Credibility Gap

Bush has reached a tipping point: the press is at last questioning his credibility.

| Thu Feb. 12, 2004 4:00 AM EST

Two lines which not so long ago seemed firm as battlements -- places where a sign reading "Go no further" might well have been posted -- now seem drawn in the sand of an Iraqi desert. The first was, of course, that Florida 50% mark of an evenly divided nation of voters (quite different of course from a nation of Americans, who have, until the recent Democratic primaries, been deserting the voting booths in droves). Last year, the President's "approval" rating dropped close to the 50% mark and then held firm until the "Saddam bounce" in December drove it impressively upwards for a month.

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At the end of January, however, in the space of a week his approval ratings plunged about 10 points, which in the strange world of serial polling, is a bit like an elevator dropping from an upper floor to the basement. In most polls, they plummeted, in fact, straight through the fast and firm Florida dividing line as if it had never been there and now have come to rest at perhaps 47% approval (even less in an electoral match-up with Sen. Kerry) in what is for this White House team terra incognita -- though it's territory that would be quite familiar to W's Dad. Given that Florida's about as far south as you can go in the U.S., it may not be accurate to say that Dick Cheney's vice-presidential numbers had already "gone south," but at perhaps a 20% approval level, he was already in Never-Never Land.

Why did this happen? The simplest and most compelling explanation I've found was in Associated Press piece that made the following link:

"President Bush's January decline in public opinion started soon after a top adviser on the search for weapons of mass destruction said he did not believe Iraq had large stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, a tracking poll suggests."

David A. Kay may have started the great ball rolling downhill by being the first person to break through a widespread belief here that every act of this President in regard to Iraq was done because a truly satanic human being had truly satanic weaponry at his command and was somehow truly threatening our country satanically. Why Kay -- and not anyone else or any other proof, of which there's been much -- I don't know. Perhaps simply because he was seen as the President's trusted man. In any case, the message that broke through, as translated, evidently was: The President misled us; "is" isn't "is" in this case either; and that's that.

Robert Kuttner in the American Prospect magazine on-line (Presidential Endgame) suggests that Bush hit a "tipping point" -- Kay's testimony perhaps being the final straw -- which is a good way to think of it. ("After an excruciating delay, chickens are finally coming home to roost for George W. Bush. For over a year, critics have been pointing to the president's systematic misrepresentations of everything from Iraq to education to budget numbers. But the charge hasn't stuck, until very lately.") So much material piling up against the berm was bound to break through someday.

It looks like some tipping point might have been reached in the media too, judging by the sudden spate of critical reporting in papers around the country, the pile-up of investigations and possible scandals on the inside pages of our papers (but heading distinctly front-page-ward), and the remarkably fierce editorials on Bush's recent "Meet the Press" performance in my hometown paper. (See Mr. Bush's Version, and Mr. Bush's Revisionism)

Kuttner comments: "Journalists are herd animals. Conventional wisdom sometimes turns on a dime, even though the basic facts were hidden in plain view all along. I'd bet we are about a week away from newsmagazine covers pronouncing 'Bush in Trouble.' It's about time."

As it turns out, he wasn't a day too early in writing that sentence about "newsmagazine covers" -- see below -- nor in writing of the "tipping point." It's a phrase E. J. Dionne Jr., for instance, has already picked up in his Washington Post column today (…to 'War President'):

"But in the past month, Bush reached a tipping point. His credibility -- a huge asset since the days after Sept. 11 -- is in jeopardy. Three years of job losses and wage stagnation are taking a toll on middle-class confidence. I think Bush really does see himself as a war president. If that's what he's betting the election on, he risks repeating the very experience he has devoted his administration to avoiding -- his father's."

And talking about picking things up, note that word "credibility." It's suddenly everywhere, it's crucial, and I'm going to return to it.

But first let me offer a tiny pat on the back to the "media" of which I find myself part. This Sunday, Eric Margolis, the conservative and incisive columnist for the Toronto Sun, offered the following observation in his column (The Real Voice of America): "During the Iraq war, the Internet became a sort of 'Radio Free America' that gave the lie to all the White House's war propaganda promoted by the mainstream media." We -- including all those of you who have grasped the "word" and the moment simply by creating your own e-lists and passing your version of the news, your own tailored newsletters, on to relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues -- have kept alive and circulating stories and a spirit that the mainstream has until now largely avoided (on which more in a future dispatch).

