Plenty of Blame

In his column today, Frank Rich pointed something out that I think us liberals would do well to remember.  President Obama’s inauguration speech was not only a statement of his intent to make some changes, to rectify some of the mistakes that his predecessor made, but

Obama wasn’t just rebuking the outgoing administration. He was delicately but unmistakably calling out the rest of us who went along for the ride as America swerved into the dangerous place we find ourselves now.

Indeed. Although I would point out that it may be hard for people who didn’t vote for Bush, who criticized his every move, to feel especially responsible for the actions taken in our name–especially in the foreign policy arena. Nevertheless, point taken: fix the country first, complain about Bush later.

Of course, that being said, it’s still the case that Bush and his associates must face consequences for their war crimes, their perjury and obstruction of justice.  Many ideas are being floated to deal with this, but something must be done.  It would be unacceptable for such crimes to go unpunished.

Top Ten Worst Presidential Mistakes

I noticed an AP article on the CNN website, and reading it made me tilt my head to the side and, like C & C music factory used to say, go hmm. The strange feeling began with the first paragraph:

From engaging in sexual relations with an intern to letting the Vietnam War escalate, U.S. presidents have been blamed for some egregious errors.

I think we all know who that opening refers to. The total incongruity, in terms of scale and consequences, between “letting the Vietnam War escalate” and “engaging in sexual relations with an intern,” gives me pause. Placing Bill Clinton’s escapade at the very beginng of an article about the worst presidential mistakes in history? Surely you jest.

The worst mistake belongs to “President James Buchanan, for failing to avert the Civil War.” Fair enough. That war sucked, for sure. I don’t know enough about Civil War history to know if he could have done anything, but whatever.

According to the article, “The second worst mistake . . . was Andrew Johnson’s decision just after the Civil War to side with Southern whites and oppose improvements in justice for Southern blacks beyond abolishing slavery.” Well, I think that’s one we can all agree with.

Then we revisit the opening mystery with this set of grafs:

Lyndon Johnson earned the No. 3 spot by allowing the Vietnam War to intensify, Gregg said.

Where does Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal rank? Many scholars said it belonged at No. 10, saying that it probably affected Clinton’s presidency more than it did American history and the public.

If you’re like me, your head is tilting at a dangerous angle at this point. The Vietnam War was really horrible in a lot of ways and all that. What justifies immediately interpolating Clinton’s pants-free adventure right after it? No justification can be found in the scholars’ response. If it “probably affected Clinton’s presidency more than it did American history” then what the hell is it doing on the list at all? What distinguishes it from all the other (assumedly more numerous than we know) private sexual forays of other presidents?

Here’s the rest of the list:

4: Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to compromise on the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

5: Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up.

6: James Madison’s failure to keep the United States out of the War of 1812 with Britain.

7: Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, a self-imposed prohibition on trade with Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.

8: John F. Kennedy allowing the Bay of Pigs Invasion that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

9: Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair, the effort to sell arms to Iran and use the money to finance an armed anti-communist group in Nicaragua.

You’ll notice here that not only was Clinton in the lede of the article, but his was the only “mistake” mentioned out of order twice, to place it in a position of greater prominence. Why is this AP writer trying to (ahem) insert Clinton where he clearly does not belong? It could be to get readers attention with a more current figure.

Which immediately made me think: What other current Presidential types have made mistakes that were more important than Clinton’s? I’ll give you a second. Here are a few hints: he let 9-11 happen, he went to war on false pretences, and, in the immortal words of Amy Poehler (via SNL’s Weekend Update) he let people drown when it rained (you know, in New Orleans).

Where the hell was George W. Bush? No mention whatsoever. Not even something like “we didn’t think it was appropriate to ask about the current guy,” or something, which would have been cowardly but at least forthright. This is just inexcusable. Luckily, there is a poll that asks which was the worst blunder of these three: Buchanan / Civil War, Nixon / Watergate, or Clinton / Lewinsky, and Clinton is at 25% We can do something about that.

