When presidents begin their lame-duck lap, top advisers are often the first to flee. And lo, it came to pass last week that President Bush found himself in the Holy Land without his Karl Rove.
Which may be why he wound up doing his own political dirty work.
Standing in plain sight in Jerusalem, in the Knesset, no less, the president suddenly started talking about Adolf Hitler and the appeasers — just to pull off the sort of American political smear that was always performed by disconnected others, the Swift Boat gang comes to mind.
Bush used his own heavy hand to try to do to Barack Obama what was done to John Kerry and Al Gore, and (of course) John McCain — without leaving any traceable fingerprints, back in Bush’s good old days when Rove was masterminding his politics of defeat through destruction.
“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” said the president. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
This was followed by a pathetic performance of the Texas (see also: White House) Two-Step.
• One: White House aides told members of the traveling White House press corps that the president’s comments indeed pertained to Democratic presidential frontrunner Obama. But according to the manipulated press, that was dished on a “background” basis, which meant reporters couldn’t reveal who said it. So the correspondents reported Bush’s comment was a veiled attack on Obama. And of course, Obama responded by sharply rebuking the president.
• Two: Then White House officials denied on the record what they had said on background had been true. When a journalist asked Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino if the president’s comment was “in any way directed at Sen. Obama,” she answered unequivocally: “It is not.”
Not done, Bush’s spokesperson went on to claim it was all Obama’s fault for egotistically jumping to a false conclusion — “I understand when you’re running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you. That is not always true and it is not true in this case.”
You will be surely be amazed to discover just how inarticulate and mealy-mouthed White House reporters can be when they wake up and discover they have been manipulated and lied to, yet again. On Air Force One, White House counselor Ed Gillespie talked on the record with correspondents, one of whom asked: “Ed, can you talk to us a little bit about yesterday’s speech and how much the White House may or may not have anticipated the reaction that ultimately occurred, where people interpreted this as a reference to Barack Obama?”
Talk to us a bit? Say what? Gillespie, a wily politician, knew that he could toss this ball up himself and then hit it anywhere he wanted. He must have been chortling to himself as he took a swing at yet another Democratic target: “We did not anticipate that it would be taken that way, because it’s kind of hard to take it that way if you look at the actual words of the president’s remarks... There was some anticipation that someone might say, ‘Oh, it’s an expression of — a rebuke to former President Carter for having met with Hamas.’ That was something that was anticipated. No one wrote about that or raised that as a question.”
This was followed by a disingenuous performance of Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting McCain, who quickly steered his Straight-Talk Express down Bush’s trail-blazed low road. McCain blasted Obama for being inexperienced and reckless for being willing to meet with Iran, which supports terrorists.
• Reality check No. 1: Obama has said that, as president, he might talk with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — and, controversially, that he might do so without preconditions. That’s fair game. Obama, meanwhile, has said he would not negotiate with Hamas, the democratically elected authority in Palestinian Gaza.
• Reality check No. 2: McCain, according to former Clinton State Department spokesman James Rubin, had told him in a British television interview that the U.S. would have to talk with Hamas. “They’re the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them...” he quoted McCain as saying, in a Washington Post op-ed article.
We live in a world imperiled by terrorism in an age of nuclear obsession. That is why we know that it is not appeasement when we work to ease hostilities with those who are most hostile to us and our allies: Libya yesterday, North Korea today, any of the rest tomorrow. These serious issues deserve and require serious discourse in a civil political campaign.
Uttering inflammatory rhetoric and distorting truth in these times is reckless. Doing so in a distant capital, just to score cheap political points back home, gives new meaning to the politics of the Big Lie. It is willfully irresponsible.
Martin Schram (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.