PLEASANTON, CA. -- Pity Laura Lane Welch Bush. A solid Democrat who placed her ideological values in a blind trust when she married into the Republican royal family, she now has been forced by the collapse of her husband's political fortunes into the most sordid of circumstances. The bookish Bush, who has devoted her tenure as First Lady to the gentle pursuits of promoting literacy and trying to smooth the jagged edges of her beau's administration, has now been put to the task of retaining Republican control of the House of Representatives. As the sole person closely associated with the Bush presidency who is still approved by a majority of Americans, she alone can be dispatched to states like California by the most political White House in American history. She alone can try to execute the most serious electoral repair job a presidential administration has had to engage in since newly-minted President Gerald Ford ventured onto the campaign trail in the Watergate year of 1974.
These cannot be happy days for the First Lady, who spent the day before her 60th birthday on Saturday in the political purgatory that had to make her wonder about the compromises she has made in her life.
If the First Lady's campaigning merely required her to attend literary lunches with the more genteel members of the Grand Old Party's congressional caucus -- Iowa's Jim Leach, Wisconsin's Tom Petri and the like -- the First Lady could swallow hard and comfort herself with the thought that after Tuesday she will never again have to pretend to like Republicans.
But the genteel Republicans aren't the ones who are in deep trouble this year. It's the thugs who are being dragged down by frustration with the failure of Congress to check and balance the Bush administration's war making, by the revelations of the pay-to-play politics of disgraced House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and their minions, and by their own particularly wretched records.
Watching Laura Bush go through the motions of supporting some of the most disreputable political bagmen of the age has been this election year's least attractive experience, and on Friday things turned downright ugly -- Pombo ugly.
In this northern California suburb, the First Lady gripped a podium and squeezing out a pained smile as she discussed the dubious merits of seven-term U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, a Republican congressman who is so wrong on the issues and so ethically-compromised that, even in a district tailor-made to reelect Republicans, he is having trouble closing the deal. If Pombo loses, it will be exceptionally bad news for the Grand Old Party, as his defeat would signal that even the hard work of the partisan map drawers who have corrupted the redistricting process to assure the reelection of even the most malignant incumbents has been swept away by a wave of anger over Republican misrule and misdeeds.
Pombo is the face of what's wrong with the current Congress. A faux cowboy who tries to hide the fact that he has "gone Washington" by wearing a new ten-gallon hat and shiny boots whenever he returns to an increasingly suburban district that is still home to many farmers and ranchers, Pombo is the House's most militant opponent of environmental protection. He chairs the House Resources Committee, and his campaign to gut the Endangered Species Act has allowed him to collect a great deal of money from corporate polluters, developers and others who would make billions if Congress would just let them kill off a few more rare species.
Pombo has in recent years associated himself so closely with scandal-plagued lobbyists and cast so many indefensible votes that he finally faced a difficult Republican primary this year -- when retired U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, angered over Pombo's attempts to dismantle conservation laws that McCloskey had helped pass decades earlier -- came out of retirement to make the run. McCloskey lost the June primary, but he exposed the vulnerabilities that have allowed Democrat Jerry McNerney to mount a fall challenge that pollsters now say threatens Pombo -- despite the fact that registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 46-39 in the 11th Congressional District that includes portions of California's Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Joaquin counties.
It was Laura Bush's job -- as the only prominent member of the Bush administration who is welcome in California this year -- to try and stop the bleeding from the base. So she came to Pleasanton to try and lure traditional Republican voters back in the fold. To do so, she had to praise Pombo as a good man and a great congressman -- statements that the First Lady is smart enough to recognize as, well, lies.
The poor woman actually claimed with a straight face that, "U.S. Rep. Pombo is an enthusiastic steward of our country's natural resources. Because of his leadership, wildlife, property and people will be protected from dangerous flooding." As lies go, that's a pretty big one, since Pombo, a supporter of selling public lands to mining interests and a passionate advocate for opening up federal wildlife reserves for oil drilling is running for reelection with the support of oil, gas and timber companies and with the opposition of every major environmental, conservation and wildlife protection group in the country.
But the biggest lie was the suggestion didn't involve Pombo personally. Rather, it was the suggestion that Mrs. Bush -- a woman who has quietly but firmly distanced herself from the GOP's social agenda and whose oft-stated sympathies for public education and public libraries put her very much at odds with the policies and spending priorities of men like Richard Pombo -- really thinks America would be better off with a Republican Congress.
It is a nasty spot that Laura Bush finds herself in during the last days of a rescue-mission campaign to save the political hides of some of the saddest excuses this country has ever seen for legislators. But when you marry into royalty, as Prince Diana and so many others have warned us over the years, you must surrender a big part of yourself. For her part, Laura Bush has chosen this week to give up her ideals, her conscience and her hard-won reputation as the last decent occupant of the Bush White House.
John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com