By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers
As a playwright, I pay special attention to the difference between words as they are spoken and the unsaid words hidden beneath the surface — what we in the dramaturgy biz call “subtext.”
With McCain and Obama edging closer to full-out general election campaigning, it seems an appropriate time to examine recent and older public utterances of various Republican officials — Bush, McCain, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Fleischer, Ashcroft, et al. — and their likely subtextual meanings.
I’m presenting them here for several reasons: first, to make sure these utterances do not get forgotten, but also to help us figure out how to combat the twisted politics they represent. No doubt a goodly number of these quotations will appear in campaign ads prior to November.
George W. Bush, of course, is a never-ending source of such examples. Many of them make you guffaw in absolute embarrassment for the guy, way over his head in a complex world he’s capable of understanding only in the most simplistic terms. Some of his remarks, especially in recent years when nobody really is paying serious attention to him any more, make you cringe in their dangerous, reckless abandon. Some are so anger-provoking, they almost make you wish Cheney had taken him bird-hunting.
Often, Bush’s comments are evidence of pure ignorance. Sometimes, he can’t hide the arrogance and malice — sure tip-offs of someone with major self-esteem problems. Sometimes things come out of his mouth impulsively and he winds up revealing a lot more than he realizes.
Of course, the GOP archives of the past eight years contain hundreds of juicy quotations worth noting. Here are just a dozen of my favorites. Remember, boys and girls, you can play this game at home with your own choices. (If you run across some really good ones, send them in along with your subtextual explications.)
1. WHO GIVES A FLYING F?
Early in his residency in the White House, an ordinary constituent at a rope-line reception for Bush told the installed President that he disagreed with one of his policies. “What do I care what you think?” Bush replied.
Subtext: In that curt, rude response — the king dismissing one of his lowly subjects — Bush inadvertently told us how he would rule. Those with economic or political clout, those who supported the Administration’s policies with their monetary contributions and their political flattery, would be paid attention to. The rest of us could take a hike.
Karl Rove made that attitude even more clear to his Republican Party cohorts: All we need is “the majority plus one,” he said, then we proclaim our “mandate” to rule and proceed to do whatever we want.
2. THE DICTATORSHIP “JOKE”
The above Bush response has to be understood in the context of how he has preferred to rule. Before he was inaugurated, and he repeated it twice in similar form after he was installed in the White House, Bush blurted out: “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just as long as I’m the dictator.”
Bush’s handlers claim that this comment, and the two others much like it, were just “jokes,” but everything we’ve come to learn about him in the past eight years makes clear that the unfunny “joke” long ago moved into reality: his paranoid hyper-secrecy about what his Administration is up to, his refusal to obey Congressional subpoenas for documents and testimony by his aides, his behaving like a dictator who is beyond the law (for example, taking illegal actions and then unilaterally claiming he’s permitted to do so as “commander-in-chief” acting in “wartime”), his “signing statements” (where, after he affixes his signature to the bills passed by Congress, he attaches presidential statements asserting he has no intent of obeying key aspects of those laws. To date, he’s issued an estimated 1000 such “signing statements”). Etc.
The subtext is: “You want me? You come get me. Until that day — and you’d better think twice about even trying it — get out of my face.” And it’s worked: Despite the many high crimes and misdemeanors carried out by Bush and Cheney, the so-called “opposition,” the Democratic Party, has refused to do much, if anything, to rein in the Administration’s extremist behavior. Impeachment is the clear remedy called for by the Constitution, but the timid/complicit Democrats have taken that option “off the table.”
3. CHENEY: 2 QUOTES, 3 WORDS
Cheney’s one-word reply to a reporter’s question serves as a complement to the Bush item#1 above. The query was about why the Administration keeps escalating and plowing on in the Iraq quagmire when poll after poll for several years now has shown that the American people think the war was a bad mistake and want the troops to start coming home as soon as is practicable. Cheney looked at the reporter who inquired as to how the Administration might want to respond to this overwhelming citizen rejection of CheneyBush Iraq policy and said: “So?”
Subtext: What Cheney was saying was that his White House has its own agenda, based upon his absolute certainty that he knows what’s best for us all, and most especially best for the elites that support the Administration. Therefore, he is not about to be dissuaded by anything as trivial as public sentiment or democratically-derived opinion, or, for that matter, reality on the ground in Iraq. In effect: “Just get out of our way before you get run over.” (Earlier, Cheney, a man of few words, used just two to attack Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the United States Senate: “Fuck you!”)
4. THE PRESIDENTIAL “CATAPULT”
Using Karl Rove’s Big Lie Technique — telling whoppers again and again and again, to the point where they get accepted as conventional wisdom — Bush inadvertenly gave away the store when he described how a large part of his job was to keep repeating the same talking points endlessly in order to “catapult the propaganda.”
