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President Bush, talking at last week’s press conference: “You know, I hope I—I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes; I’m confident I have. I just haven’t—(chuckles)—you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not quick—as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”
We’d be happy to help you, Mr. President.
Before President Bush was elected, Americans could laugh at his verbal foibles and frat boy insincerity. Saturday Night Live (SNL), late-night talk shows and political commentators lampooned the would-be President incessantly. Underlying these parodies, however, was the belief that what President Bush lacked in clarity of speech, he made up for in moral clarity and an old-fashioned sense of responsibility.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans saw the President give simple, moving speeches. His cockiness was replaced with a sense of mission and an urge to shore up America’s defenses against a potent new threat. He told Americans that we had “new responsibilities” in a world altered by terrorism.
But he has shirked his.
At a press conference chock-full of furrowed brows, misquoted facts and insincere serpentine smiles, President Bush tried hard to deflect blame for everything from the Sept. 11 attacks to Iraq’s missing WMDs. This press conference, only the third of his presdency, showed Americans a chief executive trying desperately to do damage control. But unanswered questions about WMDs and shifting justifications for the Iraq war, as well as the President’s general evasiveness, undercut the moral clarity and responsibility of a man Americans once chuckled at good-naturedly. By refusing to accept the slightest blame, or answer the most straightforward questions about his actions, President Bush has become a parody of himself.
Maybe he thought voters would still believe that Iraq is rife with WMDs just waiting to be found. As he said in the press conference, “See, I happen to believe that we’ll find out the truth on the weapons…They could be hidden like the 50 tons of mustard gas in a turkey farm [in Libya].” Of course, as a sheepish White House Spokesman Scott McClellan revealed later, there were actually 23.6 tons of mustard gas, and they were not buried in a turkey farm. Former top U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, once a vehement believer that Iraq had WMDs, has admitted that he and most of the rest of the international community was wrong. According to Kay, even France and Germany, the war’s most vigorous detractors, believed Iraq had WMDs. Everyone’s intelligence estimates were off. Yet President Bush refuses to admit he was wrong, even though there would be few, if any, negative consequences.
Maybe he thought Americans wouldn’t notice his subtle changes in word choice to describe our goals in Iraq. Where our troops used to be dying to promote “democracy” in Iraq, at the press conference Bush mentioned only “freedom.”
Maybe he thought the public wouldn’t notice his evasive answers. When asked why he was appearing together with Vice President Dick Cheney before the 9/11 Commission to answer questions about the preventability of the September 11 attacks, Bush first said: “Because the 9/11 Commission wants to ask us questions, that’s why we’re meeting.” Perhaps thinking that Bush was repeating the question to help the studio audience follow along, the reporter clarified that he wanted to know why they were appearing together. Bush then furthered his previous response: “Because it’s a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 Commission is looking forward to asking us.” Presumably many people watching at home had to check to confirm that they were, in fact, watching a presidential press conference and not an SNL parody.
Maybe he thought that voters shared his belief that the U.S. has a divinely inspired mission in Iraq. As the President said: “Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.” President Bush must not recognize how incredibly dangerous his Administration’s sense of religious entitlement is. Not only does framing America’s wars as Christian missions threaten to alienate what few Muslim allies we have left, it also makes our more secular allies uncomfortable. After all, Europe’s last religious war ended in 1648. To promote freedom, America first must embrace all free nations with rhetoric that everyone can agree on—rhetoric that doesn’t include God.
President Bush may be the leader of the free world, but true leaders admit mistakes, answer pointed questions and make an effort to be diplomatic. Bush’s performance at last week’s press conference showed that this president is willing to pass the buck to anyone, even God. If America truly wants to remain the leading power in the fight for freedom world-wide, it could start by demanding a responsible Chief Executive.
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