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Blaming Bush

As the what-did-Dubya-know-and-when-did-he-know-it debate rages on, the White House finds itself confronting an implacable enemy: the human need to apportion blame.

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Bush got the credit for 9/11, transforming himself politically and personally; the frat lizard became a lion. What's happening now is that the blame, which has been icily kept from the table like some rude remark that polite people haven't deigned to acknowledge, is back; it's becoming respectable.

This is politics as semiotics. The shift that's in progress, from credit to blame, is historic, but it's all nuance.

Of course, we've already experienced one reversal: In the initial hours after the attack, Bush went from a coward in flight to, several news cycles later, a commander in charge. Just the affect changed.

The flip back now, the double reversal, could be just as great and as stunning: From hero and steely-willed fellow he returns to asleep-at-the-switch and out-to-lunch sort of guy.

Likewise, there will have to be an inside-out shift on the part of the Democrats. Right now, they are seen (and see themselves) as part of a grateful nation. They are also history's chumps (to have missed out -- by what? Florida -- on the political opportunity of the age), as well as clear contrast losers (because Bush is the wartime commander, everyone else is pathetically not). Out of such haplessness they will have to suddenly become (in a superhero change of dress) diligent truth seekers. "I am simply here today on the floor of this hallowed chamber to seek answers to the questions being asked by my constituents," declared Senator-who-swallowed-the-canary Clinton.

Obviously, it isn't easy to change entirely what everybody thinks, assumes, believes without question -- to reengineer a nation's gut feeling. But it isn't all that uncommon. It's the basic operation of modern politics: emotional reconstruction. What you feel today is not what you'll feel tomorrow. It's a media thing.

The political landscape is always rapidly shifting, the country is always moving from one dearly held belief to another, and, if you stop to consider, you are never quite sure why -- you are never quite aware of the moment of transition. There is so seldom cause and effect -- an actual smoking gun.

Bush senior was the most revered of modern presidents after the Gulf War, with approval ratings virtually identical to what his son's are now, and then, months later, with no specific repudiation of the war or of his performance prosecuting the war (even the issue of him having failed to nail Saddam came later), he wasn't. He was suddenly little more than a stooge and a dope -- headed for inevitable defeat. All in the blink of an eye.

Indeed, if you don't make a mental note now about Bush the son's leonine stature, you'll think, in six months, that he's always been sort of sleepy and disengaged -- the nature of reversing out what we previously thought and felt, this news-cycle revisionism, is that we forget we ever felt it.

But right now we can, if we focus, see the operation, the political transubstantiation, take place.

Blame is the hottest potato. It's everybody's most basic political instinct to deflect it, or to quickly get rid of it. Avoiding blame is even more basic than taking credit.

The Democrats, who have gotten absolutely no credit for anything 9/11-related (and have not deserved any, either), have accomplished the possibly more important feat of not getting blamed. They've been slavish enough in their stroking of Bush's alpha-leadership mane to avoid getting tarred as relativists or mollycoddles (they have not, after all, objected too much to the Ashcroft stuff) or having the Clinton administration become the fall guy for the wider system failures. Likewise, the Bush guys have been so absorbed with gathering up every aspect of the available credit, and have, naturally, come to believe in the noblesse oblige of their birthright heroism, that they haven't worked the blame thing too hard (when you get those kind of approval ratings, after a while you probably really believe you deserve them -- that they're naturally yours). I'll bet, too, that they've been wary about casting aspersions on the Clinton systems failures because they're running the same systems (it's always a big danger to blame the bureaucracy -- it will bite you in the ass anyway, but if it gets mad, it really bites you).

But the fact is -- hello -- someone is to blame. This really is not unreasonable. Here was a preventable occurrence that nobody prevented. Only nineteen people had to be stopped. And there was a succession of points and opportunities at which so many officials might have stopped them.

Now blame should, in a fair-minded world, be spread widely (as well as copiously). We're all undoubtedly guilty of something (prior to 9/11, who wanted to put up with security checks?). But the idea that we would apportion it equally, or that we would not assign it in as precise a fashion as possible, assumes a vastly different order of psychological health than we obviously possess.

Blame is irresistible (politically, as well as emotionally).

What's more, blame, because it is reductive, is tabloid stuff. The New York Post, which is naturally a Bush partisan, threw over its Bush sympathies for a good headline: BUSH KNEW. J'accuse.

Blame is even what we think of as closure.

