Lately, I've been developing a definite sense of political deja vu. It's as if the ghost of Richard Nixon were hovering over Washington, dark shifty eyes flitting back and forth as an oddly disembodied tongue utters a litany of self-absolving and self-pitying phrases from the Checkers speech of 1952, the California gubernatorial concession of 1962, and the presidential resignation of 1974. Periodically, the poltergeist interrupts its lamentable peroration to interject the most immortal words of the dear departed: "I am not a crook."
The current beady-eyed occupant of the White House appears to be listening to the ghost of Nixon with particularly rapt attention, because his behavior over recent months has been remarkably similar to the pattern established by his famously tricky predecessor. Its a pattern woven in equal parts of feigned sincerity, conscious or unconscious lying, blameshifting, and abdication of responsibility. Its signature characteristic is that the president is never at fault, no matter what.
Presidents seldom admit mistakes, of course. Kennedy was unique in shouldering the blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. On the other hand, most chief executives at least refrain from overtly dumping the country's problems at the feet of their subordinates. Not so our George. Moreover, if Dubya doesn't exactly lie outright, he surely handles the truth carelessly, as a favorite uncle of mine used to say.
Let's begin with last year's premature celebration of victory in Iraq aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Posed before a huge banner emblazoned with "Mission Accomplished," which the White House had arranged for maximum political effect before the TV cameras, the president proclaimed that we had won bigtime in Operation Iraqi Freedom. When it turned out numerous casualties later that nothing had been permanently won, our peerless leader credited the placement of the overly optimistic banner to the Abraham Lincoln's own enthusiastic sailors. Unwarranted boasting? Hey, not his fault. Blame the Navy.
Then, there were the infamous weapons of mass destruction, the publicly stated reason for going to war (although, as Pentagon advisor and neoconservative guru Paul Wolfowitz has inadvertently confided, they were merely the most saleable rationale that could be found at the time). After months of insisting the WMD were either hidden in Iraq and would soon be located or that the evil Saddam had spirited them away, the president was brought up short by his own arms inspector, who revealed they never existed. Quick about face at the White House. George W. now says he's as puzzled as everyone else and would like some answers. It must have been bad intelligence, he says, the same intelligence that was invariably "good" when reasons for war were needed. Bad intelligence? No WMD? Hey, not his fault. Blame the CIA.
Lately, the presidential whine has been directed at the stumbling economy and the appalling absence of jobs. The war president took time out to see that some upperend tax cuts (the allpurpose Republican elixir) were enacted, so the situation should have improved. He's kind of sad and really, really concerned to see there are still unemployed people out there, our George says, but he's sure things will improve. And if they don't, well, it's not his economic policies that are the problem. After all, we had 9/11 (which happened in 2001), a recession (which ended, technically, in 2001), a slew of corporate scandals (two years ago), and we're "at war;" those are the real causes of our lingering economic misery, he insists. Usually, war stimulates an economy, but no one told George. Out of work? Job gone abroad? Losing your medical coverage and pension? Can't pay the mortgage? Can't send the kids to college? Hey, not his fault. Blame Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Ken Lay.
Finally and most recently, we had the spectacle of administration officials -- National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, in particular -- refusing to testify publicly before the special commission investigating the causes of the 9/11 attacks. Dr. Rice eventually acquiesced to appear, but not before several weeks of White House footdragging and spurious claims of "executive privilege." Perhaps something embarrassing (like administration incompetence) might be revealed. The president, who openly led the resistance and also tried to precipitantly close down the nosy commission, allowed as how he genuinely wished his subordinates could openly testify, but, gee, it was all out of his hands; his legal staff, which had the final say -- if you believe that, I have a bridge -- was worried about setting a bad precedent for future presidents, he said. Concerned that we might not be getting the truth? Hey, not his fault. Blame the anonymous White House lawyers.
Call me cynical, but there seems to be a pattern here. The president signs off on a policy, sets it in motion and if it subsequently becomes unpopular or counterproductive, denies paternity (the ultimate deadbeat dad), acts innocent or wronged, and finds someone to take the fall. When the 9/11 commission issues what will almost certainly be a critical final report, placing some of the responsibility for not preventing the attacks squarely on the Bush administration, look for a sacrificial scapegoat to be thrown to the wolves -- probably CIA Director George Tenet.
One original technique our George has developed for avoiding responsibility and deflecting criticism, a ploy his mentor Dick Nixon never employed, is the lame joke. Faced with the public's knowledge that he rarely reads and depends instead on staff briefings and secondhand reports for his information (a truly dangerous habit), the president is prone to inform Americans that he read one book (ha! ha!) at Yale. Confronted with the missing WMD, the primary reason 700 American soldiers and several thousand Iraqi civilians are dead, he made a video of himself looking for them (ha! ha!) in the Oval Office. The fraternity boy as chief of state.
For the most part, however, George W. Bush is a politician who tries to squirm out of tight spots by denying he has anything to do with the issue at hand -- what you might call implausible deniability. When he's eventually caught in a lie or a compromised position, something that's been happening a lot recently, our George goes Nixonian: He spreads blame around and invites the public to feel sorry for him. Tricky Dick would be proud.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.