In any case, a President who, in the first three years of his presidency, largely refused to answer questions from the press (even over ribs in the Nothin' Fancy Café in Roswell, New Mexico) suddenly appears on "Meet the Press" "voluntarily"… Call it panic and you won't be far off, though no one's likely to say so. The Florida line crumbled in a week -- it proved the Maginot line of polling landmarks -- and the Bush team promptly gunned the President's motors and drove him directly onto Tim Russert's Sunday talk show, where he declared himself a "war president" and according to ABC's Cokie Roberts, who bothered to count (which I didn't), used the word "war" 33 times in the course of an hour's interview, most of the second half of which focused on the domestic economy. Of course, he might just as easily have called himself a science-fiction president because he managed to go where no president had gone before, mixing science and fiction together as he went in a fabulously bizarre concoction of staggering illogic.

At its Klingon heart lay the strange new concept of "capacity." Having proposed the following non sequitur, "We remembered the fact that [Saddam] had used weapons, which meant he had weapons," he went on to suggest to Russert that even if Saddam's regime didn't have the weapons of mass destruction the administration, in the persons of the President, vice president, and secretary of state among others, had pronounced a fact of life:

"David Kay did report to the American people that Saddam had the capacity to make weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with the ability to make weapons. He was a dangerous man in the dangerous part of the world…"

Now, some of this was quite true. Saddam had once had chemical and biological weapons and had used some of the chemical ones in his war with Iran (and against Kurdish populations in Iraq) with the full knowledge of the Reagan administration -- with, in other words, the knowledge of a number of key figures in the present administration who at the time continued to back his regime anyway, which helps perhaps account for the "memory" (or the memory lapses). Bush went on to define Saddam as a "madman," the Middle East as a playground for madmen, and then to give a new and original twist to the concept of "imminent danger":

"By the way, quoting a lot of their data, in other words, this is unaccounted for stockpiles that you thought he had because I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman, and I believe it is essential, I believe it is essential that when we see a threat, we deal with those threats before they become imminent. It's too late if they become imminent. It's too late in this new kind of war, and so that's why I made the decision I made."

(By the way, despite how they read, all quotes are guaranteed to be as transcribed.)

Now, as for "capacity" or "the ability to make weapons" in this world of ours: As the Aum Shinrikyo cult that sarin-gassed the Tokyo subways showed, any half-baked, malign group with money, access to people with some scientific training, and labs of any sort now has such a "capacity." "Capacity" is essentially knowledge plus money -- and as the recent Pakistani case of nuclear proliferation indicates, where money can be flashed, knowledge is increasingly easily transferable. In that sense, there is hardly a country around the world that doesn't pose a potential danger, as soon enough will kids in high-school labs.

But back to the President's capacity:

"There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America… Well, because he had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon. We thought he had weapons. The international community thought he had weapons. But he had the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network… The evidence I had was the best possible evidence that he had a weapon.

"Russert: But it may have been wrong.

"President Bush: Well, but what wasn't wrong was the fact that he had the ability to make a weapon. That wasn't right."

The ability to make a weapon. Of course, the missing factor here, the one unmentionable factor in this strange, wobbling, web of presidential explanations (which sounded a bit better when spoken than they look on the page) is that Saddam's regime had been targeted for destruction long before any administration official asked the intelligence agencies for information on the subject of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And when the request was made, it was expected that the Information provided would support policy, which meant supporting an imperial desire for war, which was why the "intelligence" had to be cherry-picked by the team around our sci-fi president. He then claimed the "capacity" to do the one thing human beings do dreadfully -- see into and predict the future and act on that. He appointed himself the equivalent of a "precog" in Stephen Spielberg's version of Philip Dick's Minority Report, and gave himself permission to spot the crime long before it could be committed.

Here was the president's summary of his precog position:

"[Saddam] could have developed a nuclear weapon over time. I'm not saying immediately, but over time which would then have put us in what position? We would have been in a position of blackmail. In other words, you can't rely upon a madman, and he was a madman. You can't rely upon him making rational decisions when it comes to war and peace, and it's too late, in my judgment, when a madman who has got terrorist connections is able to act."

