On February 1, 2004, reviewing the week just passed, I imagined us trapped in “some new reality show in which we were all to be locked in with an odd group of [administration] jokesters,” and then wrote:
“When we finally emerge will there be a prize for the survivors? Will we discover, for instance, that our President and his administration have headed down a path of slow-motion implosion…?”
On February 18, 2004, my optimism briefly surging, I imagined the future as a movie trailer (inviting readers back for the main attraction that spring or summer) and offered this synopsis of the future film — the wild fowl references being to Dick Cheney’s hunting habits, then in the news — with:
“a wall-to-wall cast of characters. Far too many to absorb in a split second including our President, Vice President, CIA officials, a supreme court justice, spooks and unnamed sources galore, FBI agents, prosecutors, military men, congressional representatives and their committees, grand juries, fuming columnists, an ex-ambassador, journalists and bloggers, sundry politicians, rafts of neocons…, oil tycoons, and of course assorted wild fowl (this being the Bush administration). If the director were Oliver Stone, it might immediately be titled: The Bush Follies… And the first scene would open — like that old Jean Luc Goddard movie Weekend — with a giant traffic jam. It would be epic. All of political Washington in potential scandal gridlock. And (as with Weekend) horns would be blaring, drivers and passengers arguing. It would be obvious that the norms of civilization were falling fast and people were threatening to cannibalize each other.”
Sounds a bit like Washington awaiting the Fitzgerald indictments this week, doesn’t it? For good measure, I added, “The Bush administration has been in trouble ever since its arrogance met its incompetence at Intelligence Pass last summer; ever since Plame Gate began…”
On January 17, 2005 (hedging my time spans a bit more carefully), I wrote:
“[T]he Bush administration has insisted with remarkable success that a vision of the world concocted more or less out of whole cloth inside a bubble of a world is the world itself. It seems, right now, that we’re in a race between Bush’s fiction-based reality becoming our reality… and an administration implosion in the months or years ahead as certain dangerous facts in Iraq and elsewhere insist on being attended to.”
Finally, this July, when matters were more visibly underway, I returned to the subject,
“While there is officially no means for the Bush administration to implode (impeachment not being a political possibility), nonetheless, implosion is certainly possible. If and when the unraveling begins, the proximate cause, whether the Plame affair or something else entirely, is likely to surprise us all but none more than the members of the mainstream media.”
Shadow Governments and Armed Imperial Isolationists
Now, here we are. So call me prescient or, less charitably, chalk it up to the fact that, if you say anything over and over, sooner or later it may come true. Already we have the first front-page tabloid report — in the New York Daily News — on a President (whose reigning adjectives not so long ago were “resolute” and “steady”) beginning to unravel. Under the headline, Bushies Feeling the Boss’s Wrath, Thomas DeFrank, that paper’s Washington Bureau Chief, wrote, “Facing the darkest days of his presidency, President Bush is frustrated, sometimes angry and even bitter, his associates say… u2018This is not some manager at McDonald’s chewing out the help,’ said a source with close ties to the White House when told about these outbursts. u2018This is the President of the United States, and it’s not a pleasant sight.’… Presidential advisers and friends say Bush is a mass of contradictions: cheerful and serene, peevish and melancholy, occasionally lapsing into what he once derided as the u2018blame game.’” Frankly, the description already has a touch of Richard Nixon (as his presidency delaminated after Watergate finally hit).
If you want to understand the present moment, however, it’s important to grasp one major difference between the Nixon years and today. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon had to compete, elbows flying, for face and space time in what we now call the mainstream media. There wasn’t any other game in town. (For instance, I suspect that if the secret history of the first op-ed page, which made its appearance in the New York Times in 1970, was ever written, its purpose would turn out to have been to give the hard-charging Nixon administration a space in the liberal paper of record where Vice President Spiro Agnew and other administration supporters could sound off from time to time.)
