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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

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Tuesday, 21 March 2006
Defiance: The Press Conference From Another Planet
Topic: Bush

Defiance: The Press Conference From Another Planet

Out here on west coast events occur at odd times. We hold the Oscar thing down the street at five in the afternoon so it can be broadcast live in primetime back east, eight in the evening. Here it's something on the television while you make dinner - Oscar parties are afternoon affairs. And then Tuesday, March 21st, the White House surprised everyone with a mid-morning press conference at ten back east, just after sunrise here. Fresh coffee, feed the cat, skim the local paper, check the email, and you miss what turned out to a big deal. This one was unusual. Well, it was four in the afternoon for Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, whose emails and submissions and photos arrive at odd times, here at least. Perhaps he caught it there in CNN-International or BBC World Service, or not. Things in France are heating up, what with the students taking to the streets. But here seems like end of the world, out of the flow of major events.

But this presidential press conference was not to be missed - filled with the president saying the oddest things. With his poll numbers in the basement this was a basic "Yeah, so?" - we're staying in Iraq for the next three years, and the next president can figure out what to do then. Not his problem. And everyone else is wrong - the public, the press, those in congress even in his own party who don't like what he's up to, and the courts of course.

That was the gist of it, with special emphasis on the press - it's obvious we're winning the war, big time, save for a few minor setbacks, and the press insists on reporting about all the fighting and car bombs and sectarian reprisal killings of women and children and all that. He didn't think that was fair.

At two in the afternoon out here - five in the evening back east, in the real world - you could see a discussion of all that on MSNBC's Hardball, Chris Matthews' shouting show. He suggested that since reporters were covering a war, maybe they should report on the fighting and such. It's kind of what they're supposed to do. On his panel he had David Gergen from Harvard, the man four presidents, Democrat and Republican, brought in to handle tough times, and Pat Buchanan, the old-school conservative big on keeping America pure in this way or that, and the former mayor of San Francisco, the amusing Willie Brown. What did they talk about? Vietnam. Really.

Buchanan said we won that war, or had until the American public turned on the administration and went all anti-war - we controlled everything and had won, damn it, and the press screwed everything up by reporting only the bad stuff, so we lost, because of the press, and only because of the press. Gergen, who had been in uniform in that war, said that was an odd view - we won and then the press made us lose? Not how he remembered it. They argued for a bit. Willie Brown was shaking his head, just amazed. Vietnam. But that was the discussion. Bush had pretty much used the Buchanan argument, fairly common on the right - if the press would only report the right things we'd win, no matter what happens on the battlefield. Yes, the logic is elusive, but that's the idea. Someone should have told Napoleon at Waterloo.

There was other news beside the big press conference, as here we see a hundred or more of the bad guys stormed a police station in Iraq and freed thirty prisoners. Lots of people died, including eighteen or more Iraqi police officers. Should that be reported? Over in the UK Prime Minister Blair gave his big speech on why we all have to stay the course, as it were, and see this Iraq business through, and anything like it, because, if you will, this really is not a "clash of civilizations," but a "clash about civilization." Oh. He'll have to explain that to his bigger, stronger, thousand times more powerful big brother George. The language is tricky. George needs help with the subtleties. Oh, and here we see both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are considering moving their reserves out of dollars and into Euros. Might crash the world economy, realigning everything. That's an old story. See The Real Reasons Bush Went To War from John Chapman in The Guardian (UK), Wednesday July 28, 2004. That's come up here before, and elsewhere. It's big deal. But there was that press conference.

The White House transcript of the press conference is here, but for a full flavor of the thing you might want to check out the video clips available here at Crooks and Lairs, the site that archives media clips of all sorts. It will give you an idea of the new tone of things - the president taking questions of actual substance and being strangely combative. The clips are of an odd thing. He calls on the woman who has been part of the White House press corps since the days of Kennedy, Helen Thomas, who has said he is the worst president in American history. He hasn't called on her in four years. She's trouble. But he asks what her question is. What's up with that?

She refers to all the people who reported he wanted a war with Iraq from the day he became president, long before the World Trade Center got slammed and all that, and to the fact there were now WMD and he did say Iraq was not part of that whole business, and asks, given that, what was his real reason for launching the war. He had said it wasn't about oil. So what was the real reason?

He said her sources were just wrong. No president wants war. And he cut her off a lot as she tried to follow up - your basic bullying of an eighty-year-old woman. It must play well with the base.

Curiously, in the text below the video links you'll find an additional link to this - Mickey Herskowitz who had struck a deal to ghost write Bush's autobiography said that "He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999."

What? "It was on his mind. He said to me: 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.' He said, 'If I have a chance to invade, if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency...."


Who to believe?

Well he also said this -
I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences ... and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it.
What? He did? As Josh Marshall says here -
Of course, that's not what happened. We were there. We remember. It wasn't a century ago. We got the resolution passed. Saddam called our bluff and allowed the inspectors in. President Bush pressed ahead with the invasion.

