What a week! Strange quotes, strange events, strange sightings. It was the sort of workaday week that makes you wonder whether the planet got itself trademarked by Ripley’s Believe It or Not while we weren’t looking, or maybe it was just entered in some new ‘reality’ show in which we were all to be locked in with an odd group of jokesters. The question is this: When we finally emerge will there be a prize for the survivors? Will we discover, for instance, that our President and his administration have headed down a path of slow-motion implosion, the same one he sent our economy, with its reputed future trillion-dollar deficits, down a while back?
But let me begin by taking you on a modest tour of the week-that-was, starting off with that category of ‘sightings.’ Over the last year, I think it could safely be said that the three men hardest to spot have been Saddam Hussein, finally found in December in his ‘spiderhole’; Osama Bin Laden, still undetected in his ‘cave,’ assumedly somewhere on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border; and Dick Cheney, our stealth vice president (or president, depending on your interpretive druthers) in his bunker in Washington. Well, in the last week-plus, Cheney has been spotted, and then spotted again, and again and again: first, bird-shooting with a Supreme Court justice, then speaking in Los Angeles on the war on terror, next visiting Davos, Switzerland, followed by Italy where he continued to flog those long- discounted Iraqi ‘trailers’ as evidence of massive Saddamite WMD programs, and finally seeking the Pope’s blessing at the Vatican, where in a small spectacle of curious taste he came bearing a gift. ‘During Mr. Cheney’s visit on Tuesday, the vice president presented the pope with a gift that symbolized peace: a crystal dove,’ according to Eric Schmitt and Frank Bruni of the New York Times (1/28/04). Perhaps it wasn’t ‘peace’ the vice president had in mind, but ‘pieces’ — as in all the better to smash it into…
Anyway, it was a week of Cheney glut with Cheney quotes old and new popping up. Unlike Elvis sightings, Cheney sightings have been rare enough that it’s worth spending a little time on them.
You might say that the vice president, suddenly under attack by the Democrats as the symbol of an extremist administration and with his poll numbers in free fall, had been flushed out, like one of those game birds he and Supreme Court Justice Scalia hunted together recently. (Wouldn’t you have liked to be a little bird — a very small and unmeaty one, of course — listening in on what the potential Chief Justice of the second-term Bush Supreme Court had to say to the administration’s first-term ’eminence grise,’ and vice versa? I doubt they were trading Lord of the Rings subplots, and they couldn’t have been discussing the potentially embarrassing Guantanamo cases that will appear before the court this year. That would have been unethical.)
Cheney, in the light of day, seemed to be blinking hard and looking just a little unsteady, though our press managed to explain all this in slightly encoded, exceedingly polite language, meant to carry a punch mainly for your basic insider or news jockey. Take Eric Schmitt of the New York Times in this passage (‘Cheney Unusually Visible as He Mends Fences in Europe,’ 1/27/04):
‘Vice President Dick Cheney, on a five-day trip through Switzerland and Italy, is stepping out of his self-imposed seclusion and into what administration officials and political analysts say is a calculated election-year makeover to temper his hard-line image at home and abroad….’
‘Democrats acknowledge they are seeking to make Mr. Cheney a lightning rod for criticism of the administration…. But aides say none of this has shaken Mr. Bush’s trust in Mr. Cheney, who still wields huge, though largely unseen, influence on issues from Iraq to tax policy. The two meet weekly for a private lunch in a small dining room off the Oval Office. Mr. Cheney has repeatedly said he has no presidential aspirations of his own, allowing him to focus solely on Mr. Bush’s agenda.’
It’s a lovely passage really. That little word’ makeover’ — as in a before-and-after commercial for some women’s beauty product — and that super last line. So that’s what he’s been doing all these months — selflessly focusing ‘solely on Mr. Bush’s agenda.’
