Thursday, May 25, 2006, 7:30 in the evening in Washington, and half past midnight in London, the President Bush and Prime Minister Blair hold a joint press conference at the White House, the Prime Minster on his way back to Downing Street after a visit to Iraq. (If you fly west it's sort of on the way home.) Blair had been visiting with the new government there, almost complete but for someone to head two key ministries, one Interior, in charge of whatever sort of police force can be cobbled together to replace the religious and tribal militias all in black driving the streets and doing those revenge killings with the twenty or more bodies showing up each day here and there. It a bit of a problem. But the claim is there's now a working government there, elected by the people, and it has organized itself, or close enough. It's a turning point, just like killing Saddam Hussein's sons and displaying their bodies, Mussolini style, just like capturing their father, just like the trial of the father, just like the three previous elections. But this one is a real turning point, the others being false alarms or something. That's a hard sell. It's not exactly a "the boy who cried wolf" thing, but something like it. Cynics wait for the next real turning point, or the one after. Collect the series.
This press conference was supposed to be the big news event of the day, even though all the speculation that there would be some sort of announcement of troop reductions had, earlier in the day, been blown away. The press secretary, Tony Snow late of Fox News, had said no way - that wouldn't be the big news. But what would? He has a cool grin.
The problem was that there was competition for the big news of the day, things not on the schedule and hard to top.
The Enron trial ended unexpectedly with former CEO Ken Lay and his business buddy Jeff Skilling being convicted on almost all counts and facing at a minimum twenty years in jail each, with more likely longer sentences. Lay, formerly a key Bush supporter and the one who gave the most money to the man over all the long years, is going to jail. Out here in California we think of Enron for the year of the massive power shortages when they manipulated the energy market for fun and profit and our electric bills more than tripled. Others remember being told to hold on to their Enron stock by the folks who ran the company while those guys were dumping everything - and many Enron people lost all their assets and pretty much a lifetime of savings, as did investors who relied on analysts who had been basing their projection on cooked books. So this, the bad guys going to jail, was big news for lots of people. You might have caught Bill O'Reilly on Fox News arguing with the Fox business editor, that Cavuto fellow, that these guys didn't deserve jail time, asking Cavuto, over and over, what did they do to you after all? Bill was outraged. Cavuto looked depressed. He didn't want to fight, not with O'Reilly. Who does? O'Reilly was being the contrarian again, of course. It's a ratings thing. Or he's out of touch. Or he's mad.
Then too Senate finally passed an immigration bill, with a guest worker provision and offering some illegal immigrants a way to become citizens, setting up the mother of all conference committee fights as the House bill explicitly has none of that and calls for building a giant wall along the whole border with Mexico with armed guards and all that, for making anyone here without proper papers guilty of an aggravated felony, and all the rest. This won't be pretty - angry Republicans calling each other names and being outraged, while the Democrats run errands and catch up on the sports pages. The public? They must realize this means no legislation will go to the president for his signature and they're be no new law, and as much as Lou Dobbs on CNN and all the rest have whipped everyone into a frenzy that this is an immediate and dire problem that had to be solved now, it won't be, and life will go on, and tables will be bussed and lettuce won't cost three hundred dollars a head and the world won't end. Next year will be fine, or the year after. But the news was the Senate had just set up a big Republican showdown and there'd be a whole lot of screaming and posturing to come.
