Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves.
The Bush presidency is a lot of things. It’s a secretive cabal, a cavalcade of incompetence, a blood-stained Church Militant, a bad rerun of “The Godfather” in which scary men in suits pay ominous visits to hospital rooms. But seen from the point of view of the American people, what it increasingly resembles is a bad marriage. America finds itself married to a guy who has turned out to be a complete dud. Divorce — which in our nonparliamentary system means impeachment — is the logical solution. But even though Bush cheated on us, lied, besmirched our family’s name and spent all our money, we the people, not to mention our elected representatives and the media, seem content to stick it out to the bitter end.
There is a strange disconnect in the way Americans think about George W. Bush. He is extraordinarily unpopular. His approval ratings, which have been abysmal for about 18 months, have now sunk to their lowest ever, making him the most unpopular president in a generation. His 28 percent approval rating in a May 5 Newsweek poll ties that of Jimmy Carter in 1979 after the failed Iran rescue mission. Bush’s unpopularity has emboldened congressional Democrats, who now have no qualms about attacking him directly and flatly asserting that his Iraq war is lost.
Some of them have also been willing to invoke the I-word — joining a large number of Americans. Several polls taken in the last two years have shown that large numbers of Americans support impeachment. An Angus Reid poll taken in May 2007 found that a remarkable 39 percent of Americans favored the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. An earlier poll, framed in a more hypothetical way, found that 50 percent of Americans supported impeaching Bush if he lied about the war — which most of that 50 percent presumably now believe he did. Vermont has gone on record in calling for his impeachment, and a number of cities, including Detroit and San Francisco, have passed impeachment resolutions. Reps. John Murtha and John Conyers and a few other politicians have floated the idea. And there is a significant grassroots movement to impeach Bush, spearheaded by organizations like After Downing Street. Even some Republicans, outraged by Bush’s failure to uphold right-wing positions (his immigration policy, in particular), have begun muttering about impeachment.
Bush’s unpopularity is mostly a result of Iraq, which most Americans now believe was a colossal mistake and a war we cannot win. But his problems go far beyond Iraq. His administration has been dogged by one massive scandal after the other, from the Katrina debacle, to Bush’s approval of illegal wiretapping and torture, to his unparalleled use of “signing statements” to disobey laws he disagrees with, to the outrageous Gonzales and U.S. attorneys affair.
In response to these outrages, a growing literature of pro-impeachment books, from “The Case for Impeachment” by Dave Lindorff and Barbara Olshansky to “The Impeachment of George W. Bush” by Elizabeth Holtzman to “U.S. v. Bush” by Elizabeth de la Vega, argue not only that Bush’s misdeeds are clearly impeachable, but also that a failure to impeach a rogue president bent on amassing unprecedented power will threaten our most cherished traditions. As Lindorff and Olshansky conclude, “If we fail to stand up for the Constitution now, it may be only a piece of paper by the end of President Bush’s second term. Then it will be time to be afraid.”
Yet the public’s dislike of Bush has not translated into any real move to get rid of him. The impeach-Bush movement has not really taken off yet, and barring some unforeseen dramatic development, it seems unlikely that it will. Even if there were a mass popular movement to impeach Bush, it’s far from clear that Congress, which alone has the power to initiate impeachment proceedings, would do anything. The Democratic congressional majority has been at best lukewarm to the idea. In any case, their constituents have not demanded it forcefully or in such numbers that politicians feel they must respond. Democrats, and for that matter Americans of all political persuasions, seem content to watch Bush slowly bleed to death.
Why? Why was Clinton, who was never as unpopular as Bush, impeached for lying about sex, while Bush faces no sanction for the far more serious offense of lying about war?
The main reason is obvious: The Democrats think it’s bad politics. Bush is dying politically and taking the GOP down with him, and impeachment is risky. It could, so the cautious Beltway wisdom has it, provoke a backlash, especially while the war is still going on. Why should the Democrats gamble on hitting the political jackpot when they’re likely to walk away from the table big winners anyway?