Here then is the essence of Bush's war policy, when everything else drops away: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda… Did.

Note, by the way, that key "over time" in the last quote, even though, as we headed into this administration's preordained war, its key officials were carefully placing rhetorical mushroom clouds over all-too-real American cities. There's no point, of course, in arguing about this hodgepodge of desire, aggression, and sci-fi fantasy. We now know that Saddam had no nuclear program left of any significance, nor any possible way to make such a weapon in the reasonably foreseeable future, nor any way to actually use such a weapon to endanger us.

My own favorite presidential line from the Russert interview, however, was this: "In my judgment, when the United States says there will be serious consequences, and if there isn't serious consequences, it creates adverse consequences."

Though a unique way of putting the matter, it still added up to a very old-fashioned and deeply familiar formula, one so familiar that I almost broke into a heartwarmingly nostalgic round of "Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot." If this is our "war president" with "war on my mind," as he swore early on in the interview, then he implicitly cited one of our great war words in this little formulation. That word is "credibility." Of course, along with the word goes the war that still really matters to Americans -- Vietnam -- and the presidents (Johnson and Nixon) who, with advisors like Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, were quite literally obsessed with the "serious consequences" of the U.S. not appearing "credible" in the eyes of enemies and allies alike.

Credibility, as Jonathan Schell so famously wrote in his book about the Nixon presidency, The Time of Illusion, was a strange, ephemeral quality -- something that could only be measured in the eyes of others. And though it was a foreign-policy obsession and a word much in play in those days among elite policy-makers and the journalists who wrote about them, it soon enough descended from the high realms of the strategists into the living rooms of everyday Americans where, once again, our embattled leaders handed over to others the right to judge their actions. Lyndon Johnson felt it first. Among the various "gaps" of that era which ranged from the (nonexistent) "missile gap" that may have helped win John Kennedy the presidency to the "generation gap," there was said to be a "credibility gap" -- an increasingly yawning chasm between what our leaders said and did, between their claims and their actions, between high ideals pronounced and bloody endpoints.

Credibility, hard as it was to grasp, was the currency of the Vietnam era. I don't know whether the Russert interview gave the President what might be called an instant "Saddam blip" in his polling figures or not, but the return of "credibility" and its instantaneous descent to the opinion polls is startling. The President may swear he's presiding over "the war on terror," but it looks to me like -- as with every other post-Vietnam president -- he's now presiding over just another twisted version of the American Vietnam experience that won't go away. As Paul Harris of the British Observer succinctly put the matter, "Despite the rising casualties in Iraq, it is the Vietnam War that is dominating the headlines."

And in the process it seems that he's walked right into "credibility gap" and been ambushed. The actual Russert interview, of course, came to rest on a literal Vietnam issue -- the President's Vietnam-era record in the Texas Air National Guard (versus Kerry's wartime record in Vietnam itself). By the way, with the administration releasing some presidential records today that don't seem to account for various gaps in his service, the best explanation I've seen so far of that record -- less than conspiratorial but thoroughly embarrassing -- is at the Calpundit weblog; there's also a striking timeline of Kerry's and Bush's tours of duty at Mother Jones on-line ("Spring 1971: Bush is hired by a Texas agricultural importer. He uses a National Guard F-102 to shuttle tropical plants from Florida."); and in the Washington Post today columnist Richard Cohen offered a blunt description of what it really meant to be in the Guard, as he was, in those years (From Guardsman…):

"Now George Bush, who faced this question the last time out, has to face it again. The reason is that this time he is likely to compete against a genuine war hero. John Kerry did not duck the war. But George Bush did. He did so by joining the National Guard. Bush now wants to drape the Vietnam-era Guard with the bloodied flag of today's Iraq-serving Guard -- 'I wouldn't denigrate service to the Guard,' Bush warned during his interview with Russert -- but the fact remained that back then the Guard was where you went if you did not want to fight."

In the Russert interview, the President even managed to offer his own interpretation of the Vietnam War and its presidents -- too involved in micromanaging the fighting, he said. He can't stay away from the war either, and small wonder for, as if on cue, "credibility" gunned its motors and roared into town.

What once was a domestic charge about actual territory -- who lost China (the great debate of the McCarthy era) or who might lose Vietnam (the great fear of all Vietnam-era presidents) instantly became in our moment, "who lost credibility" and how much.

