Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
The Passing Parade: Incremental Changes and More of the Same
From here above the Sunset Strip, and stretched out below, the Los Angeles basin, following the national dialog - who said what and who avoided saying this or that that might have been problematic - is fairly easy. In the far room the television burbles away with the "experts" on Fox News and CNN and MSNBC (and PBS) explaining the significance this or that event, and these or those words. And a drive anywhere has the same on talk radio, which is fairly mind numbing but a relief from Elvis singing about Christmas being blue without you and one more version of "Let It Snow." (We have snow here in Los Angeles County, up in the mountains - you can see that in the distance, forty miles away. But it's not really the same thing.) And, as for keeping up on the news, there's a massive amount of information on the net.
The problem is, of course, separating the wheat from the chaff - separating what seems significant about who we are and where we're going from just stuff that happens. Stuff that happens? Tuesday, December 13th, kicking off at four in the morning, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association did their annual announcements of their nominations for the Golden Globe Awards. Movie stuff. But at that pre-dawn hour no one in his or her right mind would be down the street at the Beverly Hilton. The place is depressing enough during the day and evening, what with the blue-haired matrons stumbling out of the last Trader Vic's around. But this is an industry town and that means people in their right minds are not really important.
People do follow such things. After twenty-five years in Los Angeles, and the last fifteen smack in the middle of Hollywood, it's just hard to get excited about such stuff. At the last Oscar Party I attended, back in the nineties, at the home of a VP of Sony Pictures, I came in second at guessing the winners in all the categories. I don't remember what I won. I do remember I hadn't seen any of the films, which defines guessing in its purist form.
Some folks think such things matter, a lot, and others of us don't - we're on the trail of "big events." The industry folks think we're nutty. We think they're silly. Fine.
But what are these here big events? By mid-week, Wednesday, December 14th, for news hounds, policy wonks, and others chasing the zeitgeist, there were a few. The president had given the country both the third and the fourth in his series of four speeches explaining his unified theory of everything, or everything about what the administration got us into with this war and "the plan" for making it all work out fine. That was a good thing because there was news bubbling up that come January there would be new requests for supplemental, off-budget bills to fund it all, driving the cost to over a half-trillion. That also was a good thing because congress med-week was in some turmoil about renewing the Patriot Act with even some of the guys in the president's own party getting worried about the implications of the thing - even a government run by a dry-drunk frat boy from Texas everyone loves and trusts can have a bit too much power and all that. And by mid-week we learned the military is keeping files on anti-war folks just like back in the sixties. And the speeches justifying everything were also useful because the administration's effort to allow our folks to torture who we want, under certain conditions, got a tad cleverer.
So here we go.
The Two Speeches
The first was Monday the twelfth at the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia, and the second in front of the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington on Wednesday. This was notable because these were speeches not given in front of military personnel. Only the first of the speeches, at the Naval Academy, was in front of our armed forces. Even Fox News was wondering about Bush and Cheney making overtly political speeches in front of the troops, as you see here -
The counterargument is, of course, these four speeches, timed to end the day before the Iraqi elections, were statements of policy and strategy and purely informative - they were not political. But insofar as they were a defense of policy and a rebuttal to criticism, at a time when the president and his party were under fire and worried about the effect of the war on the 2006 mid-term elections (coupled with the spreading scandals and low poll numbers), in a broad sense, they were political. In these times any presidential speech is. But there has been a hint of "don't mess with me because the military backs me" in previous speeches. You don't want that whiff of Juan Peron or Joseph Stalin.
So the audience for speeches two through four were civilians.
Monday's speech was odd. It was cheerleading mixed with a reality check. (Transcript here.) The president said that the week's Iraqi elections "won't be perfect" as the Associated Press was reporting this: "Four U.S. Army soldiers died in a roadside bombing, gunmen killed a Sunni Arab candidate for parliament, and militants tried to blow up a leading Shiite politician in separate attacks Tuesday, the last day of campaigning for Iraq's election."
Indeed, that is not perfect.
But the president was also saying "every milestone" toward democracy in Iraq "has been achieved."
True, as far as the predetermined milestones are concerned. We hit the targets, pretty much. The constitution there was approved, a week or two late - except it wasn't finished and whatever government created by the election of the new parliament will have as its first task finishing it up, or starting again. As it stands now, the new constitution is more like a collection of ideas, and likely to be more divisive than unifying. It's a grab-bag. Some things are not yet certain. Just who gets the oil revenue, are there autonomous or fully united states in this new Iraq, will the laws be Islamic or secular, will women have rights and, if so, what rights? There's a bit of work to do. But we met the deadline. It's kind of like a student saying, "My term paper was on time - you got it - but I'll finish writing it later." Well, you call it a success. Details come later. Film at eleven.
So how did the speech go over? A scan of the media for insightful analysis of the Monday speech would yield you little. It came down to saying things are fine, there are some problems, and so be patient. What was there to say about that?
And as for public reaction, here (USA Today/CNN/Gallup the next day), you see some of that made sense to people, as sixty three percent of those polled said they believe that Iraq has made real progress toward democracy over the last two years. Right. No problem. But fifty-eight percent decided the president still doesn't have a clear plan for Iraq - just about the same number who thought that when the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" was finally unveiled to great fanfare in the first speech at Annapolis. Is that a way of saying things are getting better, but not because of anything the president or the administration has done? It was dumb luck? Maybe so, but the president's approval rating finally moved up a bit, from the thirties to forty-two percent.