These realpolitik considerations might be sufficient by themselves to prevent Congress from impeaching Bush. Impeachment is a strange phenomenon — a murky combination of the legal, the political and the emotional. The Constitution offers no explicit guidance on what constitutes an impeachable offense, stating only that a president can be impeached and, if convicted, removed from office for treason, bribery “or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” As a result, politicians contemplating impeachment take their cues from a number of disparate factors — not just a president’s misdeeds, but a cost-benefit analysis. And Congress tends to follow the cost-benefit analysis. If you’re going to kill the king, you have to make sure you succeed — and there’s just enough doubt in Democrats’ minds to keep their swords sheathed.
But there’s a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off — and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush’s warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America’s support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It’s a national myth. It’s John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness — come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we’re not ready to do that.
The truth is that Bush’s high crimes and misdemeanors, far from being too small, are too great. What has saved Bush is the fact that his lies were, literally, a matter of life and death. They were about war. And they were sanctified by 9/11. Bush tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity, which Congress and the media went along with for a long time and which has remained largely unexamined to this day. Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves. This doesn’t mean we support Bush, simply that at some dim, half-conscious level we’re too confused — not least by our own complicity — to work up the cold, final anger we’d need to go through impeachment. We haven’t done the necessary work to separate ourselves from our abusive spouse. We need therapy — not to save this disastrous marriage, but to end it.
At first glance it seems odd that Bush’s fraudulent case for war has saved him. War is the most serious action a nation can undertake, and lying to Congress and the American people about the need for war is arguably the most serious offense a public official can commit, short of treason. But the unique gravity of war surrounds it with a kind of patriotic force field. There is an ancient human deference to The Strong Man Who Will Defend Us, an atavistic surrender to authority that goes back through Milosevic, to Henry V, to Beowulf and the ring givers, and ultimately to Cro-Magnon tribesmen huddled around the campfire at the feet of the biggest, strongest warrior. Even when it is unequivocally shown that a leader lied about war, as is the case with Bush, he or she is still protected by this aura. Going to war is the best thing a rogue president can do. It’s like taking refuge in a church: No one can come and get you there. There’s a reason Bush kept repeating, “I’m a war president. I’m a war president.” It worked, literally, like a charm.
And many of the American people shared Bush’s views. A large percentage of the American people, and their elected representatives, accepted Bush’s unlimited authority to do whatever he wanted in the name of “national security.” And they reaffirmed this acceptance when, long after his fraudulent case for war had been exposed as such, they reelected him. Lindorff and Olshansky quote former Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, who justifies his opposition to impeachment by saying, “Bush obviously lied to the country and the Congress about the war, but we have a system of elections in this country. Everyone knew about the lying before the 2004 elections, and they didn’t do anything about it … Bush got elected. The horse is out of the barn now.”
To be sure, the war card works better under some circumstances than others. It is arguable that if there had been no 9/11, Bush’s fraudulent case for war really would have resulted in his impeachment — though this is far from certain. But 9/11 did happen, and as a result, large numbers of Americans did not just give Bush carte blanche but actively wanted him to attack someone. They were driven not by policy concerns but by primordial retribution, reflexive and self-righteous rage. And it wasn’t just the masses who were calling for the United States to reach out and smash someone. Pundits like Henry Kissinger and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also called for America to attack the Arab world. Kissinger, according to Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial,” said that “we need to humiliate them”; Friedman said we needed to “go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something.” As Friedman’s statement indicates, who we smashed was basically unimportant. Friedman and Kissinger argued that attacking the Arab world would serve as a deterrent, but that was a detail. For many Americans, who Bush attacked or the reasons he gave, didn’t matter — what mattered was that we were fighting back.
To this day, the primitive feeling that in response to 9/11 we had to hit hard at “the enemy,” whoever that might be, is a sacred cow. America’s deference to the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach is profound: It’s the gut belief that still drives Bush supporters and leads them to regard war critics as contemptible appeasers. This is why Bush endlessly repeats his mantra “We’re staying on the attack.”
The unpleasant truth is that Bush did what a lot of Americans wanted him to. And when it became clear after the fact that Bush had lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, it made no sense for those Americans to turn on him. Truth was never their major concern anyway — revenge was. And if we took revenge on the wrong person, well, better a misplaced revenge than none at all.
