How Bad Is He?

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Following
is the introduction to Sidney Blumenthal’s new book, How
Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime
,
recently published by the Princeton University Press.

No one predicted
just how radical a president George W. Bush would be. Neither his
opponents, nor the reporters covering him, nor his closest campaign
aides suggested that he would be the most willfully radical president
in American history.

In his 2000
campaign, Bush permitted himself few hints of radicalism. On the
contrary he made ready promises of moderation, judiciously offering
himself as a “compassionate conservative,” an identity carefully
crafted to contrast with the discredited Republican radicals of
the House of Representatives. After capturing the Congress in 1994
and proclaiming a “revolution,” they had twice shut down the government
over the budget and staged an impeachment trial that resulted in
the acquittal of President Clinton. Seeking to distance himself
from the congressional Republicans, Bush declared that he was not
hostile to government. He would, he said, “change the tone in Washington.”
He would be more reasonable than the House Republicans and more
moral than Clinton. Governor Bush went out of his way to point to
his record of bipartisan cooperation with Democrats in Texas, stressing
that he would be “a uniter, not a divider.”

Trying to remove
the suspicion that falls on conservative Republicans, he pledged
that he would protect the solvency of Social Security. On foreign
policy, he said he would be “humble”: “If we’re an arrogant nation,
they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation, they’ll
respect us.” Here he was criticizing Clinton’s peacemaking and nation-building
efforts in the Balkans and suggesting he would be far more restrained.
The sharpest criticism he made of Clinton’s foreign policy was that
he would be more mindful of the civil liberties of Arabs accused
of terrorism: “Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what’s called
secret evidence. People are stopped, and we got to do something
about that.” This statement was not an off-the-cuff remark, but
carefully crafted and presented in one of the debates with Vice
President Al Gore. Bush’s intent was to win an endorsement from
the American Muslim Council, which was cued to back him after he
delivered his debating point, and it was instrumental in his winning
an overwhelming share of Muslims’ votes, about 90,000 of which were
in Florida.

So Bush deliberately
offered himself as an alternative to the divisive congressional
Republicans, his father’s son (at last) in political temperament,
but also experienced as an executive who had learned the art of
compromise with the other party, and differing from the incumbent
Democratic president only in personality and degree. Bush wanted
the press to report and discuss that he would reform and discipline
his party, which had gone too far to the right. He encouraged commentary
that he represented a “Fourth Way,” a variation on the theme of
Clinton’s “Third Way.”

In his second
term, Clinton had the highest sustained popularity of any president
since World War II, prosperity was in its longest recorded cycle,
and the nation’s international prestige high. Bush’s tack as moderate
was adroit, shrewd and necessary. His political imperative was to
create the public perception there were no major issues dividing
the candidates and that the current halcyon days would continue
as well under his aegis. Only through his positioning did Bush manage
to close to within just short of a half-million votes of Gore and
achieve an apparent tie in Florida, creating an Electoral College
deadlock and forcing the election toward an extraordinary resolution.

Few political
commentators at the time thought that the ruthless tactics used
by the Bush camp in the Florida contest presaged his presidency.
The battle there was seen as unique, a self-contained episode of
high political drama that could and would not be replicated. Tactics
such as setting loose a mob comprised mostly of Republican staff
members from the House and Senate flown down from Washington to
intimidate physically the Miami-Dade County Board of Supervisors
from counting the votes there, and manipulating the Florida state
government through the office of the governor, Jeb Bush, the candidate’s
brother, to forestall vote counting were justified as simply hardball
politics.

The Supreme
Court decision in Bush v. Gore, by a five to four margin, perversely
sanctioned not counting thousands of votes (mostly African-American)
as somehow upholding the equal protection clause of the 15th Amendment
(enacted after the Civil War to guarantee the rights of newly enfranchised
slaves, the ancestors of those disenfranchised by Bush v. Gore).
In the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that counting
votes would cast a shadow on the “legitimacy” of Bush’s claim to
the presidency. The Court concluded that the ruling was to have
applicability only this one time. By its very nature, it was declared
to be unprecedented. Never before had the Supreme Court decided
who would be president, much less according to tortuous argument,
and by a one vote margin that underlined and extended political
polarization.

The constitutional
system had ruptured, but it was widely believed by the political
class in Washington, including most of the press corps, that Bush,
who had benefited, would rush to repair the breach. The brutality
enabling him to become president, while losing the popular majority,
and following a decade of partisan polarization, must spur him to
make good on his campaign rhetoric of moderation, seek common ground
and enact centrist policies. Old family retainers, James Baker (the
former Secretary of State who had been summoned to command the legal
and political teams in Florida) and Brent Scowcroft (elder Bush’s
former national security adviser), were especially unprepared for
what was to come, and they came to oppose Bush’s radicalism, mounting
a sub rosa opposition. In its brazen, cold-blooded and single-minded
partisanship, the Florida contest turned out in retrospect to be
an augury not an aberration. It was Bush’s first opening, and having
charged through it, grabbing the presidency, he continued widening
the breach.

The precedents
for a president who gained office without winning the popular vote
were uniformly grim. John Quincy Adams, the first president elected
without a plurality, never escaped the accusation of having made
a “corrupt bargain” to secure the necessary Electoral College votes.
After one term he was turned out of office with an overwhelming
vote for his rival, Andrew Jackson. Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin
Harrison, also having won the White House but not the popular vote,
declined to run again. Like these three predecessors Bush lacked
a mandate, but unlike them he proceeded as though he had won by
a landslide.

The Republicans
had control of both houses of the Congress and the presidency for
the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was elected. But Eisenhower
had gained the White House with a resounding majority. He spent
his early years in office trying to isolate his right wing in the
Congress, quietly if belatedly encouraging efforts to censure Senator
Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower greeted the Democratic recovery of the
Congress in 1954 with relief and smoothly governed for the rest
of his tenure in tandem with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.
The outrageous behavior of the Republicans during the brief period
in which they had held congressional power and unleashed McCarthy
was a direct cause of their minority status for 40 subsequent years.
But the Republicans who gained control of the Congress in 1994 had
not learned from their past.