Some of the jump in approval may be due to a change in tone.
As you recall, the venue for second of these four speeches - Wednesday, December 7th to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington - was where the Council broke its tradition and granted the White House's special request - no questions. The president speaks and the president leaves - a first for any speaker at the Council on Foreign Relations. But the following Monday, after the third speech, he took questions - five of them.
This was really big news in Washington, as he usually doesn't, or more precisely, doesn't take questions from audiences that haven't been screened, or questions that haven't been screened. Something is up.
His political advisors must have sensed that had made him look defensive and detached. So they took a chance, and it went something like this:
Oops. You could imagine his handlers cringing. They wanted him to project openness and honesty, and he said that? At least he didn't say, "Now watch this drive," and swing a golf club.
Another audience member asked why the White House persists in linking the war in Iraq to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon way back when. The answer? September 11, 2001 changed everything - "It said that oceans no longer protect us, that we can't take threats for granted, that if we see a threat we've got to deal with it, doesn't have to be military necessarily, but we've got to deal with it. We can't just hope for the best anymore."
Before that day he thought the oceans protected us? What? And because he now realizes that because the bad guys aren't afraid of water we need to do this preemptive war thing?
The problem for the handlers - how do we get this guy to seem to be connected to reality, to the serious stuff? That's the PR problem.
As mentioned previously, the day of this third speech Newsweek had hit the newsstands with its cover story Bush in the Bubble. There, the authors, Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, lay out many, many details that suggest a level of indifference, if not denial, "that is dangerous for a president who seeks to transform the world." They do point out that all presidents face "a tension between sticking to their guns and dealing with changing reality." And yes, it can be a mistake "to listen too closely to the ever-present (and often self-aggrandizing) critics." But the general idea was that this fellow might be the most isolated president we've ever had - and alarmingly detached from what's really going on. (And alarmingly simple-minded, but they didn't say that.)
In an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, the president said it may be his own fault that so many Americans think he's uninformed about the world, but it's not really so - "Frankly, it is probably part of my own fault for needling people. But it's a myth to think I don't know what's going on. And it's a myth to think that I'm not aware that there is [sic] opinions that don't agree with mine. Because I'm fully aware of that."
Ah, someone told him. And someone told him a few interviews might help - he should get out more. We'll see more of this - it's time to "humanize" the product.
That effort came to fruition with the fourth and final speech, Wednesday, December 14th, with this - "On the eve of Iraq's historic election, President Bush took responsibility Wednesday for "wrong" intelligence that led to the war, but he said removing Saddam Hussein was still necessary."
Whoa, Nelly! Is this a mea culpa? "As president I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq." Was he wrong?
No. He was right, as he says. The intelligence was wrong - except, of course, much of it actually was right, and his crew ignored the part that was right and hyped the part that was wrong, that their own agencies and other governments and had told them was bogus crap.
But it's something. He says he knows something is wrong here. Too bad he doesn't see what the real problem is. The intelligence wasn't the problem. It was the notion Iraq was the problem, when the problem was larger and more diffused and not that simple.
The rest was boilerplate - "We cannot and will not leave Iraq until victory is achieved." Can't say what victory would look like, exactly, but we know all Americans love declarations like that so we'll say such things. There's a reasonable summary of the whole speech here, if you find that necessary. It isn't.
Who is buying this?
Andrew Sullivan here -
Yeah, onward and upward, except for the torture stuff.
The house overwhelming voted to support the efforts of Senator John McCain, symbolically echoing the senate vote on his amendment, to be posted to any bill possible, banning our side from using torture, anywhere, on anyone. Much has been written on this, here and elsewhere. The house vote, late Wednesday, December 14th, seems to be a slap at the White House, and the Republican house leadership did what the could to keep it from the floor, but that just didn't work. The vice president has been arguing there should be an exception for the CIA, and Rumsfeld that there should at least be some sort of retroactive release from liability for anything done or written in memos or policy about torture before there was this new rule that everyone had to follow the rules of the land, and in the military, the Uniform Code of Military Justice. No dice. No exceptions. No compromises.
But there is a way out, as reported here in the New York Times -
Call this the Rumsfeld gambit. You want to insist everyone follow the rules? We'll change them.
That money issue mentioned up top?
Associated Press here -
We have a choice?
New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will have to wait. But more tax cuts for the well off won't wait.
There's not much to say.
As noted here, Wednesday, December 14th, the house voted 251 to 174 to renew the USA Patriot Act. This set up a confrontation over the revised version with a group of Democratic and Republican senators who say this new iteration would not go far enough to protect civil liberties.
You've got your FBI secret searches, monitored telephone calls and e-mails, and authority to obtain bank records and other personal documents in connection with terrorism investigations, without warrants or any show of cause, and those national security letters and other types of subpoenas that give the FBI "substantial latitude in deciding what records - including those from libraries - should be surrendered."
It seems a coalition of Democrats and moderates, and even conservative Republicans, in the Senate oppose the bill. They may filibuster.
Enough is enough? The argument that it's a new world - everything changed on September 11, 2001 - seems to be failing. Should the administration say that louder and more often?
What do you do when the magic chant that worked so well doesn't produce magic any longer?
Stop Reading Here
Note this - the Pentagon is spying on anti-war protesters right here at home. They say they're just trying to protect military bases from damage.
But there's this -
They're keeping a list? Hollywood and Vine? That's ten blocks east - and not near anything military.
Note this -
That's Marc Schulman. He and I have traded a few emails, and disagree on any number of things, but this is a worry.