George Bush arrived at a very different media moment. From Rush Limbaugh and Sinclair Broadcasting to Fox News, the Washington Times, and the Weekly Standard, he had his own media already in place — a full spectrum of outlets including TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses. As for the rest of the media, his task, unlike Nixon’s, wasn’t to compete for space, but to pacify, sideline, and, if need be, punish. In this sense, no administration has been less giving of actual news or more obviously tried to pay less attention to major media outlets. The President was proud to say that he didn’t even read or watch such outlets. His was a shock-and-awe policy and, from September 12, 2001 to last spring, it was remarkably successful.
The “cabal” of Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and their associates that Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, recently spoke and then wrote about — “Its insular and secret workings were efficient and swift, not unlike the decision-making one would associate more with a dictatorship than a democracy.” — dealt with the media that wasn’t theirs and the government bureaucracy that wasn’t theirs in similar ways via those big three: pacification, sidelining, and punishment. Whether it was the hated CIA or the much-loathed State Department, they set up their own small, enclosed structures for governing and attempted to shove the rest of them out into the cold. And again they were remarkably successful — for a while. (Nixon, too, took a stab at setting up a shadow government, loyal only to him, including, of course, those famous “plumbers.”)
In fact, the same cast of Bush administration characters dealt with the world in a similar manner. They buckled on their armor, raised their cruise missiles, broke their treaties, distained anything that passed for multinationalism or had the letters “U” or “N” in it, unpacked their dictionaries to redefine the nature of torture and international relations, proclaimed world domination to be their modest goal — and, armed to the teeth, sallied forth with their allied corporations in the name of everything good to ransack the globe (and punish any country or government that dared get in their way). In this course, they were regularly called “unilateralists.”
In all their guises — in relation to the media, the federal bureaucracy, and other countries — they actually were dominating isolationists. They took a once honorable Republican heartland tradition — isolationism — turned it on its head and thrust it into the world. They acted in Iraq and elsewhere as armed imperial isolationists. Where the elder Bush and Bill Clinton were multinationalists and globalizers; they were ultra-nationalists and militarists, focused only on the military solution to any problem — and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
But when you are a cabal, using such close-to-the-breast, not to say mom-and-pop, methods of ruling, and you falter, whether in Iraq or at home, unilateralism becomes weakness. And when it turns out that what you rule is the “last superpower” and you’ve sidelined, pacified, or punished large numbers of people in the vast, interlocking worlds of the governmental bureaucracy and the media, your enemies still retain the power to strike back.
When something closer to the full story of our moment is known, I suspect we’ll see more clearly just how the bureaucracy began to do so (along with, as in this week’s New Yorker magazine in the person of Brent Scowcroft, the old multinational ruling elite). In the meantime, it’s clear that what the potential implosion moment awaited was the perfect storm of events now upon us. If this moment were to be traced back to its origins, I would, for the time being, pick the spring of this year as my starting point and give the mainstream media — anxious, resentful, bitter, cowed, losing audience, and cutting staff — their due. The Bush slide has been a long, slow one, as the opinion polls indicate; but like that famed moss-less rolling stone, it picked up speed last spring as the President’s approval ratings slipped below 50%, and then in the ensuing months plunged near or below 40%, putting him at the edge of free-fall.
If there’s one thing that this administration and Washington journalists have in common, it’s that both groups parse opinion polls obsessively; so both saw the signs of administration polling softness and of a President, just into a second term, who should have been triumphant but was failing in his attempt to spend what he called his “political capital” on social security “reform.”
Vulnerability, it gets the blood roaring, especially when it seeps from an administration so long feared and admired as the “most disciplined” and “most secretive” in memory, an administration whose highest officials (as the Plame case showed) regularly whacked their opponents with anything at hand and then called on their media allies, always in full-battle-mode, for support. Probably the key moment of weakness came in August, when Cindy Sheehan ended up in that famed ditch at the side of a road in Crawford, Texas, and the President and his men — undoubtedly feeling their new-found vulnerability, anxious over an Iraq War gone wrong and the protesting mother of a dead soldier so near at hand — blinked.
In their former mode, they would undoubtedly have swept her away in some fashion; instead, they faltered and sent out not the Secret Service or some minor bureaucrat, but two of the President’s top men, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin. For forty-five minutes, they negotiated over her demand to meet George Bush the way you might with a recalcitrant foreign head of state — and then she just sent them back, insisting she would wait where she was to get the President’s explanation for her son’s death.
