Thursday, February 16, 2006

American Credibility in Bankruptcy

That terrorist bomb plot against Los Angeles’ Library Tower turns out to be as bogus as a Hollywood movie plot that never made it past the storyboard. David Ignatius in the Feb. 15 Washington Post: “Bush spoke about four al Qaeda plotters who had planned to use shoe bombs to blow open the cockpit door. But a foreign official with detailed knowledge of the intelligence scoffed at Bush’s account, saying that the information obtained from Khalid Sheik Mohammed and an Indonesian operative known as Hambali was not an operational plan so much as an aspiration to destroy the tallest building on the West Coast. When I asked a former high-level U.S. intelligence official about Bush's comment, he agreed that Bush had overstated the intelligence.” When were we going to see that corrective splattered on the front pages, the way Bush’s original story was earlier this month? Not in this universe—not with media willing to be stenographers to presidential deceptions first, truth seekers and investigators last. That’s where the fetish of objectivity cuffs with the fraud of propaganda, a link the Bush administration nurtures and exploits to the point of glee: Bush’s contempt for the press is based on disrespect, the press being best of show disrespecting itself.

Newspapers would be justly criticized for running a damning story under a banner headline on the front page one day then retracting it with a minuscule correction on an inside page the next. There’s no way the effects of the original story could be reversed by the correction. Words alone don’t matter. Context, intent, calibration: those things matter. That’s how the Bush administration has been successfully manipulating policy, public and wars for the last five years—by calibrating its manipulative Big Statements for maximum effect on the front page, knowing that when the truth comes out, if it does, the lie will have done its work. The truth is relegated to corrections with shadowy admissions on inside pages months or years down the line. Bush is less to blame in this if you assume that his administration will use whatever cynical, dishonest ploy it can to advance its agenda. This one does, consistently. The problem has mostly been the press playing along—doing exactly what it would be ashamed to do itself, when it errs and misleads, but on behalf of the administration.

There are obvious examples. The administration lied about the reliability of the evidence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, relying almost entirely on two Iraqi dissidents who’d been coached to say in in typically Sheheradesque Arabic exaggerations what was imaginatively translated into Starngelove briefings to titillate Bush’s ears and stand in as the “irrefutable documentation” of Saddam’s weapons program passed on to gullible senators and congressmen. The administration lied on al-Qaida’s connections to Saddam. Big, bold lies based entirely on Mohammed Atta’s rumored trip to Prague, a trip that has been proved to be a fiction worthy of a Kafka subplot many times over. In either case few people asked questions until it was too late. When the deceptions were confirmed, the war was past its point of no return, for a good many thousand American soldiers and Iraqis too, of course. The corrections ran as mea culpas on Op-Ed pages and cover-you-butt analyses on inside pages, though die-hard shootists like Dick Cheney and his night gallery at the Wall Street Journal editorial board still maintain that the al-Qaeda-Hussein connection was real, and probably have dreams about WMDs buried somewhere in the Iraqi desert.

Same story on the Medicare prescription drug plan: The administration lied about its cost when it claimed it wouldn’t go past $400 billion. A matter of days after Congress approved it, the press revealed that the cost would actually exceed $550 billion, and that the Medicare actuary in charge of putting the numbers together had his job threatened by the Bush administration when he, in turn, had threatened to reveal the true numbers (the question remains: why didn’t he do so before the congressional vote?). Same story about the plot to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge, that nutty “revelation” John Ashcroft’s Justice Department had no qualms revealing early in the so-called war on terror. This, remember, is the story of the Ohio truck driver who plotted to take a blow torch to the Brooklyn Bridge’s steel cables. He realized long before he gathered up his wares that the idea was as harebrained as its execution (who couldn’t spot a blow torch anywhere on the Brooklyn Bridge, any time of day or night, just as any sixth grader could tell you that the redundancy of steel cables is one of the wonders of the bridge.) The guy ended up in prison anyway, because the administration needs something, anything, to show for its imaginary war.

Unless it was a subplot to “Independence Day,” the plot to bomb the Library Tower couldn’t stand up to scrutiny for very long. Not when even the kids in that class Bush read My Pet Goat to five years ago, now that they’re approaching middle school, are old enough to be asking the sort of 2+2 questions that would add up to 5 in their president’s reckoning. But facts don’t dictate credibility. The man standing behind the seal of the president of the United States (or the pet goat) does. That was the lesson Bush learned early. The seal’s credibility is soaked in a couple of centuries of history. Plenty of capital there. He’s been splurging on it (the parallel with his splurge at the Treasury’s expense is irresistible), and the press has been letting him splurge, because it’s still an essentially trusting institution. It has to be. You couldn’t entirely blame the media. We’re talking about the president of the United States, and the impulse to see a lie behind every presidential statement amounts to faithlessness in the very system the press, and we, depend on. Vietnam and Watergate were devastating enough. We neither have the courage nor the strength to face similar consequences yet again. We assume with every lie that it’s the last of them, or couch the lies as “overstatements,” “exaggerations,” “erring on the side of caution.” Bush smirks. The system’s integrity crumbles a little more. The reckoning becomes that much more dire, when it comes.

I used to think that talk of impeachment was so much extremism by the party out of power. But what do you do when lying has become so pathological in a presidential administration—lying on matters of state, of war, of trillion-dollar consequences, not on matters of sperm on dresses and idiotic blow jobs in stately antechambers—that even the press has adopted a method of enabling the lying? The press and by extension the public are like the spouse of a drunkard just making do with the latest bout of rage and beating by rationalizing it until calm returns. What do you do when the hemorrhaging credibility of the presidency may itself, worse than global warming, reach a tipping point? And what is that tipping point in a world where the United States has no one to hold it accountable but its own sense of survival? Waiting for the next election almost three years down the line seems like the democratic option. But it’s increasingly looking like a craven surrender to the cynics, to those who’d claim that rocking the boat that much isn’t worth the price, or that the little dictator’s lies so far haven’t risen to such a level as to warrant what, in the United States, amounts to a coup—a deliberate, legal, magnificently institutional coup, that impeachment clause, but a coup nonetheless. Let’s see if the centrists, the moderates, the civility burghers will still be claiming in 2008 that it was just as well to wait him out.