Frank Rich: Bush’s Demons

He’s back, and he’s fantastic. To hell with the rest; give me Frank Rich anytime.

Bush of a Thousand Days
Published: April 30, 2006

LIKE the hand that suddenly pops out of the grave at the end of “Carrie,” the past keeps coming back to haunt the Bush White House. Last week was no exception. No sooner did the Great Decider introduce the Fox News showman anointed to repackage the same old bad decisions than the spotlight shifted back to Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury room, where Karl Rove testified for a fifth time. Nightfall brought the release of an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll with its record-low numbers for a lame-duck president with a thousand days to go and no way out.

The demons that keep rising up from the past to grab Mr. Bush are the fictional W.M.D. he wielded to take us into Iraq. They stalk him as relentlessly as Banquo’s ghost did Macbeth. From that original sin, all else flows. Mr. Rove wouldn’t be in jeopardy if the White House hadn’t hatched a clumsy plot to cover up its fictions. Mr. Bush’s poll numbers wouldn’t be in the toilet if American blood was not being spilled daily because of his fictions. By recruiting a practiced Fox News performer to better spin this history, the White House reveals that it has learned nothing. Made-for-TV propaganda propelled the Bush presidency into its quagmire in the first place. At this late date only the truth, the whole and nothing but, can set it free.

All too fittingly, Tony Snow’s appointment was announced just before May Day, a red-letter day twice over in the history of the Iraq war. It was on May 1 three years ago that Mr. Bush did his victory jig on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. It was May 1 last year that The Sunday Times of London published the so-called Downing Street memo. These events bracket all that has gone wrong and will keep going wrong for this president until he comes clean.

To mark the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion last month, the White House hyped something called Operation Swarmer, “the largest air assault” since the start of the war, complete with Pentagon-produced video suitable for the evening news. (What the operation actually accomplished as either warfare or P.R. remains a mystery.) It will take nothing less than a replay of D-Day with the original cast to put a happy gloss on tomorrow’s anniversary. Looking back at “Mission Accomplished” now is like playing that childhood game of “What’s wrong with this picture?” It wasn’t just the banner or the “Top Gun” joyride or the declaration of the end of “major combat operations” that was bogus. Everything was fake except the troops.

“We’re helping to rebuild Iraq, where the dictator built palaces for himself, instead of hospitals and schools,” Mr. Bush said on that glorious day. Three years later we know, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers, that our corrupt, Enron-like Iraq reconstruction effort has yielded at most 20 of those 142 promised hospitals. But we did build a palace for ourselves. The only building project on time and on budget, USA Today reported, is a $592 million embassy complex in the Green Zone on acreage the size of 80 football fields. Symbolically enough, it will have its own water-treatment plant and power generator to provide the basic services that we still have not restored to pre-invasion levels for the poor unwashed Iraqis beyond the American bunker.

These days Mr. Bush seems to be hoping that we’ll just forget every falsehood in his “Mission Accomplished” oration. Trying to deflect a citizen’s hostile question about prewar intelligence claims, the president asserted at a public forum last month that he had never said “there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein.” But on May 1, 2003, as on countless other occasions, he repeatedly made that direct connection. “With those attacks the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States,” he intoned then. “And war is what they got.” It was typical of the bait-and-switch rhetoric he used to substitute a war of choice against an enemy who did not attack us on 9/11 for the war against the non-Iraqi terrorists who did.

t the time, “Mission Accomplished” was cheered by the Beltway establishment. “This fellow’s won a war,” the dean of the capital’s press corps, David Broder, announced on “Meet the Press” after complimenting the president on the “great sense of authority and command” he exhibited in a flight suit. By contrast, the Washington grandees mostly ignored the Downing Street memo when it was first published in Britain, much as they initially underestimated the import of the Valerie Wilson leak investigation.

