Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Worst. President. Ever.

Worse Than Watergate, by John W. Dean, Read by Robertson Dean, Books on Tape, Inc. 2004

The phrase that gives this book its title did not originate with the author, nor with a coterie of Bush haters. That's the first surprising fact I learned listening to this book. Over the last three years I've been a regular and active reader of many blogs, so the various misdeeds of the Bush Administration are hardly news to me. The phrase actually was uttered by some media personalities including the Republican National Committee Chair, Ed Gillespie. That struck me.

As former counsel to President Nixon, Dean, who turned on Nixon during the Watergate hearings when the Executive Branch tried to set him up as the fall guy, is no Nixon apologist. He can recognize Nixon's strengths (he was a bookish grind who worked hard to at least appear smart and he approached the Presidency with a modicum of respect, at least at first) as well as being more than on passing terms with his faults. For him to make this kind of polemic is telling.

Dean, who knows of what he speaks, makes a compelling and damning case against Bush and Cheney, highlighting the points of comparison between their administration and Nixon's. The items range from the small (both White House disgraces referred to "The President" (themselves) almost as a third person, a separate identity, and also worked hard to create a persona) to lying while in office. What makes Bush's lies worse are the scope and prevalence of them. Dean also points out that Nixon's lying regarding war, the secret bombings in Cambodia, were in an effort to win and thus end a war (and were technically not lies to Congress, as his administration had very quietly mentioned the bombing to heads of Congress). In a straightforward, lawyerly fashion, Dean picks apart Bush's notification to Congress of his war intentions, his second State of the Union address, Colin Powell's UN address, and a host of other lies that surround Bush like a cloying cologne.

A perfect example of the lies that have sustained Bush throughout his life is his arranging for the Texas Rangers, the pro-baseball team that he once part owned, to get a new stadium. The deal, as initially described to the citizens of Arlington, Texas, where the stadium sits, went like this: the team would pay up-front $32 million in building costs and the taxpayers would foot the rest with a half-cent sales tax. Only, it turned out that the $32 million wouldn't be paid up front and it would come through an additional $1 surcharge on each stadium ticket sold. Thus, the taxpayers paid for the whole stadium. At the end of the time the team "rented" the stadium from the city, the team would own the stadium outright, having the option to purchase it for zero dollars. Pretty sweet deal, huh?

And it isn't merely just in lying that Bush exceeds Nixon. The element of secrecy is thicker than it's ever been around an Administration, and honest humans do not thrive in an atmosphere of that kind. What needs be done in secrecy, if not intimately involved in national security, does not reflect the national interest. There are very few, maybe no good arguments for it. Perhaps no one has been a bigger advocate of secrecy than the man who got his start in politics in the Nixon White House, Dick Cheney. Whether it's his Enron dominated energy panel or his Halliburton coziness, Cheney is a model of corruption to shame Agnew.

The Vice-President's dealings with Azerbaijan (for oil, naturally) and their deplorable human rights record are par for the course. He lobbied intensely, pre-2000 for restrictions to be lifted on this dictatorial fiefdom, and Bush obliged instantly on assumption of office. It's hardly surprising, barely shocking, and that's a sad fact of life. It's rather horrible that the VP's less than human behavior has become so commonplace. Would it shock you if I told you that Cheney cozied up to Azerbaijan's dictator when he (the VP) was CEO of Halliburton? I didn't think so.

What's somewhat interesting about Bush is what a component President he is. He has his father's inability to make it through a sentence without tripping over his dick, he has Reagan's genial ignorance and immaturity, and he has Richard Nixon's furtive paranoia. The worst qualities of the worst presidents when you consider the damage they've done to American prestige, the economy, and liberty. Bush II trumps them all. He's a textbook example of the whole being more (or in this case less) than the sum of the parts.

It was the American Conservative magazine that pinned the best title on Bush, the Dauphin. He is like one of those immature French princes who is ignorant of anything going on around him, directed by his Cardinal Richelieu. Dean repeatedly refers to the Bush-Cheney Presidency or Administration and I think that's probably fitting. Can anyone credibly make the argument that Bush has a grasp of any details of any policy he's enacted? Broad strokes are about all the man can understand or summon the patience to learn.

As Dean has observed, getting through the first term in order to make it to the unaccountable misnamed "Lame Duck" term was the whole point of Nixon's first four years. Bush has followed that pattern, and it is entirely likely that the second term scandals that have dogged presidencies (see Lewinsky, Monica; Iran-Contra; Whitewater) will crop up this time around. A foolish sense of bulletproofness settled on both Presidents after winning re-election.

A handy list of potential scandals is provided by Dean, and for my money, the betting should be placed on the Valerie Plame affair. Thumbnail version: as revenge against being exposed as liars regarding Iraq's supposed attempts to secure uranium from Niger, two Administration officials leaked to conservative columnist Robert Novak the undercover identity of the CIA operative wife of the man who exposed them. This is a federal crime, one Bush's father called treason. No one has been charged in this affair yet and the crime has been covered up, spreading around more criminal behavior. A grand jury investigation is currently ongoing, so keep your fingers crossed. I know I am.

Dean's Appendixes are thick with factual details, almost at times like reading a list of endnotes though more fleshed out. Appendix two is a list of websites and contacts regarding federal government secrecy. Listening to someone read web addresses is rather a whimper than a bang of an end to the book. It is also unlikely to provide the kind of follow up that reading it in print would. A number of sites are also familiar to me, such as www.memoryhole.org, which you can see up at the top of my page as one of my links. Russ Kick does the lord's work and should be supported heartily.

Robertson Dean is a good reader, not related to the author. John Dean reads a preface, and his voice would have been up to the task of the read, though one suspects his apparent anger at the Bush Administration might have come through too clearly and muddied the clear case his words lay out. Robertson has a thick baritone that manages to be interesting and authoritative and to occasionally tremble with the outrages he describes. That last facet is what gives him particular strength, as he sounds as though attempting to divest himself of partisan passion but not quite being able to recite abuses without his inner core being stirred.

This audiobook contains two strange elements I'd not run across prior to this. One was a preface read by the author, which in itself isn't unusual, but what preceded it was a small plug for Books on Tape made by the author in which he described himself as listening to audiobooks nearly daily. It's a strange plug, as the person hearing it is already an audiobook listener and has sought out not only an audiobook, but a nonfiction one at that. The second is a closing paragraph providing an author's biography. This I'd only heard before from Black Stone Audio which also reads what's on the jacket of the book in question so from them it's to be expected. Perhaps it's Dean's pedigree provided so as to give extra weight to his words. In any event, it's unnecessary as his case is a fairly damning one.

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