A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
I think the Republican campaign this year comes down to one word -- Halloween -- one long Halloween. It’s fright night every night. The symbol of their party ought to be Freddy and Chucky. The Democrats need to focus on Bush. The importance of my book is that it focuses on Bush, who remains the key crucial question and issue, even in the midterm campaign. Will we have unaccountable, one-party rule with Bush for the next two years? And has this Congress performed its Constitutional duty? The answer is no. -- Sidney Blumenthal
Both a trenchant, learned journalist and a tested political counsel who served as a former special advisor to both Bill and Hillary Clinton in the White House, Sidney Blumenthal has been writing commentary on politics regularly for Salon.com and The Guardian since 2003. His new book based on those writings analyzes both the Bush policies and the politics we've been enduring in recent times. He argues, very convincingly, that this administration's extremist actions are a deliberate effort to radically change the presidency and America's government. He also shares with BuzzFlash his advice to Democrats about the current election cycle.
Blumenthal is a wordsmith with lacerating insight.
You can purchase an autographed copy of Sidney Blumenthal's "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime" (Hardcover) at: http://www.buzzflash.com/store/items/313
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BuzzFlash: Your new book, How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime, goes back over the brilliant writings that you’ve done analyzing the Bush administration. Let’s start with a very basic question about how we view people on the political spectrum through terminology. What is the meaning of political labels? In the subtitle of your book, you call the Bush administration a radical regime. What does that mean to you?
Sidney Blumenthal: When most people see the word "radical," they think that it must refer to something left wing. Some people also may think of it as referring to far right-wing marginal groups. But here we have a president of the United States at the center of power, sitting in the White House, who is a radical.
Why do I call him a radical? I call him a radical because he is undertaking a fundamental transformation of our Constitutional system of government and of our longstanding policies that have been accepted for literally generations. He thinks to concentrate unaccountable power in the Executive. He thinks you alter the laws so that, as Commander in Chief, he can determine, under what he says are wartime conditions, what the laws are, which laws should be enforced, and declare by fiat what our policy should be, even abrogating longstanding international treaties.
This is a long project whose main driver is the Vice President, Dick Cheney. Bush has overthrown a sixty-year consensus on foreign policy. He has exhibited hostility to science that no other president has ever displayed. He has adopted a formal policy of so-called preemptive, first-strike attack that was rejected openly by Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower. And he has deliberately polarized and divided the country for political purposes, politicizing the most basic questions of war and peace for partisan advantage. Those are some of the policies and politics he’s pursued that lead me to call him the most uniquely radical president we’ve ever had in the White House.
BuzzFlash: The commentary in your book recounts just how radical he is in so many different ways. But let’s go back to another term that’s filled with connotation and resonance -- one of those hot-button terms that means so much and different things to different people. That is, the question of elitism. The Republicans have long worked to frame the Democratic Party as a party of elitists. This came up in the Kerry campaign when they tried to "Frenchify" him, and make him seem like he was out of touch with mainstream America. But in your collected commentaries on the Bush administration, one gets the sense that, if anything, this administration are the real elitists. They don’t believe that the population should be involved in the decision making, but that it should be entrusted to a few elite people in the Executive branch.
Sidney Blumenthal: The Bush Administration, and particularly Bush’s chief political strategist and Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, have been expert in both galvanizing and mobilizing the fears and resentments of people. A good part of their politics consists of being against others who are defined in stereotypical terms. These others don’t, in actual reality, exist. The so-called Democratic elitists, for example, are a stereotype who they can hate. Anyone who watches Fox News or listens to Rush Limbaugh knows that this hatred of the other is at the core of their politics.
But what is the real effect of Bush’s policies? At the risk of sounding like I’m repeating Clinton era talking points, it’s still useful to compare and contrast some basic economic statistics. When we’re talking about elitism, let’s discuss the actual conditions of people and how their opportunities and mobility are really affected by the policies of the presidency. Under Clinton, poverty was reduced 25% and real income -- family income in real wages -- increased more than 15%, the greatest increase in a generation and a half. The reduction in poverty was the greatest since the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson in the Sixties. Compare and contrast to Bush. Not only has he violated basic Republican tenets -- another reason I consider him radical -- like fiscal responsibility and prudence, but he wiped out the greatest surplus that was ever created and created the greatest deficit. He has also completely reversed all the progress that was made on increasing family income in real wages. We’re now in negative territory. All the gains that were made in the Nineties have been wiped out.
