“We had an accountability moment … “
George W. Bush, explaining.
When the good news is “Maybe he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying,” that’s bad news. The more likely possibility? “Good God, he really does believe it!” And that’s even worse.
Somebody has to have a talk with the president.
By the time you read this, Mr. Bush’s speechwriters will surely have salted his inaugural address with the appropriate doses of modesty, and humility. They may even have convinced their boss, at his moment of greatest triumph, to admit to some imperfection, personal or political. The best speechwriters can pull it off – can humanize even as they glorify. They know the right words to use, and just how to use them.
The more revealing words, though, tend to come from the man himself; it’s when the president goes off script that we get a peek behind the mask. It’s Dubya being Dubya – and what we see isn’t always pretty. Or reassuring.
For instance? For instance, the president in one of his many pre-inaugural interviews, this one with reporters from the Washington Post. The question in question was a long one, a tough one, but a fair one:
“In Iraq, there’s been a steady stream of surprises. We weren’t welcomed as liberators, as Vice President Cheney had talked about. We haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction as predicted. The postwar process hasn’t gone as well as some had hoped. Why hasn’t anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments?”
Maybe the president got his back up. (Presidents aren’t accustomed to being spoken to quite so directly.) Anyhow, this is how he responded:
“Well, we had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I’m grateful.”
The “for which I’m grateful” was a pleasant touch, and the president did go on to concede that in war, not everything goes exactly as planned. But holding anyone responsible? Making someone at the top – or even near the top – pay for what’s gone so terribly wrong over there? Bite your tongue!
“We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election.”
I won, you lost – they love me. Get over it.
So the question is: Does he really believe what he seems to be saying here? That Nov. 2 was a total, wipe-the-slate-clean, no-more-questions-no-more-complaints endorsement of the president and his people and his policies and his practices? That the American people had one chance, and once chance only – speak now or forever hold your peace – to express their misgivings about Iraq? And having failed to do so on Nov. 2, the prez now gets a pass, on Iraq and everything else?
That wasn’t a mandate. That was a one-night stand.
It’s also pretty scary. Somebody has to talk to the president – and the sooner the better. Somebody has to remind him of a couple of things.
For instance: A slim majority of the voters may have chosen Mr. Bush for another term, but that hardly means that all of them were thrilled with their choice, let alone comfortable with his war in Iraq. His overall approval ratings were stuck at around 50 percent on Election Day, and they haven’t improved by more than a few points since. His poll numbers on Iraq, meanwhile, were thoroughly mediocre on Election Day, and they’re still thoroughly mediocre. (In fact, the latest numbers show that only 40 percent approve of how he’s handling the war, while 58 percent disapprove.)
For instance No. 2: He’s lucky it wasn’t a recall. Instead, he had an opponent, and when the voters “looked at the two candidates,” they saw that the other guy was a patrician New Englander who never managed to find the common touch, a liberal Democrat who was absurdly easy to caricature, a United States senator who had tied himself in knots with his own ever-shifting positions on the war. Add several weeks of character assassination by the Swift Boat Vets and their GOP allies, and it’s no wonder that many voters saw John Kerry as damaged goods, as unpresidential.
And despite all that, if fewer than 60,000 Ohioans had switched their votes, George Bush would be packing his bags this week, and John Kerry would be taking the oath.
Somebody has to remind the president: It wasn’t a coronation – it was a shrug. The voters looked at all the major-party candidates for president, and they decided that George Bush was merely the second-worst choice, so they voted for him. As ringing endorsements go, it didn’t go far.
The president could use a “reality moment.”
Rick Horowitz is a nationally syndicated columnist. Contact him by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.