Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The C Word

Democrats remain frustrated that the Bush campaign--whoops; I mean, unaffiliated groups with no connection, at least not of the (uncut) umbilical variety, to the campaign--has successfully kept the focus on what John Kerry was doing on those Vietnamese rivers 35 years ago, rather than this president's signal failures in every area of national policy from economic management to war-fighting and foreign relations. Some of them are getting downright pissed. Among this group are two of my favorites, Josh Marshall of Talkingpointsmemo.com and Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect. And in their fury, they seem to have settled on a compelling counter-meme: namely, that Bush is a coward. First, Tomasky, who suggests we keep in mind what the Republican ticket was up to while LTJG Kerry was under arms:

George W. Bush spent those same years in a state of dissolution at Yale, and would go on, as we know, to plot how to get out of going to Southeast Asia. On that subject, here's a choice quote. "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment," Bush told the Dallas Morning News in 1990. "Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."

Let's parse that quotation phrase for phrase. We do not, of course, know the full context of the conversation he was having with the reporter, and we don't know exactly what question Bush was asked. But his words begin from the presumption that actually going to Vietnam was absolutely not an option. The quote is entirely about how to avoid going. He wasn't prepared to damage his hearing intentionally for the sake of securing a deferment (he probably meant a 4-F classification and confused the two). And he wasn't willing to go to Canada. So he took the third option, the Air National Guard. And note how the choice was about bettering himself, not about thinking of a way to best render service that this child of privilege might -- had he been possessed of the moral fiber and sense of duty of, say, John Kerry -- have considered his obligation, especially considering that, on paper at least, he supported the war.

And then there's the superhawk with feathers, the man I like to call Citizen Dick:

Dick Cheney is another who, on paper at least, supported the war. But we know Cheney's story: A series of deferments going back to 1963, when he was a student at Casper College in Wyoming. As Tim Noah reported in Slate, Cheney went on to marry -- as fate would have it, right after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, when it was clear that young single men would be called up in larger numbers than before. And then he went on to have a child, Elizabeth, born precisely nine months and two days after the Selective Service ended the proscription on the drafting of married but childless men. What a happily timed burst of passion he and Lynn were consumed by! So, while Kerry was plying the Mekong Delta, Cheney was safe and dry stateside, dropping out of Yale because his grades weren't sufficient to maintain the scholarship the school had offered him.

Everyone knows Cheney's quote, delivered to the Senate committee that was vetting him for service as George H.W. Bush's Defense Secretary, that he "had other priorities" than going to fight for his country. But he made another comment at that hearing that's less known and more damning: He said he "would have obviously been happy to serve had I been called." That, as John Nichols notes in his recent book Dick, is not just an obfuscation or a tap dance; it's a lie. He was called, and he ducked.

Tomasky's ire is actually directed more at the credulous press corps, which once again has allowed itself to be manipulated into telling the Republican story virtually unchallenged just months after all but admitting it got rolled--and ill-served the public in doing so--during the runup to war in Iraq. (On last night's Daily Show, Rob Corddry brilliantly mocked this perversion of objectivity by stating that he shouldn't let himself stand between those who were talking to him, the Republicans, and those who were listening to him--all of us.) Josh Marshall is angry about this too--he's directed withering comments at dimwitted media outlets that have somehow transubstantiated Bush's blanket condemnation of all "527" ads, including factually derived charges by groups like Moveon.org, into a request for the Swift Boat liars to pull their spots.

But Marshall makes a much more personal, and utterly damning, case about Bush's moral cowardice. It's an outstanding bit of argument:

A moral coward is someone who lacks the courage to tell the truth, to accept responsibility, to demand accountability, to do what's right when it's not the easy thing to do, to clean up his or her own messes. Perhaps we could say that moral bravery is having both the courage of your convictions as well as the courage of your misdeeds.

...On the balance sheet of moral bravery, as opposed to physical bravery, the two men are about as far apart as you can be on Vietnam. On the one hand you have Kerry, who already had doubts about whether we should be fighting in Vietnam before he went, and put his life on the line anyway. On the other hand, you have George W. Bush who supported the war, which means he believed the goal was worth the cost in American lives. Only, not his life. He believed others should go; just not him. It's the story of his life.

That is almost the definition of moral cowardice.

Marshall goes on to offer more contemporary examples of Bush's moral cowardice, positing a parallel between Iraq and Vietnam I haven't seen suggested anywhere else: that Bush's lies and equivocations on the latter reflect the same lack of character he showed during the former:

The key for the Kerry campaign to make is that the president's moral cowardice is why we're now bogged down in Iraq. It's a key reason why almost a thousand Americans have died there. President Bush has set the tone for this administration and his moral cowardice permeates it...

The president didn't think he could convince the public of the merits of his reasons for going to war. So he lied to them. He greatly exaggerated what was thought to be the evidence of weapons of mass destruction and completely manufactured a connection between Iraq and al Qaida. He couldn't get the country behind him on the up-and-up. So he took the easy way out; he took a shortcut; he deceived them. And now the country is paying a terrible price for it.

He and his advisors knew that if they levelled with the public about the costs of war -- in dollars, years, soldiers -- he'd have a very hard time convincing them. So he didn't level with them. He took the easy way out.

...once it became clear that the president's plans for post-war Iraq were producing poor results, he refused to shift policy or to reshuffle his team. He refused to demand accountability from his own team because of how it would have reflected on him. He's preferred to continue on with demonstrably failed policies because to do otherwise would be to admit he'd made a mistake and open himself to all the political fall-out that entails. And that's not something he's willing to do.

The stubborn refusal ever to change course, which the president tries to pass off as a sign of leadership or devotion to principle, is actually an example of his cowardice.

For the same reasons, he runs from soldiers' funerals like they were burying victims of the plague -- because it's the easy way out. If there's a problem, he denies it or finds someone else to take the fall for him.
The same sort of moral cowardice that led him to support the Vietnam war but decide it wasn't for him, run companies into the ground and let others pay the bill, play gutter politics but run for the hills when someone asks him to say it to their face, those are the same qualities that led the president to lie the country into war, fail to prepare for the aftermath and then refuse to take responsibility for any of it when the bill started to come due.

Let the word go forth: Bush is a coward.

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