ATTEMPTS TO GIVE George Bush’s administration a nickname had been circling around this one: “The Tinkerbell Presidency.” Like Ronald Reagan’s “Teflon,” recognizing his gift for sidling past criticism, or Bill Clinton’s “Comeback Kid,” honoring his talent for turning around any scandal, the epithet captures Bush’s quality of surrounding himself with an amen chorus that claps every doomed policy back to life. But the name won’t catch on. The Bush drama has moved into the final act, and Tink’s dust isn’t working.
This time the fairy will die.
Historians may want to mark the last attempt at arousing audience participation, and here it is: Just after the fall of Harriet Miers, the soprano section at the National Review Online sent out this hallelujah: “You know what the relief is this morning? A return to the feeling that this president gets the big things right. There was a detour, but I’m confident we’re going to have good news shortly….”
Really? Bush may yet snag an occasional friendly headline (“Nominee Confirmed”), but his presidency is effectively over. A man who built his entire administration upon demanding unctuous loyalty from his allies now finds himself wounded by their shabby betrayal. You’d have to go back to one of Spain’s humpbacked Hapsburgs to find court perfidy of the variety that is currently depleting the president’s power.
Bush’s allies in Congress began to turn away right after the election of 2004. John McCain repeatedly mocks Condi Rice or any other official who dares to come before him with honey-tongued news from Iraq. Chuck Hagel says of Iraq: “It’s beyond pitiful, it’s beyond embarrassing, it’s now in the zone of dangerous.” A senator as conservative as Jim DeMint of South Carolina has broken with Bush on the budget, and it was Republicans who knifed Bush’s grand Social Security reform.
Worse, roughing up the president has practically become the new Republican way to announce a presidential campaign for 2008. Only a few months ago, Bill Frist was happy to violate his Hippocratic oath by giving the media a bogus diagnosis of Terry Schiavo to help Bush (and himself) court the pro-life fringe. Now Frist has come out in favor of stem-cell research and let it be known he told the White House to pull the plug on Harriet Miers. This is not merely about fleeing a sinking ship. Bush long ago showed that nothing should stand in the way of getting into power; so Frist, along with co-betrayers George Allen and Sam Brownback, are practicing what they have learned at the feet of the master. Now, it’s Bush and his legacy that are in the way.
Outside the corridors of Congress are other kinds of betrayal, insidious ones that can’t be easily restrained by threats or mau-mauing. Take television. Hurricane Katrina revealed a Homeland Security operation that looked like the Keystone Cops, and television producers saw, for the first time, mass outrage at the Bush cronies. Here’s the bad news for Bush: There’s only one thing the broadcast media will pursue more obediently than the approval of an intimidating government: audience share. Now that his approval numbers are in a tailspin, TV bookers are dusting off that long neglected Rolodex of administration critics.
Once, Bush’s Iraq gamble had backing from moderate pundits like Peter Beinart, Andrew Sullivan, and George Packer. But each has slunk away cursing Bush’s name with angry magazine covers, withering blogs, or brutal books. For conservative pundits, the turning point came with the Miers nomination. John Fund whacked it as “a political blunder of the first order.” George Will and his thesaurus called her nomination the “perfect perversity.” Robert Bork called it a “disaster on every level.” Embodying what David Brooks, pop neologist, has already coined the “Post-Bush Conservative,” they no longer see Bush as a prince to be obeyed but as political carrion upon which to feast.
Then there is the staff. It’s memoir-shopping time, and what every official departing the Old Executive Office Building is about to learn is that if you don’t have a fresh story of Bush confusing Sweden for Switzerland or bonking himself in the face by stepping on a rake, then don’t come to Sixth Avenue looking for a $250,000 advance.
Such books will start rolling out soon enough, and here’s why: Only a few years ago, Bush officials such as John DiIulio, Paul O’Neill, and Richard Clarke all came out to bash Bush as a “Mayberry Machiavelli” or “a blind man in a roomful of deaf people” or a national-security goof who ignored the “urgency” of destroying Al Qaeda. Bush’s response was not to answer their arguments. Instead, each man was immediately Swiftboated with a ferocious attack on his character. DiIulio issued a cringe-inducing Stalinesque apology. O’Neill stammered on TV that he might have made a mistake. Clarke just took it.
That was then.
When the Plamegate indictments were about to come down, the Rove squad sent out an unnamed “White House ally” to say that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was “a vile, detestable, moralistic person with no heart and no conscience who believes he’s been tapped by God to do very important things.” For some reason, it didn’t work. Maybe Fitzgerald’s Sunday-school repute broke the slander machine, or maybe the mass audience just got fed up with the same old mudslinging. Even more shocking, though, was the machine’s failure to Swiftboat Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, who, in a speech and op-ed clearly aimed at finding a publisher, said foreign policy had been taken over by “a secretive, little-known cabal.” He pinned the responsibility for torture not on a few bad apples among the grunts but square on Dick Cheney. Once upon a time, there would have been no mercy for the teller of such tales or the author of such sentences as: “At least once a week, it seemed, Powell trooped over to the Oval Office and cleaned all the dog poop off the carpet. He held a youthful, inexperienced president’s hand.”
From the beginning, Bush avoided the flaccid compromises that come from bipartisan agreements. Instead, he used the easy bullying of Democrats to solidify his base and entertain the Beltway media. Reagan worked privately with Tip O’Neill, Clinton with Trent Lott, but Bush could never call up Harry Reid for a friendly back-channel talk. Once famous in Texas as a “uniter, not a divider,” Bush let the tenor of his presidency get defined by Cheney and dozens of other Ford administration refugees such as Donald Rumsfeld and John Snow. They were men who survived the fires of Watergate, got bounced from office in 1976, and then seethed for a quarter of a century before Bush v. Gore permitted them to take their revenge against the despised Democrats.
Couple that fury with Rove’s tactics and you have an administration that has ruled largely by fear. Swiftboating their enemies at home and torturing them abroad, terror was not so much a war to be fought as a grammar in which to conjugate all their actions. The problem for Bush now is that all his enforcers—DeLay, Libby, Rove, and Cheney himself—are crippled. As more and more Wilkersons go unpunished, more and more will emerge. You can’t rule by fear if people aren’t afraid.
Perhaps Bush chose his governing philosophy from the early pages of The Prince, where Machiavelli advises young leaders that: “It is far safer to be feared than loved.” Later on, though, Machiavelli writes more about the need for a kind heart. He warns young princes that those who rely too much upon “words” and not “nobility of soul” would earn only friendships that “are not real, and cannot be depended upon in time of adversity.”
It’s what we all expect of a C– student: Skim the first couple of chapters and hope to bullshit the rest.