When I turned to my hometown paper the morning after "Meet the Press," there was Richard Stevenson's front-page lead piece (Bush Offers Defense on Iraq and Economy in Interview) already using the word twice: "Democrats and liberal groups responded to the interview with further attacks on Mr.. Bush's credibility… Much of the interview covered Iraq and, implicitly, whether Mr. Bush had lost credibility by having asserted that Iraq had weapons that it now appears not to have had." While Elisabeth Bumiller's accompanying piece of analysis, Bush States His Case Early, had this to say:

"Still, the great risk for Mr. Bush, Democrats and Republicans said on Sunday, is that he could just as easily lose as win an election that turns into a referendum on his judgment and character. Mr. Bush is particularly vulnerable, they said, if the Democrats raise enough doubts about his credibility on the war and on the economy, which now faces the highest federal budget deficit in history."

And that was just the beginning. I was surprised to discover that AOL was already highlighting its own instant "Bush Credibility Meter"; that Time magazine -- Kuttner is a precog -- had a cover headlined, Believe Him or Not, Does Bush Have a Credibility Gap? with two Bush profiles staring each other down, and an article to match, When Credibility Becomes a Campaign Issue ("For a President, trust is the one asset that, once lost, he can't buy back. This may be especially true for George W. Bush, whose appeal has always been personal as much as political. "); that Charlie Rose last night was deep into the Big Muddy of credibility with reporters from Time and the Washington Post as well as the political director of ABC News; and that perhaps the first direct KO punch re: credibility had actually come from the right.

On February 2, Robert Novak, conservative columnist and the reporter credited with outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent due to administration leaks, wrote a stunning column entitled Bush's Credibility Problem:

"Predictably, Republicans reacted to Kerry's success by pasting the liberal label on him. Why, then, the pucker factor? First, because Kerry is an elusive target. Dukakis' old running mate showed in the hours after he was declared the New Hampshire winner that he is no Dukakis. Second, because Bush may be facing the bane of incumbents: lack of credibility…

"Failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a political accident waiting to happen, became the first punch last week when resigned weapons inspector David Kay testified to Congress. The follow-up blow was the White House revelation that the new Medicare plan will cost one-third more than the president predicted… Most worrisome to Republicans is Kerry's war hero image while, in the words of one prominent Bush supporter, ''our guy was drinking beer in Alabama'…' On Friday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan bridled at the thought of the president suffering a deficiency in credibility. But that in truth is the biggest problem he faces today."

It was always pretty obvious that Iraq was not Vietnam, whatever it might be and whatever comparisons might be drawn. But it was also obvious that we in the U.S., having never quite faced the deeper realities of that war, were never able to rid ourselves of it either. We, not the Iraqis, were still "in" Vietnam and the longer the Iraqi fighting and associated troubles went on, the more Vietnam was bound to reassert itself as the reigning trauma and paradigm of 21st century America. Now we have a presidential campaign roaring into the 1960s full speed ahead. It is, in a word, incredible.

Oh yes, and speaking of Iraq, I promised you a second line crossed as if it had been drawn in the sand. Actually, it kind of was, when you think about it. The Bush administration had made clear that only one date remained sacrosanct in Iraq -- June 30th, the bottom-line date for handing over "sovereignty" to an Iraqi governing body. How that was to be done -- via caucuses, elections of some sort, or an Iraqi "Loya Jerga" (I find the idea of using the Afghan model and term for creating a new national government in Iraq risible) leading to an expanded Governing Council, or some other method entirely -- turned out to be ever more negotiable. But what was nonnegotiable -- so swore everyone in sight in this administration and in the CPA in Baghdad -- was when the turnover had to happen, since Bush's men were determined to go into the electoral campaign with a sovereign Iraqi government at their backs. However, just recently, even that June 30th date has begun visibly to wobble and now, with a UN team in Iraq assessing the situation, the administration is madly signaling that it's ready to negotiate that too. Anything, anything, just to put Iraq to bed. Fat chance. (I'm including below, by the way, a strong piece by Gary Younge of the British Guardian on the inability of our "democratic" politicians to take responsibility for anything that's happened on their watch.)

For George, now ambushed in Credibility Gap, I have a word to offer that has special meaning to his vice president: Duck!

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.

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