If you want to find some evidence of real attitude in our elite press, do remember to check out those final paragraphs of pieces it’s undoubtedly assumed that next to no one reads and where a reporter can finally run free. Yesterday, for instance, David Sanger of the Times had a front-page piece on ‘Bush’s Risky Options’ (1/30/04) focusing on how the President might respond to the call by the former head of the Iraqi Survey Group, David Kay (along with endless Democrats and Sen. John McCain who has no love for the younger Bush) for an independent commission to look into American prewar WMD intelligence.
Sanger pointed out that White House officials have been in ‘a slow retreat’¦ day-by-day, fact-by-fact’ from prewar, wartime, and postwar WMD assertions. (Condoleezza Rice’s most recent fallback position, however, when it comes to Saddam’s links to ‘terrorists,’ sounds a bit of a fall-forward position to me: ‘With Saddam Hussein, we were dealing with somebody who had used weapons of mass destruction, who had attacked his neighbors twice, who was allowing terrorists to run in his country and was funding terrorists outside of his country.’ NYT, 1/30/04)
Here, in any case, are Sanger’s last two paragraphs, just about as snarky as you can get in the Times:
‘Only Mr. Cheney, the man who made the most extensive claims about Iraq’s readiness to strike out, has failed to back down publicly. Last Friday he was on the air again, talking about Mr. Hussein’s mobile biological weapons units, which now appear, Dr. Kay says, to have had no such purpose.
‘We’ll have to get Cheney the new memo,’ one White House official said after Mr. Cheney’s comments.’ As soon as we write it.’
But Cheney really didn’t need snarky reporters to do his job for him. In the quotes department last week he did pretty well for himself.
How much is much — or Cheney blames ’empire’ on his wife
From Dan Froomkin’s ‘White House Briefing’ in the Washington Post (1/26/04) comes the following:
‘During his stopover at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, forum founder Klaus Schwab asked Cheney about his controversial Christmas card, interpreted by some to be [a] sly hint about the country’s status as a modern empire. The card featured a quote from Benjamin Franklin: ‘If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?’
‘Do you consider the United States to be an empire?’ Cheney was asked. After jocularly blaming his wife for choosing the card, Cheney insisted ‘it did not refer, or should not be taken as some kind of indication that the United States today sees itself as an empire,’ and he said that if the United States were an empire, ‘we would currently preside over a much greater piece of the Earth’s surface than we do.’
Think that one over for a minute, while you consider the following little quote from Secretary of State Colin Powell, off visiting the former Soviet hinterlands. According to Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times (‘Powell Tries to Mollify Russia on Georgia Ties,’ 1/27/04), Powell arrived in Moscow after a visit to Georgia to ‘soothe’ (other words in our press for his behavior: ‘mollify,’ ‘assure,’ ‘reassure’) the Russians about our good intentions despite our relatively new bases in the former SSRs of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, our military trainers in Georgia (after all, it’s been a state of the Union ever since the American Revolution?), our demand that the Russians get their troops out of that small country, and Powell’s recent comments about future basing plans in former Eastern European Soviet satellites like Rumania, Bulgaria and Poland. He said:
‘The U.S. does not want to build bases all over the world. There is no need to.’
No more, at least, than the 700-odd we already have including the new ones in the old Soviet borderlands. If we were an empire, by Cheney’s calculations and with Powell’s quote in mind, maybe we’d have 1,400 bases.
Murphy elaborated in the following fashion:
‘U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Monday said the U.S. has no plans to create military bases in Georgia. At the same time, U.S. officials have not ruled out a long-term security presence in the strategically important Caucasus republic, once a part of the Soviet empire and still a crucial component of the Kremlin’s effort to maintain an extensive sphere of influence and counter NATO’s expansion toward its western frontier…
‘For the United States, the region provides a window onto crucial theaters in the war on terrorism, including Afghanistan and Iraq. It also encompasses a crucial transport route for oil riches from the Caspian Sea.’
