From Rolling Stone:
The Magical Victory Tour
While Iraq burns, the president keeps playing the same old song
December 7th, 10:44 a.m., the sixty-fourth anniversary of Pearl Harbor day.
I've just woken up with a line of drool on my face in the back row of a ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., where any minute now President George W. Bush will give the second address of his barnburning four-speech "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" tour.
There are no T-shirts for this concert tour, but if there were, the venue list on the back would make for one of the weirder souvenirs in rock & roll history. U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, November 30th, no advance publicity, closed audience: check. Here at the Omni, December 7th, again no advance warning, handpicked audience, ten reporters max (no one else knew about it), with even the cashiers in the hotel's coffee shop unaware of the president's presence: check. Dates three and four, venues and dates unknown for security reasons: check and check.
This is how President Bush takes his message to the people these days: in furtive sneak-attack addresses to closed audiences of elite friendlies at weird early-morning hours. If you want to catch Bush's act in person during this tour, you have to stalk him for days and keep both ears open for last-minute changes of plan; I actually missed the Annapolis speech when I made the mistake of briefly taking my eye off him the day before.
Here at the Omni I showed up early, determined not to repeat my mistake. I was not going to miss the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, no sir. But for all my preparations, I did almost screw it up again. I fell asleep an hour before the event and only awoke in the middle of the introductory remarks by Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the stodgy, status-quo think tank hosting the event. I pried my eyes open just in time to see Bush, looking spooked and shrunken, take the stage.
Bush in person always strikes me as the kind of guy who would ask a woman for a hand job at the end of a first date. He has days where he looks like she said yes, and days where the answer was no.
Today was one of his no days. He frowned, looking wronged, and grabbed the microphone. I pulled out my notebook . . .
A few minutes later, I felt like a hooker who's just blinked under a blanket with a prep-school virgin. Was that it? Is it over? It seemed to be; Bush was off the podium and slipping down the first line of the crowd, pumping hands for a minute and then promptly Snagglepussing toward the left exit. By the time I made it five rows into the crowd, he had vanished into a sea of Secret Servicemen, who whisked him away, presumably to return him posthaste to his formaldehyde tank.
I looked down at my notes. They indicated that Bush had opened his remarks by comparing the Iraq War to World War II ("We liberated millions, we aided the rise of democracy in Europe and Asia. . . . "). From there we learned that we were fighting an enemy without conscience, but all was not lost, because the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Iraq. Of course there had been setbacks, because in the past after we took a city, we left it and the terrorists would just take it back again. But we've stopped doing that now and so things are better. In conclusion, Sen. Joe Lieberman visited Iraq four times in the past seventeen months and, goddamn it, he liked what he saw.
In the Obey Your Thirst/Image Is Everything era of American politics, Bush's National Victory campaign is a creepy innovation. It features the president thumping a document -- the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" -- that was largely written not by diplomats or generals but by a pair of academics from Duke University named Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi. Essentially a PR document, the paper is basically a living political experiment, designed to prove that Americans will more readily accept military casualties if the word "victory" is repeated a great many times in public.
"This is not really a strategy document from the Pentagon about fighting the insurgency," Gelpi told The New York Times. "The document is clearly targeted at American public opinion."
In other words, this was really a National Strategy for Victory at Home. It was classic Bush-think: Instead of bombing the insurgency off the map, he bombs the map -- in lieu of actually fighting the war, a bold strategy, to be sure. But would it work?
Both the record and my notes indicate that the audience applauded on two occasions. The first came after the line "And now the terrorists think they can make America run in Iraq, and that is not going to happen so long as I'm the commander in chief." My notes say, "Scattered but by no means unanimous applause." The second time came at the end of the speech, after the last line, "May God continue to bless our country." This time the reaction was more enthusiastic, but at least one person -- me -- was clapping because it was over.
The Council on Foreign Relations was good enough to pass out a list of the expected attendees at the speech. Here are some of the names that one could find in Bush's audience: Frank Finelli, the Carlyle Group; Adam Fromm, Office of Rep. Dennis Hastert; Robert W. Haines, Exxon Mobil Corp.; Paul W. Butler, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld LLP; Robert Bremer, Lockheed Martin Corp.; Scott Sendek, Eli Lilly and Co.; James H. Lambright, Export-Import Bank of the United States.
The point is obvious; Bush's audience was like a guest list for a Monster's Ball of the military-industrial establishment. And even in this crowd full of corporate lawyers, investment bankers, weapons makers, ex-spooks and, for Christ's sake, lobbyists, the president of the United States couldn't cook up more than two tepid applause lines for his Iraq policy -- and one of those was because he was finishing up and, one guesses, freeing the audience to go call their brokers.
God bless George Bush. The Middle East is in flames, and how does he answer the call? He rolls up to the side entrance of a four-star Washington hotel, slips unobserved into a select gathering of the richest fatheads in his dad's Rolodex, spends a few tortured minutes exposing his half-assed policies like a campus flasher and then ducks back into his rabbit hole while he waits for his next speech to be written by paid liars.
If that isn't leadership, what is?
Not many people in the Omni audience hung around to be interviewed when it was over. The few who did make themselves available tried to put a brave face on the situation.