The Downing Street memo — minutes of a Tony Blair meeting with senior advisers in July 2002, nearly eight months before the war began — has proved as accurate as “Mission Accomplished” was fantasy. Each week brings new confirmation that the White House, as the head of British intelligence put it, was determined to fix “the intelligence and facts” around its predetermined policy of going to war in Iraq. Today Mr. Bush tries to pass the buck on the missing W.M.D. to “faulty intelligence,” but his alibi is springing leaks faster than the White House and the C.I.A. can clamp down on them. We now know the president knew that the intelligence he cherry-picked was faulty — and flogged it anyway to sell us the war.

The latest evidence that Mr. Bush knew that “uranium from Africa” was no slam-dunk when he brandished it in his 2003 State of the Union address was uncovered by The Washington Post: the coordinating council for the 15 American intelligence agencies had already informed the White House that the Niger story had no factual basis and should be dropped. Last Sunday “60 Minutes” augmented this storyline and an earlier scoop by Lisa Myers of NBC News by reporting that the White House had deliberately ignored its most highly placed prewar informant, Saddam’s final foreign minister, Naji Sabri, once he sent the word that Saddam’s nuclear cupboard was bare.

“There was almost a concern we’d find something that would slow up the war,” Tyler Drumheller, a 26-year C.I.A. veteran and an on-camera source for “60 Minutes,” said when I interviewed him last week. Since retiring from the C.I.A. in fall 2004, Mr. Drumheller has played an important role in revealing White House chicanery, including its dire hawking of Saddam’s mobile biological weapons labs, which turned out to be fictitious. Before Colin Powell’s fateful U.N. presentation, Mr. Drumheller conveyed vociferous warnings that the sole human source on these nonexistent W.M.D. labs, an Iraqi émigré known as Curveball, was mentally unstable and a fabricator. “The real tragedy of this,” Mr. Drumheller says, “is if they had let the weapons inspectors play out, we could have had a Gulf War I-like coalition, which would have given us the [300,000] to 400,000 troops needed to secure the country after defeating the Iraqi Army.”

Mr. Drumheller says that until the White House “comes to grips with why it did this” and stops “propping up the original rationale” for the war, it “will never get out of Iraq.” He is right. But the White House clings to its discredited fictions even though their expiration date is fast arriving. There are new Drumhellers seeking out reporters each day. The Fitzgerald investigation continues to yield revelations of administration W.M.D. subterfuge, president-authorized leaks included. Should the Democrats retake either house of Congress in November, their subpoena power will liberate the investigation of the manipulation of prewar intelligence that the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, has stalled for almost two years.

SET against this reality, the debate about Donald Rumsfeld’s future is as much of a sideshow as the installation of a slicker Fleischer-McClellan marketer in the White House press room. The defense secretary’s catastrophic mistakes in Iraq cannot be undone now, and any successor would still be beholden to the policy set from above. Mr. Rumsfeld is merely a useful, even essential, scapegoat for the hawks in politics and punditland who are now embarrassed to have signed on to this fiasco. For conservative hawks, he’s a convenient way to deflect blame from where it most belongs: with the commander in chief. For liberal hawks, attacking Mr. Rumsfeld for his poor execution of the war means never having to say you’re sorry for leaping on (and abetting) the blatant propaganda bandwagon that took us there. But their history can’t be rewritten any more than Mr. Bush’s can: the war’s failures were manifestly foretold by the administration’s arrogance and haste during the run-up.

A new defense or press secretary changes nothing. The only person who can try to save the administration from itself in Iraq is the president. He can start telling the truth in the narrow window of time he has left and initiate a candid national conversation about our inevitable exit strategy. Or he can wait for events on the ground in Iraq and political realities at home to do it for him.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

I recently saw a sign calling for SOMEONE TO GIVE HIM A BLOWJOB SO WE CAN IMPEACH HIM… It should really disturb our morality in America the double standards we’re using for two different presidents…

April 29, 2006 @ 9:44 pm | Comment

Bush is too much of a brain-damaged little sociopath to EVER admit to his errors. It won’t happen.

Worst. President. Ever.

April 30, 2006 @ 12:53 am | Comment

Say, doesn’t something have to die first to actually become a ghost?