The Republican
radicals in charge of the House of Representatives remained unabashed
by their smashing failures of the 1990s. They were willing to sacrifice
two speakers of the House to scandals of their own in order to pursue
an unconstitutional coup d’état to remove President Clinton.
(It was unconstitutional, strictly speaking, because they had rejected
any standards whatsoever for impeachment in the House Judiciary
Committee in contradistinction to the committee’s exacting standards
enacted in the impeachment proceedings of President Nixon.) Now
these Republicans welcomed the Bush ascension as deus ex machina,
rescuing them from their exhaustion, disrepute and dead end. They
became Bush’s indispensable partners.

Immediately
upon assuming office, Bush launched upon a series of initiatives
that began to undo the bipartisan traditions of internationalism,
environmentalism, fiscal discipline, and scientific progress. His
first nine months in office were a quick march to the right. The
reasons were manifold, ranging from Cheney and Rumsfeld’s extraordinary
influence, Rove’s strategies, the neoconservatives’ inordinate sway,
and Bush’s Southern conservatism. These deeper patterns were initially
obscured by the surprising rapidity of Bush’s determined tack.

Bush withdrew
from the diplomacy with North Korea to control its development and
production of nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Colin Powell,
after briefing the press that the diplomatic track would continue,
was sent out again to repudiate himself and announce the administration’s
reversal of almost a decade of negotiation. Powell did not realize
that this would be the first of many times his credibility would
be abused in a ritual of humiliation. Swiftly, Bush rejected the
Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gases and global warming, and
presented a “voluntary” plan that was supported by no other nation.
He also withdrew the U.S. from its historic role as negotiator among
Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs, a process to which his father
had been particularly committed.

In short order,
Bush also reversed his campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide
emissions from power plants and canceled the federal regulation
reducing cancer-causing arsenic levels in water. He joked at a dinner:
“As you know, we’re studying safe levels for arsenic in drinking
water. To base our decision on sound science, the scientists told
us we needed to test the water glasses of about 3,000 people. Thank
you for participating.” He appointed scores of former lobbyists
and industry executives to oversee policies regulating the industries
they previously represented.

As his top
priority Bush pushed for passage of a large tax cut that would redistribute
income to the wealthy, drain the surplus that the Clinton administration
had accumulated, and reverse fiscal discipline embraced by both
the Clinton and prior Bush administrations. The tax cut became Bush’s
chief instrument of social policy. By wiping out the surplus, budget
pressure was exerted on domestic social programs. Under the Reagan
administration, a tax cut had produced the largest deficit to that
time, bigger than the combined deficits accumulated by all previous
presidents. But Reagan had stumbled onto this method of crushing
social programs through the inadvertent though predictable failure
of his fantasy of supply-side economics in which slashing taxes
would magically create increased federal revenues. Bush confronted
alternatives in the recent Republican past, the Reagan example or
his father’s responsible counter-example of raising taxes to cut
the deficit; once again, he rejected his father’s path. But unlike
Reagan, his decision to foster a deficit was completely deliberate
and with full awareness of its consequences.

Domestic policy
adviser John DiIulio, a political scientist from the University
of Pennsylvania, who had accepted his position in the White House
on the assumption that he would be working to give substance to
the president’s rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism,” resigned
in a state of shock. “There is no precedent in any modern White
House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy
apparatus,” DiIulio told Esquire magazine. “What you’ve got
is everything – and I mean everything – being run by the
political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis … Besides
the tax cut … the administration has not done much, either in
absolute terms or in comparison to previous administrations at this
stage, on domestic policy. There is a virtual absence as yet of
any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded non-partisan,
count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism.”

After just
four months into the Bush presidency, the Republicans lost control
of the Senate. Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who had served for
26 years as a moderate Republican in the House and the Senate, left
his party in response to Bush’s radicalism. “In the past, without
the presidency, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress
have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape
the party’s agenda. The election of President Bush changed that
dramatically,” Jeffords said on May 24, 2001. Overnight, the majority
in the upper chamber shifted to the Democrats.

Bush spent
the entire month of August on vacation at his ranch in Crawford,
Texas. His main public event was a speech declaring federal limits
on scientific research involving stem cells that might lead to cures
for many diseases. Bush’s tortuous position was a sop to the religious
right. On August 6, three days before his nationally televised address
on stem cells, he was presented with a Presidential Daily Brief
from the CIA entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside U.S.”
CIA director George Tenet later told the 9/11 Commission on Terrorist
Attacks on the United States “the system was blinking red.” The
Commission reported: “The President told us the August 6 report
was historical in nature … We have found no indication of any
further discussion before September 11 among the President and his
top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al Qaeda attack
in the United States.”

By September
10, Bush held the lowest job approval rating of any president to
that early point in his tenure. He appeared to be falling into the
pattern of presidents who arrived without a popular mandate and
lasted only one term. The deadliest foreign attack on American soil
transformed his foundering presidency.

The events
of September 11 lent Bush the aura of legitimacy that Bush v. Gore
had not granted. Catastrophe infused him with the charisma of a
“war president,” as he proclaimed himself. At once, his radicalism
had an unobstructed path.

Bush’s political
rhetoric reached Manichaean and apocalyptic heights. He divided
the world into “good” and “evil.” “You’re either with the terrorists
or with us,” he said. He stood at the ramparts of Fortress America,
defending it from evildoers without and within. His fervent messianism
guided what he called his “crusade” in the Muslim realm. “Bring
them on!” he exclaimed about Iraqi insurgents. Asked if he ever
sought advice from his father, Bush replied, “There’s a higher Father
I appeal to.”

