It, You're Killing Me
March 31, 2004
By The Plaid Adder
"Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that... And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often; we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more."
- Samuel Beckett, Endgame
2004 has not been kind to the Bush administration. Rove, the man with his finger on the pulse of the lowest common denominator, suddenly seems to have lost his touch; Bush lurched from his embarrassing State of the Union Address in January to an equally embarrassing appearance on Meet The Press, and then before he could scrabble back up the slope he was hit with the barrage of criticism over his new campaign ads, in which he used film of the World Trade Center attacks (including an image of a flag-draped dead body being carried out of Ground Zero on a stretcher).
Now all of a sudden Bush is defending himself - or rather his mouthpieces are defending him - on all fronts, from his record on preventing terrorism to a seemingly innocuous speech he recently gave at the Radio Correspondents' Dinner. As little sympathy as I have for Bush and his handlers, I have to say that I understand why this last flap might have come as a surprise. After all, Bush was only doing something he's done many times in the past. And in the past, this tactic has always worked very well for him; so it's no wonder his team finds it baffling that this one time it appears to have blown up in their faces.
On a small scale, this is an emblem of everything that has gone wrong for them since they took office: they are using old strategies to deal with a situation that has radically changed. 2004 is not 2000; and although Bush is indeed still a joke, he is now no longer funny.
EVEN A C STUDENT
Bush's speech at the dinner was basically him narrating a series of slides, each showing Bush doing something amusing. The joke that landed him in hot water was a running gag about the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. One photo showed him looking under a table in his office, while Bush said, "Those weapons of mass destruction have gotta be here somewhere." This was repeated again later with similar photos showing Bush looking for, and not finding, weapons of mass destruction in places where it would be ridiculous to expect them.
The joke appears to have provoked outrage amongst the families of soldiers in Iraq, who find it offensive that Bush would be joking about the rationale he used to send their loved ones to war. The White House line is that he was not making fun of the soldiers, but merely trying out a little 'self-deprecating humor.' Or, in other words, he was only doing something that everyone should be used to by now: making fun of his own stupidity.
Bush started doing that on the campaign trail in 2000, before he even took office. His rocky relationship with the English language was noted and commented upon early in the race, and his handlers apparently decided to take the sting out by having him make fun of himself first. The basic idea appears to have been to pass Bush off as a kind of better-looking, fitter, more 'presidential' version of Homer Simpson: sure, he's kind of a bonehead, but his heart is in the right place, and people love him anyway.
One particularly high-profile example of this strategy was the commencement speech Bush delivered at Yale University in 2001, in which he spent a fair amount of his ten-minute time slot making fun of his own slackerhood. The centerpiece was a line addressed "to the C students" to the effect that his example proved that "you too can become President."
I remember this speech because it was the occasion of my first ever article here at DU. I found it simply incredible that the President of the United States was going around in public calling attention to the fact that he had essentially pissed away one of the finest college educations that money could buy, and then apparently just gotten comfortable with his resulting level of ignorance. To me, putting C students in charge of the country seemed like an extraordinarily bad idea. But looking back on that piece I can see that there was a lot I didn't understand about what was going on there.
After all, that speech wasn't really for the graduating seniors who were listening to him. It was for all the people out there who had come to see themselves as C students - people who had been made to feel that they were not smart, that they were not above average, and that there was no point to learning any more than they had to. Bush's refusal to be educated was one of the ways in which he demonstrated that despite being the pampered son of one of the most rich and powerful families in America, he was still a 'regular guy.'
Yes, he'd been to Yale - but it hadn't changed him. He was still the kind of president that any guy could be if he got a break - not brilliant, not articulate, but down-to-earth, with good instincts that compensated for his lack of sophistication and book-smarts. He might not be the best and the brightest; but he would prove through his leadership, determination, and faith, that you didn't have to be the best and the brightest to lead the greatest nation on earth.
There has been a lot of energy invested by Bush's opponents - myself, in my own small way, included - in denouncing this rejection of knowledge and intelligence, and insisting that it was dangerous and wrong to install someone as president whose knowledge about the rest of the world appeared to be minimal and whose language often revealed a narrowness of mind that might easily make it hard for him to rise to certain challenges. Unfortunately much of this stuff - and again, I include myself - only made the problem worse by extending our denunciation of Bush's own stupidity to include that of anyone who would vote for him.
I have read plenty of rants about how dumb the American electorate is, and how this is really the root of our problems. I don't think that's the problem. I think there are a lot of people in America who are actually much smarter than Bush but will still identify with him because they have been made to feel stupid. Think about the amount of standardized testing that any child has to go through on his way through a public school system; think about how often you have been assigned a rank or a percentile. It's a punishing routine even for people who test well; for people who test poorly all it does is make them feel like failures.
People hate feeling that way; and part of Bush's appeal, especially as contrasted to Gore, was that he didn't make people feel stupid. They could laugh at his gaffes with affection and sympathy, and triumph vicariously when he got to the White House in spite of them.