Newly redesigned site. Check the artwork by Leon (sorry, shameless plug)

April 30, 2006 @ 1:17 am | Comment

Frank Rich apparently approvingly quotes this puzzler from the otherwise noble Mr. Drumheller:

“The real tragedy of this,” Mr. Drumheller says, “is if they had let the weapons inspectors play out, we could have had a Gulf War I-like coalition, which would have given us the [300,000] to 400,000 troops needed to secure the country after defeating the Iraqi Army.”

Doesn’t that strike anyone else as strange? If we had let the weapons inspectors play out, we probably wouldn’t have had the war, and thus not needed one-third to one-half a million troops to secure that country. (Thanks to idiotic “liberal hawks” such as Chris Hitchens, I am forced to insert a disclaimer that ought to be blindingly obvious: this doesn’t mean I approved of Saddam’s rule, but rather that I hoped and realistically expected that with wise covert aid, Iraqis themselves could have taken out Saddam, and not needed any troops to secure their own country.)

Let us never forget that without the completely dishonest threat of extant WMD’s, (the “mushroom cloud”), America would never have supported the war in the first place. When I protested the war, I was called a “traitor” and a “fifth column” to my face, and you don’t get called these things just because you’re insufficiently enthusiastic about spreading democracy.

April 30, 2006 @ 5:41 am | Comment

I urge you all to head over to and watch Stephen Colbert’s “speech” at the annual White House Correspondents dinner. Bush is sitting there not 10 feet from him. It isn’t a roast, it’s an evisceration. I’ve never seen anything like it.

At one point, Colbert offers to have Frank Rich whacked for Dubya.

April 30, 2006 @ 6:16 pm | Comment


I have no clue who that Colbert guy is, but he sure has guts. Thanks for pointing us towards that video.

May 1, 2006 @ 6:18 pm | Comment

Lao Lu, you can go to and thank him. Plus they have the video links as well.

Yeah. I’m in awe.

May 2, 2006 @ 12:02 am | Comment

I finally ponied up the money and bought myself a video iPod last week. After seeing Colbert’s performance at the dinner, I paid for a season pass on iTunes so I can watch Colbert’s show whenever there are new episodes. He was brilliant.

May 2, 2006 @ 1:25 am | Comment


Thanks for your advice, but I don’t know … I always think of the following:

When Francois Mitterrand was confronted with the story about his extramarital daughter, he responded in three words: “Et quoi alors ?” (So what ?) The press shut up ever after, and right they were, because it may or may not have been a mistake from his side, but he made sure that his daughter was not lacking in anything and was not of anybody’s damn business except his and his family.
When Bill Clinton was caught, well … ehhh, redhanded, the press and the entire country were over him and he was nearly impeached. Never mind the rest of the things he got right during his presidency.

In the past few weeks, France took to the streets to protest the CPE, which allowed … well, we’ve all read about it, no need to explain. I was reading Newsweek at the time, where a journalist was taking pity on this kind of behaviour, because according to the author, much worse is still to come for the French and they better prepare for it instead of trying to stall time. Of course, France couldn’t care less about what Newsweek had to say about their protests and so they marched …they marched several days… and so they got De Villepin to withdraw the CPE under heavy pressure from Chirac himself. What they marched for may have been wrong or it may prove to have been the right thing, but ultimately they got politicians to listen to them.

When G.W. Bush sends hundreds of thousands of people off to war on lies, when he goes again and again against the Constitution he has vowed to uphold, when he holds prisoners for years without any form of trial, it takes a comedian to throw truth right into his face (and I repeat, the guy has guts to do it, but it was still under “protection” of a room that was humming with expectation for satire, although ususally not to the extent he went, if I understand correctly) … and then the American citizens set up a website to thank the comedian ??!!
I may be oversimplifying things here, but I just think it is by far not enough and to be even more honest, I am disgusted at the difference in reaction I see to Clinton’s childish mistakes (same as which, let me guess, a quarter of the population is making ?) and to Bush’s unforgivable errors.

May 2, 2006 @ 2:46 pm | Comment

Lao Lu, on Saturday there was an anti-war demonstration in New York City, which according to police estimates (which are generally low) drew “tens of thousands of people.” I was one of the people marching in February 2003, when there were marches all over the world protesting the war. Bush did what he did regardless. They aren’t responsive to external pressure. They just don’t care. The only thing that’s going to change them is to get them out of office.