His lies are so blatant that I must constantly check myself so as not to assume that he is simply delusional or has blocked out whole chains of events from the past.
It's the former - delusional. No blocking out of stuff he once knew. As noted three years ago here, he never believed Saddam Hussein allowed inspectors in. Didn't happen. He said the same thing standing next to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in a photo opportunity, that according to a White House Press Release from July 14, 2003. He lives in another world. We all saw the inspectors making their reports to the UN, on television. Someone is mistaken. It must be us? No.

So he has the basic facts wrong on this one thing, what he sees as the major reason we went to war. Oh well, no one in the press corps corrected him. He's the boss.

You might read Brad DeLong, the Berkeley economics professor, here on the questions about the money stuff - "Mr. President, in the upcoming elections I think many Republicans would tell you one of the big things they're worried about is the national debt, which was $5.7 trillion when you took office, and is now nearly $8.2 trillion, and Congress has just voted to raise it to $8.9 trillion. That would be a 58-percent increase. You've yet to veto a single bill, sir - I assume that means you're satisfied with this."

DeLong looks at the answer. Aside from not knowing how the Federal Reserve works or much about how interest rated are set, we get this - "I like the size of the pie, sometimes I didn't particularly like the slices within the pie." Whatever.

DeLong seems to be in despair. It's only the economy.

The wiretapping of citizen without warrants, with no Fourth Amendment protections for anyone now? AP has the summary -
But the president defiantly defended his warrantless eavesdropping program, and baited Democrats who suggest that he broke the law.

Calling a censure resolution "needless partisanship," Bush challenged Democrats to go into the November midterm elections in opposition to eavesdropping on suspected terrorists. "They ought to stand up and say, 'The tools we're using to protect the American people should not be used,'" Bush said.
Well, that's not what they're saying. They're saying do it, but get a warrant - don't toss out the constitution. Follow the law. But then the concept is tricky. George needs help with the subtleties. Well, many do, even if it doesn't seem that hard to figure out -doing the right thing the right way. You see how the fall elections will be framed.

And there was a bit about the Hurricane Katrina business. That got a new spin when he brought up all those trailers sitting useless and rotting on a airport runway, in Hope Arkansas of all places - housing needed badly, but gone to waste. What about that? "The taxpayers aren't interested in 11,000 trailers just sitting there. Do something with them. And so I share that sense of frustration when a big government is unable to, you know - it sends wrong signals to taxpayers."

Ah, the problem is big government. It's useless. It can't so anything right. It's almost saying "see, we screwed up" and you cannot expect government to do anything useful, really. It's a tricky ploy. If that is so why should they, or anyone, be elected to anything? George needs help with the subtleties. This is dangerous territory.

So just what was going on here? Why did those of us who are west coasters have this press conference bubbling away on the television while we got dressed to face the day?

John Dickerson has an explanation here -
For months, White House officials reacted to bad news in Iraq by scheduling another Bush speech and blaming the media for relentless negativity. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney appear still to prefer this approach. But starting last fall, White House aides realized that the country would not follow a president they thought was clueless. As big and bad a wolf as the media may be, if the president didn't acknowledge some of what regular Americans saw on their television screens or read in their newspapers, he'd never be able to rebuild support for his administration and the Iraq war. People wouldn't bother to listen to his plans for fixing the problem, administration aides admitted to themselves, if they thought he didn't know what it was.

This realization did not unleash any bold acts of confession. Bush has not participated in freewheeling town halls or regular press conferences or a heart-to-heart with Barbara or Oprah. His doses of candor have come in thimblefuls, first in a series of December speeches and more recently in question-and-answer sessions. What Bush says is aimed at believers, Republicans and independents who don't need to see a firing of Donald Rumsfeld or troop redeployment but who believe the U.S. cannot leave and want to give Bush the benefit of the doubt. If they think the president is giving them the straight story, they'll regain their faith in his ability to find a solution. All this worked briefly last year. Polls showed an increase in support. But the candor didn't keep pace with the carnage.

Today the president tried again. He held a press conference in which he tried to show that his perseverance is not blind and that he is not "optimistic for the sake of optimism."
So as Nixon was forced to say "I am not a crook" Bush has been forced in saying he's really not totally clueless, honest. He knows what's going on.

He said he knows things are tough in Iraq - "I hear it from our troops. I read the reports every night." He knows seventy percent of Americans believe Iraq is in a civil war, and so does Ayad Allawi, Iraq's former prime minister. He just doesn't agree. He knows people are calling for staff changes, and for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to resign. He gets it. But it's not going happen. He hears it all, but, "They've got some ideas that I like and some I don't like." His choice. He's the boss. The people have spoken.

In sum, defiance.

Other points? He asked Americans to "imagine an enemy that says: 'We will kill innocent people because we're trying to encourage people to be free.'"

Okay. Fine. Abu Ghraib. Guantánamo. That fellow, the Army dog handler, who was just convicted for the contests with his buddies to see whose big dog could cause horrified prisoners to soil themselves first. The president himself says he'd heard thirty thousand Iraqis died, before the current troubles.

