mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


How Bush could save his presidency and why he won’t

The lesson of every presidential scandal in modern American history is
that it’s the coverup, not the crime, that kills you. Nixon and
Watergate, Reagan and Iran-contra, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky — each
president might have avoided disgrace if only he had promptly admitted
his misdeeds so the country could forgive him and move on. Instead,
each man dragged his drama out by telling lies that invited first
disbelief, then ridicule, and eventually demands for censure.

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George W. Bush is now on the verge of making the same mistake. Like
Clinton, Reagan and Nixon before him, Bush’s problem is that he has
lied to the American people, and the question hanging over the future
of his presidency is whether he will have to fess up.

Clinton and Reagan did. Reagan salvaged his presidency by giving a
nationally televised Oval Office speech admitting that my heart still
tells me we didn’t trade arms for hostages, but the facts show
otherwise. Clinton avoided removal from office by confessing during a
prime-time television speech to an inappropriate relationship with
Lewinsky (Clinton’s apology was so lame and late, however, that he
still had to endure the humiliation of impeachment). Consummate
politicians, both Reagan and Clinton chose to endure the temporary
shame of apology in order to keep their job as the most powerful man
on earth.

But George W. Bush is unlikely to swallow his pride, and that’s what
will bring him down. Bush seems temperamentally more akin to Richard
Nixon, who held to his increasingly dubious protestations of innocence
until the bitter end of Watergate and was duly driven from office.
Bush is now tempting the same fate.

The events of last week make it clear that Bush is committed to
emulating Nixon’s approach of sticking to your story no matter what.
First, Bush demonstrated that he felt zero urgency about finding and
punishing whoever in his administration illegally leaked the identity
of CIA agent Valerie Plame. I don’t know if we’ll ever found out who
did it, the president blithely remarked about a felony offense that
has outraged conservative Republicans as much as it has Democrats.
Then, Bush joined with administration officials in launching a new
propaganda campaign about Iraq whose underlying motto seems to be,
Tell the same lies as before, only louder.

Vice President Dick Cheney in particular refused to cede an inch to
the administration’s critics, insisting repeatedly in a speech to the
right-wing Heritage Foundation that the available evidence on Iraq
proves that the administration was right and its critics were wrong.
To support his case, Cheney cited the recent report by David Kay, the
administration’s handpicked inspector of potential weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq. But Cheney’s characterizations of the Kay report
were so blatantly at odds with what Kay actually wrote that the
Washington Post felt obliged to follow each of the vice president’s
assertions with a paragraph of rebuttal based on the report’s actual
text. And, proving that the White House learned nothing from how its
retaliation against Joseph Wilson has backfired, Cheney went out of
his way to question both the judgment and the loyalty of anyone who
disagreed with the administration’s rush to war.

Outrageous as Cheney’s pronouncements are, Bush’s opponents should
welcome them, because this type of clumsy crisis management will only
dig the White House into deeper trouble. It’s an occupational hazard
of liars that they come to believe their lies and therefore find it
difficult to recognize the objective reality. The problem now facing
Bush is that the propaganda he and his aides used to sell the Iraq war
is coming back to haunt them. Yet the White House’s vaunted political
and media operations are not handling the challenge very well because
their ideology blinds them to what’s actually going on.

Bush led the United States into war on the basis of assertions that
are increasingly being revealed to have been exaggerated, misleading
or outright deceptive. Scores of American soldiers are dying every
month in this war, scores more are being wounded, and tens of
thousands more are being kept in Iraq many months longer than they or
their loved ones anticipated, straining personal lives, harming
careers, and angering the military families who tend to rank among
Bush’s core supporters. The percentage of Americans who tell pollsters
the war was worth fighting has fallen from 75 percent in April to 50
percent now.

The Bush administration blames everyone but itself for these failures.
When Americans hear news reports about inspector Kay’s failure to find
weapons of mass destruction, or about the gargantuan $87 billion price
tag for postwar Iraq, and above all about the continuing unrest and
loss of American life in Iraq, Bush and his aides complain that the
filter of the supposedly liberal media is shutting out the many
positive developments supposedly taking place inside Iraq. But people
outside the Bush team see these same developments as evidence that the
administration overstated the case for war and wrongly promised a
quick and easy victory. Thus a crucial threshold has been passed in
the evolution of this scandal: Not only did the president and his
aides lie, but more and more Americans, both in Washington and across
the country, are realizing that they lied.

For the first time since Bush took office, the past few weeks have
brought a continuing drumbeat of critical news coverage rather than
just the occasional negative story. Mainstream U.S. journalists who
served as the administration’s cheerleaders throughout the post-Sept.
11 period, and especially during the combat phase of the Iraq war,
have at last begun to focus on the same inconsistencies and
shortcomings that foreign news organizations have been publicizing for
months. And the drumbeat of bad news at home will grow louder if the
Plame affair gives rise to congressional and other official
investigations of wrongdoing, because those investigations will
provide the occasion and political space for journalists to keep
pushing. (One myth of Watergate is that Nixon was driven from office
by a vigilant press that wouldn’t stop digging. But as Washington Post
assistant managing editor Robert Kaiser later explained, Woodward and
Bernstein would have died on the vine were it not for the official
investigations they set off.)

