In the early days of television, a lucky contestant on comedian Groucho Marx's popular quiz show "You Bet Your Life" would, upon uttering the magic word, be visited by a simulated duck descending from on high with prize money. Groucho and his bogus feathered friend are long gone, but there is a magic word used in contemporary politics that has been repeated regularly over the past few years, prompting not prize money but electoral success. That word is competence.
Competence, real or imagined -- and I would argue strongly for the latter -- has been key to the Republican successes of the Bush era. It's been the shield deflecting criticism aimed at the president and his key subordinates, insulating them from political damage. Whatever else might be said about the Bush team, that it is arrogant, insensitive, anti-intellectual or xenophobic, the image has remained firm in the public mind (or in the mind of a working majority of the public) that lack of competence is not one of the failings of this White House crowd.
Evidence to the contrary has been steadily accumulating, so how has the competence image become such a fail-safe proposition for the Republicans? For starters, Americans are far less influenced by what politicians do than by what they say. In a busy, harried society, few but the specialists or the political junkies hone in on the connection, or lack thereof, between words and deeds. Make the right rhetorical gestures or use the right "buzz words," as Jerry Brown used to say, and the unscrupulous officeholder is home free.
The Bush team has become masterful at this technique, employing phrases like "clear skies" and "healthy forests" to mask ecologically harmful environmental policies designed to benefit business interests. More to the point, it has used tough talk to establish a reputation for competence. Rhetorical belligerence has covered up a host of mistakes and misjudgments in the area of foreign affairs, in particular.
In the wake of 9/11, the president and his tough guy surrogates, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, immediately unleashed a steady barrage of verbal muscularity aimed at the "evildoers," our reluctant allies, and the American public. Such expressions as (to paraphrase) "They'll hear from us all," "You're with us or against us," "We'll smoke them out of their holes" and Don Rumsfeld's precious "Stuff happens" have become part of the lore and legend of the first Bush term.
For quite a while, few noticed that the actions weren't keeping up with the words. Rhetoric, not deeds, was sufficient to persuade voters in 2004 that safety and security lay only with the Republicans. After all, how could leaders who talked so confidently be anything but competent?
Since the election, however, reality has gradually begun to seep into the public consciousness. In Iraq, rhetorical posturing has proven no match for events on the ground; little the "competent" administration has done has worked. What was supposed to have been an easy victory followed by a foreign-policy triumph and a quick exit has turned out to be an easy victory followed by one miscalculation and misstep after another, leading to an endless occupation and guerrilla war. In the broader war on terrorism, the president's bête noire, Osama bin Laden, who was supposed to be dead or captured by now, has become the man who never was, a legendary, heroic figure to his supporters and a nagging reminder, through his survival, of more Bush ineptitude.
On the home front, steadily climbing petroleum prices have come to symbolize the administration's inability to manage the economy. Failure to jawbone the oil industry, as (for example) Jack Kennedy jawboned a price-raising steel industry in the 1960s, has allowed Big Oil to use excuse after excuse (Hurricane Katrina being the latest) to gouge consumers.
Ironically, the incompetent Bush Mideast policy has played into the fuel crisis, since broken Iraq now supplies less oil to the West than it did under Saddam. So has a flawed China policy; the administration's effort to open up China's market for the benefit of American corporations has produced mainly a flow of cheap Chinese imports to the US and a new, rapidly industrializing competitor for the world's dwindling oil supplies.
Last, but certainly not least, is Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, which showed the Bush administration at its most inept. The failure of the government to respond promptly and effectively to the Gulf Coast emergency has been well aired. What hasn't been widely acknowledged is that, in part, the failure resulted form the administration's disastrous post-9/11 reorganization of the federal government, the reorganization that created the bureaucratic Frankenstein monster known as the Department of Homeland Security. In the hysteria surrounding its birth, the vast new department was allowed to spin out of control, absorbing other agencies almost on a whim and forcing them into an unfamiliar counterterrorism mold.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), formerly the independent arm of the government that responded to natural calamities like floods and hurricanes, was one of a grab bag of two-dozen unrelated agencies moved under the gargantuan Homeland Security umbrella. In its new subordinate position, FEMA was downgraded in importance and funding, had its disaster preparedness function de-emphasized in favor of fighting terrorism (the narrow be-all and end-all of Homeland Security), and became a dumping ground for political cronies at the management level. The results were tragically apparent when the Gulf Coast faced its Armageddon in late August.
The Department of Homeland Security, strangling in its own red tape, has become the bureaucracy to end all bureaucracies and the institutional poster child for the current administration's incompetence. It is an organization that, as The Economist editorialized recently, "spends most of its energies in perpetual reorganization." This seems not to worry the White House; inefficiency and wretched excess in the name of national security is a price this administration is willing to pay.
But as Shakespeare wrote wisely in The Merchant of Venice, "Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer" -- or, in modern parlance, it helps if you know what you're doing.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.