January 30, 2004

Watching his press conference this morning, and the manner in which he cut off a questioner who was asking a follow-up to another reporter's question about the Kay testimony before Congress, it occurred to me why feelings about George Bush are so strong in this country. He is the first true "asshole" to be President since Richard Nixon.

I don't mean that necessarily in a negative sense. Many creative artists and talented athletes are assholes; the fact that Picasso was a jerk doesn't make "Guernica" any less powerful, no more than the fact that Gary Sheffield disses reporters makes him any less valuable to his team. In politics, though, that personality type usually has some difficulty succeeding. Having a sense of humility is typically viewed as an important quality to have in a leader, and if there's one thing we know about the President, he is pathologically incapable of ever admitting he was wrong about something.

The call for an independent commission to investigate the mistakes made leading to war against Iraq is one case in point. In Great Britain, Tony Blair was able to use the Hutton Commission to deflect the fact that his government presented incompetent and misleading intelligence to justify war by shifting the onus to the BBC's reporting of same. The question became not whether the intelligence was "sexed up", it was whether Blair knew that the intelligence was sexed up, as the Beeb reported; an incredible bit of political jujitsu, it led to the resignation of several high-ranking directors at the BBC, and allowed Blair to appoint successors more willing to be the mouthpiece of the government (although not without some political fallout: the Hutton Report is being treated with derision by much of Great Britain, as a clumsy whitewash of government actions).

Focusing on whether the client had the specific intent to deceive is precisely what clever defense attorneys use in white collar criminal cases, but it also entails an assumption, on the part of the defense, that the client made a mistake. If the client believes himself to be infallible, that defense won't fly. A President who won't read newspapers, who insults Congressmen from his own party who dare to vote their conscience, who freezes out reporters who attempt to ask difficult questions, and gives demeaning nicknames to those he perceives to be beneath him, is obviously someone who is not going to admit that he blew it, even on a minor point.

And that's problematic. People are willing to accept that our political leaders make mistakes (ie., Clinton during the Lewinsky Affair), and that intelligence from other countries may be spotty. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, so his downfall, even with the questionable rationale which we chose to go to war, is to be celebrated. But by pretending that nothing went wrong, Bush insults a large portion of the American people, those who disagree with him on other issues, and are not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt politically, but who are also patriotic citizens who are willing to support him, as President, when the chips are down. In the end, it will prove his downfall, because, when all is said and done, people tend to root against assholes.

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