After September
11, the American people were virtually united in sentiment. Support
for the Afghanistan war was almost unanimous. “The nation is united
and there is a resolve and a spirit that is just so fantastic to
feel,” said Bush. But two weeks after he made this statement, in
January 2002, his chief political aide, whom he called “The Architect,”
Karl Rove, spoke before a meeting of the Republican National Committee,
laying out the strategy for exploiting fear of terror for partisan
advantage. “We can go to the country on this issue because they
trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and
strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America,”
said Rove. His strategy was premised on the idea that Republicans
win elections by maximizing the turnout of their conservative base;
his method was to polarize the electorate as much as possible. Rove’s
tactic was to challenge the patriotism of Democrats by creating
false issues of national security in which they could be demonized.
September 11 gave his politics of polarization the urgency of national
emergency.

Bush’s politics
sustained his remaking of the government that had been the agenda
of his vice president from the start. Even before September 11,
when “wartime” was used to justify secrecy, Bush resisted transparency.
He fought in the courts the disclosure of the names of the participants
on Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy panel. Kenneth Lay, Enron’s
chief executive officer, was among them. Enron was the biggest financial
supporter of Bush’s political career, before that had been a partner
in Bush’s oil ventures and provided its corporate jets to the Bush
campaign for its Florida contest. Bush, who referred to Lay as “Kenny
Boy,” claimed he didn’t get to “know” him until after he became
governor and then hardly at all.

Vice President
Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were the prime movers
behind the concentration of power in the executive. Their experience
going back to the Nixon presidency had imbued them with belief in
absolute presidential power, disdain for the Congress (“a bunch
of annoying gnats,” Cheney called its members, of which he had once
been one), and secrecy.

Executive power
was rationalized by a radical theory called the “unitary executive,”
asserting that the president had complete authority over independent
federal agencies and was not bound by congressional oversight or
even law in his role as commander-in-chief.

Bush constructed
a hidden world of his “war on terror” consisting of “black sites,”
secret CIA prisons holding thousands of “ghost” detainees deprived
of legal due process and approved methods of torture. Cheney insisted
it was necessary to go to “the dark side,” as he called it.

Attorneys in
the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice wrote numerous
memos to justify the “unitary executive” and the president’s unfettered
right to engage in torture and domestic spying. Bush’s White House
legal counsel Alberto Gonzales (appointed Attorney General in the
second term) derided the Geneva Conventions against torture as “quaint”
and Bush overruled strenuous objections from the military, Secretary
of State Powell and senior officials in the Department of Justice
in abrogating U.S. adherence to them. Indeed, Bush signed a directive
stipulating that as commander-in-chief he could determine any law
he wished in dealing with those accused of terrorism.

At Gonzales’s
request, on August 1, 2002, the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice
Department sent him a memo on torture. It was signed by OLC’s director
Jay Bybee (later appointed a federal judge) and written by an OLC
deputy, John Yoo, who drafted at least a dozen crucial memos justifying
absolute presidential power. In this memo, the president’s authority
to conduct torture without any oversight and by rules he determined
was asserted as fundamental to his power: “Any effort by the Congress
to regulate the interrogation of battlefield combatants would violate
the Constitution’s sole vesting of the Commander in Chief authority
in the President.” The memo defined torture specifically and broadly:
“Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent to intensity
to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ
failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

Revelations
of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were the tip of the
iceberg of the vast network of the detained and disappeared. The
International Committee of the Red Cross was forbidden access. Those
at the top of the chain of command were shielded from legal accountability
while a few soldiers and the female general in charge at Abu Ghraib
were offered up as scapegoats. After FBI agents witnessed gruesome
spectacles of torture at Guantánamo, the Bureau issued orders
that it would not participate in this netherworld.

At the same
time, Bush ordered the National Security Agency to conduct domestic
spying dragnets outside the legal confines of the Foreign Surveillance
Intelligence Act and without seeking warrants from the FISA court.
Conservative lawyers within the Justice Department wrote memos justifying
the practice on the same grounds as they had rationalized torture
– the right of the commander-in-chief to do as he saw fit.
Once again, the presidency was construed as a monarchy. Bush and
Cheney argued publicly that operating outside the FISA court might
have prevented the terrorist attacks of September 11, though nothing
stopped the administration from getting warrants to eavesdrop on
calls from the United States to al Qaeda before or after.

Foreign policy
was captured by neoconservative ideologues, a small group of sectarians
rooted in the hothouse environment of the capital’s right-wing think
tanks. Its principals had been fired from the Reagan administration
after the Iran-contra scandal and banished from the elder Bush’s
administration, but Bush rewarded them with positions at the strategic
heights of national security. These cadres operated with a Leninist
sensibility following a party line, engaging in fierce polemics,
using harsh invective, and showing equal contempt for traditional
Republicans and liberal Democrats. Cheney acted as their sponsor,
protector and promoter. Under his aegis, they ran foreign policy
from the White House and the Pentagon. Secretary of State Colin
Powell was sidelined. The Undersecretary of State John Bolton, inserted
by Cheney, blocked Powell’s initiatives and spied on him and his
team, reporting back to the Office of the Vice President. National
Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice made a separate peace and turned
the National Security Council into an augmented force for Cheney
and the neocons. Meanwhile, Republican realists, including elder
Bush’s closest associates such as Brent Scowcroft, were isolated
or purged.

The 60-year
tradition of bipartisan internationalism was jettisoned. After the
Afghanistan war against the Taliban, the administration elevated
into a “Bush Doctrine” the policy of preemptive attack, previously
alien to the principles of U.S. foreign policy and expressly rejected
as dangerous to the nation’s security by presidents Eisenhower and
Kennedy during the Cold War.

