What a difference ten years makes.
In 1997, after security guard Richard Jewell had wrongly been identified as the main suspect in the fatal bomb attack at the Olympics in Atlanta the previous year, Attorney General Janet Reno said (as quoted in an MSNBC article on Jewell's death last week): "I’m very sorry it happened ...I think we owe him an apology."
Imagine that, a senior administration official taking responsibility for a major mistake. It was only ten years ago, but it might as well have been a millennium, given how much has changed in how the White House goes about its business.
When I read Reno's quote, my first thought was how out of time it felt. If you listen to the Bush administration, it never does anything wrong. Just look at the Alberto Gonzales resignation last week. The "Attorney Generalisimo" (as Bill Maher calls him) was revealed over the last six months to be incompetent, an administration flunky and, possibly, a felon (for perjury). He lacked support from senators in his own party. In general, he was nearly universally derided for his performance and his less-than-effective testimony to Congress (saying some variation on "I don't remember" more often than a fraternity pledge after a drinking contest). And yet, upon Gonzales's resignation, Bush seemed to be living in a different world than the rest of the country, saying, according to CNN.com, that Gonzales's "good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."
Good name? Good how? Sure, Alberto Gonzales is a good name for a shortstop (no hate mail, please, as the Yankees do have a shortstop prospect named Alberto Gonzalez). But assuming Bush meant "good name" in the traditional sense, as in someone who is respected, well, then he would be hard pressed to find anyone not residing on Pennsylvania Avenue or in the Gonzales household who thinks the former attorney general's name is anywhere approaching good.
If we could just chalk Bush's stubbornness up to his loyalty to his Texas posse of semi-competents and boot-lickers, that would be one thing. But the president's inability to adjust his view on anything is having a devastating effect on this country on so many issues, nowhere more obvious than in Iraq.
On Wednesday, Reuters/Yahoo! wrote that a report indicated that Bush was going to be requesting an additional $50 billion to continue his failed misadventure in Iraq. That is on top of the $460 billion in the fiscal 2008 budget and $147 billion in a pending supplemental war spending bill. All together, that is more than $650 billion dollars in spending on a war policy that has proven to be a colossal failure. That's like a Hollywood producer asking a studio for $300 million to produce a sequel to a $200 million-budgeted movie that made four dollars at the box office. It defies all logic and sense, which means that it makes perfect sense to the Bush administration.
Let's take a step back. The purpose of the president's "surge" strategy was to give the Iraqi government the time and space it needed to work out the differences between the warring sects and figure out how to govern and divide the country's resources. How is that working out? Well, considering that most of the Sunni lawmakers are boycotting or have left the legislature, the government took the month of August off, and the ruling Shiites have done virtually nothing to try and bridge any of the gaps with their rivals, it's not looking too good.
Don't believe me? Well, how about listening to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, whose draft report, according to press reports last week (including in the Washington Post), found that the Iraqi government has failed to meet 15 of the 18 benchmarks for progress agreed upon by Congress and the president. Apparently, the draft report questions the accuracy of some aspects of the White House's more upbeat assessment of progress in Iraq. Big surprise there.
So, with the seemingly negative GAO report and all the other setbacks, the White House will be more likely to adjust its policy in light of the obvious facts on the ground, right? Uh, if you thought I was going to write "right," you must have been on a Rip Van Winkle-like nap since 2000.
For starters, the administration has already started a campaign to marginalize the report, with the propaganda ministers (soon-to-be-ex propaganda minister Tony Snow, and soon-to-be propaganda minister Dana Perino) trying a three-front assault. First, they argued that the benchmarks were set too high. Second, they changed the scoring system, saying that the benchmarks weren't meant to be met, but that they were goals, and that significant progress has been made towards the goals. Finally, they will choose to ignore the GAO and get behind the reports later this month of Iraq war commander General David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Considering that the president signed off on the benchmarks, the Iraqi government has been inept and self-interested, and the GAO is nonpartisan while Crocker is a political appointee, the White House strategy is, as usual, operating outside of reality. So does that mean that when the battle is fought later this month over future war funding, the Democrats in Congress will be able to steamroll the president? Uh, again, where have you been the last six-and-a-half years?
In fact, the New York Times reported last Wednesday that the White House is now more confident than it was in July that it will be able to beat back the Democrats and be able to continue its war strategy unabated. Maybe the administration is trying to create such an atmosphere through propaganda, or maybe they really believe it to be true. Either way, given how the Democrats have rolled over in Congress on every key issue, including the war and warrantless wiretaps, it's not a stretch to think that the president will, again, get whatever he wants.
When I read the Reno quote apologizing to Jewell, it really hit me how much things have changed in ten short years. It's as if the American people have become accustomed to an administration that refuses to change course despite a record filled almost exclusively with failures, mismanagement and scandals. It is almost like the American people are resigned to it. Like the attitude is, "Yeah, the president is a moron, and his policies haven't worked, but really, what can we do about it now? We voted out the Republicans from Congress in November, and that didn't help at all."
I don't know if it is a post-9/11 fear of challenging authority or a vague sense that somehow Bush's "toughness" in Iraq will help protect the country, even as all evidence points to the president's policies creating more terrorists and making the nation less safe in the future.
I think the American people have forgotten one key point: It wasn't always like this. In 1997, the biggest scandal involving the White House had to do with the president having oral sex with an intern. It seems almost quaint now, given how effective President Clinton was, and how much damage President Bush has done with his incompetence and stubbornness in his last six plus years in office.
The Reno quote served as a reminder that there was a time not so long ago when there was a semblance of competency and responsibility in the White House. The American people need that reminder, so they stop accepting the onslaught of arrogance from the administration as if they don't have a choice. There are options. The electorate will wield enormous power in November 2008, when it chooses not just a president, but also which party will control the two houses of Congress. Letters and emails can be written to the these lawmakers that are terrified of losing their jobs. At the very least, the American people have to stop acting like the status quo is
acceptable. It's not. And one ten-year-old apology shows that it wasn't always like this.