"Well, he did the best he could under, uh, difficult circumstances," said council member Jeffrey Pryce.
Did he detect anything new in the new strategy?
"No," he said, shrugging. "But he's in a tough spot."
I'd been following the national tour for more than a week. If the reception at the Omni was stale, that was nothing compared to how it was going over in the White House briefing room. On the day before the Omni speech, I actually worried that gopher-faced administration spokescreature Scott McClellan might be physically attacked by reporters, who appeared ready to give official notice of having had Enough of This Bullshit.
In fact the room at one point seemed on the verge of a Blazing Saddles-style chair-throwing brawl when McClellan refused to answer the cheeky question of why, if we weren't planning on torturing war-on-terror detainees in foreign prisons, we couldn't just bring them back to be incarcerated in the United States.
"I think the American people understand," McClellan said, "the importance of protecting sources and methods, and not compromising ongoing efforts in the war on terrorism . . ."
When a contingent of audibly groaning reporters pressed, McClellan shrugged and tried a new tack: "I'm not going to talk further about intelligence matters of this nature," he said.
A reporter next to me threw his head back in disgust. "Oh, fuckin' A . . ." he whispered. The room broke out into hoots and howls; even the usually dignified Bill Plante of CBS started openly calling McClellan out. "The question you're currently evading is not about an intelligence matter," he hissed.
I looked around. "Man," I thought. "This place sure looks better on television." On TV, the whole package -- the deep-blue curtains, the solemn great seal -- suggests majesty, power, drama. For years I'd dreamed of coming here, the Graceland of politics.
But in real life the White House briefing room is a grimy little closet that's peeling and cracking in every corner and looks like it hasn't seen a bottle of Windex in ten years. The first chair in the fifth row is broken; the fold-up seat doesn't fold up and in fact dangles on its hinge, so that you'd slide off if you tried to sit on it. No science exists that could determine the original color of these hideous carpets. Reporters throw their coats and coffee cups wherever; the place is a fucking sty.
It's a raggedy-ass old stage, and the act that plays on it isn't getting any fresher, either. All partisan sniping aside, this latest counteroffensive from the White House says just about everything you need to know about George Bush and the men who work for him.
Up until now this president's solution to everything has been to stare into the cameras, lie and keep on lying until such time as the political problem disappears. And now, unable to comprehend that while political crises may wilt in the face of such tactics, real crises do not, he and his team are responding to this first serious feet-to-the-fire Iraq emergency in the same way they always have -- with a fusillade of silly, easily disprovable bullshit. Bush and his mouthpieces continue to try to obfuscate and cloud the issue of why we're in Iraq, and they do so not only selectively but constantly, compulsively, like mental patients who can't stop jacking off in public. They don't know the difference between a real problem and a political problem, because to them, there is no difference. What could possibly be worse than bad poll numbers?
On this particular day in the briefing room, it's just more of the same disease. McClellan, a cringing yes-man type who tries to soften the effect of his non- answers by projecting an air of being just as out of the loop as you are, starts pimping lies and crap the moment he enters the room. He's the cheapest kind of political hack, a greedy little bum making a living by throwing his hat on the ground and juggling lemons for pennies.
Putting his hat out for the Strategy for Victory, he says nothing new -- there is no real strategy, remember, just words -- and it quickly becomes clear that the whole purpose of this campaign is not to offer new information but to reinforce the administration's most shameless and irresponsible myths about the war: that we invaded to liberate Iraq, that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, and so on. McClellan does this even in the context of responding to angry denunciations of this very tactic.
For instance, when a reporter asked why the administration still insists on giving the impression that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, McClellan answered, "I don't think that [it] does. But I think what you have to understand about September 11th is that September 11th taught us some important lessons: one, that we need to take the fight to the enemy and engage them abroad . . ."
Implying, in other words, that the enemy who attacked us was in Iraq. Same old shit.
After hearing McClellan talk for what seemed like the thirtieth time about our continuing efforts to spread democracy, I finally felt insulted. Giving in to the same basic instinct that leads people to buy lottery tickets, I raised my hand. I figured I'd ask nicely, just give him a chance to come clean. C'mon, man, we know you're lying, why not just leave it alone? I asked him if he couldn't just admit, once and for all, that we didn't go to Iraq to spread democracy, that maybe it was time to retire that line, at least.
"Well," he said, "we set out the reasons we went to Iraq, and I would encourage you to go back and look at that. We have liberated 25 million people in Iraq and 25 million people in Afghanistan . . ."
"But that wasn't the reason we went --"
"Spreading freedom and democracy," he said, ignoring me. "Well, we're not going to re-litigate why we went into Iraq. We've made very clear what the reasons were. And no, I don't think you define them accurately by being so selective in the question . . . that's important for spreading hope and opportunity in the broader Middle East . . ."
"Just to be clear," I said, exasperated, "that's a different argument than was made to the American people before the war."
"Our arguments are very public," he said. "You can go look at what the arguments are. That's not what I was talking about."
He smiled at me. There's your strategy for victory in Iraq: Fuck all of you -- we're sticking to our story.
Posted Dec 15, 2005 11:45 AM