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Politics in the ‘New Normal’ America

There were two possibilities here: either the President was receiving his words, emotional cues, and information from his “unvarnished instincts,” or he was “strategizing” them with Vice President Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, and Andrew H. Card Jr. We no longer expected such contradictions to be explored, or even much mentioned. We accepted the fact that not only events but the language used to describe them had been reinvented, inflated, or otherwise devalued, stripped of meaning that did not serve a political purpose. The 2001 tax cut, we learned from former US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, was described by its political beneficiaries in the White House as “the investment package.” The words “invasion” and “occupation,” previously neutral terms in the description of military actions, had each been replaced by the more educational “liberation,” to a point at which the administration’s most attentive and least wary student, Condoleezza Rice, could speak without irony to the Financial Times about “the devotion of the US in the liberation of Germany from Hitler.”

September 11, we were told repeatedly, had created a “new normal,” an altered condition in which we were supposed to be able to see, as The Christian Science Monitor explained a month after the events, “what is—and what is no longer—important.” “Government,” for example, was “important again,” and “all that chatter about lockboxes and such now seems like so much partisan noise.” The “new normal” required that we adopt a “new paradigm,” which in turn required, according to an internal White House memo signed by President Bush, “new thinking in the law of war,” in other words a reconsideration of the Geneva Convention’s prohibition against torture. “Torture” itself had become “extreme interrogation,” which under the “new paradigm” could be justified when the information obtained by interrogation failed to tally with the information required by policy. “We’re learning that Tariq Aziz still doesn’t know how to tell the truth,” the President told reporters in May 2003 about the interrogation sessions that were yielding, for reasons even then inconveniently clear, so little information about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. “He didn’t know how to tell the truth when he was in office. He doesn’t know how to tell the truth when he’s been—as a captive.”

As this suggests, the word “truth” itself had by then been redefined, the empirical method abandoned: “the truth” was now whatever we needed it to be, the confirmation of those propositions or policies in which we “believed in our hearts,” or had “faith.” “Belief” and “faith” had in turn become words used to drop a scrim, white out the possibility of decoding—let alone debating—what was being said. It was now possible to “believe” in one proposition or another on the basis of no evidence that it was so. The President had famously pioneered this tactic, from which derived his “resolve”: he “believed” in the weapons of mass destruction, for example, as if the existence of weapons was a doctrinal point on the order of transubstantiation, and in the same spirit he also believed, he told reporters in July 2003, that “the intelligence I get is darn good intelligence and the speeches I have given are backed by good intelligence.” The attraction of such assertions of conviction was the high road they offered for bypassing conventional reality testing, which could be dismissed as lack of resolve. “I do not believe we should change our course because I believe in it,” Tony Blair was saying by September 2003. “I carry on doing the job because I believe in what I’m doing.”

Similar use was found for the word “faith,” originally introduced as a way to placate Republican base voters while spending, since few elected officials are anxious to go on the line against faith, the minimum amount of political capital. The President could have “faith” in the Iraqi people, which in turn was how he could “believe” that “a free Iraq can be an example of reform and progress to all the Middle East,” which could even be (why not?) the reason we were there. Similarly, as he considered “problems like poverty and addiction, abandonment and abuse, illiteracy and homelessness,” the President could again have “faith,” in this case “faith that faith will work in solving the problems.” As for faith’s problem-solving role, or “compassionate conservatism,” the specific promise to the Christian right of the 2000 campaign, the administration now spoke not only of “faith-based” schools and “faith-based” charities and “faith-based” prisoner rehabilitation but also of “faith-based” national parks, which translated into authorizing the sale in the National Park Service’s bookstores of Grand Canyon: A Different View, the “different view” being that the canyon was created not by the continual movement of the Colorado River since the Tertiary Period but in the six days described in Genesis.

