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The McCain (et al.) Mutiny

A President who prizes loyalty suddenly finds the knives are out.

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.

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