Who is George Bush?

Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 04:36 PM

How do you tell what really matters to someone?  You pay attention to what they do, not what they say.  What they say can help some in interpreting ambiguous actions, but most actions really aren't that ambiguous.

And "actions" means both affirmative actions--things done, and negative actions--things undone when it was possible to do them.  In fact, it is often telling to compare actions taken in one context to inactions in other but similar contexts.

Who is George Bush?  Well, I'd love to hear some respected mainstream journalist ask him in direct terms to explain the apparent contradictions inherent in Mr. Bush's actions in these contexts.

1. Which future contingencies are important enough to plan for immediately, and when can they be ignored until they actually occur?  Specifically, why did he:
a. Decide that Social Security was in a "crisis," requiring that we "act now" to fix it, even though there was no problem for more than a decade, no serious problem for several decades, and a very uncertain problem after that.
b. Decide that the many, many predictions he got from senior experienced military personnel about the number of troops to commit to Iraq, and the difficulty of the Iraq reconstruction, should not only be dismissed as too negative, but shouldn't even be taken into account in planning for contingencies; i.e., that the predictions were not only wrong, but so wrong that he could completely dismiss the possibility of them being accurate?

I think it's fair to say that the potential consequences of a full blown invasion of another country should be at least as important as coming up with a solution to a potential future Social Security shortfall.  Yet Mr. Bush continually described the Social Security contingency as a "crisis" which had to be solved "now." On December 16, 2004, he said:

"This is one of my charges is to explain to Congress as clearly as I can the crisis is now. You may not feel it, your constituents may not be overwhelming you with letters demanding a fix now, but the crisis is now.

He has been understandably silent on the advice he ignored about Iraq, as have the rest of the administration.  But it's common knowledge that both General Shinseki and General Zinni weighed in with predictions that have proved to be very accurate about troop requirements and the after math of the immediate war.  Retired Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski describes it this way:

During his tenure as Chief of Staff of the Army through June 2003, General Eric Shinseki often stood up to Mr. Rumsfeld. He also publicly vented his reservations about the war planning for Iraq. Impugned in early 2003 by Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz for his projected troop estimates in Iraq, Shinseki had already faced far more deadly combat within the halls of the Pentagon for his tough honesty in dealing with the Secretary of Defense. Shinseki's retirement ceremony was not attended by any senior civilians from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, so the valuable advice contained in Shinseki's farewell speech about not developing a "twelve-division strategy for a ten-division army" didn't even have to be shelved.

In the case of retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, former Commander of U.S. Central Command and former envoy for President Bush to the Middle East, the situation was much the same. Good advice from this competent and knowledgeable four-star general not only made little difference to the civilian war "planners" but resulted in General Zinni's ouster as a Presidential advisor. Zinni recently stated "I'm surprised that [Rumsfeld] is surprised because there were a lot of us who were telling him that it was going to be thus ... Anyone could know the problems they were going to see. How could they not?

2. What events warrant his immediate and personal attention, to the point of disrupting his scheduled agenda, and which are okay to leave to the underlings while he goes about his scheduled business?  Specifically, why did he:

a. Rush back to Washington on March 20, 2005 to sign the emergency legislation handing jurisdiction over Terry Schiavo to the federal courts the ignored,
b. Continue on his scheduled events, including a photo-op with John McCain on McCain's 69th birthday, and a session playing guitar with country singer Mark Willis in the two days following a briefing in which he was specifically warned of the real danger of disaster in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, and the possibility of flooding was explicitly raised?

The Terry Schiavo law had been passed by congress in hurry, and once again Mr. Bush was off at his ranch in Texas.  Passage was part of a major PR show put on for the Religious Right who were convinced that something horrible was being done to Mrs. Schiavo and demanded that their representatives "save Terry Schiavo," despite a lengthy trail of medical evidence that nothing in the world could really save her--she was virtually brain dead except for a few reflex functions.  Yet, as the Washington Post put it: "Antiabortion activists, a key GOP constituency, have cheered the moves, which included Bush rushing back to Washington to sign the bill in the dead of night after a rare Palm Sunday congressional session." In essence, the President performed instant service for....I guess that's the question.

In contrast, recently released video of Mr. Bush at his ranch in Texas, being briefed on August 28, 2005 by FEMA folks and  the head of the National Hurricane Center about the likely effects of Katrina on the Gulf coast, leaves little doubt that Mr. Bush was personally warned of a likely disaster, and that Mr. Bush personally reassured those who would have to deal with Katrina that "we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, but we will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm."

Yet the president and his closest advisers did not return to Washington, did not, in fact, even alter their planned, very superficial, activities.  A time line prepared by Think Progress shows that although Mr. Bush received the August 28 briefing, and his administration was notified of the levee breach early on August 29, Mr. Bush did a  photo-op with John McCain, on McCain's 69th birthday, later on the 29th, played guitar with country singer Mark Willis on the 30th, and on September 1 made his famous comment that " I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."  Condoleeza Rice took in a Broadway show on the 30th and went shopping at the Ferragamo's on 5th Avenue during September 1.  Donald Rumsfeld took in a San Diegro Padres baseball game on August 29th.

So how do you interpret these actions?  Why act immediately in the case of Terry Schiavo and do photo-ops while people in New Orleans died?  Why act to stave off a distant contingency on Social Security yet decline to even make contingency plans for consequences predicted by your top military people, when those consequences were right around the corner and involved the lives and limbs of the troops that you ordered into battle?

I don't think there's as much inconsistency as first appears.  The only difference is the personal and political interest of Mr. Bush. In both cases of action--Social Security and Terry Schiavo--Mr. Bush was serving his own interests and his own political base:  begin the dismantlement of Social Security and please the small government right; show how "pro-life" you are with a grandstanding, emotional gesture and please the religious right.

In the two cases of inaction, he was either serving his own interest (convincing the public that Iraq would be a relatively painless little war) or didn't see any interest to be served (Katrina didn't appear to be a political event, and the people involved did not represent any particular constituency).

What is really noteworthy is that all four of these events now seem to be nibbling away at his presidency and his party's future prospects.  It's bad enough to always govern by putting your own political interests ahead of the country's interests, but to employ such consistently bad judgment in doing so may be unforgivable in the eyes of the public.

At this point, I'd be surprised if Mr. Bush wouldn't like to go back and change all four of those decisions.  Which is impossible, of course.  Though he could still try to explain them, if only someone would ask.

George Bush.  Tell him who's concerned about a problem, and he'll tell you if it's a problem.  But remember, you have to tell him, don't leave it to his independent judgment.