Tim Grieve here sees a problem with the concept, and add further pointers -
As Knight Ridder reported Sunday, Iraqi police say that U.S. soldiers last week executed 11 people, including a 75-year-old woman and a 6-month-old infant, after raiding a house where an al-Qaida suspect was captured. Knight Ridder says that such accusations are "commonplace" in Iraq, and that most "are judged later to be unfounded or exaggerated." This one is different, Knight Ridder says, "because it originated with Iraqi police, and because Iraqi police were willing to attach their names to it." The report, a copy of which Knight Ridder has obtained, says: "The American forces gathered the family members in one room and executed 11 persons, including five children, four women and two men. Then they bombed the house, burned three vehicles and killed their animals." The military said today that it is investigating the allegations.

Meanwhile, Time reports that the military is investigating charges that Marines seeking revenge for a deadly roadside bombing went on a rampage in the western Iraqi village of Haditha in November, murdering 15 civilians in the process. A Marine communiqu? initially claimed that the civilians were killed in the roadside bomb blast itself. But a subsequent investigation -- apparently begun when Time confronted military officials in Baghdad with the eyewitness accounts of local Iraqis -- acknowledged that the 15 civilians were, in fact, killed by the Marines.

The Marine Corps has turned over the case to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. A spokeswoman for the military says that the referral doesn't necessarily mean that anyone thinks that a crime was committed, and that insurgents are ultimately to blame anyway because nothing would have happened if they hadn't set off an IED. But of course, the insurgents wouldn't have had a U.S. Humvee to bomb if the United States hadn't sent its troops into a war of choice in the first place. "What happened in Haditha," Time says, "is a reminder of the horrors faced by civilians caught in the middle of war - and what war can do to the people who fight it."
Imagine that. Things are a bit more ambiguous. They are us. We are them.

But as Grieve notes elsewhere, it was more of the same. The president thinks Donald Rumsfeld is doing a "fine job" and shouldn't resign. He thinks the economy is strong and getting stronger. He thinks that Iraqis have looked into the abyss of civil war and chosen another future for their country.

Some differ on all this. The president is elsewhere, and defiant about it.

Here's the start of a long comment, and the final paragraph. You might want to glance at the middle of this -
I am ashamed. I am ashamed of this President. Aren't you? After watching his press conference today, a sense of shame overtook me. I'm ashamed that he took to the podium today as if he emptied out a container of laughing gas. I'm ashamed of a President who has the temerity to laugh when asked a question about war. I'm ashamed of the whores of the fourth estate who care more about having the honor of being the butt of one of the President's jokes than about exposing the truth to the American people. I'm ashamed that millions of my fellow Americans are so scared and so desperate for leadership that they believe the President's bullshit.

... This is not America. I refuse to accept it. America doesn't torture. America doesn't jail people incommunicado for years. America doesn't sit idly by as an entire people are exterminated in Darfur. America doesn't stifle science. America doesn't conduct massive, secret spying on innocent citizens. America doesn't believe the individual is an annoyance, an impediment to supreme government power. This isn't the greatest democracy on earth. This isn't the nation that pioneered human rights. This isn't the America that leads the world, that leads humanity towards a greater good. No, I refuse to accept this America of shame. This is not my America. It is an America perverted by Republican stewardship. A nation that under GOP rule has abandoned its founding ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all. True Americans - coast to coast, young and old - now bow their heads silently in collective shame for a nation that has lost its way.
Such things happen when you lose elections. The people have spoken - Vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God).

So we get a do-over? We'll see. Ezra Klein here explains what Al Gore is up to these days. Settling down. Thinking clearly about the issues. Not waffling or are trying to please anyone. Working on his media projects. Some think he could be rather good this time.

What does he say? This - "I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I'm not planning to be a candidate again. I haven't reached a stage in my life where I'm willing to say I will never consider something like this. But I'm not saying that to be coy; I'm just saying that to be honest - that I haven't reached that point."

One comment here (Digby at Hullabaloo) -
I will always have a great fondness for Al Gore. In 2000 I watched him get trashed by a ruthless Right Wing Noise Machine and a sophomoric press corps who were determined to punish him for Clinton's sins (which only they and the very right wing of the Republican party felt required punishment in the first place.) It was one of the most god-awful displays of character assassination we've ever seen - and the way it ended, with the Republicans pulling every lever of brute institutional power they had to seize the office, had to have been a terrible, dispiriting event. I know how bad I felt. I can only imagine the searing disappointment he must have endured.

But what seems to have happened to him in the aftermath is quite inspiring. Rising from the ashes of his defeat, he has come back to be an authentic, inspiring voice for progressive thought. I suspect that when you have been publicly cheated out of something so huge, you figure nothing in your public life could ever hurt you again.

It turns out that Gore took exactly the right lessons from his defeat and has focused his attentions not only on the vapid bloodlessness that has become the Democratic approach to politics - but he has also focused on the primary instrument of his demise: the establishment media.
Gore returns? That would be interesting. At least the press conferences would take place with the president on Planet Earth.

Posted by Alan at 22:09 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 22 March 2006 07:13 PST home

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