I don’t know what the right response was, what we could have done, those of us who didn’t vote for them in the first place, I mean. Would massive demonstrations like the immigrant rallies have made a difference? I doubt it. I feel like I didn’t do enough, but I don’t know what else I could have done that would have mattered.

In the meantime, having somebody get right in Bush’s face and say so many of the things I’ve ranted to my friends or posted on blogs and get to say it to the man himself, was beyond satisfying. And not the easiest thing to do. So yeah, I’ll thank Colbert for speaking for me and so many of us who feel like our country’s been hijacked by a gang of criminals.

May 2, 2006 @ 10:26 pm | Comment

Lisa, I don’t fully concur with you on this one. I do appreciate that there are a lot of people who resent what is going on in the US, I know about the manifestations, but I also know that if these are only happening with too large intervals, they are not likely to hit their target. If there is anything I have learned from what is happening in the world around, it is that it takes stamina to establish a change. Again, I am not going to plead pro or contra the issues that were at stake, but the French had that stamina a couple of weeks ago, and the Oekranians had it when they camped out during their Orange Reolution and I don’t see the same thing happening in the US.
On the other hand, when I see the press, I don’t think Bush has much more credit left, so I do believe that something will change over time, but it should have been faster.

A major problem I have is how easily America could impeach it’s president over something such “trivial” as a sexual affair (and the hypocrisie of it, as I believe the nations’ hero J.F. Kennedy in this respect was definitely a match for Clinton) and not being able to do anything against the current lunatic policies in place. Wasn’t Clinton accused, not for playing around with a cigar, but for publicly lying about it ? Now, who is the worse liar, I ask myself.

May 3, 2006 @ 5:17 am | Comment

Lao Lu, you and me and a lot of other people ask that impeachment question! Remember, Bush “won” (or didn’t) the first election losing the popular vote and was re-elected (if you think he was fairly elected in the first place) on the slimmest of margins. As for the Clinton impeachment, a majority of Americans didn’t favor it. This was an action of the Republican-controlled Congress – which the American electorate voted in, to be sure.

Until and unless there is a Democratic majority, it’s not possible to impeach Bush. The Republicans in Congress place Party loyalty above anything else, and it simply won’t happen.

If the Democrats take one or both Houses of Congress, then all I have to say is, there had better be an impeachment.

I don’t have a good answer for you on the people-power equation. I think most of the time these movements are successful when the regime is weak. But even if the streets were flooded daily with protestors, that wouldn’t get Bush out of office. He’s elected, he serves out his term – unless the gross illegality of his actions catches up with him. It could happen. His approval ratings are in the Nixon zone. But first, a Democratic House in Congress.

I agree far too many Americans were complacent in the run-up to the Iraq War, and I will never understand why so many people supported Bush in the first place. I can’t tell you the frustration, anguish and anger I and so many people felt, realizing that he was going to take us to war that we knew would be a disaster. That’s right. A lot of us knew from the very beginning that the whole thing was cooked up and that it was a horrible mistake.

Now that so many Americans have seen the light on Bush, I have some small degree of hope that it marks a new and more positive direction for this country. But I can’t honestly say that I’m certain of that. The changes that need to be made are massive, and I don’t know if there’s enough political will or vision to make them happen. And can a consensus be crafted, given the tremendous amount of polarization we’ve seen for the last twenty years? I don’t know.

I guess all of us should ask ourselves why we are in this situation, what each of us could have done to prevent it. But I still don’t have the answers to that question.

May 3, 2006 @ 10:37 am | Comment

Thanks, Lisa, for all the explanations. I do understand your frustration and judging from your writings on Hao Wu, it is certainly not you who is lacking in stamina. I guess my posts were intended to ventilate some of my frustration with your president, which is now done. I rest my case 🙂

May 4, 2006 @ 1:17 am | Comment

Would that we could BOTH vent our frustrations about Bush to his face…he will go down in history as our Worst. President. Ever.

I mean that.

May 4, 2006 @ 1:21 am | Comment

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