Life changes fast” are the first words and the overriding message of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s extraordinary new memoir about the death of her husband. Just a syllable short of a perfect haiku line, it’s a bracing truth that has hovered near my thoughts all fall.
This week, George Bush and Mike Bloomberg must be thinking, Life changes fast. Not very long ago, Bloomberg was the out-of-touch loser and Bush the triumphal man of the people. According to opinion polls in 2003 and even 2004, New Yorkers overwhelmingly disapproved of our cold-fish billionaire Republican mayor—and this week we will overwhelmingly reelect him. Just last November, our regular-guy Republican president was decisively reelected, and even as recently as this spring, a clear majority of Americans approved of the job he was doing. No matter what happened in the real world, his administration seemed politically invincible. But around the beginning of the summer, the mayor’s and president’s respective approval trendlines crossed at the 50 percent point, Bloomberg’s rising well above and Bush’s falling below and continuing to sink.
It’s mainly about competence. It’s 311 versus FEMA. It’s the difference between a curious, careful, real CEO performing his job well and a feckless, fake “CEO president” simply sticking to an unshakable faith in his gang of buddies and a certain new geopolitical vision. Under one, crime has continued to drop to new golden-age lows; under the other, a war hastily launched and inadequately waged may now be an unwinnable botch. The mayor is a self-made man and Republican-of-convenience with no special-interest “base” to whom he must pander and no evil geniuses (no Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rove) to whom he abdicates judgment. When faced with a looming fiscal crisis, instead of exacerbating and ignoring the problem, he solved it, painfully, by raising taxes. When one of his bad Big Ideas implodes (the Jets stadium), he moves on gracefully; when a Big Idea matters profoundly (reforming the school system), he allocates the requisite resources and makes progress; and after shirking responsibility for an important Big Idea (rebuilding ground zero), he eventually steps up and changes course in the right direction.
This reversal of fortunes, Bloomberg up and Bush down, is not just surprising but doubly heartening, since it’s a victory for common sense, pragmatism, and candor instead of ideology, deception, and persona. Glamorous liberal New York acclaims its boring, clear-eyed technocrat. And the rest of the country—finally—begins to see that our stressed-out magical-thinking commander-in-chief is a putz, in way over his head.
I confess to having harbored a morally dubious hope during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq: that it’d be a twofer, getting rid of Saddam and the Baathist terror and making Bush and the Republicans politically accountable for the inevitable quagmire a year or two down the line—win-win. And for better or worse, that’s the way it’s working out. I couldn’t have imagined, of course, that just as America was becoming fed up with the war, the administration would make an almost simultaneous show of spectacular incompetence on several other fronts—the shit’s creek of Katrina and the Miers nomination and the revelation of Cheney’s right-hand man as a staggeringly clumsy liar and cover-upper. It’s almost enough to make one believe in Providence.
Might the administration manage to revive? Of course; life changes fast. The storytellers who are most of the media are fond of comeback narratives. Last week’s automatic left-liberal hysteria over the Samuel Alito nomination will put the Republicans on the offense for a while, and when the judge fails to alarm the great middle and wins confirmation, that victory will make Bush look stronger. But given his own ongoing legal jeopardy, the resident White House political genius, Karl Rove, cannot be at the top of his game. And Bush’s popularity is way in the danger zone. Between 54 percent and 58 percent of Americans disapprove of his presidency. In fact, his approval numbers are where Richard Nixon’s were in the summer of 1973, during the awful torture of the Senate Watergate hearings. Even at Nixon’s bitter end, when he resigned, he still had the support of 24 percent of Americans—the irreducible die-hard Republican core. The minority that approves of Bush today is down to 40 percent and is at 29 percent among moderates of both parties. So now more than ever, the president must pay absolute obeisance to his far-right base, because pretty much only the base is sticking with him—and only conditionally, as the shocking mass defection on Miers showed. W. is their bitch now. For the rest of his presidency, he must govern as a divider rather than a uniter, encouraging his theocratic allies to overplay their hand, which will make a broad-based political revival even harder.
