Sunday, April 9, 2006

War without end, amen II

The frequent flyer-in-chief is lately on the move again, crisscrossing the country to shore up support for the war in Iraq. The urgency of these domestic sorties, their almost painful automaticity, illustrates just how politically wounded President Bush has become as he faces a broad range of problems stemming from the war, including the persistence of a robust insurgency and a rising tide of opposition at home.

Case in point: On Bush's airborne whistlestop to Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, the president faced an unusually hostile crowd in his own political backyard. At a speech before the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, Bush faced the comments of one man in the audience -- and not the usual audience pre-sanitized for his convenience. Harry Taylor, a 61-year-old real estate broker, spoke of the paradox of the president speaking of freedom when certain presumably unassailable civil liberties were under siege in America.

"What I wanted to say to you is that I, in my lifetime, I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened by my leadership in Washington, including the presidency, by the Senate,' Taylor said.

"I would hope from time to time that you have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of yourself."

This was no wild young yahoo, no grunge-soaked ragamuffin, no disaffected twenty-year-old knucklehead that the president or the crowd could ostracize and belittle as part of the reflexive liberal fringe. Notwithstanding the man's membership in MoveOn.org, a liberal political group that assumed a maverick role in the 2004 election, Harry Taylor's comments came from someone with presumably long standing in the community, a man nearing retirement age -- someone not unlike the people who swept Bush into a second term not that long ago.

To be sure, Bush had his supporters in the crowd, but even their support had unintended ironies. The New York Times reported that one woman expressed backing for Bush, saying "My heroes have always been cowboys" -- apparently oblivious to the wicked double entendre of the word "cowboy" in the context of a 21st-century American president at war.

The great unraveling has continued from last month, and one especially embarrassing performance in one of the president's least favorite forums.

On March 21, with all the dutifully suppressed distaste of a man prepping to undergo a root canal for the first time, President Bush stood front and center at a White House press conference and proceeded to blame the press for the bad news coming out of the Iraq war, even as he set a no-timetable timetable for ending that war at a date beyond the life of his own administration.

At the hastily called conference, which Bush probably hates as much as any dental operation, Bush said that troops would be in Iraq after his presidency ends in 2009, almost three years from now. When those troops would all be withdrawn, he said, "will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." In one statement, George Bush placed as a political issue the Iraq war -- its human, diplomatic and financial costs -- firmly around the neck of the Republican party for years to come.

It can't have escaped anyone's attention that Bush used the phrase "future presidents" Maybe it was just a linguistic misstep, one of many the president is well known for. But it raises the troubling specter of American forces bogged down in Iraq for decades.

That this prospect shouldn't be fair game for reporters is one of the issues that's long divided the White House and the press. Bush alluded to the matter of what the press covers and how much at the press conference, suggesting that, in a repeat of an old argument, the good news stories about Iraq are overcome by the bleeds-leads mentality of journalists, and the visual drama of a fresh wave of insurgent attacks.

"They're capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show," the president said to CBS News' Jim Axelrod. "I can understand how Americans are worried about whether or not we can win. ... I understand people being disheartened when they turn on their TV screen. Nobody likes beheadings."

Implicit in that statement is the idea that, distilled to its essence, if the press weren't there to report those events, those events wouldn't happen. The folly of that position has lately aroused the ire of the Washington press corps, whose attack-dog tendencies, usually held in abeyance in the presence of the president himself, have lately been, well, unleashed in his direction.

It's all led to what looks to casual observers like a rise in tension, certainly within the administration and, from the sad and frightening visible evidence, the president himself. And a photograph from the March 21 press conference is instructive. The image, taken by Associated Press photographer Charles Dharapak, is one of George Bush, face tight as a fist, the President of the United States of America looking like nothing so much as a man about to explode.
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Image credit: © 2007 Harry Taylor for Congress

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