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April 18, 2004 - The Triumph of Hope Over Experience

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Note, on Tuesday of last week we had an anniversary – on that date in 1743 Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia.

But our president now is not Thomas Jefferson.

Bush held one of his rare news conferences on this day.  Not much news.  Same old stuff.  Things are getting better, and we must continue with whatever it is we’re doing.  Fine.

And no one’s mind was changed, given what was reported from immediate reaction –

Opinions Vary on Bush News Conference
Mitch Stacy, Associated Press, Tuesday, April 13, 2004

On the right:


Dennis Nelson paused from eating a slice of pizza at a Tampa American Legion Hall Tuesday night to listen to President Bush, who said just what he wanted to hear: The United States will not be deterred in Iraq. 

Nelson, a 51-year-old Vietnam veteran and post commander, said he was pleased Bush stood firm on Iraq in his prime time news conference, despite increasing instability there and polls showing that fewer Americans approve of the way he's handling the war. 

"He's given us a plan, what we're going to do, and we're not going to let anything stop us," said Nelson, a Republican.  "I was proud of the president that he would not let anything deter us from making this happen."


And on the left:


On Chicago's South Side, viewers included about 20 members of the Task Force for Black Political Empowerment, a political activist group that has come out against the Iraq war. 

"I feel sorry for him," said A.L. Reynolds, 68, a retired businessman from Chicago who described himself as an independent.  "He has not answered one reporter's question, he has not apologized, he has an arrogant attitude and he's not going to change anyone's opinion with this speech.  ...  I feel very sorry for him and I'm scared for us."


And further left, Hesiod over at CounterSpin offered this immediate reaction:


But tonight 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. 

In any event, I am firmly convinced the public and the media will continue the Kabuki dance of pretending that the emperor has clothes on.  The focus groups and people interviewed for post press conference polls will all say they thought the press was "picking on" poor George. 

Frankly, I weep for this country if we do not change leaders in November. 


Yeah, yeah. 

Over at The Daily Kos you got this too:


Some of the press conference was a rerun of typical Bush behaviors.  He suggested that criticizing him or our actions in Iraq sends a bad message to our troops and our enemies--i.e., dissent is treason. 


Yep, we all caught that.  That’s understood. 

But this was a bonus observation:


….  Bush approaches the world as if the good things that happen to him are the result of virtue and the bad things the result of environment, but with other people it's the exact opposite.  We're all susceptible to that mistake.  But with Bush it's reached a truly bizarre level, and makes listening to him an unsettling experience. 

When he's not questioned or challenged, or things are going swimmingly, he comes across as confident and resolute.  But when the environment changes--like tonight, when even NYT correspondent Elizabeth Bumiller (!) asked a slightly pointed question, and the White House press corps showed signs that they're embarrassed about their performance over the last three years, Bush resumes smirking and becomes that smug jerk we all hated in high school.



Oh, in case you missed the reference, Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times has been taking a lot of crap in the last few months for her answer to why she didn’t ask hard questions of Bush in the few previous press conferences, and she answer that she was too awed by the occasion and hard questions seemed inappropriate.  Only press junkies followed that item. 

Ah, but for a little humor over at Patriot Boy General JC Christian, Patriot, added THIS:


Don't listen to the doomsayers.  The current situation in Iraq is the best thing that's happened to America since 9-11.  Remember that day?  Remember how it united America?  We're going to see a lot more of that kind of unification very soon. 

Our Leader deserves the credit for that.  After all, it was his policies that prompted Viceroy Bremmer to shut down a dissident Shi'i newspaper, thus sparking what has become the Iraqi Intifada.  It was his policies that fueled the resulting disorder when a murder warrant was issued against Muqtada al-Sadr.  It was his policies that drove the al-Mahdi Army recruitment efforts by introducing neutral Iraqis to the concept of collective punishment. 

Our ally, Arial Sharon, the Shade of Shatilla, deserves to be credited with an assist.  His ongoing campaign to make Hamas the preeminent power in Palestinian politics is on the brink of success.  The secular-minded Fatah politicians will soon step aside as the Islamists of Hamas become the voice and the sword of the Palestinian people. 

And it's not your father's Hamas.  It is a radicalized organization, an extremist organization pushed even further to the extreme, an organization seething with hatred for those who executed its most revered cleric as he was wheeled out of his mosque in a wheelchair, an organization that has become an international force, exerting influence into Faluja, Kut, and Baghdad. 

That is where we are today. 

Tomorrow, we will have unity.  We will be a single people again, united in tragedy.  Because tomorrow, we turn Muqtada al-Sadr into a martyr.  Tomorrow, we back Sharon's plan to seize large portions of the West Bank.  Tomorrow, we turn The War in Terrorism into The War on Islam.  Tomorrow, we become jihadis. 