So when Bush shows a slide of himself looking under a table for nuclear/chemical/biological weapons and says, "Nope, no weapons here," it's supposed to be just one more joke about himself as a lovable bonehead who means well but gets confused sometimes. Except this time it wasn't. And that's because, three years into his presidency, people are starting to realize that this is all an act. Bush may indeed be pretty stupid, for all I know. But he is surrounded by people who, whatever else you may say about them, are not blithering idiots. And they all know - just as we all know - that if we didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that's not because Bush told the inspectors to look under the furniture in the Oval Office.
Bush's performance as goodnatured clown is now no longer a sufficient explanation for why his administration has failed so badly and on so many fronts. For that, we have to go back to the winter of 2002, and another interesting chapter in Bush's career as funny man.
EVERYTHING ON BLACK
The first documented instance I could find of Bush's infamous "trifecta" joke on the whitehouse.gov site was in a speech Bush gave in February 2002 at a North Carolina Republican Party fundraiser. Here it is:
And we've got a job to do at home, as well. 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.)
Bush liked this joke so well he used it a week later at a Republican fundraiser in Iowa:
You know, I remember campaigning in Chicago and somebody said, would you ever spend a deficit? And I said, only if we're at war or we had a recession or there was a national emergency. Little did I realize we'd get the trifecta. (Laughter.)
And again, later in March at a fundraising dinner for Saxby Chambliss's Senate campaign (Bush sure does do a lot of fund-raising:)
I'll never forget one time in Chicago when a reporter said, would you ever deficit spend? And I said, well, only - only if we were at war, only if there were a national emergency, or only if there is a recession. Never did I believe we'd get the trifecta. (Laughter.)
I'll spare you the repetition; Bush uses this exact joke, with minor variations in phrasing, thirteen times over the course of five months. Obviously he thought it was a winner.
Now that is something that I always found hard to understand, because what he's doing seems to be perfectly clear: he's using the September 11 attacks to justify doing something he had always planned to do, which is cut taxes for the rich while giving huge amounts of government money away to Cheney's business cronies. Especially given that we were fighting one war and being worked up for the next, his insistence on getting his buddies their kickbacks was criminally irresponsible. He got away with it by passing it off as an unavoidable response to the "national emergency" that had happened only six months earlier.
Even in someone else's mouth, that joke wouldn't have been funny. Even bitter, godless, cynical, even-death-wears-an-ironic-grin types like me didn't laugh at September 11. Not only was that not ha-ha funny, it was just too awful to generate even black humor. But coming from Bush, that joke wasn't just not funny. It was sick.
The online Oxford English Dictionary defines 'trifecta' as a gambling term: to get the 'trifecta' you have to pick the first three horses to finish a race in the order in which they will place. Taken straight, what Bush is saying in is, "I bet on three things that would happen, in that order...and I won!" Now, the joke is supposed to be ironic; the point is meant to be that no president in his right mind would really bet on that particular combination of three events, or be happy to find out he 'won.'
The problem is that by making the joke Bush is revealing that as a matter of fact, it's not ironic; it's actually true. The joke itself reveals something that should be unthinkable: that what was a disaster for everyone else in America actually was a jackpot for the Bush administration. After 9/11, while the rest of us were grieving, the Bush administration began raking in the chips. They got more than they would ever have dreamed of asking for under any other circumstances: the USA PATRIOT Act, tax cuts galore, apparently unlimited military spending, a full-scale war for which there was no legitimate justification, no-bid no-oversight contracts awarded to Cheney's cronies... through no virtue of his own, after 9/11 Bush became the most popular president ever, and his cabal was utterly shameless about milking that for all it was worth.
That should have bothered people a lot more than it did. Because the trifecta joke was a coded - and not even very cleverly coded - acknowledgment of the rot at the root of this administration. Their immediate response to the September 11 attacks was not, "What can we do for our suffering people?" but "What can we get out of this?"
And as we are now finding out, one of the things they got out of it was war with Iraq. Which they justified by swearing up, down, and sideways that Iraq was stocked with weapons of mass destruction. Which, as we now know, were never there. I guess the joke was on us.
ISN'T IT IRONIC
As I said, the Bush team can be forgiven to some extent for making this last blunder. Bush's search for weapons of mass destruction has been an international joke for a long time. For those of us who are connoisseurs of the absurd, there was no absurdity fuller-bodied or with a stronger tang than the ongoing saga of the world's most expensive snipe hunt.
You see, for those of us who were on to Bush early, the hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction really was ironic, just as the trifecta joke wasn't. We knew the weapons weren't there. What's more, we knew that the Bush administration didn't give a damn whether they were there or not. It was clear from the way Powell and Bush kept moving the bar that they did not actually want Saddam Hussein to disarm, or even to comply fully with the inspections. What they wanted was for him to keep stonewalling so that they would have an excuse to invade.
