“W” as in Wonk
In May, the New York Times reported the semi-surreal news that George W. Bush, mulling his legacy, is hatching plans to “create a public policy center with his presidential library after he leaves office in 2009.” No other presidential library has such a policy center, and the notion that Bush would be the first President to become a think tank maven struck many as a bit odd. Even leaving aside Bush's own personal intellectual curiosity (or lack thereof), his administration has something of a well-earned reputation for aggressive skepticism regarding the analyses of policy experts.
Bush is likely less interested in starting a number-crunching policy wonk lab than a big-think salon. In a then-undernoticed aside back in January, he mused to CBS News' Bob Schieffer about leaving behind “a think tank, a place for people to talk about freedom and liberty, and the de Tocqueville model.” What Bush means by “the de Tocqueville model” remains a bit unclear. But the Frenchman certainly did pen some pithy lines worthy of slogans for the President's legacy project. “What is the most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist, but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands,” perhaps. Or maybe: “All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it.”
In April 2004, Bush discussed ongoing efforts to track down terrorists: “Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way.” When, a year and a half later, it was revealed that the President had, in fact, authorized a program of warrantless surveillance for several years, the new administration line was articulated by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: “[P]eople are running around saying that the United States is somehow spying on American citizens calling their neighbors. Very, very important to understand that one party to the communication has to be outside the United States.” Moreover, there has to be a “reasonable basis” for suspecting an al-Qaeda connection. Upon the revelation in May of a second giant National Security Agency surveillance program involving tens of millions of Americans (and billions of purely domestic calls), the President was left merely to assert that Americans' privacy is being “fiercely protected.”
Hard Out Here For A Pimp
Only in America could it make sense for former CIA Executive Director Kyle “Dusty” Foggo to concede through a spokesperson that he had, indeed, been present at poker parties thrown by Brent Wilkes, a lobbyist accused of bribing public officials in exchange for intelligence contracts, while simultaneously insisting that allegations that prostitutes were present at the parties are “false, outrageous, and irresponsible.” Why is participation in commercial sex worse than large-scale public corruption? Foggo isn't alone: Former Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson, in his day an important appropriator of intelligence funds, likewise said he'd attended the parties but denied the presence of sex workers. The gentlemen in question should be looking for excuses for their presence -- “I was there for the hookers!” -- and not narrowing the range of possible motives to only those involving massive pay-to-play corruption.
Bush Lied, Fish Died?
In a German tabloid in May, the President was asked what his finest moment in office had been and reportedly responded, “When I caught a 7-and-a-half-pound perch on my lake.” (The worst moment, the angler in chief reported, was 9-11.) Immediately, people reacted with a typical mixture of amusement and depression to the President's off-the-cuff goofiness; given similar questions, Jimmy Carter had once named the Camp David Accords and Bill Clinton had picked the resolution of the crisis in Kosovo. Then the story took a turn from “foolish George” to “fibbing George” territory when it was revealed that freshwater perch max out at 4 pounds. But the White House rebounded swiftly by explaining that the English-to-German-to-English translation of early reports had mangled the species of fish he had actually named: a largemouth bass rather than a perch. For once he beat the lying rap. Bush did once say, in a classic early malapropism, that he “know[s] the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully,” which may be relevant here somehow.
“Speaking of Tomatoes …”
Agriculture Department employees recently received a startling e-mail memo informing them that the “President has requested that all members of his cabinet and sub-cabinet incorporate message points on the Global War on Terror into speeches, including specific examples of what each agency is doing to aid the reconstruction of Iraq.” The memo provided specific instructions and examples for working irrelevant Iraq War boosterism into Agriculture Department public statements, including referencing “a nation that is just now beginning to rebuild its own agricultural production” and describing how “Iraqis have also discussed specific products, like tomatoes, which they are anxious to export into the world community.” Look for the Interior Department to get into the action soon by peppering statements about irrigation policy with the latest news of the Iraqi Interior Ministry rounding up Sunni insurgents.
Months ago, Up Front noted how disgraced (and now imprisoned) ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff sounded like a congressional ethics czar in interview comments he made arguing that his own activities revealed the need for systemic reform. Turns out he has nothing on his partner in crime, Michael Scanlon. As Roll Call reported, the former operative, who has pled guilty to conspiracy charges relating to the Abramoff lobbying scandals, appeared at Johns Hopkins University on May 1 to defend his long-finished graduate thesis before four professors. The topic of the thesis? An “evaluative history of the House ethics process.”
Which Is Dumber?
In late April, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Alphonso Jackson boasted to a Dallas audience that political loyalty rather than quality of proposal determines who can win a lucrative HUD contract. Jackson discussed having denied a contract to a well-qualified applicant (who, he even confessed, wrote a “heck of a proposal”) simply because the applicant expressed his displeasure with President Bush in a private meeting with Jackson. “Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the President, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the President? Logic says they don't get the contract.” Logic also says that what Jackson was describing is a felony. Later, his spokeswoman took the odd line of defense that the tale Jackson told in his speech was, in fact, “a made-up story.” Lying for no reason about having committed a federal offense -- now that's logical.
The Question: If the fish thing's no. 1, what's the Bush presidency's second best moment?
“Bush's Ground Zero bullhorn moment, one of the best presidential images ever. He's since only looked Ahab-ish attempting to recapture it.”
--Chuck Todd, editor in chief of The Hotline
“Having Jackson Square to himself a week after Katrina, including the run of Cafe Du Monde's kitchen.”
--Ed Kilgore, vice president for policy, the Democratic Leadership Council
“8:45 a.m. Eastern time, September 11, 2001.”
--Randi Rhodes, Air America Radio