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Bush Family Values

How do you cover a war that’s a rerun (complete with another surreal Dan Rather–Saddam interview)—a war that’s all about a son trying to recapture his dad’s fleeting glory days?


I never know if i’ll be thinking, as I read the Times at breakfast, that reasonable men have reasonable disagreements—maybe it is a good idea to “free” Iraq—or that all reason has discreetly departed. Or, perhaps, that we have entered one of those surreal historical moments that reasonable men simply don’t have the language for.

The Times has assumed its most official kind of voice. Its Pentagon reporters command the front page. Other reporters are in war training. The tone is sober, meticulous, striving to be nonjudgmental—intent on ignoring all the various elephants in the room.

When the Times has General Tommy Franks discussing the intricacies of mobilization, everything seems serious and competent. But then as soon as you get to the numbers and the costs, everything becomes dreamlike and obtuse. The New York Post business pages might be better at handling these numbers than the Times front page—we need a War-Cost-o-Meter.

And then we’re paying Turkey $15 billion to be our ally? Huh? But the Times, more or less pointedly, hasn’t used the almost-unavoidable phrase checkbook diplomacy once. (Has anyone thought to offer a similarly sized retirement package to Saddam?)

"Tonally, television tends to make more sense than the Times -- possibly because it doesn't try to make sense."

And there’s Wolfowitz, whom the Times alternately treats as Strangelovian and charming (there was a recent story in which the Times had Wolfowitz squirming about never having been in the Army himself—but as he squirmed, he seemed, in the Times’ respectful going-to-war tone, cuddly, too).

And then, complementing the Times coverage, there was that full-page ad from the Department of Homeland Security urging Times readers to get their duct-tape family terror kit ready. Certainly surreal. (Do Homeland Security staff really have their kits all made up at home? Does Howell Raines have a kit in his house?)

Tonally, television tends to make more sense than the Times—possibly because it doesn’t try to make sense. It’s just all about countdown (MSNBC replaced Phil Donahue with Countdown: Iraq) and pictures of equipment, stylized soldiers, and big planes taking off.

But then there was Dan Rather’s interview with Saddam, and that was certainly off-the-charts surreal.

Dan Rather, of course, is always a little surreal. And here he was with the most wanted man in the world, warmly grasping his hand in his own.

And Saddam himself: He looked good. I liked his suit. He seemed substantially more reasonable (and less interesting) than Michael Jackson (and Dan Rather was no Martin Bashir) and less monstrous than Robert Chambers (“Am I a monster? No”), whose interview followed Saddam’s on CBS.

But the weirdest thing to me was Dan doing this again. Dan back in Baghdad, just like in 1990, getting his “get.” The whole thing elaborately repeating itself—without any kind of humor or self-consciousness at all.

The Democrats, too, of course, are in a tonal black hole. Somehow the Bush people seem canny and in control—the Times certainly takes their lists of rationalizations and possible smoking guns seriously—whereas the Democrats seem rather silly and contemptible for their earnestness.

Nobody is quite acknowledging—not the Times, or Dan Rather, or the Democrats, and certainly not the White House—that it’s plainly odd to be back here on the eve of war with Iraq. (It’s not just Dan’s interview that’s a rerun.) Or possibly the oddness is just written into the story—we’re accustomed to the elephants by now.

Certainly, the fixation has been squarely up-front—there’s been practically no effort at hiding it at all. Let’s state the obvious: Those lost, halcyon days of the first Gulf War are the ever-present background to doing this all once more. How could they not be? Who doesn’t want to return to his—or his father’s—finest moment?

Arguably, we haven’t seen, among respectable nations, such a derring-do determination to go to war since, well, possibly before 1914. It’s a breach of modern norms: One is never supposed to want to go to war; one is supposed to be dragged into war. It seems like an odd strategic mess-up, too: Don’t begin by saying you want to be at war and then seek justifications; rather, look for ways to avoid war, and then have your hand forced.

But the Bushies have been nothing less than open about it: They’re desperate to do Iraq; they need to do it; they will do it.

There have been, though, no cable-news talk shows debating the nature of neurotic obsession—the son’s dealing with the father’s issues. (Obviously, though, given his repeated delineation of Bush the Father and Bush the Son, this is on Saddam’s mind.) Nor even has there been much discussion of the possibly cynical nature of all this: that it worked so well once before, so why not do it again? (Elisabeth Bumiller did refer the other day in the Times to the “political capital from a war,” with “victory a turnkey to legislative success.”) There’s been scant wag-the-dog talk here—not like with the Clinton adventures, when you could make that reference and suggest a large and conspiratorial subtext and have lots of people eager to believe it. There have been few Strangelove references, either (even about Wolfowitz).

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