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Unexcused Absence

September 15, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

I learned this during the Lewinsky debacle: you never want to say that we have reached the low water mark of American politics, because it can always get lower.

As the lawyers would put it, by introducing an attack on Kerry's military record, the Bush team "opened the door" for the current discussion of his own Vietnam-era service record.

CBS, to everyone's surprise, went out and did an actual piece of journalism in which they unearthed some actual evidence to substantiate the charges that have been circulating since 2000 about George W. Bush having been sleazed into the National Guard by his father's friends and then deserted his post for several months so he could work on his father's campaign (or so he could avoid failing a physical due to his drug and alcohol abuse, or both).

The rest of the media, shamed by this example, responded the only way they knew how: by picking up some bullshit that had been posted on right-wing blogs and websites and repeating it as if it were credible.

Now, CBS is in the absurd position of having to defend itself for having a few reporters on staff who can still do their jobs; and all over the country thousands of people, sane and insane, are getting into heated arguments about which kinds of typewriters were capable of producing a superscript TH in 1972.

Outside our borders, there's an entire world waiting with bated breath to see whether the American political system is still functioning well enough to allow us to vote out a government that is obviously and breathtakingly corrupt after having endured four years of their mismanagement, mistakes, and outright pillage. And it's got to be depressing to them, too, to feel as if the fate of the world is going to hinge on the history and development of the IBM Selectric.

I personally do not care that much about the fact that Bush went AWOL in 1972. My problem is that he's AWOL now. This was crystallized for me this past April, when the fighting in Iraq started to boil over after a long period of comparatively quiet seething.

As you may recall, on April 8 of this year, Condoleeza Rice testified before the 9/11 Commission. Most of the subsequent commentary focused on the moment at which she was forced to reveal the title of the infamous Presidential Daily Briefing from August 6, 2001: "I believe the title was 'Bin Laden Determined To Attack In The United States.'"

That certainly was a startler, especially since she then went on to insist that this memo was not any kind of a warning about any kind of terrorist attack or anything like that. They had had no warning, she said; they could never have imagined such a thing; anyway they hadn't had enough time to do anything to prevent something like 9/11. After all, they had only been in office for 233 days when it happened.

Rice repeated "233 days" frequently during her testimony. Dana Milbank and Robin Wright at the Washington Post must have been struck by it, since they were at work on a piece about the recent uprising in Iraq, and the fact that while Americans were dying there in unprecedented numbers, Bush was on vacation in Crawford:

This is Bush's 33rd visit to his ranch since becoming president. He has spent all or part of 233 days on his Texas ranch since taking office, according to a tally by CBS News. Adding his 78 visits to Camp David and his five visits to Kennebunkport, Maine, Bush has spent all or part of 500 days in office at one of his three retreats, or more than 40 percent of his presidency.

So by last April, the amount of time that Bush had spent goofing around on his movie set in Crawford exactly equaled the amount of time that Condoleeza Rice and the gang had had to work out their anti-terrorism strategy before 9/11/01. And, in fact, Bush was at Crawford when that August 6 PDB was issued.

It's the kind of coincidence that just makes a person think. Specifically, it makes a person think, hey, maybe those first 233 days of the Bush Administration might have been put to better use if the President currently in office had actually been, you know, IN THE OFFICE.

If your employers allowed you to spend 40% of your time on vacation, you'd get five months of vacation every year. You could knock off in April and come back in September. Which would be nice for a while, until you started to feel some nagging doubts about whether the people stuck covering for you back in the office were really covering for you, or whether you were going to show up and find out that of the eight important projects you had been working on when you left, three have been fucked up beyond recall, three have been transformed into something you never envisioned, and the two most important ones haven't been touched since you left your desk.

And that's why most people don't get 40% of their work days as paid vacation, whether they're President of the United States or not.

Between the photo-ops and the fund-raisers and the campaign appearances and the trips to the three different vacation spots, it is perhaps not surprising that so many of the moments of crisis that we've faced during his presidency have occured when he was somewhere other than where you might expect a President to be. The big one, of course, was September 11, which found him sitting in an elementary school classroom in Florida listening to the students read The Pet Goat.

Thanks to Fahrenheit 911, an enormous number of Americans have had the chance to watch footage of those now-infamous seven minutes, during which Bush, having been told by Andrew Card that the nation is under attack, sits petrified on his chair at the front of the room while the children go through their drill.

He says nothing. He is not following the story, but it's hard to tell if anything else is going on inside his head, apart from the slow expansion of those black pools of fear in his eyes. This has never happened before. He is not prepared for it and there is no script to follow. He has no idea what is supposed to happen next. So he does what he's always done: he sits where he's been put and waits for the handlers to come in once this appearance is over and tell him where he's supposed to go.

My brother went through a Steve Martin phase when we were younger, and on one of Martin's albums he loses his place in the middle of a routine and has to stop talking. Then he picks up a few seconds later, saying, "Sorry, my brain went to Bermuda there for a minute." I have used that line on occasion myself; let's face it, we all have moments when our brains go AWOL. Seven solid minutes, however, is a long time for one's brain to spend vacationing in Bermuda; it's so long, in fact, that Moore made the decision not to include the entire sequence in his film, presumably because he felt he couldn't ask the audience to spend that much time watching nothing happen.

But this isn't just about those seven minutes. To understand the importance of the Pet Goat Incident, you have to look at what it reveal about the way Bush approached his job.

