Ah, this is the life. To be on vacation near the ocean, sunning on the beach by day, and, by night, hearing Hardball’s Chris Matthews, of all people, repeatedly liken Bush to Ted Baxter, the obtuse anchorman on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show. As I eat fried calamari and striped bass, I get to see Matthews, hardly a friend of progressives, hammer Team Bush over their serial lying about weapons of mass destruction and yellowcake. Was Bush such a clueless puppet, sputters Matthews, that he simply read whatever Cheney or Rumsfeld put in front of him and told him to sell to the nation? Why, I must be in Margaritaville.
Since Team Bush came to power, those of us lucky enough to have the time and money to go on vacation have tried to escape from, or forget, however briefly, the totalitarian and imperialistic schemes of our in-house American Taliban. Nonetheless, it was difficult to shake the sense of doom unleashed by the forces of darkness, and some of us spent previous vacations looking longingly at maps of Canada, fantasizing about where to move. A supine media reinforced our sense that we were exiles in our own land.
But this summer, the worm is turning. The inside story of how and why so many in the press have finally begun to ask hard questions remains to be told. But cracks in the edifice are everywhere. And while, understandably, we on the left are prone to seeing the political glass as always half empty — or less — it is summer, things are falling apart for Team Bush, and we need to appreciate that, for now, the glass is starting to look half full.
As the days pass, my vacation gets better all the time. First off, Jamie McIntyre of CNN, clearly weary of denials and evasions, reads the dictionary definition of “guerrilla war” out loud at a Rumsfeld press conference to drive home the point that whatever the administration says, our troops are, in fact, engulfed by a guerrilla war. I can barely believe my eyes when, after a day of sun and surf, I turn on ABC News to see Jeffrey Kofman’s now infamous interviews with soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division in Fallujah who had been told three times they were going home, only to have their reprieve rescinded. “If Donald Rumsfeld were sitting here … what would you say to him,” Kofman asks. “I don’t know if I can really say that on camera,” responds one soldier. Another was more forceful, “I’d ask him for his resignation.” I nearly drop the tequila — is ABC really airing this? Even better, Good Morning America replays the interviews the next morning.
The next night, when ABC News learns that the army might discipline those soldiers who spoke out, the network airs portions of the interviews yet again, and then puts on some of the soldiers’ middle-America, young blonde wives who demand to know why their husbands suddenly have no free speech rights. Then, cut to adorable African-American kids holding up signs asking when their daddies are coming home. Peter Jennings closes the segment by quoting a commanding officer who said, “We are in Iraq to defend democracy, not to practice it.” Jennings gives a slight but telling grimace.
In this same week I can read, on the beach, The Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt write about the “Fog of Deceit” and demand an investigation into Team Bush’s “pervasive pattern of exaggeration and distortion.” Next I can turn to The Boston Globe’s truly brilliant op-ed piece by James Carroll ironically titled “Bush’s War Against Evil” that makes clear how all-out campaigns to allegedly purge the world of evil have always deeply corrupted the crusaders, leading to “the most ignoble deeds.” He asks whether “ridding of the world of evil,” as Bush promised, justifies torture, the killing of children, the “launching of dubious wars,” and the “militarization of civil society.” Of Bush, Carroll writes, “there is nothing at the core of this man but visceral meanness.” After that, I can flip through a Time magazine whose cover shows Bush giving the State of the Union address under a huge headline reading “Untruth & Consequences.”
Even the latest Harry Potter book takes on the consequences of creeping totalitarianism. Harry and Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, insist that the Dark Lord Voldemort is back, and is recruiting followers to his evil cause. But the Ministry of Magic, in total denial, refuses to believe this, and sends a “high inquisitor” to the school to silence dissent, suppress certain kinds of knowledge, and identify and punish traitors. The official newspaper, The Daily Prophet, tows the Ministry of Magic line until its deceptions can no longer stand scrutiny. Millions of kids, through the book, feel the infuriating injustices of autocracy. And in theaters, the movie Seabiscuit sneaks in paeans to FDR and the importance of government social welfare programs in between dramatic horse races.
Yes, the Dark Lord is still president. Ann Coulter’s book is still on the bestseller list. But maybe in the wake of Jayson Blair’s plagiarisms, the Private Lynch fictions, Bush’s inadvertent admission of how highly he regards the lives of Iraqis (and even our own troops) by daring Iraqis to “bring ’em on,” and the mounting evidence of repeated bald-faced lying, the press and others in the media will rediscover that portion of the body known as a spine. I know one thing — I and millions of others are having a much better summer this year than those hunkered down in the “beloved ranch” in Crawford.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.