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8,640,000 Seconds of Bush

by David Corn

Here was Bush Unplugged (or Unhandled). And how edifying it was
Every once in a while an artificial media construct has its use. Take the First 100 Days daze which prompted the usual gabfest. In fact, there were two tracks of blabbing -- one conducted by media commentators (and with this column I am joining their ranks), and one mounted by George W. Bush, who used the false milestone as an occasion to make the media rounds. Of the two talkathons, the latter was more revealing. Bush, who usually maintains a safe distance from journalists, was forced to speak without notes in interviews for several days in a row. While doing so, he nearly got the country into a war in China, claimed to have a solution to global warming without revealing it, took credit for single-handedly transforming the tone of Washington, and made public the little-known fact that the presidency is -- get this! -- a decision-making position. Here was Bush Unplugged (or Unhandled). And how edifying it was.

Let's start with China. Appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," Bush declared he would would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself." This was a significant departure from longstanding policy, which can be described as a non-commitment commitment.

Under law, the United States is pledged to offer military assistance to Taiwan. But it has not vowed to use all necessary means -- say, sending in U.S. troops or hurling nuclear missiles at Beijing -- should China move against Taiwan. At the same time, the United States supports the One China premise, which holds that Taiwan is not a separate nation and is a province (albeit an estranged one) of China. So what would the United States do if Taiwan declared itself an independent state and China replied with military action? Would Uncle Sam really jump into the middle of a fight between an island of 23 million people and a nation of 1.2 billion people (and two dozen- or- so nuclear missiles) and sacrifice American lives to defend a Taiwanese government that defied the One China policy Washington backed? Every U.S. administration since Richard Nixon's has wanted to duck that question. To say yes could risk angering the American public (we're going to risk Los Angeles for Taipei?) and encourage Taiwan's advocates of independence. To say no could embolden the dictators of China. The best course: fudge. This is one of the most basic points of Foreign Policy for Presidents 101.

But Bush missed that part of Condoleeza Rice's tutorial. WIth his comment, he forged a full-out military alliance with Taiwan. Afterward, he and his aides claimed there had been no change in policy. What spin. But Bush's lieutenants quickly got him the right index card. Later that day, Fox News Channel's Brit Hume, referring to the "whatever it took" statement, asked Bush "What does that mean." Here's the answer he received: "It means that all parties in the area have got to understand that we will uphold the spirit of the Taiwan relations law and that I hope that any issue is resolved peacefully." Non-sequitur Alert! Hume tried again: "When you say 'whatever it takes' does that literally mean whatever it takes?" Bush responded in a classic (for him) fashion: "That's open to interpretation." Huh? Bush then proceeded: "The Chinese have got to understand that this is an administration that stands firmly behind the spirit of the Taiwan relations law. I also expect that any issues will be resolved peacefully." That is, he repeated what was drilled into him in the hours between the two interviews. The Chinese, of course, were pissed by the initial remark. But Bush's mandarins were able to nudge him back to the desired position of strategic ambiguity with two sentences, which he did succeed in memorizing.

So what global warming "solution" was he referring to?
In another 100-Days interview, Bush was asked by The Washington Post what he would do to demonstrate he was not walking away from the issue of global warming after having yanked the United States out of the Kyoto accord.

He answered: "That's a great question....First we would not accept a treaty that would not have been ratified, not a treaty that I thought made sense for the country." Okay, stop tittering. As Laura Bush told Larry King, "Anybody who gives as many speeches as [Bush] gives is bound to make a few errors." (She also said, "I actually don't hear that many of them. Somehow I missed them. I just think the press hear them." And she was a school teacher!) This response was deemed the Bushism of the day by Slate's Jacob Weisberg. But the rest of Bush's response was more disturbing: "We do take the issue seriously and we've had these, and I'm sure you probably know more about the meetings than I do, but we've had these meetings of high-level Cabinet officials all coming up with a strategy that views the issue of greenhouse gases in a very realistic, scientific way that recognizes one, it's a problem and, two, this is a solution that we believe is good for our country and good for others as well."

