That tinkle you hear these days is the sound of scales falling from the eyes of right-wing Washington pundits as they are oh-so-dismayed to discover that somehow, while they weren't watching, the country fell into the hands of a systematically lawless, reckless, corrupt, and authoritarian circle of false conservatives. But to keep their aplomb, they have to pretend that they weren't wearing blinders in the first place. What these leading spokesmen (and they are men, for the most part) of the conservative movement are not so eager to notice is that the power circle in question is one that, not so long ago, they celebrated as a triumphant expression of conservative ideas and values. The euphemistic way to put this is that we are well into the season of conservative distancing. The buck stops nowhere.
You can appreciate the conservative dilemma. They have to wash their hands of the Bush catastrophe without taking any responsibility for it. They have to try salvaging the notion of a vital, intelligent conservatism that was somehow, behind their backs, hijacked, sabotaged, and betrayed by an errant leader—the Bush who, unaccountably, squandered the luminous promise of Bush.
But Bush was not an accidental leader of the Republicans. He was, and remains, their quintessence—their true representative, their embodiment. His partisans celebrated him precisely as that. In his contempt for reason, his wild foreign policy, his militarism, his love of plutocrats, and his disdain for democratic values and civil rights and liberties, he personifies most of the conservative movement. He was what they wanted. And they couldn't believe their good fortune when he showed up to carry their standard. Even if he embarrassed them on occasion, they celebrated his shortcomings as a refreshing change from Bill Clinton.
No wonder his erstwhile cheerleaders are not willing to face their embarrassment. They are not particularly interested in asking: Did he change between the time they heralded him as a conservative hero and the time they threw up their hands deploring his errors? Was his stupendous malfeasance a sign, perhaps, that they missed something essential in his nature way back in the glory days when they welcomed him unquestioningly into their hearts? Does this not tell us all we need to know about their acuity?
Much of the Democrats' success next year and in coming years will rest on their ability to convince Americans that George W. Bush was not a peculiarly terrible president but a predictably terrible one—predictably bad because his unheeding, bulldozer nature, and that of the vice-president he chose, were incarnations of the conservative movement's plutocratic disdain and autocratic willfulness.
To prepare for this exercise—one that will extend for yearsit is useful to survey some leading right-wing pundits to see what they refused to see when the bloom was on their rose. In this spirit, I offer a little sampling of befores and afters.
David Brooks Before
"The core threat to democracy is not in the White House, it's the haters themselves."
—New York Times, 9/30/2003
"Senior members of his administration are capable of looking honestly at their mistakes."
—New York Times, 12/9/2003
The Bush administration is "drunk on truth serum," practicing "honesty and candor."
—New York Times, 12/13/2003
"Two years from now
Bush's [inaugural] speech, which is being derided for its vagueness and its supposed detachment from the concrete realities, will still be practical and present in the world, yielding consequences every day."
—New York Times, 1/22/2005
David Brooks After
"Institutions completely failed us [with Katrina]—this follows Abu Ghraib, the failure of planning in Iraq, the intelligence failures, the corporate scandals, the media scandals."
—PBS NewsHour, 9/2/2005
"Sometimes I'd come away from off-the-record conversations and background briefings [with administration officials on Iraq] feeling my intelligence had been insulted, because even in private, officials would ignore realities that were on newspaper front pages."
—New York Times, 12/4/2005
William F. Buckley, Jr., Before
"George W. Bush is on a great roll. His speech on Thursday combined everything needed at this near-decisive moment. He gave our allies, Congress, and the public exactly that—what was needed. And he engaged in a venture in diplomatic craft that will make its way into the textbooks of the future, in all the languages spoken at the U.N. Security Council."
—National Review Online, 2/7/2003
William F. Buckley, Jr., After
"President Bush's mistake was in going to war."
—National Review Online, 10/1/2004
George Will Before
say Bush is a modest man with much to be modest about, and that he lacks complexity. But modesty is a political virtue and is especially desirable in the next president, who will replace the egomaniacal vulgarian [Bill Clinton]."
—Washington Post, 11/5/00
"Bush's conservatism is more modest, which means more truly conservative, than Reagan's, because it is subdued by a more severe sense of possibilities: It is hard to imagine Bush ever voicing, as Reagan frequently did, Tom Paine's thought, 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.'
Bush's foreign policy is still embryonic, but already suggests conservative realism about the limited sway of power over events
. Bush practiced the essential conservative virtue, prudence, in selecting two advisersDick Cheney and Don Rumsfeldlong on the sort of experience that produces prudence."
—Washington Post, 4/30/01
George Will After
"This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts. Thinking is not the reiteration of bromides
—Washington Post, 5/5/04
"Today, in Iraq, the president's policyand that of his criticsis to hope for a miracle."
—Washington Post, 1/14/07