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One of the classic devices in situation comedy—and some tragedy—is for a character’s solution to a simple problem to prove worse than the problem itself. Rather than accept the consequences of a mistake, the hero comes up with a solution that makes things worse, until things escalate into a climax either with hilarious consequences, or catastrophe, depending on the genre. Either way, it’s becoming a familiar script for this White House, which now routinely embarrasses itself not just by making the wrong choices, but by refusing to face them later on. Some poor decision-making in the White House makes the administration wrong, but it’s the effort to defend those poor decisions that makes them ridiculous.
The 9/11 hearings are a classic example. If liberals are honest with themselves, they will admit that they, too, could not have seen the attacks coming. Had Bush attacked Afghanistan in early 2001, as some say he should have, people like me would have protested furiously (I know I did when Clinton tried to). Obviously, it’s bad that Bush took a long vacation after reading a memo entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside U.S.” and that Attorney General Ashcroft proposed cuts in counterterrorism funding on 9/10. But it wouldn’t have been so bad if the White House had cooperated fully with the Commission and come out publicly with an honest message—something like “Our government failed to anticipate and to prevent 9/11 because no one could have guessed it was coming. We will do better next time.” People like me would have had nothing to say against them. But, as often happens, the cover-up was worse than that which was covered up.
The security memo—embarrassing but not devastating—became an issue because the White House made a ridiculous combination of assertions, first that the document was too “historical” to have acted on, then that it was too current to declassify. The administration’s whole history with the Commission, from opposing its creation to refusing to share documents and testify before it, has conveyed the impression that the White House has something to hide—an impression far more damaging than the fact that the administration made a number of predictable human errors and oversights before the attacks.
The unfortunate matter of the flag-draped coffins is playing out the same way. The Pentagon’s policy on not allowing images of coffins returning from war is understandable, if inexcusable. The policy could have been defended on grounds of morale or taste, for example. But when a number of tasteful, moving images of caskets returning from Iraq were released from the press, the White House decided to defend an ill-conceived policy rather than let it pass, and once again crossed the line from the mistaken to the absurd. A spokesperson for our president condemned the release of the photographs, with the bizarre comment “We must pay attention to the privacy and to the sensitivity of the families of the fallen.” Of course we must, but what could privacy possibly have to do with undated images of anonymous flag-draped coffins? The position will become more ridiculous when some reporter writes up Bush’s silence a few weeks ago when American television networks decided to broadcast images of the mutilated bodies of four identified American civilians killed in Fallujah—images which, of course, revealed the barbarity of the resistance.
The freshest instance of this cover-up phenomenon has not yet become a scandal, but it should. One of the revelations in Bob Woodward’s insider account of the White House at war with Iraq was that, contrary to what Bush now says, the decision to go to war was made well in advance. We know this because, in an interview, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recalled telling a foreign official (almost certainly Saudi Prince Bandar) about the plans in January. (It now appears that Bandar knew of the decision before Colin Powell.) But the quote from Rumsfeld’s taped, transcribed interview with Woodward, in which he described telling Bandar that he could “take that to the bank this is going to happen,” has mysteriously been deleted from the Pentagon’s version of the transcript. Also deleted by the Pentagon (but, luckily, preserved in Woodward’s transcript, according to the Washington Post) is the following incredible statement from Rumsfeld: “We’re going to have to clean some of this up in the transcript. We’ll give you a—I mean you just said Bandar and I didn’t agree with that so we’re going to have to—I don’t want to say who it is but you are going to have to go through that and find a way to clean up my language too.” When questioned about the deleted passages, Rumsfeld got meta-ridiculous, trying to cover up the cover-up by dismissing the deleted passages as “some banter.” Apparently, when you’re the defense secretary, your conversations are so important that admitting that you shared secret war plans that you claim never to have finalized with a Saudi Prince before you told your own Secretary of State constitutes “banter.”
Why does the White House make these self-destructive defensive maneuvers? The answer may lie in an unlikely comparison. When, at his last press conference, President Bush refused to accept any responsibility for the failures that led to 9/11, and could not, when asked, furnish an example of any mistakes he had made and learned from since then, he reminded me of—of all people—Bill Clinton. You may remember that, as the Monica Lewinsky crisis escalated towards impeachment, many observers remarked that it was not the affair but the lie to the nation (“I did not have sexual relations…”) that made impeachment politically possible. Had the President set aside his pride and more swiftly apologized, many think, the impeachment balloon might have been deflated. Likewise, if Bush stood up like Richard Clarke and took responsibility, it would be much harder to criticize his attitude on the 9/11 attacks. If his officials would straightforwardly defend their actions—explain why the caskets are worth it, for example, rather than hide them—then the election would be about honest disagreements, rather than deceptive practices. But this White House, for all its imperfections, is proving to be a perfectionist—unable to acknowledge errors, even when they might be defensible. How supremely ironic that, as John Kerry’s campaign struggles to make him look more “human,” President Bush seems unable to acknowledge that he and his advisors are just that.
Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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