So who is the real elitist? In a sense, Bush has used the tragedy of the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the nightmarish expansion of his idea of a war on terror to overshadow his actual conduct in office on the redistribution of wealth upward through progressive tax cuts that actually penalize the vast majority of the public, and shift their resources to a narrow band at the very, very top. This is a kind of Enron-ization of policy that is going on under Bush, and it’s hardly a surprise, given that Enron was the greatest contributor to his political career before he became president, something that’s been overlooked since September 11th.
BuzzFlash: On that question of elitism, let me propose something, and have you react to it. If we had to distill down their philosophy of governance and concentration of power in the Executive branch, what they basically say to the American public is, you don’t need to know. Trust us. We will take care of everything. Don’t ask any questions. Could you react to that as a governing philosophy. Is that accurate?
Sidney Blumenthal: This has been one of the most secretive administrations ever -- certainly the most secretive and darkest since the Nixon Administration, and inspiration for Bush’s idea of an imperial presidency derives directly from the Nixon presidency. The carrier of this idea is Dick Cheney, and the other carrier is Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was the counselor to Nixon in the Nixon White House. Cheney was his deputy. They deeply regretted and mourned what happened to Nixon -- the short-circuiting of his imperial presidency. Ever since, they’ve been trying to create an unaccountable, all-powerful executive, pursuing essentially right-wing policies across the board, from energy to foreign policy, and without oversight. One of the enemies, as Cheney and his people have explicitly defined it, is Congressional oversight -- is the Congress of the United States. Now the Republican Congress has completely cooperated in this Bush-Cheney imperial presidency by abdicating their responsibility for oversight.
One-party rule under these Republicans has been indispensable in creating an unaccountable Bush presidency that’s very much unlike other periods in our history. At other times when one party has held power in both the Legislative and Executive Branches, the congress persons took their responsibility seriously and had a sense of institutional integrity and pride. They conducted oversight. We need only to remember Senator J. William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, conducting hearings on the Vietnam War during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. They were from the same party, but Fulbright felt an independent responsibility as senator and chairman of his committee. That has not been exhibited by today's Congressional Republicans. This brings to a sharp point the question of what happens in the Congressional midterm elections in 2006, and holding Bush accountable for his final two years in office.
BuzzFlash: I don’t want to ask you to engage in psychobabble, because your commentaries are so sophisticated and so superbly analytical and documented. But a key question arises that puzzles me personally. Do people like Rumsfeld and Cheney, who formed their perception of the Executive branch during the Nixon years -- do they believe that democracy is too important to be left to the people who voted, in essence? Or do they just enjoy power for power’s sake? What is at work here? Why do they have such disdain for the public at large, and why do they feel they know more and are entitled to rule by fiat and secrecy?
Sidney Blumenthal: Rumsfeld and Cheney are classic hard men who believe in their own toughness, believe that they -- as people with decades more experience in mastering bureaucracies -- have superior experience, and above all that they know how to wield power and that others are weak -- too sensitive, too feminine, and should be pushed to the side. Both Rumsfeld and Cheney have wanted to be president. Both of them actually conducted short-lived presidential campaigns in their own time. In effect, the Bush presidency is, for each of them, their presidencies. And they believe, above all, in unaccountable, unfettered power, particularly for themselves. They’re abstract Straussians, people who engage in political philosophizing, like a few of the neo-cons. They use the neo-cons for their own purposes, and they may believe some of the things that the neo-cons come up with. The neo-cons have proved to be incredibly useful to Rumsfeld and Cheney for their purposes.
BuzzFlash: Are these two men engaged in Masters of the Universe type accumulation of power for the sake of the accumulation of power? Or do you think they truly believe their world view is one that will benefit the United States?