In the run-up
to the Iraq war, an internal campaign was waged against professionals
of the intelligence community and diplomatic corps who still upheld
standards of objective analysis and carrying on the traditions of
U.S. foreign policy. Intense political pressure was applied to them
to distort or suppress their assessments if they contained caveats
and to give credence to disinformation fabricated by Iraqi exiles
favored by the neoconservatives. A special operation of neocons
was set up at the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans, to “stovepipe”
information directly into the White House without passing through
the analytical filter of the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
Cheney made several unprecedented personal visits to CIA headquarters
to try to intimidate analysts into certifying the disinformation.
The caveats and warnings of the State Department’s Intelligence
and Research Bureau, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department
of Energy, and the intelligence services of Germany and France were
all ignored.

In making its
case for war the administration stampeded public opinion with false
and misleading information about Saddam Hussein’s possession and
development of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear
weapons. Later his National Security Adviser Rice (promoted to Secretary
of State in the second term) admitted that President Bush had made
a false statement in his 2003 State of the Union address about Iraq’s
seeking uranium to produce nuclear weapons. Yet Bush, Cheney, Rice
and other officials had constantly suggested that Hussein was linked
to terrorism and those behind the attacks on September 11. Secretary
of State Powell’s best-case presentation before the United Nations
was later proven to contain 26 major falsehoods. Not a single substantial
claim he made turned out to be true. He explained he had been “deceived.”
He called it the biggest “blot” on his record. His chief of staff
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson said it was the “lowest point of my life.”
It was certainly the lowest point of U.S. credibility.

After he resigned
in 2005, Wilkerson revealed how a “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal” controlled
national security policy: “Its insular and secret workings were
efficient and swift – not unlike the decision-making one would
associate more with a dictatorship than a democracy. This furtive
process was camouflaged neatly by the dysfunction and inefficiency
of the formal decision-making process, where decisions, if they
were reached at all, had to wend their way through the bureaucracy,
with its dissenters, obstructionists and ‘guardians of the turf.’
But the secret process was ultimately a failure. It produced a series
of disastrous decisions and virtually ensured that the agencies
charged with implementing them would not or could not execute them
well.”

Less than a
year after September 11, the administration was beset by disclosures
that it had refused to take terrorism seriously before the attacks
and by stories about dysfunction at the FBI. An FBI agent at the
Minneapolis bureau, Coleen Rowley, emerged with documentation of
how the Bureau had ignored warnings of the coming terrorist strike.
On the day that she testified before the Senate, June 6, 2002, Bush
suddenly announced a dramatic reversal of his position against the
Democratic proposal for a Department of Homeland Security. Rowley’s
story was blotted out.

Bush now turned
the issue of a new department against the Democrats in the midterm
elections, following Rove’s script. In Bush’s proposal the department
would not recognize unions, and because the Democrats believed that
employees should have the right to form unions they were cast as
weak on homeland security and terrorism. Against this backdrop,
Rove helped direct attacks on the patriotism of Democrats in the
2002 midterm elections. In one Republican television commercial,
the face of Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a Vietnam veteran who
had lost three limbs, was morphed into that of Osama bin Laden,
and Cleland lost. The Republicans captured the Senate by one seat.

The tactics
used against Democrats were also deployed to stifle contrary views
within the administration and to taint the motives of those who
had served and become critics. Any loyalist, no matter the egregious
error of judgment, was vaunted; any heretic was burned. Bush’s radical
remaking of government demanded a relentless war against professionals
who did not operate according to ideological tenets but objective
standards of analysis.

In 2003, the
disillusioned Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, the former
CEO of Alcoa, a traditional business-oriented Republican, published
a memoir, The
Price of Loyalty
, recounting that the deficit was deliberately
fostered as a political tool contrary to economic merits. He disclosed
that the invasion of Iraq was raised at a National Security Council
meeting ten days after the inauguration. And he described the president
among his advisers as being “like a blind man in a roomful of deaf
people.” The administration’s response was to investigate O’Neill
for supposedly unlawfully making public classified materials. It
was a patently false charge, he was exonerated, but it succeeded
in changing the subject and silencing him.

When, in 2003,
retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni criticized the administration’s
Iraq policy and the neoconservatives’ instrumental part played in
its formulation, conservative media retaliated by labeling him “anti-Semitic.”
The former U.S. commander of Central Command and Bush’s envoy to
the Middle East, who had endorsed Bush in 2000, had told the Washington
Post, “The more I saw, the more I thought that this was the
product of the neocons who didn’t understand the region and were
going to create havoc there. These were dilettantes from Washington
think tanks who never had an idea that worked on the ground …
I don’t know where the neocons came from – that wasn’t the
platform they ran on.”

In July 2003,
former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed article in the
New York Times detailing that he had been sent on a mission
by the CIA before the Iraq war to Niger, where he discovered that
the administration claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase
enriched yellowcake uranium there for building nuclear weapons was
untrue. Despite his report and that of two others the president
insisted in his 2003 State of the Union that Hussein was in fact
seeking uranium for nuclear weaponry. The counterattack against
Wilson was swift. A week after his piece appeared, the conservative
columnist Robert Novak wrote that “two senior administration officials”
had informed him that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, an undercover
CIA operative, had been responsible for sending him on his mission.
The intent was somehow to cast aspersions on Wilson’s credibility.
(For his service as the acting U.S. ambassador in Iraq during the
Gulf War, elder Bush had called him “a hero.”) The disclosure of
Plame’s identity was an apparent felony against national security,
a violation of the Intelligence Identity Protection Act, and soon
a special prosecutor was appointed, and the president and the vice
president were interviewed, along with much of the White House senior
staff. Cheney’s chief of staff and national security adviser, I.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was indicted for perjury and obstruction
of justice.

When, in March
2004, Richard Clarke, chief of counterterrorism on the National
Security Council, testified before the 9/11 Commission and elaborated
in a book, Against
All Enemies
, that the Bush administration had ignored terrorism
before September 11, his credibility was attacked by the administration
and his motivations questioned. By then, the smearing of whistleblower
career professionals had become a familiar pattern.