Was Bush really assuming the Post reporters knew more about Cabinet-level meetings than he did? Unfortunately, that probably was true. But he was suggesting that the Kyoto agreement did not approach global warming in a "scientific way," while his band would. (Well, he was somewhat correct in the sense that many climate scientists believe that the Kyoto agreement did not go far enough -- and, still, it went too far for Bush.) So what "solution" was he referring to? There has been no proposal put forth by his administration. Bush has said he will do something to reduce greenhouse gases. Yet he has offered no details, and, clearly, he was incapable of discussing this matter beyond issuing vague talking points.

During an interview with CBS's Early Show, Bush was asked if there has been one area in which he had hit a home run during his first 2400 hours. "I think changing the tone in Washington," he said.

"That's very important because Washington can be a very acrimonious and bitter place, where people are here to further their own political agendas as opposed to doing what's right for the people." Has Bush himself altered the tone of Washington? Bill Clinton probably has done more in this regard than Bush -- by leaving town. Much of the rancor in Washington over the past decade flowed from the vicious right-wing attack against Clinton.

This is not to absolve the Democrats, but it was Newt Gingrich who advised his fellow Republicans to blast Democrats as immoral politicians. At one gathering of conservative activists in the early Clinton years, right-wingers were purchasing a bumpersticker reading, "Where's Lee Harvey Oswald When You Need Him?" Jerry Falwell pitched a video that accused Clinton of murdering political opponents. Other rightwingers claimed the Vince Foster suicide had been a hit-job to cover up some Clinton malfeasance or another. When Clinton introduced his first budget, Republicans screamed it would wreck the economy. (Compare that to the Democrats of today, who are willing to give Bush $1.2 trillion or so of the $1.6 trillion tax cut he seeks.) Many conservatives accused Hillary Clinton of pushing a health care proposal that was part of a secret plan to bring socialism to the United States. Even before the Monica mess and impeachment, the Republican/conservative campaign against Clinton often struck a hysterical pitch.

The Clintons certainly deserved plenty of criticism and scorn for many actions and policies. But the relentless, often over-the-top, conservative assault on the couple did much to establish the tone of the past eight years. Bush has had to do little on this front except show up.

A boob that can outfox the Democrats
The best quote from all Bush's 100-Days jawboning that I spotted occurred at the start of his Oval Office interview with the Post. In an opening statement, Bush said of the chief executive position: "It's really a decision-making job, much more so than people really realize. I make decisions every day -- large decisions, small decisions, which is a test of my management skills and a test of how firm the foundation on which I walk -- a test of the foundation on which I walk." I make decisions every day. He was surprised by that? He thinks most Americans would be as well? Didn't his dad once have this job? When you see a comment like this, it is tough not to consider Bush a boob.

Perhaps that's his secret weapon. There has been much written about how Bush has exploited low expectations and underestimations in his first seven fortnights in office, and much of it is true. And, during the 100-Days pundit-rama, too many an analyst has commented on the supposedly important fact that Bush seems comfortable with himself. ("He is very comfortable in his own skin," said NPR's Mara Liasson. "What you are seeing is someone who is at ease with himself," maintained National Review''s Lawrence Kudlow.)

Possibly Bush has succeeded in politics because he has taken the words of Dirty Harry to heart: "A man's got to know his limitations." After all, this supposed dolt is winning the tax-cut fight at the moment. He desired $1.6 trillion slash. The talk these days is of a compromise at $1.4 trillion or thereabouts. If this is how the tussle ends, Democrats will crow they beat Bush back by denying him the full amount. But, still, Bush will have succeeded in reviving Reaganomics by pushing through a supersized tax cut that sends hundreds of billions of dollars to the richest Americans. Not bad for a fella who was astounded to learn that a president must render big and small decisions every day, sometimes even on the weekends. Bush's first 144,000 minutes in office -- and his recent media blitz -- have been quite instructive: a reminder that a boob can outfox the Democrats and do quite well in Washington.

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Albion Monitor April 28, 2001 (

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