Sidney Blumenthal: I would grant Rumsfeld and Cheney their beliefs, which are hard, right-wing beliefs. I think both of them are granted too much because they’re so powerful, and they’ve been around Washington so long. In terms of how sophisticated those beliefs are, I think they’re not necessarily very nuanced -- a word our President seems to dislike, as well as disliking nuance. Rumsfeld and Cheney are incredibly dismissive of the opinions of others, especially opinions that disagree with them. They’re bullying. Rumsfeld has intimidated much of senior military -- forced anyone who raises too much opposition to his policies to retire, and filled the Pentagon with yes-men for the most part. Cheney operates a system that has conducted a war inside the intelligence community against anybody who engages in objective analysis that is counter to his preconceptions and what he wants to happen -- for example, invading Iraq or Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. So they are ruthless. They brook no opposition. They are suppressing all objective analysis within the government to the enormous detriment of the policymaking functions. And we can see the results in the policy.
BuzzFlash: People like BuzzFlash readers, who are politically savvy -- and even, I think, people on the moderate right -- know that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld say things that are contradictory on an ongoing basis. One can call them lies. One can say, I guess if one were enabling them, that they’ve forgotten what they previously said. But you have Bush saying no, Iraq wasn’t connected to 9/11. Cheney keeps going on and saying that Saddam was connected to al-Qaeda. And Bush says no, we have no proof. Rumsfeld constantly is saying things that contradict his previous statements. If we held them to normal standards, we would say that they’re delusional, or they’re just chronic liars. But the mainstream media doesn’t seem to hold them to that standard. It doesn’t say, well, in a previous press conference, Rumsfeld said so-and-so. Rumsfeld is now saying he never said that the war in Iraq would be short. Of course, Cheney said we'd be greeted as liberators.
How can they get away with this constantly? Bill Clinton could never, never have survived if his administration officials had constantly said things that contradicted what they had said the day before, a month before, a year before. It doesn’t seem that anyone in the mainstream press wraps all this together and asks what the heck is going on?
Sidney Blumenthal: Well, we had a press conference by the President on the 21st of August in which Bush said that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11th, and that Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Well, who created those impressions in the public? It was Bush and Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld, and their administration that systematically and cleverly inculcated these falsehoods in the public and indoctrinated our soldiers with these lies. The press is put in a very awkward position having to point that out. Maybe what the press needs to do is to create something new, similar to the kind of analysis that’s done for some newspapers, of political maps, where they "think-check" them. Maybe Bush’s and Cheney’s particularly outrageous falsehoods that contradict their past statements should simply be reported in a box, along with their past remarks, to show how much they have deviated from what they’d done. That might be a good innovation for the press.
BuzzFlash: Let me bring up something that I’d like you to speculate on a little bit, because it’s so pivotal to the Bush Administration’s emergence in its full destructive form. We know, of course, that in the election of 2000, we had a silent coup in the Supreme Court that stopped the voting recount in Florida, and Scalia basically ensured the placement of Bush in the White House by jamming through a 5 to 4 decision.
But before that there also was that very odd and strange moment, when Bush appointed Cheney to run with him as Vice President. Cheney was heading the vice presidential selection process for Bush, which is normally given to an elder party statesman who’s kind of out of the political fray. They sort of serve as the executive recruiters for the presidential hopefuls. But we have this moment where the executive recruiter suddenly is appointed to run as the vice president -- a guy with a severe heart problem. One would have assumed he was out of politics and he was doing this, in the traditional role, as someone who doesn’t really have a stake in the game. He’s just going to give the presidential nominee a fair evaluation of these people, vet them, and kind of recommend someone.
What is your speculation on what happened there? This had never happened before, to my understanding historically, where the person who was supposed to recruit a vice presidential candidate became the vice presidential candidate. And it was an odd kind of profile of someone to become the candidate. What happened there? Did Cheney convince Bush?
Sidney Blumenthal: Focusing on this particular historical event is interesting now, because it had enormous consequences later.
BuzzFlash: It is probably the defining moment of the Bush Presidency.
Sidney Blumenthal: Well, it resulted in the creation of the most powerful vice president in our history. Cheney has provided the basic idea behind Bush’s imperial presidency. He controls much of the actual bureaucratic operations in the Executive branch through his office. He controls the flow of paper inside the White House, and information and intelligence often, to the president. So he is more than even a Prime Minister -- a kind of Cardinal Richelieu figure behind the throne.