Traditional
Republicans emerged among Bush’s most penetrating critics, from
O’Neill to Wilkerson, from Zinni to Clarke. They were not hostile
to Bush when he entered office; on the contrary, they were willing
and eager to serve under him. They observed first-hand, more than
opponents on the outside, the radical changes Bush was making within
the government. As Republicans, more than Democrats, they understood
which traditions of their own were being traduced.

Bush’s war
on terror melded with his culture war at home. Never before had
a president attempted so vigorously to batter down the wall of separation
between church and state. In 2005, Bush proclaimed himself a votary
of the “culture of life” as he signed unprecedented legislation
seeking to reverse numerous state and federal court decisions that
the husband of a woman named Terri Schiavo, in a persistent vegetative
state for years, could end her life support. Political opportunism
in the guise of theology trampled the Constitution.

Bush’s appointments
to the federal judiciary were an attempt to reverse the direction
of the law for at least 70 years. Nearly all of his nominees were
members of the Federalist Society, a conservative group of lawyers
who seek to propagate certain doctrines and advance each other’s
careers. One of these doctrines is called “originalism,” the belief
that the intent of the framers can be applied to all modern problems
and lead to conservative legal solution. Yet another is called the
“Constitution in exile,” a school of thought that argues that the
true Constitution has been suppressed since President Franklin D.
Roosevelt began naming justices to the Supreme Court and that its
hidden law must be revived. One of Bush’s judiciary appointments,
Janice Rogers Brown, lecturing before a Federalist Society meeting,
referred to the New Deal as “Revolution of 1937,” and denounced
it as “the triumph of our socialist revolution.” It was hardly a
surprise that Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court, federal appellate
court judge Samuel Alito, was a proponent of the theory of the “unitary
executive” and a wholehearted supporter of executive power.

No other president
has ever been hostile to science. Russell Train, the Environmental
Protection Agency administrator under presidents Nixon and Ford,
observed, “How radically we have moved away from regulation based
on independent findings and professional analysis of scientific,
health and economic data by the responsible agency to regulation
controlled by the White House and driven primarily by political
considerations.”

Bush’s opposition
to stem cell research was just the beginning of his enmity toward
science. The words “reproductive health” and “condoms” were forbidden
from appearing on websites of agencies or organizations that received
federal funds. At the Food and Drug Administration, staff scientists
and two independent advisory panels were overruled in order to deny
the public access to emergency contraception. At the Centers for
Disease Control, scientifically false information was posted on
its website to foster doubt about the effectiveness of condoms in
preventing HIV/AIDS. At the President’s Council on Bioethics, two
scientists were fired for dissents based on scientific reasoning.
At the National Cancer Institute, staff scientists were suppressed
as the administration planted a story on its website falsely connecting
breast cancer to abortion. The top climate scientist at NASA, James
Hansen, longtime director of the agency’s Goddard Institute for
Space Studies, was ordered muzzled after he noted at a scientific
conference the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate
change. The president also suggested that public schools should
equally teach evolution, the basis of all biological science, and
“Intelligent Design,” a pseudo-scientific version of creationism.
“I think that part of education is to expose people to different
schools of thought,” Bush said.

Bush’s antipathy
to science had an overlapping political appeal to both the religious
right and industrial special interests. Scientific research was
distorted and suppressed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection
Agency. The administration censored and misrepresented scientific
reports on climate change, air pollution, endangered species, soil
conservation, mercury emissions, and forests. Scientists were dismissed
or rejected from numerous science advisory committees, from the
Lead Poisoning Prevention Panel to the Army Science Board.

In February
2004, 60 of the nation’s leading scientists, university presidents,
medical experts, and former federal agency directors from both Democratic
and Republican administrations, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued
a statement entitled “Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking.”
It declared: “The distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan
political ends must cease if the public is to be properly informed
about issues central to its well being, and the nation is to benefit
fully from its heavy investment in scientific research and education.”

When Hurricane
Katrina landed in August 2005 scientific reality and dysfunctional
government collided. Bush had systematically distorted, suppressed
and ignored evidence of global warming, which scientists believed
was responsible for intensifying hurricanes. The director of the
National Hurricane Center had briefed Bush on the devastating impact
on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Katrina before it hit, but
the president disregarded the advance warning. The Federal Emergency
Management Agency, which under President Clinton had been one of
the most efficient and effective, had become a morass of incompetence
and political cronyism. Amid its abject failure, Bush praised its
director Michael Brown, whose previous experience was as the head
of the International Arabian Horse Association, as doing “a heck
of a job.” New Orleans, a major and unique American city, was destroyed.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Bush traveled six times
to the city, promising to rebuild it to its former glory, but most
of the city lay in ruins a year later. In January 2006, Bush declared
that he had received no rebuilding plan, apparently unaware that
he had already rejected it.

During the
2004 campaign, Bush’s essential appeal was that he alone could keep
the country safe from terrorists. Before and after the Iraq war,
he implied that Saddam Hussein was in league with those responsible
for September 11. On May 1, 2002, in his speech on the USS Abraham
Lincoln, behind a banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” he declared,
“The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began
on September the 11, 2001 – and still goes on.” This theme
was at the core of his campaign message and stump speech. When under
questioning late in the campaign he admitted Saddam Hussein had
nothing to do with September 11, he still insisted Saddam was involved
with al Qaeda. Bush’s closing television commercial in his 2004
campaign showed a pack of wolves symbolizing terrorists about to
prey on the viewer. The voiceover intoned: “And weakness attracts
those who are waiting to do America harm.”

