by Walter M. Brasch
American Reporter Correspondent
July 18, 2003
THE PRETEND CAPTAIN
BLOOMSBURG, Pa. -- Former Texas Air National Guard Lt. George W. Bush showed up on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. He was trim, the result of long daily workouts, and jauntily dressed in a fighter pilot's flight suit. To sailors returning from Gulf War II he gave a speech written by taxpayer-funded speech writers. He looked just like a Navy flyer, maybe even a commander-in-chief; he said what a president should say - and recorded for broadcast around the world.
This was the same President who told the nation in his January 28 State of the Union address that the U.S. needed to make a preemptive strike against Iraq - the first time in American history such warfare was approved by Congress - because, he implied, Iraq was not only tied into al-Qaida and the 9/11 plot but, he said definitively, it was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program. Feqw questioned the President as he justified his determination to make war against Iraq and complete the unfinished business of his father's one-term presidency.
Only a few writers and a handful of Democrats argued that there was no evidence to substantiate such claims - or that there was substantial evidence to disprove the President's assertions. The State Department's intelligence operation, the National Security Council, and the CIA itself as much as a year earlier had noted that the documents the President cited about Iraq buying uranium from Niger, and which were later proven to be forgeries, were suspicious, they pointed out.
But most in the media merely reported what the President said, as dutifully as a trusted stenographer.
Most of the Democrat presidential candidates and most of Congress thrust their pinky fingers into the wind. They decided it was too risky to challenge the President, especially since the politically-adept administration-the one that created the Patriot Act-made sure the media and the people knew that opposition to this president was nothing short of unpatriotic treason.
When it became apparent after the war the President lied to the people, his political action team went into overdrive. It wasn't the President's fault, they moaned. Others, like the CIA, gave him bad information, they whined. The British were at fault, they blamed. The President wasn't responsibile for the mistakes, they wailed.
Instead of sending Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld out to face the media, the commander-in-chief sent Secretary of State Colin Powell, a much more sympathetic figure, had protested the war until, good soldier that he is, he accepted the Bush doctrine as his marching orders.
To nail the claim he had no responsibility, the commander-in-chief sent out his other minority aide, Dr. Condoleeza Rice, to try to explain in a one-hour news conference why the commander-in-chief and his entire senior White House staff, including her, was merely a dupe of bad intelligence. In a sniffy response, she even claimed that had the CIA told the President to take out the inflammatory 16 words, he would have. Of course, by the time the State of the Union was ready for presentation, there was no doubt the President wanted, needed, and expected to utter those 16 words, and hundreds of others, to justify his plans two months later. The CIA's first mission, according to its charter, is "to support the President."
And so CIA director George Tenet fell upon his sword to keep his boss from looking bad. In remarkable candor which should earn the respect of every CIA staffer, Tenet said simply, "I am responsible for the approval process in my Agency." The President, for his part, said that he had full confidence in the director of central intelligence. CIA takes the blame; the President squeaks past. Even if the information was wrong, said the Bush political machine, at least the U.S. got rid of a dictator. One down. Dozens to go.
But if the White House had been as careful in preparing the State of the Union as it was in preparing a photo-op on an aircraft carrier, there may not have been a reason to launch a war that killed more than 300 American and British military, and more than 7,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians.
Perhaps President Bush could learn something from a culture other than Texan. In Jewish lore, the story is told about the son who had done quite well in business and thought he should be entitled to owning a boat. Not just any 21-footer, but a 41-foot yacht with teakwood floors and cabinets, with a flybridge, radar, and global navigation systems and even took a Coast Guard safe-boating course. He hired two deckhands to care for his boat, joined the local yacht club, and, to make sure he looked the part, he went out and bought a captain's jacket and a captain's hat. He looked the part. He even acted the part.
When everything was in place, he went to his parents' home, then took them in his Mercedes-Benz to the yacht club, first for lunch, then on to his newest purchase. His parents, who had worked and struggled their entire lives to be part of the middle class, were pleasantly surprised at their son's success. Aboard this marvel of the bay, the son said he was now a captain.
His mother was proud, as are all Jewish mothers. But she looked at him. With his new boat, and his new uniform, he really looked like a successful captain.
"To your father you are a captain," she said. "To me, you are a captain." Her son beamed, for all Jewish sons like approval, especially from their parents. "But to another captain," she asked, "are you a captain?"
President Bush may look like a president. And, in our media-rich nation, we may prefer people who look the part. He may end up known as "George Lite," because he failed one of the most important tests of command - taking responsibility not only for his own errors, but his subordinates' - won't walk with Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, or even Harry S Truman, who forthrightly told the nation, "the buck stops here."
Walter Brasch is a university professor of journalism. His latest book is "The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era." You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.