[[M I S T A K E S]] * Although I came to love my father dearly in his declining years, he was always a world-class cheapskate, especially when he had to spend money on people other than himself. For instance, I have a vivid recollection of being told in grade school that I had to purchase a reversible, blue-and-red workout shirt for gym class. My brother, Matt, who was two years behind me, and had gym class at a different time than I did, was given the same news. These shirts couldn’t have cost more than $10 apiece. But when we informed our father that we had to buy them, his response--which, from his miser’s perspective, he undoubtedly saw as supremely logical--was, “Well, how ’bout if we just get one shirt, and you two can switch off during the day?”
What we came to realize over time, though, was that, on those singular occasions when our dad was prepared to part with a well-squeezed dollar, he was also vulnerable to spending more. So, rather than ask him for one thing at a time--school books, new socks, field-trip fees, etc.--we would build up lists of several essentials, and then hit him with them all at once, so he could give us the full benefit of his parsimonious peevishness, while opening his wallet wide.
I think a similarly devious tactic might be necessary in dealing with George W. Bush, who for the last five years has “resisted publicly acknowledging mistakes or shortcomings,” to quote The New York Times. Even the prez’s statement yesterday, in which he ostensibly took the blame for his administration’s manifold cock-ups in getting rescue operations going in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was a strategically orchestrated skate away from a real mea culpa. “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government,” Bush told the press during a joint appearance with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. “And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong.” Notice that he didn’t actually acknowledge that his government had screwed-up; he simply suggested that if there were problems, then he would take the blame. In so doing, he also left room for his fellow Republicans to continue trying to shift responsibility for a drowned New Orleans, destroyed homes all along America’s Gulf Coast, and almost 700 hurricane deaths (so far) onto the shoulders of Louisiana’s Democratic governor and New Orleans’ Democratic mayor. And if, in the end, those dastardly Dems, rather than his patronage-packed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Homeland Security Department, are to blame for exacerbating the Katrina disaster, then Bush isn’t culpable.
The Times points out that Bush’s sorta confession is “evidence of how shaken his presidency has been by the political fallout from the government's handling of the storm.” But it was far short of a Trumanesque “the buck stops here” declaration. And you just know Bush’s ulterior motive for prostrating himself in this manner is that he hopes the public will accept his reluctant admission as absolution, and forget about setting up the independent, bipartisan “Katrina Commission” that Democrats want to see investigate what went wrong with federal, state, and local government responses to the hurricane.
Nonetheless, with the prez finally in the midst of his own accountability moment, Democrats and even some of the more level-headed members of his own political party should be pushing him to acknowledge other errors. Get them all out of the way at once. It’s less painful that way, and it might even help Bush to recoup some of the trust he’s lost among Americans. The American Progress Action Fund, an affiliate of the Center for American Progress, already has several more mistakes for which Bush should take immediate responsibility:
The failures in Iraq and U.S. security. “The president took us to war in Iraq, a country that had no WMD, with no plan to win the peace. Instead we find a growing insurgency, a command structure that approved the interrogation practices that led to torture at Abu Ghraib, and a tripling of global terrorist attacks.”
America’s declining economic strength. “Despite administration claims to the contrary, the economic conditions in this country are not improving for Americans. There are 6 million more uninsured Americans over the past four years, there has been a $1.40 increase in the price of gas per gallon over the past four years, there has been an 11 percent increase in poverty over the past four years, and medium household income has not increased for four straight years.”
A growing lack of confidence in his administration. “Recent events have brought to light one of the Bush administration’s biggest weaknesses--its inability to manage. From corporate scandals like Enron, to post-war Iraq and now Katrina, the American people are increasingly disapproving of the way his administration is performing. And the president also needs to take responsibility for the growing lack of confidence in his administration among the African-American community post-Katrina. To have such a large segment of the American population believe that the administration does not care about them is a problem that cannot be ignored.”
In addition, I would encourage Bush to acknowledge his failure to heed advance warnings in 2001 about a possible Al Qaeda attack on America; his administration’s deliberately misleading conflation of the Iraq war with the 9/11 tragedies; and the true extent of his involvement in the effort by deputy chief of staff Karl Rove to disclose CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity in retaliation against her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had accused the administration of distorting prewar intelligence on Iraq. Those admissions would be a good start, and it’s probably too much to ask of Bush that he concede his role in trying to soil Senator John Kerry’s patriotism, his attempt to undermine Social Security with a “privatization” scheme, and his unwillingness to rein in federal spending, despite propaganda to the contrary. (So far, George W. Bush is the first U.S chief executive since James A. Garfield--who was assassinated in 1881, just six months into his presidency--to not veto a single bill, spending or otherwise.) Also presumably off the bargaining table is an honest accounting of where the hell Bush was during that year he vanished from his Texas Air National Guard service. Oh, well.
But don’t let this moment pass. With Bush suddenly weakened enough to enter a confessional, he ought to be kept in there for a while. Believe me, after dealing with my father for more than four decades, I know how quickly these windows of opportunity can close. A week from now, the prez’s old arrogance will have been replenished inside the protective bubble of his administration, and we won’t hear another vulnerable utterance until after the next disaster on his watch. God help us all.
FOLLOW-UP: Senate Republicans today killed an attempt by Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) to establish a “Katrina Commission,” which would probe the circumstances behind the government’s response to this month’s Gulf Coast hurricane damage and deaths. The Associated Press reports that the vote split strictly along party lines, with all 44 Democrats and Independent Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont voting for the Clinton proposal, and all 54 Republicans voting no. Don’t expect this to be the last word on the matter, however. Not when the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll found 76 percent of the public favoring such an independent investigation.
ADDENDUM: One of the dumbest GOP defenses of the Bush administration’s lax post-hurricane efforts is to charge that it is Democrats who really deserve to be roasted over an open flame, because they didn’t adequately question the appointment of Michael Brown as head of FEMA. Yet the prez--who picked Brown for that post--doesn’t deserve blame for having chosen the guy in the first place? How stupid do these folks think we are?
READ MORE: “Time for a Presidential Intervention,” by Ari Emanuel (The Huffington Post); “Minority Report: This Is Your Moment, Democrats. Don’t Blow It,” by John Dickerson (Slate); “An Equal-Opportunity Failure,” by Gene Lyons (Arkansas Democrat Gazette); “The Storm That Ate the GOP,” by Mark Morford (San Francisco Chronicle); “Bush’s Hacks,” by Derrick Z. Jackson (The Boston Globe); “Conservative Group Hits Republicans in Congress, Bush Over Spending” (The Raw Story); “The Forever Elsewhere Management Agency,” by Karen A. Lash (Salon); “The Right in Shambles,” by Jeff Alworth (The American Street); “When the Going Gets Tough,” by John Aravosis (Radar Online); “Polls Have Consequences,” by Steve Benen (The Carpetbagger Report).