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It's the Trifecta, Stupid!
March 13, 2004
By Jack MacMillan

Lily Tomlin once observed, "No matter how cynical you get, you can't keep up."

George Bush's recent campaign ads certainly prove her point.

Who could keep up with the stunning audacity of Bush's decision to pose with the image of a victim's flag-draped casket? Didn't he know how shocking that would be for families still in mourning?

This self-serving exploitation of their loss was so blatantly manipulative that it seemed almost calculated to reinforce the deep cynicism so many citizens feel about the political process.

And that got me to thinking. Are they really that dumb? Would the White House re-election team openly break the president's promise to the contrary and blatantly exploit this tragedy without anticipating a negative reaction?

Or is it possible that this "blunder" was intentional, just another in a long series of Republican efforts to reinforce voter cynicism by reminding us that politicians are the lowest form of life and that politics is a business too vile to be worthy of our attention?

It would fit a pattern. Republicans built their resurgence on public cynicism toward government. For a generation they've promoted the view that government is an evil institution and that everyone who serves in office does so for selfish reasons.

Could their crass decision to exploit a flag-draped coffin be just another effort to promote that larger theme? Be saddened… be shocked… for a moment. Then tune out! After all, "They're all like that."

Is it cynical to think this way? Or is it our cynicism that makes such things possible, paralyzing our responses and clearing the way for the worst in public life?

Has our cynicism dampened our outrage? Is that why Dick Cheney can go on collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Halliburton, while using his White House position to foster a war that produces vast contracts for Halliburton, why billionaires can pocket giant tax cuts, and why George Bush can collect millions from grateful contributors who laughed at his jokes about 9/11?

His ads exploiting 9/11 show how much we've come to tolerate. You know he didn't apologize for the failures that allowed it. You know he didn't assist the investigation. Now you know he didn't respect the privacy of the victims.

But did you know he thought it was funny?

In the weeks after 9/11 three tragedies burdened our souls. While unemployment rose, shattered families mourned, and bombs still fell in Afghanistan, Bush turned to his budget director, Mitch Daniels, and said, "Lucky me. I hit the trifecta."

When that quote was published I expected a White House denial. Instead, Bush turned it into a laugh line at a series of private fundraisers. Time and again it served as the punch line for the most tasteless joke ever told.

You see, both the president and his well-heeled contributors knew that he could not sustain their massive tax cuts without shifting the cost to the remaining taxpayers - the middle class - by running massive deficits.

But he had promised not to do that! He needed a loophole - an excuse to give the voters. So he manufactured his trifecta joke.

"You know, I was campaigning in Chicago and somebody asked me, is there ever any time where the budget might have to go into deficit? I said only if we were at war or had a national emergency or were in recession. (Laughter.) Little did I realize we'd get the trifecta. (Laughter.)"

To appreciate the tastelessness, remember the context. His audience knew the game. Bush needed political cover for their lavish tax cuts. That's why the transcript shows the strange notation (Laughter) when he mentions war, national emergency, and recession. And why they laugh again when he happily calls them a trifecta - racetrack jargon for three "lucky winners" in a row!

Is depravity too strong a word?

Combat deaths, civilian mayhem, and unemployment for millions were, from the perspective of Bush and his audiences, a lucky combination. A trifecta! The winning tickets that would pay off with cash for his contributors - and the political clout the President could use to make their winnings permanent!

Having trouble keeping up?

Bush repeated this joke a dozen times in front of select audiences that saw the joke. Twelve times he joshed and twelve times they laughed. Laughed at the unemployed, laughed at the dead, and laughed at the families who mourned them.

And they laughed at our expense. Laughed at the irony of three disasters that gave them the power to enforce the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world. Laughed at the prospect of enabling the wealthiest members of American society to secede from the social union, never to pay taxes again, while the inattentive herd was left to pay the costs and shed the blood necessary to sustain their wealth.

And they're laughing now at the fact that we're too cynical to care. These speeches are no secret. The White house team has such faith in our indifference - and such trust in the protection afforded by our cynicism - that they keep the transcripts in plain view on the White House website, confident that very few will care enough to read or decode them.

So when you next see Bush in his commercials, surrounded by those images of war, disaster, and recession, remember how he really sees them. His winning tickets. His trifecta!

Lily was right. Our cynicism can't keep up.

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