On a morning when more than 3,000 people died in New York City because they had gotten up and gone to the office that day, Bush was out on yet another school reading photo op. He went on an astonishing number of these visits during the first months of his presidency - so many, in fact, that by August of 2001 he was starting to get ribbed for it in the press, especially because regardless of the age and grade level of the children, he always read The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Now when I say "the press" here, of course, I'm not talking about mainstream outlets like CNN. Far from wondering aloud, as Ariana Huffington and others had done, why the President of the United States was apparently incapable of reading anything more challenging than a book pitched at four year olds, the good people at CNN's Inside Politics let us all know why Bush was sent out on those photo-ops in the first place:

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (CNN) - In recent days, it's been hard to tell that President George W. Bush has been on vacation for this month of August. Yes, he's been spotted on the golf course at times, but other images have prevailed over pictures of the president engaged in summertime leisure activities. There he was on Wednesday reading a book to second graders in Albuquerque, and delivering a speech about his thoughts on education. He then planned to head to a job training center located in a predominantly Hispanic, working class part of town, before wrapping up a two day trip away from his vacation base - his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

In other words, these tours to elementary school classrooms had been arranged as a way of making it look as if Bush was still working when he was actually taking "the longest vacation taken by any recent president":

Perhaps the most important effect of Bush's 2-day trip and other recent events, some political analysts say, is simply that Bush is seen at work. "I think they're trying to stifle the inference that when he's working he doesn't work, so they have him working while he's on vacation," said Lee Miringoff, an independent pollster who heads the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York.

This little gem is dated August 16, 2001 - ten days after a vacationing Bush either read or maybe didn't read the "Bin Laden Determined to Attack" PDB. And apart from the valuable lesson it gives us about how tamely the media allows itself to be led - look back at that opening paragraph, which reproduces the very spin that it discusses further down in the piece - what this piece shows us is that although Bush's handlers were aware that the American public were starting to get the feeling that Bush was playing hooky, their solution was not to have him actually do some work, but to try to make it look as if he were working.

Sticking Bush in a classroom full of cute kids and having him recite a book he had no doubt already memorized was apparently enough to fool CNN into believing that Bush was on top of things. It was not enough to fool Bin Laden.

By the time 19 of Bin Laden's operatives hijacked four American planes 26
days later, Bush's handlers had indeed gotten together and made one very
important decision. They had figured out, no doubt after a lot of late-night poring over many thousands of opinion polls, that it was crucial to get Bush away from The Very Hungry Caterpillar before people started to get the idea that he could not, in fact, read. So they decided to give The Pet Goat a whirl.

And while Bush was listening to the children read about this goat, we were all learning, among other things, that in these times it is not good enough to have a president who is capable of looking busy for the cameras. In these times, there is no substitute for actual, honest-to-God work. And unfortunately, we are being led through these times by a man who either cannot or will not show up day after day and do the job.

September 11, 2001 taught us a lot. It does not appear to have taught Bush much. In April 2004, he was, once again, on vacation in Crawford when the latest phase of the Iraqi resistance began surging forward. He remained on vacation while people continued to die in the war he and his advisors had moved heaven and earth to start. I well remember staring at my computer screen, reading the mechanical expressions of concern that Bush had phoned in to the media from Crawford, and thinking, forget Vietnam. This bastard can't even be bothered to show up for his own fucking war.

You hear all the pundits now wringing their hands and wondering why we're still talking about Vietnam in this day and age. Well, I'll tell you why: it's because after banging our heads against the wall of media complicity for the past three years, we have all learned that it is impossible to have a frank conversation about what's going on right now.

You can't talk about the fact that during one of the worst periods in American history, Bush has been an absentee president. You can't get a conversation started about what that really means. You can't get the pundits to wonder whether Bush's extraordinary neglect of his responsibilities is the result of negligence, malice, incompetence, or some combination of the three. You can't talk about what it means that Bush has held fewer press conferences than any recent president, that his campaign staff is going to unheard-of lengths to make sure that every single person at every one of his campaign events is a bona fide Bush supporter who understands that he can't be expected to answer substantive questions, or that Bush is now trying to duck out of a debate that would require him to respond on live television to questions put to him by undecided voters. You cannot get anyone at the major outlets to acknowledge the obvious fact that Bush's inability to do his job has been making us more and more vulnerable with every day that passes.

You can't talk about any of this. The media are all dedicated to telling us day after day that this is a normal state of affairs and that everything is just fine, and that all we have to worry about is what might happen one day if, God forbid, we replaced Bush with someone who could and would actually work. To talk about Bush's record of absenteeism in the twenty-first century would require them to acknowledge that the ship of state is in the middle of a category five hurricane and the captain is somewhere down in the cabin watching Veggie Tales on DVD. And nobody wants to be the first to tell their viewers that.

So instead it all has to be done in code. We can only talk about Bush's failure to do his duty now by talking about his failure to do his duty then. As much as I enjoy a good mudfight, I just get sick of the game sometimes. Would it really cost us so much to confront the danger we're in, and to just come out and say that we could forgive Bush for skipping out on his duty in the Texas National Guard if only he hadn't skipped out on his duty as President? Or that it would be possible to overlook the fact that in 1972 Bush exploited his family connections to keep his own ass safe and his own secrets hidden while other men went off to die in a war that he supported, if only he wasn't doing the exact same thing right now?

So. To hell with the superscript, with Ben Barnes's daughter, with CNN and Fox and all the rest of them. I don't give a shit about where Bush was in 1972. I know exactly where he was on September 11, 2001. That's enough for me; and it ought to be enough for everyone else in this country. Forget 30 years ago.

Since January 2000, Bush has racked up a piss-poor attendance record and even worse job performance, and if he were anyone else he would have been fired long ago. And when he finally is fired in November, even I am not going to bitch about how much vacation he takes. Once we've got a real President, Bush can take all the vacation he wants.


The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.


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