For those who did not completely succumb to the desire for primitive vengeance but were convinced by Bush’s fraudulent arguments about the threat posed by Saddam, the situation is more ambiguous. Now that his arguments have been exposed and the war has become a disaster, they feel let down, even betrayed — but not enough to motivate them to call for Bush’s impeachment. This is because they cannot exorcise the still-mainstream view that Bush’s lies were justifiable and even noble, Straussian untruths told in support of what Bush believed to be a good cause. According to this line of thinking, since Bush and his neocon brain trust really believed that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous tyrant, the lies they told in whipping up support for war were, while reprehensible, somewhat forgivable.
In Elizabeth de la Vega’s book on impeachment, framed as a fictitious indictment of Bush for conspiring to defraud the United States, she argues that from a legal standpoint it doesn’t matter that Bush may have believed his lies were in the service of a higher good — he’s still guilty of fraud. In a brilliant stroke, de la Vega compares the Bush administration’s lies to those told by Enron executives — who were, of course, rightfully convicted.
The problem is that the American people are not judging Bush by the standards of law. The Bush years have further weakened America’s once-proud status as a nation of laws, not of men. The law, for Bush, is like language for Humpty Dumpty: it means just what he chooses it to mean, neither more nor less. This attitude has become disturbingly widespread — which may explain why Bush’s illegal wiretapping, his approval of torture, and his administration’s partisan purge of U.S. district attorneys have not resulted in wider outrage.
This society-wide diminution of respect for law has helped Bush immeasurably. It is not just the law that America has turned away from, but what the law stands for — accountability, memory, history and logic itself. That anonymous senior Bush advisor who spoke with surreal condescension of “the reality-based community” may have summed up our cultural moment more acutely than anyone else in years. A society without memory, driven by ephemeral emotions, which demands no consistency from its leaders but only gusty patriotism, is a society that is not about to engage in the painful self-examination that impeachment would mean.
A corollary to the decline of logic is our acceptance of the universality of spin. It no longer seems odd to us that a president should lie to get what he wants. In this regard, Bush, the most sanctimonious of presidents, must be seen as having degraded traditional American values more than the most relativist, Nietzsche-spouting postmodernist.
All of these factors — the sacrosanct status of war, the public’s complicity in an irrational demonstration of raw power, the loss of respect for law, logic and memory, the bland acceptance of spin and lies, the public unconcern about the fraudulence of Bush’s actions — have created a situation in which it is widely accepted that Bush’s lies about Iraq were not impeachable or even that scandalous, but merely a matter of policy. Just as conservatives lamely charged that the Scooter Libby case represented the “criminalization of politics,” so the conventional wisdom holds that distorting evidence to justify a war may be slightly reprehensible, but is not worth making much of a fuss about, and is certainly not impeachable.
The establishment media, which has tended to treat impeachment talk as if it were the unseemly rantings of half-crazed hordes, has clearly bought this paradigm. In this view, those who want to impeach Bush, or who are simply vehemently critical of him, are partisan extremists outside the mainstream of American discourse. This decorous approach has begun to weaken. A recent U.S. News and World Report cover read, “Bush’s last stand: He’s plagued by a hostile Congress, sinking polls, and an unending war. Is he resolute or delusional?” When centrist newsweeklies begin using words drawn from psychiatric manuals, it may be time for Karl Rove to get worried. But it takes time to turn the Titanic. The years of deference to the War Leader cannot be overcome that quickly.
For all these reasons, impeachment, however justified or salutary it would be — and I believe it would be both justified and salutary — remains a long shot. Bush will probably escape the fate of Andrew Johnson and the disgrace of Richard Nixon. But he’s not home free yet. The culture of spin is also the culture of spectacle, and a sudden, theatrical event — a lurid accusation made by a former official, a colorful revelation of a very specific and memorable Bush lie — could start the scandal machine going full speed. Even the war card cannot be played indefinitely. If Bush were to withdraw the troops from Iraq, and the full dimensions of America’s defeat were to become apparent, all of his war-president potency would backfire and he would be in much greater danger of being impeached. Congress and the media both gain courage as the polls sink, and if Bush’s numbers continue to hit historic lows, they will turn on him with increasing savagery. If everything happens just so, the downfall of the House of Bush could be shocking in its swiftness.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer. More Gary Kamiya.
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