For anyone who lived through the Cold War (or, were it possible, the British ‘Great Game’ against the Russians in Central Asia), this sort of language — and there was plenty of it in the press this week — would sound oddly familiar. Every spot on Earth — or at least in that vast ‘arc of instability,’ aka the oil lands of our planet — is actually ‘strategically important’ and a ‘window’ onto something else, and everything we don’t control, a danger. But what’s to be a ‘window’ for us is evidently meant to be a windowless wall for the Russians who are to be left out in the cold. If the Bush administration could, they would undoubtedly exile the Russians to Siberia and good riddance — though, thought about another way, with its oil and natural gas deposits, Siberia could certainly be considered ‘strategically important’ and a ‘window’ onto something else.
Bitter-enders in Washington
Oh, and as if to help Cheney along this week, a new bio of Tony Blair, the British PM with no less than nine lives, just appeared claiming that Cheney, according to a Blair aide, had ‘waged a guerrilla war against the process’ of seeking UN approval before the war. (Mike Allen, ‘War Issues Cloud Cheney Trip,’ Washington Post, 1/27/04 ):
‘The book says Cheney considered Blair and his pleas for multilateral military action against Hussein to be an irritant. It asserts that Cheney told a high-ranking British official during the summer of 2002, when Bush was denying he had decided to go to war, ‘Once we have victory in Baghdad, all the critics will look like fools.’
I guess this, then, was the week of the fools, one in which Cheney looked increasingly like Washington’s version of the sort of ‘bitter-ender’ Rumsfeld et al. were always yakking about. The Nelson Report, a Washington insider’s newsletter, commented on the vice-presidential emergence this way: ‘Some observers amused themselves with speculation that Cheney’s bizarre ceremonial with the Pope is just part of a ‘come out of the cave’ PR campaign orchestrated by his staff, as part of an effort to rehabilitate his public image.’
Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service pointed out that Cheney himself commented on his outing this week (Will Dubya Dump Dick?):
‘In a[n]’¦ interview, Cheney told USA Today he was not worried about his image as the administration’s Machiavelli, skilled in the quiet arts of persuading his ‘Prince’ to pursue questionable policies, adding, surprisingly unselfconsciously, ‘Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It’s a nice way to operate, actually.’
A few days ago, in a fascinating piece posted at antiwar.com, Lobe asked the question that has been quietly nibbling at the edge of the mainstream press ever since. He wrote in part:
‘While Democratic rivals battle for the presidential nomination in a succession of grueling primary elections, Vice President Dick Cheney appears to be fighting to secure his spot on the Republican ticket behind President George W. Bush.
‘The vice president, whose moderation and 35-year Washington experience reassured voters worried about the callowness and inexperience of Bush during the 2000 campaign, is seen more and more by Republican Party politicos as a drag on the president’s reelection chances in what is universally expected to be an extremely close race’¦
‘Reports were already surfacing two months ago that a discreet ‘dump-Cheney’ movement had been launched by intimate associates of Bush’s father (former president George H.W. Bush) – his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former secretary of state James Baker, who now has a White House appointment as Bush Jr.’s personal envoy to persuade official creditors to substantially reduce Iraq’s 110-billion-dollar foreign debt.
‘In addition to their perception that Cheney’s presence would harm Bush’s reelection chances, the two men, who battled frequently with the vice president when he was defense secretary in the first Bush administration, have privately expressed great concern over Cheney’s unparalleled influence over the younger Bush and the damage that has done to U.S. relations with longtime allies, particularly in Europe and the Arab world.’
In her latest column, the New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd took this up quite bluntly — it’s obviously the talk of Washington right now — concluding (‘Dump Cheney Now!’ 1/29/04):
‘Dick Cheney, who declared that Saddam had nuclear capability and who visited C.I.A. headquarters in the summer of 2002 to make sure the raw intelligence was properly interpreted, is sticking to his deluded guns. (And still trash-talking those lame trailers.)