Yes, another reference if you haven’t been following the news.  Arial Sharon visited Bush at the ranch late last week and the big announcement was that we now support Arial Sharon’s new peace initiative – Israel abandons everything in the Gaza Strip (let the Palestinians have it all) and keeps and expands all the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  Everyone now bursts into a chorus of the theme song from the movie Exodus – “This land is mine… God gave this land to me…

Hey, paraplegics in wheelchairs ARE dangerous.  You have to blow them away. 

Oh yeah, the 9-11 Commission continued its work.  Last week Condoleezza Rice explained that the Bush administration would have done something about all the terrorist threats back in the summer of 2001 but no one TOLD them exactly WHAT they should do, no one gave them INSTRUCTIONS, after all.  To quote her, “If someone had told us what to do….”  So criticism is unfair. 


Of course!  How can you lead without specific instructions?  Hey, what good is having subordinates if they don’t tell you what you should do?  And that presidential briefing from August 6th of that year wasn’t full of warnings, even if the title said it was full of warnings.  Who you gonna believe, Condi or your own eyes?  Be a patriot – ya gotta believe Condi!

And the hearings last week….  The former head of the FBI said Attorney General John Ashcroft, at a specific meeting he noted with date and time back in 2001, told him he didn’t want to hear anything more about terrorist threats.  Ashcroft warned him that the topic was irrelevant, and upbraided him for always harping on it.  And that year on September 10th Ashcroft vetoed a big block of funds for more money and agents to work on terrorism issues – a matter of record.  The Commission was too polite to ask about that.  And then Ashcroft also testified at the end of the day to something else.  Said he never made those “I Don’t Want To Hear It” comments to the head of the FBI – never said it.  Well, someone’s lying.  Doesn’t matter.  Ashcroft said the whole problem was with Bill Clinton – Bill and his folks screwed up the FBI and the supervising Justice Department with all kinds of stupid rules to protect privacy and free speech and crap like that (I paraphrase of course but check it out - and you decide) so he really couldn't get any anti-terrorism stuff done much at all.  Slick Willie strikes again.  That man ruined the country.  Yeah, yeah. 

So that was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.


And then a day later, when folks had time to think things through, and write clearly?  Well, noted above were immediate and visceral reactions.  Give it a day and folks produce better analyses.  Scanning opinion on the net I think I found one of the more thoughtful reactions. 

See Trust, Don't Verify
Bush's incredible definition of credibility. 
William Saletan – SLATE.COM - Posted Wednesday, April 14, 2004, at 3:27 AM PT

Saletan open with a quote from Bush, and his thesis following that:


One thing is for certain, though, about me, and the world has learned this: When I say something, I mean it.  And the credibility of the United States is incredibly important for keeping world peace and freedom. 

That's the summation President Bush delivered as he wrapped up his press conference Tuesday night.  It's the message he emphasized throughout: Our commitment.  Our pledge.  Our word.  My conviction.  Given the stakes in Iraq and the war against terrorism, it would be petty to poke fun at Bush for calling credibility "incredibly important." His routine misuse of the word "incredible," while illiterate, is harmless.  His misunderstanding of the word "credible," however, isn't harmless.  It's catastrophic. 


Saletan explores how, to Bush, credibility means that you keep saying today what you said yesterday, and that you do today what you promised yesterday. 

The long piece is full of examples like this:


"A free Iraq will confirm to a watching world that America's word, once given, can be relied upon," he argued Tuesday night.  When the situation is clear and requires pure courage, this steadfastness is Bush's most useful trait.  But when the situation is unclear, Bush's notion of credibility turns out to be dangerously unhinged.  The only words and deeds that have to match are his.  No correspondence to reality is required.  Bush can say today what he said yesterday, and do today what he promised yesterday, even if nothing he believes about the rest of the world is true. 

Outside Bush's head, his statements keep crashing into reality. 


Well, perhaps reality is overrated. 

We were told there were weapons of mass destruction – but there aren't any - but, well, they might still be there.  You never know.  Think about that mustard gas hidden at a turkey farm in Libya.  Right.  You never know.  We were told new Iraq oil revenue would pay for the war and the reconstruction so this would hardly cost us anything at all?  Not so, it seems.  "The oil revenues, they're bigger than we thought they would be.”  Ah, I guess. 

Saletan does a cute riff on the WMD issue -

As to the WMD, Bush said the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq had confirmed that Iraq was "hiding things.  A country that hides something is a country that is afraid of getting caught." See the logic?  A country that hides something must be afraid of getting caught, and a country afraid of getting caught must be hiding something.  Each statement validates the other, sparing Bush the need to find the WMD.

