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The Sorry State of the State of the Union

Part of a Series

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Slightly less than two years ago, shortly after George W. Bush gave his famous "Axis of Evil" State of the Union address, I happened to be at one of those “whither NATO” conferences in Brussels, and shared a moment there with my fellow attendee, William Kristol. Being a gentleman of sorts, I congratulated him on his victory in ideological battle. Following a long public struggle, the Bush administration had just adopted the neoconservative foreign policy doctrine of global military unilateralism of which Kristol was the nation’s most public champion. Iraq was now on the table, but so were Iran and North Korea – just as soon as we got around to cleaning up Mesopotamia.

But I had one nagging question—or perhaps ray of hope. "How can you be certain they mean it?" I asked him. "What if it was just a smartass speechwriter?" Kristol politely quashed my speculation. "In any other speech, at any other time, I'd be concerned," he explained. "But not the State of the Union. It's too important. Every sentence is fully vetted and deeply considered. Nothing gets in there that they are not sure they mean."

Perhaps that’s the way things worked under Bush 41, when Kristol worked as Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. But he was apparently operating from a fundamental misunderstanding of how THIS Bush White House worked. The phrase “Axis of Evil,” we soon learned, was inspired by David Frum, a former staffer of Kristol's at The Weekly Standard, during his short-stint as a White House speechwriter. (The news came from Frum’s wife, Danielle Crittenden, who sent out a mass e-mail announcing it, contrary to all known speechwriter practice.)

In his memoir The Right Man, Frum admitted that he originally came up with the idea because his boss, chief speechwriter Michael Gerson told him to find a way to justify a war against Iraq and he thought it would be really cool to make up one of those axis-things we had to fight against in World War II. I swear I’m not making this up. His original term, “axis of hatred," was later transmuted into “evil” to take advantage of "the theological language that Bush had made his own since September 11."

Though nobody at the White House seems to have considered it, the net result was easily predictable. Put on notice that they were next on the list for an invasion, Iran and North Korea—two nations with genuine terrorist connections, not the made-up kind—ramped up their nuclear weapons programs as a means of insuring themselves against similar treatment.

Little did we know at the time that the “Axis of Evil” screw-up was not just an exception to the rule; it was how the Bush administration did business, no less in domestic policy than in foreign affairs. One of the lesser-noticed, but most revealing incidents in Paul O’Neill’s memoir once-removed, “The Price of Loyalty,” also takes place during the first Bush State of the Union. As O’Neill tells it, he woke up on the day of the address to read on the front page of the New York Times that the president was planning on using some cockamamie calculation—provided by a mistaken midlevel OMB employee—to justify nearly $700 billion in tax cuts. Furious and nearly shaking with disbelief, O’Neill tried to head it off but was informed that since the document had already been leaked to the media by the White House political staff, it was too late to correct it. How in the world, he wondered, could Rove and company “decide to do things like this and not even consult with the people in government who know what’s true or not? Who was in charge here? This is complete bull****.’”

Of course, the past was mere prelude to the big lie of the 2003 State of the Union when the president told the nation the phony story of Iraq’s alleged purchase of uranium from an unnamed African nation – a story many people in government knew to be untrue. The media largely fell for the administration’s later spin—coupled with its hard-nosed (and possibly illegal) attempts to intimidate its critics like Joe Wilson – that the untruth had been limited to a mere “16 words” in an otherwise truthful presentation. But by now that interpretation is no longer viable. For it turned out that virtually everything Bush about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction insisted upon in making his case for war has either turned out to be false or was known to be false at the time.

Discussing this phenomenon, Michael Kinsley ruminated on the modus operandi that distinguished this White House from previous ones: “Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered. If telling the truth was less bother, they'd try that too. The characteristic Bush II form of dishonesty is to construct an alternative reality on some topic and to regard anyone who objects to it as a sniveling dweeb obsessed with ’nuance,’ which the president of this class, I mean of the United States, has more important things to do than worry about.”

In his third State of the Union, Bush moved from nuance to nonsense. The president pretended that his original invasion had been inspired by something he termed “weapons of mass destruction program-related activities” instead of the weapons themselves. Not only did this contradict literally hundreds of statements by top administration officials who clamed to have clear, positive proof of actual weapons—Cheney even spoke of “reconstituted nuclear weapons”—it is also rather difficult to figure out what in blazes it is supposed to mean. As a reader suggested to me in an e-mail, “If the bill collector calls, I will inform him that I have a checkbook which is evidence of ‘possible intent to develop bill-paying programs.’ That should satisfy him.”

What is perhaps most disturbing about the above is how little it disturbed the guardians of our democracy in the media. Virtually alone in the press, USA Today bothered to inform its readers, in the context of Bush’s phony claims, that his own chief weapons inspector, David Kay "turned up no weapons and no evidence of any advanced weapons program” despite months of investigation. How much else of what Bush and his representatives claim would crumble to dust with only a little journalistic investigation?

Bush’s hero, Ronald Reagan, used to advise people to “trust but verify.” How sad for the nation that at this moment of maximal national peril and minimal official veracity, we have got a media that chooses only the former.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Eric Alterman

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