‘The vice president pushed to slough off the allies and the U.N. and go to war partly because he thought that slapping a weakened bully like Saddam would scare other dictators. He must have reckoned there would be no day of reckoning on weapons once Saddam was gone.
‘So it had to be some new definition of chutzpah on Tuesday, when Mr. Cheney, exuding more infallibility than the pope, presented him with a crystal dove.’
The same Nelson Report, by the way, had this bit of scuttlebutt on the subject:
‘About Vice President Cheney: on the one hand, no one predicts that he will be involuntarily dropped from the ticket, even if they haven’t heard the reported reaction from President Bush, when urged, over Christmas, to do just that by serious money players who enjoy that level of access — for the record, Bush said ‘no way,’ and cited factors of loyalty. But… the rumors persist, not least because of the well-known, public antipathy of what recent journalism calls ‘the Scowcroft wing’ of the party…’
Imagine that. ‘Serious money players’ directly asked the President to drop Cheney. If you want to check out who those money men might have been, you could start by running down the lists of ‘Pioneers’ (‘the 241 individuals who have raised a minimum of $100,000 for the Bush 2004 reelection effort’) and ‘Rangers’ (‘the 151 individuals who have raised a minimum of $200,000 for the Bush 2004 reelection effort’) posted at the Texans for Public Justice website.
Spiderholes all around
Dan Froomkin of the Post found this quote from our President, who had other spiderholes than the vice president’s on his mind:
‘Boy, that speech in Iowa was something else,’ Bush said, referring to Howard Dean’s field holler after placing third in the [Iowa] caucuses Monday. ‘Talk about shock and awe. Saddam Hussein felt so bad for Governor Dean that he offered him his hole.’
My question is this: If George sends troops or one of his hunter-killer teams after Dean and captures the elusive governor in that hole somewhere on the reforested slopes of Vermont, will we see the inside of his mouth too?
Oh, and then there was the day the President visited the Nothin’ Fancy Café in Roswell, New Mexico and had the following exchange with the press corps:
THE PRESIDENT: I need some ribs.
Q Mr. President, how are you?
THE PRESIDENT: I’m hungry and I’m going to order some ribs.
Q What would you like?
THE PRESIDENT: Whatever you think I’d like.
Q Sir, on homeland security, critics would say you simply haven’t spent enough to keep the country secure.
THE PRESIDENT: My job is to secure the homeland and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. But I’m here to take somebody’s order. That would be you, Stretch — what would you like? Put some of your high-priced money right here to try to help the local economy. You get paid a lot of money, you ought to be buying some food here. It’s part of how the economy grows. You’ve got plenty of money in your pocket, and when you spend it, it drives the economy forward. So what would you like to eat?
Q Right behind you, whatever you order.
THE PRESIDENT: I’m ordering ribs. David, do you need a rib?
Q But Mr. President —
THE PRESIDENT: Stretch, thank you, this is not a press conference. This is my chance to help this lady put some money in her pocket. Let me explain how the economy works. When you spend money to buy food it helps this lady’s business. It makes it more likely somebody is going to find work. So instead of asking questions, answer mine: are you going to buy some food?
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, good. What would you like?
THE PRESIDENT: Ribs? Good. Let’s order up some ribs.
Q What do you think of the democratic field, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: See, his job is to ask questions, he thinks my job is to answer every question he asks. I’m here to help this restaurant by buying some food. Terry, would you like something?
Q An answer.
Q Can we buy some questions?
THE PRESIDENT: Obviously these people — they make a lot of money and they’re not going to spend much. I’m not saying they’re overpaid, they’re just not spending any money.
Q Do you think it’s all going to come down to national security, sir, this election?
THE PRESIDENT: One of the things David does, he asks a lot of questions, and they’re good, generally.’
You can hardly buy a question, no less an answer from this administration. But imagine, for a minute, if Howard Dean had had this conversation with the press any time in the last two months just how he might have been diced up for it.
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