As his supporters
saw him, his simplistic rhetoric was straight talk, his dogmatism
fortitude, his swagger reassuring, his stubbornness made him seem
like a rock against danger, and his rough edges were proof that
he was a man of the people. His evangelical religion was central
to his image as a man of conviction and his purity of heart. This
persona helped insulate Bush from accusations that he got things
wrong, misled and had ulterior motives.

Faith was as
important in sustaining Bush’s politics as fear. Evangelical ministers
and conservative Catholic bishops turned their churches into political
clubhouses. At the behest of Karl Rove, right-wingers put initiatives
against gay marriage on the ballot in 16 swing states that were
instrumental in maximizing the vote for Bush there in the 2004 election.

The White House
carefully tended an alternative universe of belief into which its
supporters took a leap of faith. From the Schiavo case to Intelligent
Design, from the morning after pill to abstinence, Bush sent signals
of encouragement to the religious right. His anti-scientific approach
helped arouse suspicion and detestation of “experts.” Critics were
tainted as “elitists.” Contempt for contrary facts was cultivated
as a psychological prop of the leader’s authority.

In 2004, the
University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes
issued a study, “The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters.”
It reported that 72 percent of Bush supporters believed that Iraq
had weapons of mass destruction even after the U.S. Iraq Survey
Group had definitively concluded that it had none. Seventy-five
percent of Bush supporters believed that Saddam Hussein had been
providing help to al Qaeda; 55 percent believed that the 9/11 Commission
had proved that point, though the commission’s report had disproved
it and Bush had been forced to deny it. The social scientists conducting
the survey observed that respondents held these beliefs because
they said the Bush administration and conservative media had confirmed
them.

Near the end
of the campaign, a senior White House aide explained the “faith-based”
school of political thought to reporter Ron Suskind, who wrote in
the New York Times Magazine: “The aide said that guys like
me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he
defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious
study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about
enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s
not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re
an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while
you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will –
we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study
too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors
… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

The method
described by the Bush aide was an updated version of the insight
of the philosopher Francis Bacon, who, in 1625, wrote in his essay
“Of Vaine-Glory”: “For Lies are sufficient to breed Opinion, and
Opinion brings on Substance.”

The “separate
realities” of Bush and Kerry supporters studied by the University
of Maryland extended to the facts of their military records, controversies
about which became decisive events in the campaign and case studies
in the manipulation of information. Bush had numerous mysterious
discrepancies in his Vietnam era service in the Texas Air National
Guard, especially being absent without leave for a year. It is indisputable
that he never actually completed his service. How he entered his
unit through special preference and under what circumstances he
was discharged without having finished his requirements was the
subject of an investigation by CBS’s “60 Minutes.” The program’s
use of documents that could not be authenticated, though various
witnesses confirmed the underlying facts, aroused an intense attack
from Republican activists and the White House, and the entire exposé
was discredited because of the journalistic lapse.

The Bush White
House had anticipated the potential scandal in his military background,
particularly in contrast to the record of Senator Kerry, who was
a genuine war hero, awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three
Purple Hearts. In order to undermine Kerry’s strong point and defend
Bush’s weak one, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was
created, funded and its public relations handled by Bush allies,
and led by one John O’Neill, who had been selected by the Nixon
White House to hector Kerry during the Vietnam era. The group accused
Kerry of having falsely earned his medals and subsequently lied
about his war experiences. Though the Navy officially affirmed his
right to his medals and those who served directly with him upheld
his account, the Swift Boat Veterans were granted extensive media
attention as if their fabrications were a valid point of view that
must be heard. On cable television especially, and on CNN in particular,
a perverse form of objectivity prevailed in which the news organization
abdicated establishing the facts and allowed defamation to be presented
as though it was just one reasonable side of a debate.

The Bush White
House, drawing harsh cautionary lessons from the Nixon experience,
considered the press an extremely dangerous enemy that must be treated
with contempt – isolated, intimidated, and, if not made pliable,
discredited. The administration favored Fox News and other conservative
media, using them as quasi-official government propaganda organs.
Joining the long project by the conservative movement, the administration
sought to bring the press into disrepute and marginalize it. If
journalists did not support the administration’s talking points
or operate from its premises, they were assailed as unfair and biased.

The conservative
campaign against journalism as “liberal media” was Leninist in its
assumption that truth and fact were inherently sectarian and instrumental.
Acting on this premise, the press was subjected to constant and
elaborate campaigns of intimidation. The administration enjoyed
unprecedented success. Not a single report in any major newspaper
or on the broadcast news networks covered the campaign of intimidation,
as the press had once readily reported on Nixon’s early effort,
progenitor of the current strategy.

As giant corporate
conglomerates with extensive holdings in industries subject to all
manner of government regulation, media outlets were sensitive to
pressure from the administration. The effort to make the mainstream
media compliant was so dedicated that even Cheney himself called
corporate owners to complain about individual correspondents and
stories. (In 2005, Time Warner, which owns CNN, hired Republican
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s chief of staff, Timothy Berry,
as its chief Washington lobbyist.)

After September
11 and in the rush to war in Iraq, a jingoist spirit infected elements
of the press corps and for a long time they largely abandoned holding
the government accountable. The New York Times’ news reports
on weapons of mass destruction and the Washington Post’s
editorials were indispensable in lending credence to the disinformation
on which the administration made its case for the Iraq war. (The
Times published a lengthy editor’s note on the failures of
its coverage and the Times’ chief correspondent on WMD, Judith
Miller, eventually resigned from the newspaper. The Post
refused to acknowledge how it had been misled in its editorials
before the war.) The long-term damage to the credibility of the
prestige press is incalculable.

Reality was
often too radical and threatening for many in the press to venture
covering. Those who dared were frequently thrust into fierce conflicts.
Some were subject to legal investigations by the Justice Department
(for example, the New York Times for reporting on Bush’s
warrantless domestic surveillance and the Washington Post
for reporting on secret prisons for detainees). Some were even subjected
to innuendo and invasions of private life (for example, after broadcasting
a story on Army morale an ABC News reporter was outed as gay by
right-wing gossip columnist Matt Drudge, who claimed he was given
the information by a White House source).