Peculiarities (faith-based national parks, say) that a few years before might have seemed scarcely possible now seemed scarcely worth remark. The more high-decibel political comment had become, the more blunted it had become, the more confined to arguments about “personality.” “What a difference these few months of extremism have made,” Jimmy Carter said in the Fleet Center on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention; on the cable shows that evening any potential discussion of what a former president of the United States might have meant by “extremism” got beaten back by the more pressing need to discuss his “cranky” refusal to allow his speech to be “scrubbed” of negativity by the Kerry campaign. We had seen the criticism of administration policy on Iraq doggedly offered by Senator Robert C. Byrd met with personal vilification, what Senator Byrd himself described in Losing America as “an ugly tone—’old man,’ ‘senile,’ ‘traitor,’ ‘KKK.’” We had seen, after the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks made a comment onstage in London that could only with imaginative interpretation pass for “political” (“Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas”), widespread excoriation, radio bans against including the Dixie Chicks on playlists, and organized bonfires (at the time widely described as illustrations of market choice) in which their CDs were burned.

Rapid response, then, all barrels firing, would seem to have become the national political style, the manifestation of what was frequently called “polarization,” yet it was not. The notion of “polarization” itself had come to seem another manipulation, one more scrim: the 2001 USA Patriot Act, despite voiced reservations that crossed conventional ideological lines, had been passed by the House with a vote of 357 to 66 and in the Senate with a vote of 98 to 1, the “one” in the latter case being Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. We had more recently seen, when a former longtime member of the House of Representatives, Lee Hamilton, suggested at a hearing of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission could be put in effect by “executive order,” not only no polarization but virtually no response, no discussion of why someone who had long resisted the expansion of executive power now seemed willing to suggest that a major restructuring of the government proceed on the basis of the President’s signature alone. “And usually, given my background, you’d expect me to say that it’s better to have a statute in back of it,” he had added. Was he suggesting a way to shortcut the process on only minor points? Or, since he seemed to be talking about major changes, was he simply trying to guide the Senate to the urgency of the matter?

Such questions did not enter the discourse. There was only silence, general acquiescence, as if any lingering public memory of separation of powers had been obliterated in the unendable crisis the executive branch had appropriated for itself. “The battle in Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001, and still goes on,” the President had said on the late afternoon he landed in the flight suit on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln (“clearly reliving his days as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard,” according to The New York Times), at once declaring combat operations complete on one front and laying a groundwork for whatever further fronts might be deemed expedient.

There had been many curious occurrences that might have earned our attention. There had been the reemergence of Elliott Abrams from the black hole of Iran-contra, this time around as the White House director of Middle Eastern affairs. “Whatever controversy there was in the past is in the past,” was how a senior administration official characterized, for The New York Times, the appointee’s 1987 guilty plea on a charge of withholding information from Congress and subsequent pardon by the President’s father. There had been the reemergence from the same black hole of Otto Juan Reich, who had once figured in questions about the Reagan administration’s covert campaign against the government of Nicaragua and was in 2001 given, after the Senate refused to confirm his appointment as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, a “recess appointment” by the President. In 2002, when the recess appointment ran out, he was named the state department’s “special envoy” to the Western Hemisphere, a post not requiring confirmation.

There had been, albeit briefly, the reemergence of Reagan national security adviser John M. Poindexter, whose 1990 conviction on five Iran-contra-related felony counts was later overturned and who returned to the public from the private sector in 2002 as director of the Defense Department’s “Information Awareness Office,” a division of its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. In his twenty months at the Information Awareness Office, Admiral Poindexter’s projects included an on-line futures market for betting on international developments and the prototype of an all-inclusive database for tracking pretty much anyone in the world. This prototype, the eventual point of which was to combine all government with all commercial data, involved, according to the DARPA Web site, the development of such suggested technologies as “story telling, change detection, and truth maintenance” and “biologically inspired algorithms for agent control.”

There had even been the reemergence of the Iran-contra arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, who was reported to have had “several” meetings with two members of Douglas Feith’s Pentagon staff. Newsday had originally placed these meetings in Paris; The New York Times later placed them in Rome. One of the two men present from the Pentagon, according to the Times, was Lawrence Franklin, who was this summer reported to be under investigation by the FBI in a matter that allegedly involved providing classified documents to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and ultimately to Israel. The other Pentagon representative at the Ghorbanifar meetings, according to Newsday, was Harold Rhode, who had “acted as a liaison between Feith’s office, which drafted much of the administration’s post-Iraq planning, and Ahmed Chalabi, a former Iraqi exile disdained by the CIA and State Department but groomed for leadership by the Pentagon.” Here the story, as reported by Newsday, took still another turn into time travel:

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