Killing Joke: The Day the American Republic Died

Bob Herbert, who has been incandescent for months now, usefully reminds us of the comedy routine that Bush performed for a sycophantic audience of TV and radio “journalists” back in March 2004: the infamous “hunt for WMD” in the Oval Office. As you’ll recall, this was a series of cutesy shots showing Bush peering behind the office curtains, looking under the rug while cracking wise: “No weapons of mass destruction under here! Maybe they’re over here?” and so on.

I thought then – and still think – that this performance was one of the most revealing – and sickening – episodes in American political history. The cynicism of it defies belief, outstrips all comprehension. Imagine sending men and women to die – and to kill – in a war over weapons of mass destruction, then joking about the fact that no weapons were ever found. All this, while thousands continued to die, including your own soldiers.

The fact that Bush would engage so openly in such murderous cynicism was a telling revelation: it showed, or rather confirmed, that America was being led by a brutal, mocking, heedless Caligula, a spoiled, shallow, vain and selfish fool, a moral psychopath incapable of ordinary human empathy. The reaction of the “journalists” present was another soul-sinking revelation: they laughed. Oh, how they laughed. “What a kidder this Dubya is, eh? What important insiders we all are – real players, tough and savvy – sharing this special moment of “knowing” laughter with the president!” As far as I know, not a single person walked out in protest, not a single “journalist” refused to take part in this open mockery of the dead – our own, and the tens of thousands of Iraqis who had died for the WMD chimera that Bush now found so funny.

All this was bad enough: Caligula ruled us, and the press were nothing more than fat, lazy poodles dozing at his feet. But then something even more extraordinary and equally disheartening happened: the Democratic Party simply ignored the incident in the months of presidential campaigning that followed!

Imagine the devastating effect of campaign ads showing Bush’s silly, mincing clown act to the general public, over and over, along with shots of the war’s destruction, of American wounded, etc., with grim voiceovers: “President Bush thinks the war in Iraq is funny. He thinks it’s a joke that there were no weapons of mass destruction there – none at all – even though that’s why he said we had to go to war. Ask the hundreds of our sons and daughters who have died in this war if they think it’s funny. Ask the grieving parents, the grieving wives and husbands, the grieving children, if they think it’s funny that we went to war for a fantasy, for a joke. Then ask yourself: is this man really fit to govern our great nation?”

(Other versions could have used the footage while stressing the fact that the war had increased terrorism, that Bush had diverted mass resources from securing ports, chemical/nuke plants, and hunting down those who attacked the country on 9/11 in order to pursue the fantasy of Iraqi WMD.)

Imagine having such a political weapon in your hand – and not using it. It would have touched all the bases: striking a chord with the uneasiness about the Iraq war felt by much of the population; educating the general public about Bush’s true nature, “getting around the filter” of the national media that continued to paint him in the heroic colors of a “war president”; underscoring the blaring fact that Bush was not the “national security” president, but was in fact a palpable danger to our national security. Everything the Democrats said they wanted to do – particularly neutralizing the security issue – could have been done by using this revolting performance as a cudgel to beat Bush with, every single day of the campaign. It would have been 100 times more effective than the ludicrious gung-ho military drag that John Kerry was festooned with (“Reporting for duty!”). With such a weapon, they could have swept to a margin of victory great enough to swamp the extensive but not-yet universal Bush machinery of vote-fixing.

(And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the words “Abu Ghraib” never once passed Kerry’s lips during the campaign. They couldn’t even attack Bush for staining the honor of our military by involving it in his foul torture regime, his gulags and hell-holes.)

A party that could not summon the insight, the vision and the will to exploit such horrendous weaknesses in their opponent – in a race that was not just an ordinary political contest but a desperately important turning point in American history, a chance, perhaps the last chance, to save the Republic – is a dead thing, a useless dangling appendage, a collection of time-servers, lickspittles, bribe-takers and morons.

And they have proven this over and over in the months since the 2004 election. How could you have those White House “torture memos” in your hand – and not mount an all-out war, using every last weapon you have as the minority party, including the filibuster — to stop the nomination of Al Gonzales as attorney general? How could you simply lay down before Bush’s threat to break 200 years of Senate law with his “nuclear option” on the filibuster by allowing some of the worst judges in American history to sail through to lifelong sinecures – all for a “deal” that Frist and the Bushist appartchiks said they would break whenever they felt like it?

More and more, I have come to think that the March 2004 press dinner was in fact a wake for the American Republic. Given the reaction – or rather, the non-reaction – of the Establishment to this slathering little killer’s mockery of his victims, his strutting, preening celebration of the scam he had put over on the country, it seems clear that not just the Democratic Party but our democracy itself is moribund.

Can it be revived at this point, at this late stage? I don’t know. Perhaps Bob Dylan laid out the course we must now take almost 40 years ago: “Strike another match, go start anew: It’s all over now, baby blue.” Perhaps from the ruins we’ll be able to construct a new republic one day. But for now, the agonizing, world-churning death-agony of the old republic goes on, with no end yet in sight.
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(Corrected after editing by Jo Boyce)