A gay prostitute
without journalistic background, carrying press credentials from
a phony media operation financed by right-wing Texas Republicans,
was granted access to the regular White House press briefings and
the press secretary employed the tactic of calling on him to break
up the questioning of legitimate reporters. The White House also
funneled federal funds to conservatives posing as legitimate journalists
and commentators. Bush’s chairman of the Public Broadcasting System,
Kenneth Tomlinson, drove distinguished journalist Bill Moyers off
the air for his heretical views and approved a show for the Wall
Street Journal editorial board. Tomlinson commissioned an enemies
list of “liberal media” on PBS in order to guide purging the network.
(Tomlinson resigned in November 2005 after the Inspector General
of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting found he had violated
PBS rules by meddling in programming and contracting.)

By containing
and curbing the press, Bush attempted to remove another constitutional
check and balance on his power. When President Bush made an extended
joke at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner about
his inability to find WMD in Iraq – “Not here,” he said, narrating
a film depicting him looking under his desk in the Oval Office –
the 1,500 members of the assembled press corps burst into raucous
laughter like pledges to his fraternity.

Bush’s admirers
have cast him in the mold of Shakespeare’s Henry
V
, a wastrel royal son who upon rising to the purple realizes
his leadership in war. Some detractors offered an opposite portrait
of the dry drunk. But these literary and psychological theories
failed to assess Bush’s radicalism in the historical and constitutional
terms of the American presidency.

Bush has deliberately
sought to institute radical changes in the character of the presidency
and American government that would permanently alter the constitutional
system. He used the “global war on terrorism” to impose a “unitary
executive” of absolute power, disdainful of the Congress and brushing
aside the judicial branch when he felt it necessary (for example,
his domestic surveillance outside the FISA court). He issued many
“signing statements” (a device originally designed by Samuel Alito
when he served as an aide in the Reagan Justice Department) to express
his own understanding of the meaning of enacted legislation and
how the executive branch would or would not enforce it. The Bush
White House concept of the executive was the full flowering of the
imperial presidency as conceived by Richard Nixon.

Operationally,
within the White House, the Office of the Vice President controlled
foreign policy, making the National Security Council its auxiliary,
and the flow of information to the president. No vice president
was ever as powerful.

Bush was unusually
incurious and passive in seeking facts. He never demanded worst-case
scenarios. His circle of advisers was tightly restricted. Only a
select few of the White House staff were permitted to see him, much
less interact with him. He made no effort to establish independent
sources of information. He never circulated to his staff articles
that sparked a policy interest in him. When his support in public
opinion declined, he soaked up the flattery of his aides that the
people had momentarily lapsed in their appreciation of his heroic
strength and vision.

Accountability
was treated as a threat to executive power, not as essential to
democratic governance. No one up the chain of command was held responsible
for the crimes of Abu Ghraib. No one who committed grievous errors
of judgment in the Iraq war was held to account. Instead they were
showered with honors, medals and promotions.

Bush’s radical
White House depended on one-party control of the Congress. The Republican
Congress supported the consolidation of executive power, even at
the expense of congressional prerogatives. Oversight was studiously
neglected. On any matter that might cause irritation to the White
House, hearings were not held or quashed. When the White House did
not produce requested documents, for example, on its conduct in
response to Hurricane Katrina, there were no repercussions from
the Republican Congress. The intelligence committees and the House
Armed Services, among other committees, covered up administration
malfeasance. The Senate Intelligence Committee skewed and distorted
its report on intelligence leading into the Iraq war to acquit the
administration of responsibility and refused to conduct a promised
investigation into administration political pressures on the intelligence
community.

The Republicans
in Congress enforced discipline by creation of a pay-for-play system.
Lobbyists, trade associations and law firms were told that unless
they contributed to Republican campaign funds and hired Republicans
they would be treated with disfavor. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay
developed this political machine, called the K Street Project, to
a high degree of control over Washington, until he was forced to
resign his post due to indictment for criminal campaign fundraising
practices. Jack Abramoff, a super-lobbyist, worked closely with
DeLay, and when Abramoff pled guilty in January 2006 to fraud, tax
evasion and criminal conspiracy he triggered the biggest congressional
scandal in modern history. Abramoff was also plugged into the White
House, linked to Rove, and even attended staff meetings.

Bush’s presidency
was uniquely radical in its elevation of absolute executive power,
dismissal of the other branches of government, contempt for law,
dominant power of the vice president, networks of ideological cadres,
principle of unaccountability, stifling of internal debate, reliance
on one-party rule, and overtly political use of war. Never before
had a president shown disdain for science and sought to batter down
the wall of separation between church and state. None of it seemed
in the offing upon Bush’s inauguration in 2001. Yet these actions
were not sudden impulses, spontaneous reactions or accidental gestures.
They were based on deliberate decisions intended to change the presidency
and government fundamentally and forever. And these decisions had
deep historical roots.

One of the
distinctive sources of Bush’s radicalism was that he was the first
Southern conservative ever elected to the presidency. Southern politics
has always contained varied and conflicting traditions. Through
Bush, a reactionary Southern political tradition captured the center
of the federal government, a phenomenon that has never occurred
before. His brand of conservatism is the expression of a commodity-based
oligarchy rooted in Texas, deeply hostile to the New Deal, dedicated
to neglect of public services, seeking to maintain class and racially
based hierarchies. Using the rhetoric of limited government and
states’ rights these Texas conservatives claim control over government
in order to consolidate power and wealth. Both Bush and Cheney (former
chief executive officer of Halliburton, a Texas-based company) come
out of the oil patch background. Bush’s language about “compassionate
conservatism” was a simple emollient to ease the way for his harsher
political and policy imperatives.

