We learned a lot about Washington politics that last few days. Out west one bolt of lightning or a even a single carelessly tossed match is all it takes to spark a forest fire. In Washington a well-timed leak can serve the same purpose. As out west the potential for fire has to build over time. Drought and vast reserves of dried brush and timber make firestorms possible. In Washington it’s the pent-up resentment certain parties feel about a third party.
Mark Shields was one of those who explained it. Since September 11, he said on the Lehrer NewsHour, “the president and the administration have been cast in almost a heroic mold.” But with last week’s leak about Bush’s August 6 briefing, “it’s the first time that the White House really and the president have been on the defensive politically” since 9/11. “The taboo against criticizing the commander in chief has been broken,” R.W. Apple wrote in the Sunday New York Times — unless, of course, “there are further terrorist attacks, or American troops are once again heavily engaged.”
Apple also noted apropos the August 6 item, “Democrats and reporters sensed an opportunity — the first of Mr. Bush’s administration — to polish up their gotcha politics and their gotcha journalism.” (Notice how those ‘crats and hacks appear to work in tandem.)
Each of the above observations has its fatuous side — one need only mention the effort made by the gotcha crowd to use Enron against Bush — though their general point is revealing enough. The real powers that be in D.C. simply cannot stand a popular Republican president. It happens every time. Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that Apple gave only “one cheer” to this “politics as usual,” or that Shields expressed disapproval of Democrats who repeated the cheap Watergate line, “What did President Bush know, and when did he know it?”
But even cooler heads can’t contain the hotheads in their midst. A political wildfire won’t burn unless fanned by irrationality and incoherence. Just what exactly has the discussion of the last few days been about? That Bush was informed of a general hijacking threat from Osama bin Laden on August 6 — yet somehow never told the American people about it before and especially after September 11 (or maybe the other way around)? All this, on the basis of a murky leak — evidently from materials passed on to a joint congressional committee that’s looking into the very questions of intelligence failures the gotcha crowd now insists must be looked into!
So Bush heard about Osama on a pre-September 11 date and never released that information — and that is somehow evidence of an unspecified but grievous crime. Does this make him what Rep. Cynthia McKinney suggested he is so famously last month? Or does it mean that Democrats in Washington have more than one Cynthia McKinney in their ranks? Imagine how many other briefing materials Bush’s office still has in its possession that include mention of the Osama word. Surely U.S. intelligence wasn’t so out of it as to restrict Osama’s name to only one document in the first eight months of Bush’s presidency? If additional materials emerge proving Bush had been told about Osama in other briefings, will those compound the president’s crimes?
Already Bush is in deep trouble for resisting last week’s political assault. “The ferocity of the White House counterattack this week,” were the opening words of yesterday’s page one “news analysis” in the New York Times. “Both sides overreacted,” Mara Laiason concluded. On the Sunday talk shows even Mrs. Bush was scolded for coming to the defense of her husband — leading to a deliciously absurd moment on ABC’s “This Week,” where George Stephanopoulos seemed by his reference to “the First Lady” to mean Mrs. Bush. But the ever interrupting Cokie Roberts thought he was referring to Hillary Clinton and that former first lady’s cheap anti-Bush remarks on the Senate floor. So gorgeous George, apparently not wanting to upset any further the woman he’s soon to replace, ended up agreeing with Cokie that he was indeed referring to Mrs. Clinton. If nothing else, the incident proved there’s never been any chemistry between Stephanopoulos and Roberts.
But let’s not end up connecting the wrong dots. It wouldn’t be a Washington inferno if some responsible souls didn’t emerge with a call for an independent commission to investigate the alleged problem the political devils had cooked up. As often as not, such voices are nominally conservative. Thus, a kind of echo chorus of Bill Kristol, David Brooks, George Will and (say it’s not so) Kate O’Beirne led the way, even though the only purpose such an all-white-male body (by Will’s description) would end up serving is to grant legitimacy to the scurrilous politics that brought it into being.
As if to confirm the point, there was Sen. Joseph Lieberman on Sunday also calling for such a blue-ribbon commission, and reminding all the world that both he and Sen. John McCain (who else!) had first called for such a panel last December. But if pre-9/11 intelligence failures were such a high priority, why has Lieberman of late spent so much of his time trying to tie Enron to the administration?