What's more, blame has its own timing -- we don't just come out and blame somebody right away (even that would require somewhat more psychological health); we let it really fester.

Who lost the World Trade Center is a most basic and eloquent (if not entirely reasonable) question, which everybody whose job depends on avoiding blame knew would, one day, be asked. But it was in almost everyone's interest (politicians, press, victims' families, bystanders) not to go there, and, hence, to go along with the creation of a semantic superstructure that would, in the short term anyway, forestall the question.

We call it the attack, rather than the hijackings. Hijackings, after all, can be prevented (for many years, they have been prevented). If a plane is hijacked, somebody screwed up.

But if it's an attack, then we're victims -- and not just the true victims, but all of us, as Americans, are victims. And if we're victims, we (and our leaders) shouldn't, surely, be blamed.

An attack is also meant to suggest military force. It's meant to suggest a certain sort of helplessness and innocence. It's meant obviously to suggest Pearl Harbor (in the initial stage of response, the administration language was police talk, perpetrators and such; then it switched to war talk -- not perps but enemies).

And it's meant to suggest war. Since 9/11, the whole semantic orientation has been about war. Ground zero looked like war; it was easier to explain the loss of the Trade towers as war; and then 9/11 became part of the war we were suddenly fighting in Afghanistan (as a function of these war words, we had to go to war -- or do something that looked like war). War is, of course, a lot harder to prevent than the hijacking of four large airplanes by nineteen rather bumbling immigrants.

Then, too, this was evil, the president repeated at every opportunity -- and evil is a power greater even than the USA. And the day after the blame shift began, there was, mirabile dictu, the specter of more evil, a new terror threat: not if, when.

Here's the deal: If we are aligned against an implacable foe with limitless resources and evil genius, then blame is pointless. If, however, 9/11 happened because nobody was engaged enough to do their jobs well enough to stop nineteen vainglorious irregulars from doing what we spend trillions of dollars to prevent people from doing, then it's a mess-up of both mundane and tragic proportions. (In a simpler world, obeying true military language and protocols, a president would have said this happened on my watch, so I'm responsible.)

From here until Election Day -- especially if the economy continues to improve and mutes that issue -- we're going to keep tilting back and forth between these two poles of perception (and, if the Democrats win both houses with any margins, we'll shift the balance entirely and have nothing but investigations for the next two years).

On the Democrats' side, the words will be secrecy, flight training, intelligence failures, August 6 memorandum, July 10 memorandum, Phoenix memorandum, and what-did-you-know-when-did-you-know-it. (The FBI's agent in Phoenix becomes the Sherron Watkins of the inquiry.) The mood and affect will be deliberate, concerned, surprised, chagrined. Just the facts.

On the other side, it will be Al Qaeda, war, Iraq, national defense, presidential authority, patriotism, unspecified threats, and, too, a glowering Dick Cheney with his unforgiving toughspeak. This could get tense -- the administration will have to avoid going into the details, skirt questions, keep insisting upon their own virtue and righteousness. (The vice-president immediately raised issues of patriotism, accusing the Democrats of irresponsible talk "in time of war," then the president also got his wife to take umbrage.) If they get the tone wrong (and it's starting to feel wrong -- hair-trigger-ish already, plus they're talking "national security," which is never a good sign), they risk finding themselves stuck in the same old place, while everybody else has moved on.

The natural climax of this competition between Rashomon versions of events will be the first anniversary of 9/11. Indeed, while the timing of the blame discussion seems to be linked to the disclosure of memoranda, it undoubtedly has a more formal dramatic arch. We're at the end of the second act. We have to move toward the reversal -- and then on to the resolution.

Now, anniversaries, especially those marking death, are fixed but unstable elements. The Bush people surely hope to milk this anniversary for the standard sentiments -- patriotism, heroism, sacrifice (they're already working it like a marketing campaign). They'll be pulling all the heartstrings, working the symbolic levels (Giuliani will be doing overtime -- on the other hand, ground zero no longer looks like ground zero). They're counting on a simple and predictable emotional payoff.

But by death's first anniversary, we often tend to be in something less than a commemorative or reflective mood. We're querulous. We're finally getting pissed off. We feel guilty ourselves. The symbols are tired by now (the flag in my apartment-building lobby is certainly grimy -- we're all just waiting for someone to step up and take it down). We want closure, and it ain't there. We've been good sports for a whole year. But now it's time to stick it to someone.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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