In method,
spirit and goals, Bush’s project was the opposite of the New Deal,
which was a great improvisation in the spirit of American pragmatism,
“bold, persistent experimentation,” as Franklin D. Roosevelt put
it. The New Deal, in the face of the greatest domestic crisis since
the Civil War, mobilized the capacities of government for the general
welfare. The New Frontier of John F. Kennedy and the Great Society
of Lyndon Johnson extended the New Deal in its social inclusiveness,
reforming immigration policy, ending poverty among the elderly,
and expanding education. Most significantly, on racial justice,
the frustrated legacy of Reconstruction and the great Civil War
constitutional amendments was finally realized.

The three Southern
presidents of the 20th century were all progressive Democrats –
Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. If Woodrow Wilson
were to be counted as a fourth, having been born in Virginia, he
would also fit the profile of progressive (though definitely of
the pre-civil rights era, given his support for segregation within
the federal government). Harry Truman, from the border state of
Missouri, must be categorized as one of the great liberals (including
on civil rights).

In the 19th
century, the Southerners in the White House, from Jefferson through
Andrew Jackson, represented expanded democracy. The only Southern
conservative to hold the office before the Civil War was John Tyler,
who acceded to the presidency after the sudden death of William
Henry Harrison, the first Whig president. Tyler was a conservative
Democrat from Virginia and a man without a party whose tenure was
an accidental one term. Zachary Taylor, the last Whig, from Louisiana,
a national hero as the triumphant commander in the Mexican War,
was setting himself against the pro-slavery forces from the South,
including his son-in-law Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi,
at the time of his death. Andrew Johnson, another accident and anomaly,
was both a vehement populist and conservative, who used the presidency
to attempt to scuttle Reconstruction in the name of a white man’s
democracy. Lyndon Johnson, the first elected Southerner since the
Civil War, of course, was the greatest president on civil rights
since Ulysses Grant.

The two great
epochal crises in American history after the revolution – the
Civil War and the Great Depression – were accelerated and deepened
by passive, accommodating or stubbornly out of touch presidents
– James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover. Political and economic
forces they failed to control or understand overcame them. But neither
sought conflict or courted turmoil, even though they accelerated
it. By contrast, Bush purposefully polarized differences in the
country for political advantage.

In foreign
policy, Bush freely appropriated the language of Woodrow Wilson
about freedom and democracy. But Wilson sought to bring the U.S.
into a new international system of law. Bush’s unilateralism opposed
the Wilsonian heritage at every turn, exemplified by his appointment
of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations.

Bush also claimed
to stand in the conservative tradition of Ronald Reagan. Indeed,
Reagan sought to overturn longstanding policies of Democratic and
Republican presidents alike in his pursuit of a radical and often
fanciful conservatism. But when he found himself cornered by realities,
Reagan the ideologue gave way to Reagan the old union negotiator
prepared for compromise. Facing reality, he gave up his rhetoric
about privatizing Social Security to join with Democrats to fund
its long-term solvency. After the Iran-contra scandal, he summarily
dismissed his neoconservative aides and forged a détente
with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that helped lead to the end
of the Cold War. That achievement, which required disenthralling
his administration from the right wing, was his finest moment and
the enduring basis of his presidential reputation. Had he not cast
out the right, he would have remained covered with disgrace in history.

George W. Bush’s
father, Reagan’s vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush,
pointedly blackballed the neoconservatives from his administration.
Yet the son George dusted off Reagan’s discredited zealots and their
doctrines to provide him with reasons for a war of choice in Iraq.
His rejection of his father’s realism in foreign policy was pointed
and that rejection signaled a larger radicalism.

Nothing like
Bush’s concerted radicalism has ever been seen before in the White
House. One would have to go back to the Civil War era to find politics
as polarized. But not even the president of the Confederate States
of America, Jefferson Davis, ran as extreme and insulated an administration.
Davis, a former U.S. senator and Secretary of War, appointed men
he knew to be experienced politicians and diplomats to responsible
positions within his government, and kept the radical Fire-eaters
at bay. As soon as the Fire-eaters’ vision of an independent slave
republic materialized through secession they were consigned to the
sidelines, where they remained as critics of the Confederate president
for the duration of the Civil War.

Never before
has a president so single-handedly and willfully been the source
of national and international crises. The tragedy of September 11
cannot be offered as the sole justification to explain his actions.
In his first inaugural address, Bush cited a biblical passage about
an “angel in the whirlwind.” His presidency has been a self-created
whirlwind.

In 1900, Theodore
Roosevelt wrote a sympathetic biography of Oliver Cromwell, the
leader of the short-lived English republic of the 17th century.
While Roosevelt admired many of Cromwell’s intentions to create
representative government, he described how Cromwell’s volatile
temperament undermined his virtuous goals. “In criticizing Cromwell,
however, we must remember that generally in such cases an even greater
share of blame must attach to the nation than to the man.” Roosevelt
continued:

“Self-governing
freemen must have the power to accept necessary compromises, to
make necessary concessions, each sacrificing somewhat of prejudice,
and even of principle, and every group must show the necessary subordination
of its particular interests to the interests of the community as
a whole. When the people will not or cannot work together; when
they permit groups of extremists to decline to accept anything that
does not coincide with their own extreme views; or when they let
power slip from their hands through sheer supine indifference; then
they have themselves chiefly to blame if the power is grasped by
stronger hands.”

The tragedy
that Theodore Roosevelt described is not reserved in its broad dimensions
to Britain. Roosevelt wrote his history as a lesson for Americans,
who had been spared the travesties of the English revolution. Instead
of Cromwell, we had had Washington. Ultimately, a people are responsible
for its leaders. Bush’s legacy will encompass a crisis over democracy
that only the American people can resolve.

September
19, 2006

Sidney Blumenthal
[send him mail]
is the author, most recently, of How
Bush Rules
.

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