Willy-nilly, the subtext became the text: Whoops! That phrase just sort of slipped out out of Bush’s mouth. You can just see his “brains,” mainly Rove and Cheney, gnashing their teeth and pulling out their remaining hair as those words escaped Bush’s mouth. The topic was Social Security, but the CheneyBushRove “catapulting” approach is the same regardless of subject: We define reality; you better adjust to it, or else.
5. ASHCROFT & FLEISCHER
Authoritarian rulers not only must keep what they’re doing away from public scrutiny — this Administration has been the most secretive in U.S. history — but also must frighten away would-be critics from questioning their policies. The aim is to get potential critics to keep silent or, at the least, to moderate their objections.
So here was then-Attorney-General John Ashcroft at a Congressional hearing, responding to criticisms of the Administration’s rampaging through the Constitutional protections of due process in its top-secret “war on terror”:
“To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists — for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends.”
In essence, Ashcroft was accusing anyone raising questions about those extra-legal tactics of giving “aid and comfort” to our enemies: a treasonable offense. In other words, shut your mouth and pay the consequence of having your patriotism impugned, or worse: lose your job, be the target of hate, go to jail.
Then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer continued in the same vein by warning those with access to the media to keep their mouths shut, issuing reminders to all Americans that “they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.”
6. AH, THE “ROMANCE” OF COMBAT
Here’s a recent Bush remark that is so out-there that one was tempted to believe it was an Onion parody. Bush told U.S. military and civilian personnel facing death and maiming in Afghanistan:
“I must say, I’m a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you … in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger.”
One can be certain there are plenty of GIs in Afghanistan and Iraq today who would love to trade places with George W. so he could finally get some of that wonderful “romantic” experience of being under enemy fire.
The subtext: Bush, whose connected family made sure to keep Dim Son from serving in Vietnam by getting him a soft-cushion commission in the Texas Air National Guard, still exhibits no knowledge of what war is really like and what those young men and women he sends into harm’s way have to go through day by day. Many of them serve without enough armored vehicles, without enough body armor, and return home, often to deficient VA medical care, with severe brain or lower-extremity injuries as a result of the lack of the correct armoring,
And how did then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld respond when an Army National Guard specialist had the temerity to ask his boss in public why they were having to cannabilize their own vehicles to provide the necessary armoring? “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” said Rumsfeld coldly, effectively verifying that CheneyBush had rushed into war without adequate equipment or contingency planning. Thousands of U.S. troops have died or been horribly maimed in the interim.
7. “HECKUVA JOB, BROWNIE”
Here’s one Bush quote that never grows old:
“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
Well, yes, of course he mis-spoke.
But the subtext bespeaks a truth. Naomi Klein’s brilliant book “The Shock Doctrine” rests upon the assumption that Bush&Co. would prefer their disastrous behavior and policies be seen as evidence of “incompetentcy” rather than admit that their underlying goal is to sow chaos and confusion and fright as ways of implementing their social, political, economic agendas. So when Bush told Michael Brown that he was doing a “heckuva job, Brownie” running the Administration’s post-Katrina response, he was telling the truth — but from a “shock doctrine” standpoint.
8. RUMFELD’S “QUICK” WAR
Rumsfeld is a running fount of wonderful quotes. One of my favorites came just before the invasion and occupation of Iraq, when the public was torn about the wisdom of attacking that country. It was important to make the impending war seem a fait accompli that would be just a minor, temporary blip on the American political radar screen.
So when a reporter asked him how long he envisioned this imperial adventure might last in Iraq, Rummy replied : “It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”
Similarly, members of Congress wanted to know how much the war would cost U.S. taxpayers. Telling the truth, that the costs could run into the hundreds of billions and then trillions, would have been unacceptable to Congress and the American people, so Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, said blithely that the costs weren’t a problem, since the Iraqis would finance the war and reconstruction out of their huge oil revenues. “There’s a lot of money to pay for this that doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money,” said Wolfy.
A final Rumsfeld quote: Reporters kept asking him where the supposed caches of “weapons of mass destruction” were in Iraq, since the invading troops hadn’t found any. Without missing a beat, Rumsfeld replied that U.S. forces were right on the scent: “We know where they are. They’re in and around Tikrit…north, east, south and west of Baghdad.”
Subtext: The Administration was lying through its collective teeth about the real problems associated with an invasion and occupation and nation-building. Furthermore, they were totally winging it in Iraq, with nary a clue how to proceed. But they would keep going, deeper into the Big Muddy, because that’s the only idea they had in their heads. And, because they were the only Superpower on the planet, they felt they could do whatever they wanted and the Iraqi public and the U.S. citizenry would be frightened into submission. Since their multinational corporate supporters (Halliburton, Bechtel, KBR, Blackwater, et al.) would make out like bandits in the nation-building stage, a stalemate of shock-doctrine chaos in Iraq was just fine for however many years it took.
9. THE “DISAPPEARING” INSURGENCY
Another doozy from Dick Cheney. The Administration could never admit in public that things weren’t going swimmingly in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. To do so would be admitting that Bush was a fallible human being like the rest of us, and the fundamentalist part of the Republican base seemed eager to believe that Bush was an annointed servant of God and thus could do no wrong.
