Worse To Come
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, January 25, 2007
Toward the end of Travels With Charley Steinbeck makes this observation: “My own journey started long before I left, and was over before I returned. I know exactly where and when it was over. Near Abingdon, in the dog-leg of Virginia , at four o’clock of a windy afternoon, without warning or good-by or kiss my foot, my journey went away and left me stranded far from home. I tried to call it back, to catch it up—a foolish and hopeless matter, because it was definitely and permanently over and finished.” Anyone who’s taken a long journey knows what Steinbeck is talking about. It isn’t always the end point of a journey that determines its end, nor is it ever the person who takes the journey who determines it. The same can be said of presidencies. Some of them begin long before inauguration day. Bill Clinton’s began sometime in late summer, about the time when Maureen Dowd noticed that the elder Bush just wasn’t interested anymore. “This,” she wrote in a Sept. 6, 1992 dispatch co-written with Thomas Friedman, “may be the first Administration in history that is scrambling for its first-100-days plan in its last 60 days before facing the voters.” Johnson’s presidency ended in February 1968, Jimmy Carter’s on April 24, 1980, when eight servicemen were killed in the Iranian desert as an attempt to rescue the 52 American hostages held in Teheran disintegrated in a sand storm, and Reagan’s ended in Reykjavik in 1987, when he was about to sign away the American nuclear weapons arsenal in an abolitionist deal with Gorbachev. His aides stepped in and ensured that he’d be nothing more than the acting president for the remainder of his scandal-ridden term.
The second Bush’s administration unfortunately began early, too, on that turbid Election Night in 2000 when Fox News set the tone of the unmaking of Gore’s legitimate win and the Supreme Court sealed the fix thirty-six days later. But if W.’s presidency started more than two months too soon, it ended two years early. Bush’s Abingdon was his January 10 speech, the so-called “surge” speech. It became evident then why he couldn’t make up his mind before Christmas about what to say, let alone how to say it. He had nothing to say: His administration was in disarray, his policies bankrupt, his integrity a nightly punch-line. Even his beloved speech-writer was gone, loyal no more. Not long from now when the stories begin to creep out about these final days of the Bush junta we’ll be told that the White House was a menagerie of chaos and backbiting, of uncontrolled tempers and lusted-after booze. We’ll discovered to what extent the nation’s business was unmoored and the nation’s executive off his rockers, his wife or maybe his dog, or an obscure corporate friend, his last remaining link with reality. His advisers either inflated his bubble or betrayed him, or both, if the advisers in question are Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes, the two who had his trust and could have made a difference. The January 10 speech proved that neither they nor Bush were interested in recasting the last two years of the presidency into a workable surge of its own, the way even Clinton managed to do despite the Lewinsky affair (and the Clinton presidency, as we’ll also discover, has yet to end).
The State of the Union confirmed the drift announced on January 10. The proposal on energy—cutting gasoline consumption by 20 percent from projected consumption in 2017—is a non-binding promise that rests on undeveloped technologies. Improving fuel efficiency is a great idea, if only it weren’t two decades too late, if it wasn’t so timid (one mile per gallon in improved efficiency per year, for just a few years), if Bush hadn’t been so opposed to the idea in the last six years. His desperation was clearest in his appeals for bi-partisanship, a notion no other president in the twentieth century worked so hard to demolish after making it the centerpiece of his inaugural in 2001. But we knew even then that he was a liar of magnificent proportions. He was the man who’d spent the electoral campaign selling the public on his massive tax cuts while promising to save entitlement programs and pay down the national debt. It wasn’t his fault that the public bought the lie whole, though, let’s always remember, the majority of the public never did.
Resigning would be too statesmanlike an act for a man who likes to rule by edicts, and to whom power is its own reward. So we’ll spend the next two years sustaining his chaotic clock-running, watching the flashpoints of disasters he lit up spread their fires from Iraq to Afghanistan to Iran to North Korea, watching the promises he made about New Orleans sink in a flood of indifference and government incompetence, watch the machinery of government, corrupted by his years of nepotism and contempt, become its self-fulfilling prophecy of shoddiness and mistrust. The damage done by the Bush junta in the last six years may yet be outdone by the damage of the next two, because at least in the last six there was the hint that some of the criminals involved in the mugging believed in what they were doing, Bush among them. The faith-based business, remember. Now the worst part of the end of the Bush presidency, the most palpable part of that end, as we saw it on January 10 and again in the State of the Union , is that Bush himself, like his father in 1992, no longer believes. He’s given up. He quit. As he has always quit. What’s left is the old shell, the reconstructed drunk without a goal, the resentful loser. And there’s nothing more dangerous when he remains, all ridicule aside, the “decider” and worse: the commander-in-chief.