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Friday | January 10, 2003

Eatin' Words

Every now and then, Presidents named Bush like to use strong words -- not their own words, of course, but words written by people who speak English as a first, not a third, language.

They are most likely to do this on those disagreeable occasions (such as elections) when they must seek the support of people who are not named Bush. At the right moment, before the right audience, they recite a catchy phrase or a sentence designed to persuade the non-Bush world that they are strong leaders, worthy of deference and respect.

But unfortunately, those words often seem end up back on their own plates, as side dishes to a hefty serving of crow.

And so it was that a Vice President named Bush got up at the 1988 Republican national convention and delivered an acceptance speech that was, so the pundits said, the key to his political future.

Written by one of the GOP's most highly regarded wordsmiths, the speech was both eloquent and lyrical, and for the Vice President reasonably well delivered, sounding only a bit like Dana Carvey imitating a speech by George Bush.

Still, the words almost certainly would have been forgotten as soon as they left the Vice President's mouth if not for a certain vivid phrase, which was caught and held in the popular imagination for a period of time that proved, in hindsight, to be longer than was healthy for his political future.

In his best Clint Eastwood impression, sounding only a bit like Dana Carvey imitating George Bush doing a Clint Eastwood impression, the Vice President swore that if the Democrats in Congress ever came to him insisting he do something about the runaway federal budget deficit, his response would be a curt: "Read my lips. No new taxes."

It was one of those "seemed like a good idea at the time" kind of ideas. Like picking that young, dynamic Indiana Senator as a running mate.

And for a time it really was one of those good ideas. It seemed to exorcise the ghost of another, earlier, speech, in which a presidential candidate named Bush had connected the words "Ronald Reagan" and "voodoo economics" in a way that fired the wrath of the some of the GOP's most powerful witch doctors. It seemed the supply-side spirits had been appeased.

His economic sins forgiven and forgotten, the Vice President, previously behind in the polls, surged past the luckless Michael Dukakis to win the 1988 presidential election going away.

But a small cloud, no bigger than a man's lips, was on the horizon. The economy began to slow, the deficit grew, and by the fall of 1990, with war in the Persian Gulf brewing, a President named Bush was facing a very tough decision: should he defy the Democratic Congress, and risk an economic and financial crisis? Or should he break his solemn promise, ditch the Clint Eastwood impression and agree to a deficit-cutting package that included a big tax hike?

After wrestling with his conscience for at least fifteen full minutes, the President chose the latter course. Great and terrible was the wrath of the supply-side faithful, who summoned the powers of a zealous God to smite the apostate down. And he was smote, and fell, rejected by many within his party, into the pit of early retirement. A one-termer named Bush.

Why am I dragging up all this ancient history? Because something eerily similar is happening now, this time to a another President named Bush, this time in the field of foreign, not economic, policy.

Slightly less than a year ago, this President Bush got up and delivered a State of the Union address. It was, so the pundits told us, a critical speech. After Afghanistan, they said, the President needed to explain where the War on Terrorism was going next, and how the United States would meet the frightening new threats it faced.

Written by one of the GOP's most highly regarded wordsmiths, the speech was both eloquent and lyrical, and for the President reasonably well delivered, sounding only a bit like Will Ferrell imitating a speech by George Bush.

Still, the words almost certainly would have been forgotten as soon as they left his mouth if not for a certain vivid phrase, which was caught and held in the popular imagination for a period of time that, in hindsight, proved to be too long for the President's geopolitical health.

In his best Winston Churchill impression, sounding only a bit like Will Ferrell imitating George Bush doing a Winston Churchill impression, the President swore the United States wouldn't shrink from confronting the "Axis of Evil" -- a sinister, covert alliance linking some of the world's worst regimes. Three countries the President mentioned by name: Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

To thunderous applause, the President swore he would not let these regimes threaten America with weapons of mass destruction. His message was clear and unambiguous: There would be no appeasement, no more Munichs. The line had been drawn.

It was another one of those "it seemed like a good idea at the time" kind of ideas. Like making Dick Cheney the administration's go-to guy on Iraq. Or giving Ariel Sharon a virtual veto over U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Among the neo-con true believers, it helped exorcise an earlier, uneasy impression that this Bush was too much under the influence of the same pragmatic men who had advised the first one, men with foul names such as Powell and Baker and Scowcroft.

And at first things did go well. The President and his team began to plan for the invasion of Iraq, a bold gambit that would liquidate an old family enemy, remove a potential weapons-of-mass-destruction threat, and serve as a base for remaking the entire political order of the Middle East -- not necessarily in that order. It might also frighten Iran's hardliners into seeking an accommodation, both with the US and with their own reformers.

There was however, just a small cloud on the horizon -- one no larger than Kim Jong-Il's pompadour. As the third, and probably the most deserving, member of the Axis of Evil club, the North Korean Scorpion King could see where all this was going. First Iraq, then Iran, then . . . And so the Scorpion started making some moves of his own.

I don't think anybody really knows what Dear Leader's game really is. Maybe he just wants to come in from the cold, and thinks waving the nuclear stick is the only way he's going to get a response from Team Bush.

Or, maybe he's looked at Saddam's boneheaded move against Kuwait, and drawn the not illogical conclusion that if you want to face down the United States, better to do it after you've achieved nuclear power status, not before. Could he, perhaps, be thinking the invasion of Iraq might be his window, maybe his last window, to go nuclear before the showdown starts?

Either way, the President is now trapped by his own Churchillian rhetoric. Will he allow a charter member of the Axis of Evil Club to kick UN inspectors out of his country, abrogate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (admittedly, a step comparable to Bill Clinton abrogating his marriage vows) and resume full-scale work on his nuclear weapons programs?

And if the President isn't ready to permit those things, exactly what does he propose to do about them, now that the Iraq invasion rocket is in its final countdown, and considering the North Koreans have the world's largest collection of conventional artillery lined up, hub to hub, on the edge of the DMZ, zeroed in on downtown Seoul?

Maybe the President will wrestle his conscience to the ground, eat his words, and accept the fact that he has no choice but to negotiate with a despicable tyrant -- a man will do anything and kill anyone to stay in power, and who doesn't give a flick of sweat about the deference due to a President named Bush. Goodbye Winston Churchill, hello . . . Bill Clinton?

It's all a bitter lesson in the dangers of cheap rhetoric, and in the risk of letting speechwriters dictate policy -- foreign or domestic. Once upon a time, a President not named Bush said something wise about the virtues of stout sticks and soft voices. Maybe the people who get paid to put words in this President's mouth should try reading that speech first.

Posted January 10, 2003 11:11 PM | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)