The American press has turned on Bush not because journalists suddenly
swallowed bravery pills but because there is growing, bipartisan
criticism of Bush’s Iraq policies throughout the American body
politic, and the press is reflecting that reality. Contrary to their
claims of neutrality and independence, most journalists in Washington
function as palace-court stenographers; that is, the tone and content
of their coverage reflect the views of the government officials and
other elites who run the palace known as official Washington.
Reporters frame their stories around quotes from these elites. Thus,
when the bulk of official opinion in Washington favors a given policy,
there is little critical news coverage of it, because officials are
not criticizing it. Conversely, when a significant portion of
Washington officialdom is uneasy about a given course of action,
critical coverage does arise. The reason that coverage of Bush has
become harsher recently is simply that more and more members of the
Washington elite are growing uneasy about the human, financial and
political costs of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The danger for the White House is that the criticism is coming from
across the ideological spectrum. Besides the usual liberal suspects
(Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, for example), there are
traditional Democratic hawks such as Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania,
the Vietnam vet who recently made headlines by demanding Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of
California, who upbraided Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz for
the Bush administration’s attitude of
we-know-best-and-everyone-else-should-fall-in-line. Republicans are
squawking too, especially about paying $87 billion to reconstruct a
country with the second-largest oil reserves in the world.

The Republican grumbling is especially significant. In general, the
palace-court nature of the press means that coverage of a given
president is only as critical as the opposition party is. Clinton, for
example, faced relatively tough coverage because Republicans were
always attacking him, while Reagan got relatively friendly coverage
because Democrats were afraid to challenge him. But news coverage can
tip beyond tough to predatory when key members of a president’s own
party turn against him, as some Democrats did during the run-up to
Clinton’s impeachment and some Republicans did to Reagan and Nixon at
equivalent moments in their scandals. If the current scattered
Republican complaints congeal into something firmer, driven perhaps by
the administration’s failure to bring the Plame leaker to justice,
Bush will be in serious trouble.

But Bush could quiet the storm threatening his presidency easily
enough. The solution is straight out of White House Damage Control
101: Go on television and come clean with the American public so you
can put the scandal behind you. Bush wouldn’t have to come entirely
clean — neither Clinton nor Reagan admitted outright that he lied.
But Bush does need to show that he hears the rising criticism, regrets
past errors, and plans to work more closely with the rest of the
government to fix the situation in Iraq. To be taken seriously, Bush
would probably also have to offer up a fall guy for the Plame leak —
a painful step, but necessary to demonstrate that he won’t cover up a
national-security offense that has angered even conservative
Republicans.

In such a speech, Bush could begin by acknowledging that his
administration, in its understandable zeal to protect the American
homeland from further terrorist attacks, may have overinterpreted some
of the intelligence reports available before the Iraq war. We
believed, Bush could say, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass
destruction and was working with al-Qaida to threaten the United
States, and we had good reason to think so. Some have now questioned
our conclusions and suggested that the evidence for them was not
airtight. But intelligence gathering is an imperfect science, and in
view of the risk Saddam posed, my advisors and I believed it was
better to be safe than sorry. If we made mistakes in the process, I
regret them. But I give you my word: Any mistakes we made were made in
good faith — not from a desire to deceive but from a determination to
protect our great nation. And the results prove our cause was just,
for the ending of Saddam’s tyrannical rule has made the world safer
for everyone.

Critics would surely pick holes in the speech, charging that Bush et
al. misinterpreted prewar intelligence deliberately, not accidentally,
and would demand that the press, Congress and other investigators
pursue the evidence accordingly. But such intellectual objections,
though they might triumph on newspaper Op-Ed pages, would not
necessarily carry much political weight out in the country or inside
the Washington establishment. A speech from the Oval Office functions
above all on an emotional level as an exchange between the president
and his people. And like it or not, especially in time of war, most
Americans tend to give the president the benefit of the doubt; they
want him to succeed. This speech wouldn’t satisfy Bush’s die-hard
opponents, but it wouldn’t have to; its goal would be to shore up
support within the wavering political center that usually determines
the course of the nation.

The only other escape for Bush is for a miracle to strike in Iraq —
for that war-torn country to turn quickly into a paradise of peace
where Americans are cheered more than cursed and the bill for
reconstruction is shared by the very foreign nations Bush insulted
during the lead-up to war. But without such a miracle, bipartisan
criticism of Bush will surely increase, bringing with it the
likelihood of official investigations and an intensification of
already critical news coverage. The ultimate result? Bush needn’t fear
impeachment; Republicans are still too strong and Democrats too timid
for that, and besides, barely 12 months remain before Election Day.
The more likely outcome is that the continuing drumbeat of bad news
will sufficiently tarnish Bush that his popularity will be plummeting
even further by next November. Factor in mass discontent with the
jobless economic recovery Bush has presided over, and the Texan
could very well turn out to be a one-term president, provided the
Democrats nominate an attractive candidate to run against him.

The wall of lies erected by and around the Bush administration isn’t
crumbling yet, but it is definitely shaking. Bush could still save
himself if he had the guts and humility to admit his mistakes and ask
the nation for forgiveness. But that won’t happen. Most politicians
have a keen survival instinct, but this president is also famous for
his stubborn moral certainty. Backing down — in public, no less — is
for sissies. Jesus Christ may be his favorite philosopher, but Bush
seems to have forgotten one of the Good Book’s wisest warnings: Pride
goeth before the fall.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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