The Faith-Based President Defrocked - New York TimesOctober 9, 2005
The Faith-Based President Defrocked
By FRANK RICH
TO understand why the right is rebelling against Harriet Miers, don't waste time boning up on her glory days with the Texas Lottery Commission. The real story in this dust-up is not the Supreme Court candidate, but the man who picked her. The Miers nomination, whatever its fate, will be remembered as the flashpoint when the faith-based Bush base finally started to lose faith in our propaganda president and join the apostate American majority.
Though James Dobson, America's foremost analyst of the gay subtext of SpongeBob SquarePants, was easily rolled by Karl Rove and dragged back into the Miers camp, he's an exception. The pervasive mood on the right was articulated by Cathie Adams, president of the Texas branch of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. She told The Washington Post: "President Bush is asking us to have faith in things unseen. We only have that kind of faith in God."
This is a sea change. If anything, Ms. Miers's record of opposition to abortion (a contribution to Texans United for Life, a leadership role at a strenuously anti-abortion church) is less "unseen" than that of John Roberts, whose nomination aroused no protest on the right only three months ago. The difference between then and now is a startling index of the toll taken by a botched war and hurricane response on whatever remains of Mr. Bush's credibility. The continuing inability of the administration to accomplish the mission in Iraq and of its post-Brownie FEMA to do a heck of a job on the Gulf Coast has inflicted collateral damage on its case for Harriet Miers.
"The president's 'argument' for her amounts to: Trust me," George Will wrote in the op-ed column that last week galvanized conservative opposition to the nomination. He then went on to list several reasons why he doesn't trust Mr. Bush. As if to prove the point, the president went out to the Rose Garden and let loose with one whopper after another in his first press conference in four months.
"Of all the people in the United States you had to choose from, is Harriet Miers the most qualified to serve on the Supreme Court?" Mr. Bush was asked. "Yes," he answered. Has he ever discussed abortion with her? "Not to my recollection." How much political capital does he have left? "Plenty." With a straight face he promised that Ms. Miers was "not going to change" and that "20 years from now she'll be the same person with the same philosophy that she is today." Even were that a praiseworthy attribute, it would still contradict the history of a woman who abandoned her Roman Catholic faith for evangelical Christianity and the Democratic Party for the Republicans.
BUT Mr. Bush's dissembling wasn't limited to his Supreme Court nominee. Asked how he was going to pay for Katrina recovery, the president twice said he'd proposed $187 billion in budget cuts over 10 years - but failed to factor in his tax proposals and other budget increases. The real net total for proposed Bush cuts is $103 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and even less according to some independent number crunchers. Turning to Iraq, Mr. Bush once again fudged our "progress" there with a numerical bait-and-switch, bragging about "30 Iraqi battalions in the lead." (Translation: in the lead with American military support.) Less than a week earlier his own commanders had told Congress that the number of Iraqi battalions capable of fighting unaided had dropped from 3 to 1 since June. (Translation: 750 soldiers are now ready to stand up on their own should America's 140,000 troops stand down.) For good measure, Mr. Bush then flouted credibility one more time to set the stage for the next administration fiasco. In the event of a bird flu epidemic, he said, one option for effecting a quarantine would be to use the military. What military? Last week The Army Times reported that the Pentagon, its resources already overstretched by Iraq, would try to bolster sagging recruitment by tapping "a demographic long deemed off limits: high school dropouts who don't have a General Educational Development credential."
Like most Bush fictions, the latest are driven less by ideology than by a desire to hide incompetence. But there's a self-destructive impulse at work as well. "The best way to get the news is from objective sources," the president told Brit Hume of Fox News two years ago. "And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world." Thus does the White House compound the sin of substituting propaganda for effective action by falling for the same spin it showers on the public.
Beware of leaders who drink their own Kool-Aid. The most distressing aspect of Mr. Bush's press conference last week was less his lies and half-truths than the abundant evidence that he is as out of touch as Custer was on the way to Little Bighorn. The president seemed genuinely shocked that anyone could doubt his claim that his friend is the best-qualified candidate for the highest court. Mr. Bush also seemed unaware that it was Republicans who were leading the attack on Ms. Miers. "The decision as to whether or not there will be a fight is up to the Democrats," he said, confusing his antagonists this time much as he has Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
Such naked presidential isolation from reality was a replay of his response to Hurricane Katrina. When your main "objective sources" for news are members of your own staff, you can actually believe that the most pressing tragedy of the storm is the rebuilding of Trent Lott's second home. You can even believe that Brownie will fix it. The truth only began to penetrate four days after the storm's arrival - and only then, according to Newsweek, because an adviser, Dan Bartlett, asked the president to turn away from his usual "objective sources" and instead watch a DVD compilation of actual evening news reports.
Mr. Bartlett's one desperate effort to prick his boss's bubble notwithstanding, the White House as a whole is so addicted to its own mythmaking prowess that it can't kick the habit. Seventy-two hours before Ms. Miers was nominated, federal auditors from the Government Accountability Office declared that the administration had violated the law against "covert propaganda" when it repeatedly hired fake reporters (and one supposedly real pundit, Armstrong Williams) to plug its policies in faux news reports and editorial commentary produced at taxpayers' expense. But a bigger scandal is the legal propaganda that the White House produces daily even now - or especially now.
As always, much of it pertains to the war in Iraq. On Sept. 28, to take one recent instance, the president announced the smiting of a man he identified as "the second most wanted Al Qaeda leader in Iraq" and the "top operational commander of Al Qaeda in Baghdad." As New York's Daily News would quickly report, the man in question "may not even be one of the top 10 or 15 leaders." The blogger Blogenlust chimed in, documenting 33 "top lieutenants" of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who have been captured, killed or identified in the past two and a half years, with no deterrent effect on terrorist violence in Iraq, Madrid or London. No wonder the nation shrugged at the largely recycled and unsubstantiated list of 10 foiled Qaeda plots that Mr. Bush unveiled in Thursday's latest stay-the-course Iraq oration.
The administration's strategy for covering up embarrassing realities with fiction reached its purest expression two weeks ago when both Laura Bush and Karen Hughes were recruited to star in propagandistic television "reality" shows. In the first lady's case, this was literally so: she was dispatched to Biloxi to appear in an episode of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." The thinking seems to be that if Mrs. Bush helps one family on a hit reality series, perhaps no one will notice the reality that no-bid contracts and ineptitude have kept hundreds of thousands of other hurricane victims homeless indefinitely while taxpayers foot the bill for unused trailers and cruise ships.
Ms. Hughes took her act on the road in the Middle East. There she conducted a culturally tone-deaf "listening tour" in which she read her lines from briefing papers and tried to win hearts and minds by posing with little Arab kids as if they were interchangeable with the little black kids in Mr. Bush's "compassionate conservative" photo ops back home. She didn't seem to know that this stunt wouldn't even fly on Fox News anymore, let alone Al Jazeera.
This Saturday is supposed to bring new victories on both these troubled fronts: Oct. 15 is the day that Iraqis vote on their constitution and the day that the president set as a deadline for all hurricane victims to be moved out of shelters. Chances are that the number of Americans who still have faith that the light is at the end of either of these tunnels is identical to the number who believe Harriet Miers is the second coming of Antonin Scalia and that Tom Cruise has found true love.
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