How did this happen? We haven’t gotten to the bottom of this, and we don’t know all the answers. What we do know is one, Cheney has always wanted to be President. Two, when Cheney got the job as the vetter of Bush’s potential running mates, he accumulated all of the information on potential rivals, including information on the skeletons in their closets. In effect, he had all their dirty linen, and he could, in effect, blackmail them. But he himself was not really vetted. Karen Hughes was asked at the time, who vetted Cheney? Her response was, “Well, Cheney did.” So Cheney vetted himself while he accumulated information on the private lives of everybody else.
Then I assume -- but I’m speculating -- that elder Bush -- Poppy, the father -- somehow gave his imprimatur to this with the idea that Cheney would act as a kind of benign mentor to the formerly errant son who has somehow altered his ways and is now on the straight and narrow. This would enable him to stay on the straight and narrow, as it were. This would have been a miscalculation, on elder Bush’s part, of who Cheney was and what he was becoming -- not at all a Republican realist, in elder Bush’s tradition, but a true radical, determined to overturn the life work of the father. So that could have been a complete miscalculation.
It’d be a good project for some future historian to ferret out the truth of this, if it can ever be known. Or it could be a good subject of a suspense novel or a movie. But given that Cheney is a man who operates in the shadows, we may never get to the bottom of this. Speculation about how Cheney got to where he is may remain an unsolved mystery.
BuzzFlash: Much of what you’ve written so accurately and trenchantly points to the failure of the Bush administration to achieve its own stated goals. Really, Iraq is only the most tragic and at the same time, the most ludicrous example of how they have constantly shifted their goals and even failed every time they’ve shifted them. It might have been something extremely different if this were a radical government, and actually had succeeded at something beyond making the wealthy wealthier and leading us to the point of bankruptcy. I guess those are their two successes in some weird sort of way.
But you write frequently about their failures -- that, by their own standards, they’ve failed. Of all the many reasons they’ve given for going to Iraq, none seems to hold up. What we’re left with is that they’re stopping terrorism there, when we’re really just mediating a civil war at this point between Sunnis and Shiites. Given all this failure, how are they able to continue to rule with the trump card of "you need us to fight against terrorism"? I know you can kind of manufacture "truthiness," as Stephen Colbert says on television, with big bad scary commercials with wolves in them. But the reality is failure, as you’ve pointed out. How can they get away with this?
Sidney Blumenthal: For every failure, Bush develops a new front where he insists that he is required to save us from a new threat. The Bush universe of threats is a constantly expanding universe as he moves to politically higher ground, escaping from failure after failure. He’s not only radical, but the consequences of his radicalism have been catastrophic. These people have been deeply incompetent.
Now, some of the things that they’re incompetent about go to the heart of what they believe. Their incompetence is not some inadvertent byproduct. It actually derives from their principles.
For example, consider what happened to New Orleans and the aftermath from Hurricane Katrina -- the destruction of a major American city, an absolute inability of the federal government through FEMA to cope as it should have with this terrible catastrophe. Why was it unable to cope? Well, the Bush Administration doesn’t really believe in government. That’s one of its dirty little secrets. So they turned FEMA into a dumping ground for political hacks. They demoted it. They cut it apart. They drove out professionals. They turned it into a plaything for lobbyists and no-bid contractors. What’s going on throughout the government is a kind of FEMA-ization.
What has happened in Iraq in the occupation is not much different from what happened in New Orleans. Look at the privatization of warfare in the occupation, and how Halliburton and other contractors have profited. They've practically looted the federal treasury. And the result’s catastrophic. The privatization of the occupation should not be seen as too different from Bush’s proposal to begin privatizing Social Security. Imagine what that would have looked like, had it not been stopped. But their incompetence reflects their philosophy.
BuzzFlash: Do they think they’ve succeeded?