So Cheney, at the height of the insurgent attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere around Iraq, when so many U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians were being killed or maimed by suicide bombers and roadside explosives, told a questioner that there was no reason to worry, since the “insurgency is in its last throes.” That was in May of 2005.
Subtext: One of the major goals of the U.S. occupation of Iraq was/is to make sure that any open American defeat will not happen during the CheneyBush tenure. If the next Administration were to be a Democratic one, they would be the ones having to admit that the war was lost and bring home the troops. The GOP could then claim that if only the CheneyBush policies had been permitted to continue after they left office, “victory” would have been possible, even likely. It’s the old stab-in-the-back smear: Who “lost” China? Who “lost” Vietnam? Etc.
Cheney was just spinning like crazy, hoping against hope that another six months would see the U.S. forces move closer to something that somehow could be described as a victory. These six-month increments (called “Friedman units,” after the New York Times’ pro-war cheerleader Tom Friedman) would come and go with little or no progress over the next three years. The Administration tried to use the recent military “surge” as proof of the wisdom of that theory, but the original aim for that surge was to buy enough time for the so-called “government” in Iraq to arrange for a political/ethnic/religious reconciliation that would guarantee a peace. It never happened.
10. BUSH “REACHES OUT” TO DEMS
When Bush was declared the winner in 2004 (*see footnote below), he promised he would reach out to Congressional Democrats, and others who opposed many of his policies, to try to change the tone of partisan gridlock in Washington. He seemed sincere in wanting to make good on his earlier description of himself as “a uniter, not a divider.”
But he couldn’t quite bring himself to make the actual peace gesture. Instead, he announced, as if he was granting a major concession to his political opposition, that he would extend the hand of collegiality to “everyone who shares our goals.”
The subtext: In short, it was the ol’ “my way or the highway” confrontational mode again. In effect, Bush was saying, “I will work with all those who agree with me, and nobody else. You’re either with me or against me. And those against me will pay the price.” And they did, until the increasingly fed-up voters elevated the Democrats into the majority in the 2006 midterm elections.
11. BUSH’S GIANT “SACRIFICE”
Bush made sure never to go to Dover Air Force base to honor the dead soldiers whose coffins are offloaded there from Iraq. He even tried to keep photos of the war dead from ever getting into public print.
And yet Bush has the gall to claim, as he did in a TV interview last week, that like the soldiers in Iraq and their families, he also has had to “sacrifice” much. What did his major “sacrifice” consist of?
“I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died, to see the Commander-in-Chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as — to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”
Subtext: You almost can hear the internal mental processes of the media pros inside the White House: “The proper spin is important when dealing with the touchy feelings of families of Iraq War veterans. So we’ll devise something that might qualify. Doesn’t matter how ridiculous it sounds, or how hypocritical we might appear to be (since the Prez is constantly photographed having fun riding his mountain bike or attempting something approximating dancing with various ethnic troupes visiting the White House). Our base will eat it up. McCain will need that base if he’s to have any chance to continue our foreign/military policies. So no public golf.”
By the by, Bush was photographed playing golf three months after he claimed he’d given it up. Question: Judging from his slurred delivery in several recent speeches, I’m wondering if he’s back on the sauce again, since he claimed to have given up drinking many years ago.
12. McCAIN’S “HUNDRED YEARS WAR”
Finally, since John McCain is trying like crazy to run away from his recorded statement — caught on video and audio — let’s close with his clear and unequivocal support for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq forever. The United States military, McCain recently told a town hall meeting, could stay in Iraq for “maybe a hundred years” and that “would be fine with me.” He then re-affirmed and expanded those remarks to a reporter, declaring that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for “a thousand years” or “a million years,” as far as he was concerned.
Subtext: McCain explained that the rationale for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for that long didn’t rest on the number of years but on the provision that no American soldiers would be killed during the extended occupation. Since one can safely say that if U.S. troops remain in Iraq, some of them will be killed by insurgent forces, with the U.S. military forced to defend itself and retaliate; therefore, it follows that McCain’s 100/1000/1,000,000 years figures are just so much campaign B.S.
The cold fact is that if the U.S. stays as an occupying power, American troops could well be tied down forever in the Iraq quagmire and would be attacked and killed/wounded on a regular basis. On the other hand, if the U.S. were to complete an orderly withdrawal, of course, there would be no more American troops in Iraq to get killed or maimed. #
*There are plenty of reasons to believe that the election was stolen from Kerry as a result of Rove’s vote-suppression tactics aimed at minority, Democratic-leaning voters, along with manipulations of vote-totals by the Republican-leaning companies that tabulate votes in America. For more on this, check out Mark Crispin Miller’s new book, “Loser Take All: Election Fraud and the Subversion of Democracy, 2000-2008.”
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington State, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers. For comment, write: firstname.lastname@example.org .
First published by The Crisis Papers and Democratic Underground 5/20/08.
Copyright 2008 by Bernard Weiner.