Then too, just before the George and Tony Show, there were new developments in the CIA leak case. The vice president could be called as a witness, as the prosecutor, Fitzgerald, wants to ask him, under oath this time, if what the defendant, his former chief of staff, said is true. Did he tell Scooter Libby that the pesky Wilson's wife was an undercover CIA agent who worked on uncovering secret nuclear proliferation deals and he should look into whether she set up the trip and then he should talk to the press? That seems to be what Libby testified to. Fitzgerald wants to know if this motivated Libby to lie to the grand jury, saying he didn't leak to anyone and he didn't know when or where he heard about the woman. The sly thing is that this is not about Cheney at all, just about the other guy's motivation. But then, if and when Cheney testifies, the whole effort to find out who illegally exposed a CIA agent and ruined her operations and thus damaged the nation would seem to point to one man. That man is not the defendant. But that's not Fitzgerald's aim, of course. This is just part of his case against Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice, just investigating the underlying motivation of the man charged. But it's hot. The story started here and was the buzz all over, all day. Fitzgerald is purposely not connecting the dots here. That's not what he's working on - he's methodical and focused on the one case. Everyone else is connecting the dots, of course. And just for the fun of it, the same day there was this - Fitzgerald wanting to understand a phone call from the reporter who wrote the column telling the world the woman was a CIA agent, Robert Novak, to the president's key advisor, Karl Rove, as the investigation started. It sure looks like Novak and Rove got together and tried to coordinate their stories to keep each other out of hot water, making sure no one would know anything. Just something to look into. The George and Tony Show - Iraq is a wonderful success story, we were right, but we're staying there and can't say when anyone gets to come home - seemed minor stuff, small beer as it were.
And congress was still ticked about the FBI's search of William Jefferson's office (the executive branch trying to intimidate and thus neuter the legislative branch and all that), and ABC reports they're after House Speaker Hastert on another matter, and the FBI says they're not, and Hastert wants to sue ABC for defamation or whatever, and ABC stands by their story, and Hastert suggests maybe someone at the FBI is planting stories about him because he complained about the Jefferson thing. It's all here, in all its silly detail. But there's the obvious bigger issue. Is the executive branch, for the first time in our history, trying to intimidate and thus neuter the legislative branch, essentially changing the way our government has worked for the last two hundred nineteen years. Many say yes, and this is big news, a fundamental change, a strategic move toward a unity executive government where the legislature and courts are somewhere between subordinate and irrelevant. Others say no, it's just a criminal matter or two handled in a new and exciting and much more effective way than the stuffy "separation of powers" traditions. Maybe so. But there is this - the FBI now wants to interview members of the House and Senate to determine whether they were responsible for leaking information about the Bush administration's warrantless spying program to the New York Times. What next? The IRS goes after tax records? So senators and congressmen (and congresswomen) are learning just who's the boss, and that what they and everyone else thought about the constitution was, apparently, quite wrong. The George and Tony Show - Iraq is a wonderful success story, we were right, but we're staying there and can't say when anyone gets to come home - seemed minor stuff, small beer as it were, compare to this, a kind of a slow motion coup if you think about it. Or maybe it's nothing. After all, there was this - the president ordered all the documents the FBI seized from congressman Jefferson's office sealed for forty-five days - so people could calm down. If it really is a slow motion coup, then going slow is important. People might forget the issue by July. Other things will come up. Have to be careful. Very clever.
As for the George and Tony Show, Tim Grieve offers a pleasant summary here -
That was cold, but overall it was dull. The talking heads on television, doing the "instant analysis" were all over the only news - two years ago the president was embarrassed to admit he could not think of one mistake he made in office, and on Thursday, May 25, 2006, he admits three - he didn't realize that "Bring it on!" and "Wanted Dead or Alive" could be misinterpreted, and what happened at Abu Ghraib made us look bad. Of course you had to see it (video here) - he looked sad and thoughtful, and that had been carefully rehearsed. The soulful profile gaze that ceiling was masterful. Great theater. And it might have been effectible. Maybe he'll get some support now from the "reality based" folks, as he did alight on this earth briefly, but, on MSNBC, Newsweek's White House correspondent said just after he finished and the cameras moved to Blair, Bush leaned over to the reporters in the front row and gave them all a big sarcastic grin.
Bush and Blair both described the formation of a government in Iraq as a chance for a fresh start for Iraq and what's left of the coalition that invaded it, but they had little fresh to say about their own plans. The first question out of the box: Does the formation of a government put the U.S. on a "sound footing" to bring its troops home? Bush seemed to be caught flat-footed, as if he didn't know that the question would be coming. He didn't have much of an answer.