Sidney Blumenthal: They always think they need to be given another chance, and that, in time, things will work out. I think Bush’s strategy is like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind -- "Tomorrow’s another day!" He has no strategy. Listening to his press conferences and speeches is like being stuck on a camp bus when you were a kid, singing, “We’re Here Because We’re Here.” That’s his policy on Iraq. It’s like endlessly singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
BuzzFlash: In addition to being a stellar journalist, you had a stint as a special assistant in the White House dealing with communications issues. Certainly, during the impeachment process it was trial by fire. So you understand the battle for hearts and minds of Americans through messaging and the media. The only card the Bush administration has applied is the terrorism threat. We all know that we’re going to see repeats like we saw with the Ned Lamont primary campaign when Cheney placed an unprecedented Tuesday night call to reporters, which was followed by an arrest of an alleged terrorist cell in Britain. We’re going to see more of this as we get closer to the election. We may see an Osama tape pop up the Friday before the midterms, as we saw in the 2004 presidential election. We may see another alleged terror cell pop up. What do the Democrats do, given that this is all but a certainty? What do the Democrats do in a situation like that where the presidency has the power of disclosing information, whether it’s fully accurate, fairly accurate or not accurate at all, but it goes right to the fears of people and bypasses any sort of cognitive reasoning process?
Sidney Blumenthal: I think the Republican campaign this year comes down to one word -- Halloween -- one long Halloween. It’s fright night every night. The symbol of their party ought to be Freddy and Chucky. The Democrats need to focus on Bush. The importance of my book is that it focuses on Bush, who remains the key crucial question and issue, even in the midterm campaign. Will we have unaccountable, one-party rule with Bush for the next two years? And has this Congress performed its Constitutional duty? The answer is no.
The Democrats need to hold Bush to account in this campaign. The answer to the Republican Halloween strategy is to say that Bush has not done the job. Why, five years after September 11th, is the administration permitted to raise fears that somehow al-Qaeda is still operating out there, creating terrorist plots? Who’s responsible, after five years of not defeating al-Qaeda? I understand that this is an unusual enemy, but who was it in Afghanistan who screwed up in Tora Bora and let bin Laden escape? It was the Bush Administration. Who leached all the resources, military and civil, from Afghanistan, creating the instability that we see there today in order to prepare for the misbegotten invasion of Iraq? It was the Bush administration. If there’s a terrorist problem today, who is responsible now? Bush has not done the job. That’s what I would say if I were a Democrat running for office.
BuzzFlash: I think the Republican counterpoint that they’re unveiling right now says: under President Bush’s Administration, since 9/11, there has been no terrorist attack on the United States of America. I believe they are going to bring this up as a factoid again and again and again, and say it speaks for itself. Make your choice. Are you going to trust the Democrats to keep that from happening, or are you going to trust the record? We’re fighting them abroad. What’s the response? We know that one factoid is a horribly misleading and limited sort of claim, for any variety of reasons. But to the American public, to the great masses, they go: oh, yeah, that’s true -- regardless of the fact that Bush ignored warnings about 9/11 -- did nothing to stop it. What’s the response to that? Because I think they’re going to bring this up again. What’s going to be the mantra for that?
Sidney Blumenthal: Well, there certainly have been a lot of American casualties in Iraq. If I were running for office, I would say to Republicans, when they say that they prevented terrorist attacks here at home, why do they think we have sacrificed our men and women in uniform serving in Iraq -- why have they have died? Are they not Americans?
Then there’s another argument to be made, and it’s not really suitable for the simplicities of the campaign. But it has to do with Europe. The incubator for terrorism, after the Middle East, is Europe, partly because of proximity, partly because of the existence of large Muslim communities there. This doesn’t mean that these communities are hotbeds of terrorism. But as we’ve seen, all you need are a few people to act as terrorists.
In every single case, the truth is that the atmosphere created by the Iraq invasion and the staggeringly mismanaged occupation has incited terrorists to act. It’s been a contributing factor. It’s unavoidable throughout Europe -- in Spain, in Germany, in Britain. The truth is that we need long-term American policy to shift in order to really soak up and get rid of these sources of terrorism that threaten our Western allies. And the Bush Administration has nothing to say about that. They’re back to singing “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
BuzzFlash: Thanks so much.
Sidney Blumenthal: It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
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How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime (Hardcover) by Sidney Blumenthal, a BuzzFlash premium.
How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime (Hardcover) AUTOGRAPHED Sidney Blumenthal, a BuzzFlash premium.
Sidney Blumenthal biography at Wikipedia.
Sidney Blumenthal at Salon.com.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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