The best early example of what Bush's trumped-up "hunt for WMDs" did to our sense of reality was the often-repeated axiom that "it's up to Saddam Hussein to prove that he has no weapons of mass destruction." This is a logical absurdity: you can't prove a negative. If pest control showed up at my house and demanded that I prove to them that I was not harboring a live Bengal tiger, I wouldn't be able to do it. I could allow them to search the premises; I could point out that it would be difficult to conceal such an animal, what with the growling and the many pounds of raw meat it went through every day and the tiger droppings and so forth. But the fact that they didn't find a tiger in my house would not prove that I didn't have it. It would only prove that they couldn't find it. The tiger could have been creeping stealthily from one room to the next; it could have been concealed underneath the basement in a secret crawl space; it could be outside in a mobile tiger containment unit ready to be driven over the state line until the coast was clear. If, for some reason, pest control had become fanatically convinced that I was harboring that tiger, they would keep coming back to search for it, no matter how often they didn't find it.
And yet, this absurdity was swallowed by the media, and it became accepted truth; and that's what happened month after month. A new world was constructed that defied the laws of logic; the landscape of reality was folded, spindled, and mutilated until it started to look like an M.C. Escher etching. For those of us who realized how distorted and insane this stage set of a world really was, the only way to stay faithful to solid ground and common sense was to laugh at the farce that was playing out upon it. And we laughed with a will, in the beginning.
We went into Iraq in March of 2003. The invasion phase was over within a month. After that, the 'search for the weapons of mass destruction' began. But it did not take long for us to realize there was something funny going on here. As early as April 25, 2003, some "senior officials" leaked a story to ABC News admitting that the WMDs were never more than a pretext:
Officials inside government and advisers outside told ABCNEWS the administration emphasized the danger of Saddam's weapons to gain the legal justification for war from the United Nations and to stress the danger at home to Americans. "We were not lying," said one official. "But it was just a matter of emphasis." Officials now say they may not find hundreds of tons of mustard and nerve agents and maybe not thousands of liters of anthrax and other toxins.
A matter of emphasis. Now that's funny.
By May 11, 2003, the first U.S. inspections teams were preparing to come home emptyhanded. By May 31, the intelligence community was starting to make noises about whose fault it really was that we got embroiled in this hunt for nothing. By June 10, Paul Wolfowitz had joined the group of administration officials who had admitted on the record that the WMDs were basically just a pretext. By September 2003, the Bush administration, in an unusually desperate bid for ass-coverage, was floating the "flypaper theory" - the claim that actually, the war had nothing to do with WMDs, but it was all about terrorism: you see, we went into Iraq for the specific purpose of turning it into a hotbed of terrorism, thus drawing all the terrorists into Iraq and away from America. (If you really need a rebuttal, try this.) And by October 2003, David Kay finally reported that, yes, in fact, we had finally proved - at least to the satisfaction of himself and his team of inspectors - that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.
So by the time Bush showed that slide of himself looking under the table for weapons of mass destruction in March 2004, the 'hunt for WMDs' had been a laughing stock for at least ten months. No doubt they thought it was finally safe for him to get on the mock-the-pretext bandwagon. What they failed to realize is that there is a big difference between Bush and everyone else who had been telling WMD jokes for the past ten months - and that is that Bush, as the President of the United States, is actually responsible for both the phony pretext and the war that it produced.
That's why the WMD jokes are not funny coming from him: he was the one who got us into this mess, and he's the one who should have prevented it. To have created this colossal waste of time, money, and human life, and then to stand back and go "aw, shucks, I'm such a bonehead" and expect us to forgive him for it by laughing with him is not only ludicrous but infuriating.
The excuse they've come up with - that this is just Bush "poking fun at himself" - only underlines the narcissism of this administration. Hey, Bush, this thing with the WMDs is not all about you. The fact that you got us into a war over nothing isn't just a personal embarrassment that you can laugh off. Your actions have consequences. We feel them. We would like to feel like you understand that real people are affected by decisions you make, and that your stupidity or lying or corruption has a real - and highly painful - impact on our lives. Is any of this registering? Hello?
But responsibility isn't something this administration understands; and that's exactly what that running gag at the Radio Correspondents' Dinner demonstrated. Here's a man who has, through either his own incompetence or his own corruption, caused thousands of human beings to suffer and die over something that turned out to be entirely imaginary. If he were an ordinary human being, he would be crushed with guilt and remorse.
That's something that Richard Clarke demonstrated last week, when he began his testimony by apologizing to the 9/11 families for having failed them. Clarke has to know, intellectually, that he did not personally cause 9/11; but because it happened on his watch he feels some responsibility, and by apologizing he was letting everyone know that he took that responsibility seriously. He was also impressing upon everyone watching the fact that we will never, ever get such an apology from George W. Bush. George W. Bush doesn't think it's tragic that he got us embroiled in an expensive, messy, brutal war that we didn't have to fight. He, apparently, thinks it's funny.
Well, the rest of us are not laughing. His routine is killing people. Every one of his little pratfalls is costing us; we pay for his blunders in blood. The fact that he does not appear to take himself or his job seriously has become a real problem for us. It is true that his presidency has turned out to be one long, bitter, black joke. But if he were any kind of a decent human being, he wouldn't expect us to laugh at it.
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.