Well, it is clever. 

And after a long discussion of all the new revelations regarding what we were doing about incipient terrorist acts in the weeks and months before 9-11 and all that? 


To many Americans, the gap between Bush's statements about the months before 9/11, on the one hand, and the emerging evidence about those months, on the other, raises doubts about the credibility of their government.  To other nations, the gap between Bush's statements about Iraqi weapons, on the one hand, and the emerging evidence about those weapons, on the other, has become the central reason to distrust the United States in other matters of enormous consequence, such as North Korea's nuclear program. 

To all of this, however, Bush is blind.  He doesn't measure his version of the world against anybody else's.  He measures his version against itself.  He says the same thing today that he said yesterday.  That's why, when he was asked Tuesday whether he felt any responsibility for failing to stop the 9/11 plot, he kept shrugging that "the country"—not the president—wasn't on the lookout.  It's also why, when he was asked to name his biggest mistake since 9/11, he insisted, "Even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons [not found in Iraq], I still would've called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein." Bush believes now what he believed then.  Incredible, but true. 


Well, he’s not wishy-washy.  And people like that. 

As John Stewart likes to point out, and many other now do too, Bush is not stupid.  We are.  Bush depends on that. 


Finally, this weekend we have a scholarly look at things.


Lewis Gould is the author of "The Modern American Presidency" (University Press of Kansas) and is professor emeritus of American history at the University of Texas at Austin.  And he has a long view of the matter in this:


Leadership: Now, the Nation Needs Answers More Than Exhortations

Lewis L. Gould, The Washington Post, Sunday, April 18, 2004; Page B01


Gould discusses the idea it’s not exactly Bush that was the problem I it’s that the nature of the office, the presidency, has changed.


Here’s a bit of it:


The modern presidency has become embedded in a cultural environment that stresses the proclamation of large national goals at the expense of analysis.  The news media and their audiences tend to find the intricacies of policymaking boring subjects to discuss at length.  Better to focus on how the president looked, what reporters said to each other and how the event rated as a performance.  (The New York Daily News lamented the jiggling rainbow effect the tiny checks on Bush's tie created on TV.)  Bush, Barry Bonds and Paris Hilton exist in the same universe of celebrity discourse.  Then shooting starts in Iraq, clerics advance largely unfamiliar Islamic concepts and soldiers die.  Suddenly fame and ratings don't seem sufficient to the demands of the moment.  The people and the media look to the president for answers and guidance for the future. 


The modern presidency has not prepared George W. Bush for a moment when he would have to become an analytic strategist for his fellow citizens.  Even in the wake of 9/11, he decided that what the nation wanted was a leader who could say that our adversaries would be brought to justice and that those who were not with us were against us.  Meanwhile, the government, the military and the private sector would see to the implementation of the broad goals that the president had established. 


In an odd way, the tragedy of 9/11 did not shake this president's sense of confidence and purpose; it only heightened it.  The president is said to have told friends that he felt that God had marked him out to lead the nation in its moment of peril.  And it was belief, not analysis or policy, that he fell back on Tuesday night.  "I also have this belief, strong belief, that freedom is not this country's gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world," he said.  "And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom….  That is what we have been called to do, as far as I'm concerned."  With the Deity on the team, Bush tried to make his other deficiencies as a persuader seem inconsequential. 


Well, to some these deficiencies as a persuader are inconsequential.  Not to all of us.


The issue may well indeed be persuasion.  What the heck are we doing in and with Iraq, and why?  Do we need someone up there who is an analytic strategist for his fellow citizens?  Yes, we probably do.  And that was Bill Clinton’s strong suit.  Ah, but he had other problems.


But is that what we want?


Gould thinks so.


…Citizens are prepared to "stay the course" when they have a pilot who explains the dangers ahead, options available and troubles to be surmounted.  What the nation got on Tuesday night were the words of a presidential preacher and adroit campaigner.  No president can be successful in this modern world without those qualities.  But what the president experienced on Tuesday night in the most painful public way is the reality that a chief executive with only those attributes at his command falls short.  The ability to persuade and convince, which Bush up to this point has not shown that he possesses, could well determine whether the American people will give him four more years in the modern presidency.


Yes, there is a difference between confidence and competence.  The latter seem to matter right now.  Or perhaps it doesn’t and Bush will get four more years, simply because he’s so very sure of himself – thoughtless and unknowledgeable and simple-minded, yes, no doubt – but confident.


Many believe that is enough.  Samuel Johnson was speaking of something else entirely, but this is surely “the triumph of hope over experience.”


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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