President Bush Off the Deep End

On February 17th, George W. Bush, President of the United States of America, said the follwing during a discussion on the war on terror:

I knew we’re at war when they attacked us. As a matter of fact, I was down here in Florida. It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on. And I vowed that day that I would not rest, so long as I was the President, in protecting the people. So a lot of my decision-making is based upon the attack. And I know we’re at war, see — I knew it then, and the enemy has, unfortunately, proved me right because they continue to attack. In order to win the war against the enemy you got to understand the nature of the enemy.

Where to begin? This sounds like the ravings of a madman. I remember 9-11, and it seemed to take the President quite a long time to figure out what was going on. What enemy? Who continues to attack? What is he talking about?

While it would be easy (and fun!) to marvel at such fundamentally unhinged talk, it does occur to me that there are deeper issues at work here, examination of which can give us clues to some Republican strengths, and how to defeat them.

Bush continued in that speech:

First of all, these people are cold-blooded killers, people who will kill the innocent in order to achieve a tactical objective and a strategic objective. They have no conscience. You can’t negotiate with these people. You cannot reason with them. You must bring them to justice.

Still no idea who “they” are. Not really a surprise, since Bush thinks the enemy is, well, whoever he thinks it is. But underneath the silliness lurks a distressing truth. Anyone who has read Chris Hedges’ excellent book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, will remember the point he makes about victimhood. He describes how every side in a conflict seeks to position itself as the victim. That way, any actions they take can be justified because they were taken in self-defense. Bush is performing this maneuver by the book.

It is true we were attacked on 9-11. Bush transfers all the victimhood of that event into an incoherent set of ideas about some “they” who are out there, bloodthirsty and relentless, waiting to victimize us. Obviously, he intends this blanket to cover the Iraq War as well, even though, in that instance, no Iraqi involvement in 9-11 was ever demonstrated. By portraying the US as perpetually about to be victimized again, almost anything can be justified.

There was a creepier instance of this dynamic during the audience Q & A. As you know, audiences at Bush appearances are screened to ensure sympathy and applause, so softballs and compliments are not surprising. One question, though, did surprise me:

Q: We appreciate it. How do you — earlier you shared with us some intimacy about how you make decisions, and I felt that was heartfelt. How do you keep it together? What do you really think about when the biggest story this week was Dick Cheney’s hunting trip, and not Al Gore blasting our troops and being treasonous in his regard to this war on terror in the Middle East? (Applause.) How do you keep it together?

Don’t you see? The media is victimizing Republicans all the time! Imagine, covering a story about the current vice president possibly committing a crime, over a private citizen giving a speech on another continent! How dare they? If you don’t believe me, the President’s answer has a key phrase about the media’s victimization of Republicans:

So to answer your question — and I appreciate that — first, I’m wise enough not to fall into your trap because — (laughter) — there are some keen reporters paying attention to every word I’m saying. (Laughter.) But I really don’t let that bother me. I got my perspective, and I got my priorities. My faith is a priority. My family is a priority. And — (applause.)

Ha ha! Of course he can’t answer your question. There’s reporters listening. Never mind that reporters represent the people, and work to disseminate the information necessary to be an informed citizen. They’re bad, one assumes, because they might spread dissent, which is also bad, because if you don’t believe in the president, how will you know who the enemies are?

The very way that Bush’s operation sets up these appearances shows a paranoid sense of imminent victimhood. I mean, he’s supposed to be the President of all citizens, isn’t he? So why won’t he speak in front of them? Under the current system, you get ridiculous insanity like this:

Q: Thank you for being our President. We are all way better off and very safe —

THE PRESIDENT: Thanks. My high honor, by the way. (Applause.)

Well great! I’m glad they can fill a room with morons! This Republican party is starting to behave like a separate population, feeling victimized by the culture, the media, the government, until it justifies anything in retaliation. The fact that it is all made up does not matter. My friend and I were talking the other day about whether the Republicans would accept a Democrat President. We weren’t sure, and it dawned on me that I’m not sure how seriously the Republicans take their duty as citizens if the people they want are not in charge. Scary stuff.