Speaking of presidential-scandal history—Watergate, Iran/contra, Monica Lewinsky; compare and contrast—the salient difference with this one is that it has not just obstruction of justice but a clear, specific, major national-policy debate at its core. That is, before the invasion of Iraq, how and why were we sold such a bill of goods? Imagine a federal criminal trial (or trials) during next year’s midterm election campaigns, with lovable Boy Scout Patrick Fitzgerald cross-examining Cheney and Rove and other unlovable administration officials about lies and exaggerations concerning WMDs.* Daily coverage will make people look back and feel hoodwinked into supporting the war, and maybe even into reelecting Bush. Fitzgerald said at his press conference that if Judy Miller had not protected Libby for a whole pointless year, “we would have been here in October 2004 instead of October 2005.” That is, we would’ve had the indictment of the vice-president’s chief of staff back then—a real October surprise that might have turned a red state or two blue and thus swung the election. Would a Kerry administration have better managed the counterinsurgency and occupation these last nine months? Very probably, and they couldn’t have done any worse. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted before Libby was indicted, 55 percent of Americans would vote for a Democrat if the presidential election were held now, versus only 42 percent who would reelect Bush. During Watergate, even if the electorate had known all the facts as of November 1972, I bet they still wouldn’t have elected George McGovern president.
“ ‘What? I’m lying? Are you saying I’m lying?’ ” That’s a line from Scooter Libby’s 1996 novel, The Apprentice. Here’s another: “Or, the youth realized, might the story she had told him … be just a lie?” Also: “Surely, he thought, she would have seen that he had no choice but to lie about the box.” And finally: “ ‘Well, then,’ the thin man said, ‘someone’s lying. Or maybe more than one of us.’ ”
Like Watergate and Iran/contra, this scandal concerns lies told by the president’s men. Unlike with Watergate and blowjobgate, no specific deception by the president is alleged. (By the most powerful vice-president in history, though? We’ll see.) But even if only Libby is accused of breaking the law, this affair—lying to the FBI, lying to the grand jury—is a vivid example of the administration’s habitually reckless disregard for the truth.
The fundamental problem with any dogmatic ideology is that its premises lead believers to look at facts selectively, choosing to admit only the ones that reinforce their particular faith-based view of the world. Realists and pragmatists can certainly lie as well, but ideologues begin with a righteous antagonism to all inconvenient information. So even when they haven’t lied, the Bush administration has enthusiastically ignored difficult facts in favor of wishfulness and evasion and distortion.
Before the war, they talked darkly of mushroom clouds and blithely of a cakewalk and flowers-and-candy and a cheap oil-funded reconstruction. They resisted serious planning for occupation and counterinsurgency. They declared “Mission Accomplished” 1,800 U.S. lives ago and the insurgency in its last throes last spring. The refusal to admit mistakes or change strategy is a result of their fervent faith that reality must conform to their hopes and fantasies. The what-me-worry budget deficits; the support of intelligent design; even the tossed-off lie that Miers withdrew her nomination because of executive-privilege issues; so much this administration does and says is less than true. I have a hunch that the prosecution of U.S. v. Libby, in its slow, deep, relentless exposure of one episode of unambiguous chicanery, could be the small galvanizing episode that makes millions of fair-minded ordinary Americans see a disturbing pattern. Even if it won’t be enough to make most of them vote for Hillary Clinton in 2008. In our 2005 mayoral campaign, it was the Democratic candidate who dissembled (about the Diallo shooting) and fibbed (about attending public school). Whereas Bloomberg seems fairly honest and straightforward, not even much of an embellisher for a politician. And in his second term, unlike Bush, he has a decent chance at pulling off a major and lasting accomplishment.
All he has to do is continue his stunning recent jag of impolitic truth-telling about ground zero, shove his pissed-off lame-duck Republican governor aside, and make good on the new vision. He has suddenly suggested that the atrocious Larry Silverstein, the developer who holds the World Trade Center lease, should be made to go away; that every rebuilding decision can no longer be subject to veto by the victims’ families; that the Port Authority, which owns the site, should trade it to the city for the land under La Guardia and JFK; and that we should put up apartment buildings instead of office towers. Dude! Suddenly, he gets it. And so, just as suddenly, I decided that in the election this week I wouldn’t default to the Democratic line, or abstain, that instead I’d forgive Bloomberg his Republicanism. Life changes fast.
*By the way, if they are such cunning, hardball-playing, ends-justify-the-means liars, why didn’t the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal arrange to plant WMD evidence in Iraq? When push came to shove, they played by the rules. Cold comfort now, maybe, but comfort nonetheless.