Trapped in no-news Crawford with a President always determined to offer them less than nothing, hardened by an administration whose objective for any media outlet not its own was only “rollback,” and sympathetic to a grieving mother from Bush’s war, reporters found themselves with an irresistible story, ratified as important by the administration, at a moment when they could actually run with it — and they headed down the road.
Not long after, hurricane Katrina swept into town; the President refused to end his vacation; FEMA began twisting, twisting in the wind; Tom DeLay went down; Rita blew in (to be followed by Wilma); Senator Frist found himself blinded by his trust; the President nominated his own lawyer to the Supreme Court — at this point, even some of his conservative allies began peeling away — and then, of course, waiting in the wings, there was the ultimate October surprise, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald — backed by a reinvigorated media and an angry bureaucracy — ready to lift the lid on a whole can of worms not likely to be closed for years to come.
Our Imploding Future
To me anyway, this looks like a potential critical-mass moment. Of course, there are a few missing elements of no small import. The most obvious is an opposition party. The Democrats are essentially nowhere to be seen. In fact, whether or not they even remain a party is, at this point, open to serious question. Their leading candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, still wants to send more (nonexistent) American troops into Iraq and, like most other Democrats in Congress, has remained painfully mum — this passes for a strategy, however craven — on almost everything that matters at the moment. Even on the issue of torture, it’s a Republican Senator, John McCain, who is spearheading resistance to the administration.
The other group distinctly missing-in-action, as they have been for years now, is the military. Many top military men were clearly against the Iraq War and, aghast at the way the administration has conducted it, have been leaking like mad ever since. But other than General Eric Shinseki, who spoke up in the pre-invasion period, suggesting the kind of troop strength that might actually be needed for an occupation (rather than a liberation) of Iraq and was essentially laughed out of Washington, and various retired generals like former Centcom Commander Anthony Zinni and former Director of the National Security Agency retired Lieutenant General William Odom, not a single high-ranking military officer has spoken out — or, more reasonably, resigned and then done so. This, it seems to me, remains a glaring case of dereliction of duty, given what has been going on.
As for the implosion of this administration, we have no idea what implosion would actually mean under the present circumstances. Even with a Republican Congress partially staffed with the American version of the Taliban, will whatever unravels over many months or even years, post—the Fitzgerald indictments, lead to hearings and someday the launching of impeachment proceedings? Or is that beyond the bounds of possibility? Who knows. Will this administration dissolve in some fashion as yet undetermined? Will they go down shooting (as, points out Robert Dreyfuss in a striking if unnerving piece at Tompaine.com, they already are threatening to do in Syria)? Will Daddy’s men be hauled out of the pages of the New Yorker magazine and off the front-lines of money-making and called in to save the day? Again, who knows. (Where is Bush family consigliere James Baker anyway?)
As you consider this, remember one small thing: So far, hurricane Katrina aside, this administration has largely felt tremors coursing through the elite in Washington. The real 7.9 seismic shocks have yet to happen. Yes, in Iraq, the 2,000 mark in American dead has just been breached, but the Iraqi equivalent of the 1983 Lebanon barracks suicide bombing in which 241 American servicemen died, hasn’t happened yet. Yes, gas hovers near $3.00 a gallon at the pumps, but the winter natural-gas and heating-oil shock hasn’t even begun to hit; nor has next summer’s oil shock (after the Bush administration bombs Iran); nor has the housing bubble burst; nor have foreign countries begun to cash in their T-bills in staggering quantities; nor has oil sabotage truly spread in the Middle East; or unemployment soared at home; or the initial wave of a recession hit; nor have we discovered that next year’s hurricane season is worse than this terrible one; nor… but I’m not really being predictive here. I’m simply saying that, once upon a time not so very long ago, this administration had a fair amount of room for error. Now, it’s no longer in control of its own script and has next to no space for anything to go wrong in a world where “going wrong” is likely to be the operative phrase for quite a while. The Fitzgerald indictments, in other words, are probably just the end of the beginning. Whether they are also the beginning of the end is another question entirely.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.