped by circumstances not of his own making and now abandoned by his friends and enemies alike? How could I have been so crass and unfeeling that I couldn’t see PG’s heartache and the depth of his angst?
I’m a beast.
Clearly, Baker has missed his calling and is wasting his valuable talent in the low, degrading, socially unacceptable field of “journalism”. He should be writing tomes of deep meaning and ultimate truth for a mass audience. With his ability for gut-wrenching pathos, I’d suggest Days of Our Lives or Hidden Palms would be a more genial environment, a place to really stretch his gift to the max.
Marking time throwing pearls before swine at the Post is just, well, tragic.