The president was ready, however, when he was asked a variation of a question he's failed to answer before: What mistakes do you most regret about Iraq? "Saying, 'Bring it on,'" Bush said. "Kind of tough talk, sent the wrong signal to people. I learned some lessons about expressing myself in a more sophisticated manner. 'Wanted dead or alive,' that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world, it was misinterpreted. So I learned from that." Continuing, Bush said the "biggest mistake" from "our country's involvement in Iraq" was Abu Ghraib. "We've been paying for that for a long time," Bush said.
So far as we could tell, that was the extent of the news here.
For much of the press conference - really, right up until Bush abruptly cut it short by asking Blair if he could buy him dinner - the president seemed tired and a little listless. The reporters just seemed bored. There were other, more important stories they could be covering... But the reporters were stuck with the Blair-Bush Project, where they seemed to feel constrained to ask mostly about Iraq. There were no questions about immigration, nothing about upcoming midterm elections, nothing about Plamegate, not a word about the showdown between members of Congress and the Bush administration over the search of William Jefferson's office. The members of the White House press corps were right there in the room with two of the most powerful men in the world, but they were as far from the news of the day as they were the other day on Air Force One, where they were strapped in their seats watching "King Kong" during Michael Hayden's CIA confirmation hearings.
At one point in the sleepy proceedings tonight, Bush reminded a reporter that he'll be the commander in chief for another two-and-a-half years. A few minutes later, a British reporter asked Blair and Bush what they'll miss about one another once they're out of office. Bush said he'd miss Blair's red ties, and then he talked briefly about the prime minister's vision and resolve. Blair laughed, said he should leave it at that, then gently chided his countrymen for not asking more serious questions. If there's something he'll miss about Bush, he didn't bother to say what it is.
It's a game. He's winning.
Or he's not? See Howard Fineman on the Enron verdict here -
Ben Adler says that's horseshit here -
If you want a date to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush Era in American life, you may as well make it this one: May 25, 2006. The Enron jury in Houston didn't just put the wood to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. The jurors took a chain saw to the moral claims of the Texas-based corporate culture that had helped fuel the rise to power of President George W. Bush.
But really, it doesn't matter. Lay and Skilling are old history. Other things are happening.
Ha! I would that it were so, but this is utter nonsense. If Enron was going to bring down the Bush presidency, it would have done so a long time ago. It was a much bigger news story a few years ago when it broke. And remember, back then Enron was Bush's largest donor throughout his political career. He still won re-election, and Enron barely even figured into the 2004 campaign. Now, several years of continued federal fiscal mismanagement later, and this unsurprising verdict is supposed to be the nail in Bush's coffin? All this really proves is the mainstream media's pile-on-him-when-he's-down-because-now-it's-safe-to mentality.
But that was the big news on Thursday, May 25, 2006.
What about the small news?
The movie about how Jesus had a son by Mary Magdalene and now Opus Dei is trying to take over the world is still a hot topic.
Stanley Kurtz in the National Review here -
What? It's just a movie, and it seems not that good a movie. But it's a conspiracy against the beleaguered and outnumbered true conservatives. Right.
This movie is a salutary kick in the teeth for conservatives. There's no gainsaying the fact that the Narnia movie was a big deal. Having conceded that, the fact remains that when it comes to exercising influence on the fundamental levers of American culture, conservatives remain in a pathetically weakened position.
... I feel in a particularly strong position to reveal the entirely unsecret conspiracy against patriotism, tradition, and religion hiding in plain sight on our movie and television screens, in our universities, and on the pages of the mainstream press. Conservatives have forgotten just how precarious our position is. One cable news channel, talk radio, and the blogosphere do not an invincible army make. It only seems that way because we also have nominal control of the reigns of power. But lose our foothold in government, and conservatives are up a creek. The other side controls the levers of cultural power in this country, and we are the enemy in their eyes (and on their screens).
