The President Is Not Smiling

The President Is Not Smiling

Card is out, Bolten in. The Senate is stuck on immigration. And every day brings more bad news. Take care of this, will you, Josh?


My first rule as a writer is to resist clichés, those worn but familiar phrases that creep into your prose and muddy the meaning. Sometimes, however, a cliché is too accurate to reject. In the matter of the White House staff shake-up, George W. Bush is, well, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Andrew Card is out, Josh Bolten is in. Washington is atwitter at this fresh start for the embattled presidency. Will the new guy take my calls? Reporters try to remember if they ever wrote anything nasty about him. And can’t you see Osama pulling on his chin whiskers?

Not to worry. It’s only an office shuffle. The new chief of staff brings nothing new to running the country since, as budget director, he has been there all along, contributing to the President’s troubles. This diversion is a three-day story at most, before reality-based reality intrudes and overwhelms.

The President is cratering. Reality is intensifying, every day it seems. I imagine the Oval Office briefing where Card and the President bring Bolten up to speed on the latest upsets:

Last Saturday, a news leak revealed that Vladimir Putin, Bush’s pal in Moscow, tipped off Saddam Hussein on the invasion plans three years ago. Probably leaked by Pentagon troublemaker–tell Rummy to seek and destroy.

Sunday, the Russian candidate wins the election in the Ukraine. Our guy finishes third. Ask Condi for update. Do we drop “Orange Revolution” from our democracy speeches? Call Vlad, concede gracefully. You got Ukraine; we got Iraq. Can this friendship be saved?

Also Sunday, American troops attack the Sadr militia at a Bagdad mosque, kill an 80-year-old Shiite imam, among others. Bush asks: Does this put us still deeper in the doo-doo–that so-called civil war? We kill Sunnis to stop them from killing Shiites, then we gotta kill some Shiites to stop them from killing Sunnis. Democracy is hard, the President says, we’ve known that all along.

Monday morning, the New York Times has another nasty story on a Brit memo leaked by Tony Blair’s inner circle. Says Bush, back in January 2003, suggested that we could trigger the war in Iraq by painting US aircraft in United Nations blue. Then Saddam shoots down one of these “UN planes” and–bingo–our reluctant allies have to get on board for the invasion. Why is that a story? Everybody knew we were going to do invasion.

What else? Tuesday morning, gasoline prices hit $2.90 in Washington suburbs. The Senate is stuck on immigration thing, will have to trash either our right-wing frothers or the Mexicans. Looks like lose-lose. General Motors not good. “Collapse of the American auto industry” story line can hurt consumer confidence.

We need to get out in front on these. Better message, turn around bad-news stories, find some “good news” diversions. Bolten’s clipboard is filled with notes. The President is not smiling. “Take care of this, will you, Josh?”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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