Empty Promises

"All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies."

-- Bob Dylan, "License to Kill"

President George W. Bush has managed -- in just two years in office -- to become a master in what the writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce called oratory: "A conspiracy between speech and action to cheat the understanding."

Case in point: His second State of the Union address, given Jan. 28, during which he managed to dress up a mix of used, useless and general risky policy proposals in the finest of fashions designed to fool those of us not paying close enough attention.

He said his administration passed "historic education reform" to "lift the standards of our public schools" -- what he meant was his administration was tying federal aid to test scores.

He said his administration has reorganized government to "protect our country" -- what he meant was he created a new bureaucracy that stripped union representation from tens of thousands of federal workers.

He said he "delivered the largest tax relief in a generation" to "bring our economy out of recession" -- what he meant was he took a whole lot of government money and handed it to his rich friends as more and more companies cut payrolls.

That is the Bush M.O., of course, to offer vague pronouncements in a folksy manner to make us feel he's our friend while he reaches into our pocket, grabs our money clip and hands it to his buddies.

His comments on health care are a case in point. The president criticized the rising costs of medicine in the US and said our goal should be "a system in which all Americans have a good insurance policy, choose their own doctors, and seniors and low-income Americans receive the help they need." Sounds good -- but only because it is really nothing more than a vague platitude, public relations mumbo jumbo designed to lend cover to his actual plan, the continued privatization of health care in the US.

"Instead of bureaucrats and trial lawyers and HMOs, we must put doctors and nurses and patients back in charge of American medicine," he said to applause. And this starts with Medicare, he said. "And just like you, the members of Congress, and your staffs and other federal employees, all seniors should have the choice of a health care plan that provides prescription drugs."

But as E.J. Dionne pointed out in a Jan. 28 column in the Washington Post, opening Medicare to competition, to the imperatives of profit, will do nothing but create a more complicated, bureaucracy-laden system. Rather than take real money and fund the existing system the way it should be funded -- which would go a long way to addressing issues of payments to doctors and prescription drug coverage -- President Bush wants to farm out a chunk of Medicare to the same insurance companies that already are limiting coverage and driving our costs up, boosting insurance company profits. (He works the same rhetorical trick when talking of saving Social Security by giving "younger workers a chance to invest in retirement accounts that they will control and they will own.")

But he never comes out and says, "I'm going to make it more difficult and more expensive for you to see a doctor so my buddies who run the insurance companies can keep their boats." He never says, "I'm going to save your retirement plans by giving it to an investment banker who will keep a chunk of your earnings in fees -- assuming he doesn't blow it on the stock market."

Nope. He offers such wonderful sounding platitudes -- on health care, on energy and conservation, on missile defense, on AIDS, the homeless, etc.

Bush is going to create jobs by cutting taxes for all -- but by a whole lot for a handful. He talked of eliminating the so-called marriage penalty, increasing the size of the child tax credit, of ending double taxation on shareholders -- all of which appear beneficial when presented in sound-bite form, but little of which will actually help the vast majority of Americans who have been hurt by the current recession.

Here are three of his initiatives: A "comprehensive energy plan to promote energy efficiency and conservation, to develop cleaner technology, and to produce more energy at home." He is pushing "clear skies legislation that mandates a 70% cut in air pollution from power plants over the next 15 years" and "a healthy forest initiative to help prevent the catastrophic fires that devastate communities, kill wildlife and burn away millions of acres of treasured forests."

Translation: Let's drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; let's continue to pollute and let's clear-cut our forests.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot the $1.2 billion in research funding he is proposing for a clean, hydrogen-powered car -- a great idea, but one that is way off in the future, and one that is likely to make some folks in Detroit very rich.

But, as Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, told James Ridgeway of the Village Voice, it will do so without requiring the car companies to "produce a single fuel-cell vehicle for the public to purchase" or reducing the amount of greenhouse gases US drivers produce for a long time.

"The biggest single step we can take to curb global warming and cut our dependence on oil is to make our cars and light trucks go farther on a gallon of gas," he said. "If the vehicles on the road today averaged 40 miles per gallon, we would save over 3 million barrels of oil a day, more than we currently import from the Persian Gulf."

Then there was the foreign policy component of the speech, in which he spoke of liberating the oppressed of Afghanistan (last I heard we were still engaged in battle there and an assortment of warlords were fighting over turf -- but admitting that would spoil the party, wouldn't it?) and keeping the terrorists on the run (like any good movie gunslinger).

Only on Iraq did he speak bluntly: America will be going to war. How else to read his comments -- that Saddam is evil, that a full quarter of his speech ended up focusing on Iraq, that he unveiled "evidence," that he announced that we will do whatever it is we have to do and so on.

Commentators hailed the speech, saying the president hit a home run, tossed the long touchdown pass, put the puck in the net, and all the other dopey sports phrases the pundit class likes to use to make them each seem like they are one of the boys. Few -- aside from "kooky liberals" -- bothered to look at the president's actual words, to read what he had to say, to explain what was really there.

What was really important Tuesday night was not the words Bush used, not what he said, but what he left out, what he didn't say. The real facts of the Bush program lie in the actions his people engage in every day that happen away from the camera, the not-so-subtle shifts in emphasis that are weakening regulations - environmental, economic, health and safety -- set up to protect us.

It's why I've stopped trying to read his lips. If you want to know what Bush and his cronies are up to, you have to look behind the curtain.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. Email

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