Conservatives need to face the fact that our position in this culture is genuinely precarious. If we lose our hold on power, we'll scream bloody murder on our outlets at everything the other side does. Yet those screams may only confirm our helplessness. The deep cultural dimension of our political battles makes an ordinary transfer of political power far more consequential than it was in the days when America had a bipartisan foreign policy and a broad cultural consensus. We can dream about forcing Republicans to the right and then riding back into power two years later, but one big loss could easily turn conservatives back into a marginal cultural force for some time.
Why have Democrats been so angry? It's because their taken-for-granted cultural superiority has been called into question by 9/11, the return of patriotism, a tough foreign policy, and the open defense of the sort of traditional values they thought were on the way out. Republican victories have punctured the cultural left's sense of the historical inevitability of their triumph, and that is at the root of their rage. By controlling the political agenda, conservatives control the cultural agenda as well (or at least a large part of it). But the truth is, other than the government, the left is still in control of our critical cultural institutions. Should the left recapture the government as well, it may well succeed in pushing traditionalists aside in the culture at large.
The battle is radicalizing. Big Love and The Da Vinci Code are far more direct and brazen attacks on tradition than we might have anticipated just a few years ago. Conservatives are the targets, and Hollywood is aiming and shooting repeatedly. Give credit to Tom Hanks, by the way. As producer of Big Love and star of The Da Vinci Code, he is clearly one of the captains of the not-so-secret conspiracy.
James Wolcott here -
And there's Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter, in the Wall Street Journal here -
It's entertaining watching Kurtz thrash around in frustration, making a silly spectacle of himself. "Why have Democrats been so angry?" he asks, then answers his own question as if the lies and horror of the botched Iraq occupation and the Katrina catastrophe played no part. I don't know any liberal Democrat who cleaves to a notion of "historical inevitability" - it's only the radicals of the far right and left who adhere to such absolute certitudes, while the vast majority believe that civilization muddles along in fits and starts, advancing here, retreating there. I bet Kurtz has never caught more than a glimpse of HBO's Big Love, for if he had he would realize that far from glamorizing or normalizing polygamy, the show depicts the financial and emotional pitfalls and cobweb complications of juggling wives and household arrangements, leading a secret life, and suffering the whims and schemes of a patriarchal leader (portrayed with gnawed mendacity and petty cruelty by Harry Dean Stanton). Like The Sopranos, it trains its attention on a snakepit of conspiratorial activity hidden behind a suburban facade. (If any show undermines Kurtzian notions of "tradition," it's Deadwood, and I never hear conservatives complain about it.)
Note that Kurtz neglects to mention that Hanks' credits also include producing and directing Band of Brothers, an HBO series of unimpeachable heroism and patriotism - hardly products of cultural subversion. Co-exec producer of Band of Brothers was Steven Spielberg, and just as his star-spangled work was heaved overboard by neocons and cultural conservatives after he offended their hawkish sensibilities with Munich, Hanks too is now being tarred as a cultural malefactor for his participation in The Da Vinci Code. Give it up, guys. You're never going to sour America on Tom Hanks; you're never, in short, going to be able to Swift Boat him.
If this is what Kurtz and his kind are like with The Da Vinci Code, I don't want to be around to hear the caterwauling that may occur should Oliver Stone's World Trade Center become a hit. It'll be like karoke night among the coyotes.
Be grateful for what the Christians gave you, you Hollywood Jews! It's so sad you can't be grateful.
I do not understand the thinking of a studio that would make, for the amusement of a nation 85% to 90% of whose people identify themselves as Christian, a major movie aimed at attacking the central tenets of that faith, and insulting as poor fools its gulled adherents. Why would Tom Hanks lend his prestige to such a film? Why would Ron Howard? They're both already rich and relevant. A desire to seem fresh and in the middle of a big national conversation? But they don't seem young, they seem immature and destructive. And ungracious. They've been given so much by their country and era, such rich rewards and adulation throughout their long careers. This was no way to say thanks.
Amazing. But a cool diversion from the real issues.