We must break apart these invented structures of victimhood. The only way this will happen is by questioning the vague assertions that we are fighting a ruthless enemy, or that 9-11 changed everything. We must get rid of this stupid term, the War on Terror. And we must force the Republicans to reconcile with reality, or else we face a dark path.

The Case of Facts v. Bush

One thing that makes arguing with Republicans so hard is that they don’t seem to care that much about the facts. Even though we all inhabit the reality-based community, they apparently do not. It’s like beating your head against the wall–if the wall wanted to rework the Bill of Rights and legislate everyone’s personal ethical choices for them. The brutal effectiveness of telling people they don’t need to worry about the facts, thus freeing everyone to basically do whatever they like, has been demonstrated in the last few elections.

There is, however, an Achilles Heel to this irritating Right Wing tactic. Clues like the existence of the Discovery Institute (Challenging Darwin’s Theory of Evolution), the promulgation of the “just a theory” meme, and the endless repetition of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” actually serve to demonstrate that facts do still matter. That’s why Republicans exert so much effort to confuse issues and character assassinate their critics: they know that authoritative facts are their enemy, and our ally.

The Case of Global Climate Change


Global Warming

Study this graph. Do you notice anything about it? For example, it has what we might call an upward trend. A rather striking one at that. This graph shows that the global temperature has been above its 30 year mean by increasing amounts for the last sixty years or so. You’d think, then, that the claim that the globe is getting warmer would be obvious. Yet we see that Republicans are not interested in doing anything about it.

The secret is this: they rarely dispute that the temperature has been warming lately. Instead, they obfuscate, and talk about warming cycles, and solar radiation, and natural variance, and a bunch of other invented jargon that makes it seem so boring and complicated that no one remembers what they were talking about in the first place. Republicans know that they don’t have to win the argument, they just have to make it so complicated that people decide it’s okay to just keep doing what they are doing.

The Case of the Iraq War


I created this graph with data from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count website. Now, George W. Bush said, in the 2006 State of the Union,

I am confident in our plan for victory; I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people; I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military. Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning.

Umm, how are we winning? Certainly not in the sense of reducing our casualties in any meaningful way. Indeed, as above, the Republicans can’t fight the facts directly, so they obfuscate and confuse the issue by citing the brutality of the enemy, or the virtuousness of our struggle, or, sometimes, the traitorousness of dissent. Yet the fact remains, they avoid a head on conforntation with the facts, and just do what they can to muddy up the issues so that people don’t know one way or the other.

Counter Strategy

The solution to this problem, in my opinion, is to step back from the wall. Wipe the blood and sweat from our foreheads. When you think about it, the facts are overwhelmingly liberal. No one wants to privatize Social Security. Everyone wants the government to make an effort to help them if there is a natural disaster. The War in Iraq was a mistake and people know it.

We do them a favor when we keep trying to debate the facts. All they have to do is make everything seem confusing until the viewer changes the channel. We have to short-circuit their tactic by granting that they may be right. We know they are not, but that’s not the point. Once we grant that they may be right, we can use the power of the facts to make a pretty strong case anyway. Imagine this hypothetical talking heads exchange on TV:

Liberal: You know, I think Global Warming might be–

Republican: (interrupting) That’s all just junk science and you know it. You know it! Dr. Chester Fothergill has shown this just to be the result of cosmic radiation.

Liberal: You may be right. The climate is a complex thing. But I know that the weight of the facts we have now implies we might be headed for trouble, and over 90% of climatologists agree. If I take my car to the shop and 90% of the mechanics tell me I’ve got a serious problem, I don’t think I’d just drive away with a smile. Would you?

Republican: Well, I, I mean, cars are complicated, and, and ERROR FUNCTION NOT FOUND


Liberal: (Wipes brain goo off face)

See, isn’t that fun? I really think this is a strategy that could work.

And as thanks for staying with me to the end, here’s a final graph:

Bush Approval


What’s that? Why, it’s George W. Bush’s plummeting popularity. That’s a fact we can all be happy with.