President George W. Gore goes to war

Suddenly, the once-macho Bush White House is feeling everybody's pain.

Published October 4, 2001 7:50PM (EDT)

Web sites on the left have been filled with angry mutterings these days about the quiet decision made by an elite news consortium (the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and CNN) to indefinitely delay releasing the results of what will likely be the definitive media recount of Florida's presidential ballots. Does the recount once and for all prove that Al Gore won Florida and is indeed the rightful occupant of the White House? Whatever the tally shows when our media superiors finally deem it appropriate to make public, one thing is certain: Sometime during the last three weeks, the Oval Office was seized by a Democrat.

Gone is the my-way-or-the-highway attitude toward the rest of the world. Suddenly the Bush White House is all ears when it comes to listening to our disgruntled allies and former enemies, from France to China to Pakistan to the Sudan. Multiculturalism is also now the rage, with President Bush (or whoever the flaming liberal impersonating him nowadays is) taking his shoes off to visit mosques and the president's new FBI director publicly appealing for Arabic-fluent recruits. The man who thought his amigo, Mexico President Vicente Fox, was the only foreign leader he had to cultivate has turned overnight into a U.N.-loving one-worlder.

Faced with an economy whose vital signs grow weaker by the day, Bush has also embraced Ted Kennedy's economic stimulus plan, a $60 billion to $75 billion package that includes extensions in unemployment benefits and healthcare and job training subsidies for those out of work. According to the Wall Street Journal, the president's growing love affair with Democratic safety nets and pump priming has left GOP chieftains aghast. "There's a real danger this could get out of control," fumed Trent Lott.

The reason for this sudden passion for bipartisanship, of course, is that Bush needs political unity to fight the war on terrorism. Even on the military front, the Bush team has found it wise to move slowly and methodically, carefully building a global coalition to isolate and destroy the terror network that now seems capable of any extravagant horror. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials have quite rightly expressed growing concern with the looming humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan and have emphasized that a military strike against the bin Laden organization and possibly the Taliban government must be accompanied by a massive relief effort to prevent further human misery in that benighted country. And even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has played down the apocalyptic military scenarios so lusted for by the middle-aged white guys on Fox News. Jetting to the Middle East to rally our sketchy allies there, Rumsfeld told reporters that intelligence, not military firepower, would be the decisive factor in the war against terrorism.

All this deliberation and global hand-holding drives the frothers on the right crazy, of course. The Colonel Blimps harrumph on the news-as-entertainment shows (whose showbiz packaging of the Sept. 11 bloodbath -- "America's New War," "America Responds," "America Under Attack," "America Recovers," "Target: Terrorism" -- is an affront to the dead). Billing himself as a "security expert," one such blowhard, Col. David Hunt, insisted to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that he would not rest until the U.S. had "carpet-bombed" Afghanistan. And pundit Dick Morris, who has made a career as well as an avocation of putting feet in his mouth (his and others'), demanded that Bush stop listening to "the voices of caution -- led by Colin Powell" and put the torch not just to the bin Laden organization, but Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Sudan and (leaping hemispheres) Colombia narco-terrorists. (In his ineffable mercy, Morris seemingly exempted the IRA and its supporters in Dublin and Boston.) "Americans will not tolerate letting any of these regimes remain in power," warned Morris. If Bush did not heed him, he would be turned out of office just like his father. Oh, and while he was at it, Bush II should give the richest Americans another tax gift and slash capital gains.

To his credit, so far Bush has resisted this spectacularly bad advice from his right-wing gallery. He has done so because his defense and foreign policy team (led by Powell) knows there is no way to prosecute a successful military campaign in the Islamic world in the year 2001 without taking an extremely judicious, multilateral approach. And Bush knows that he can't build a wide political coalition at home in support of the war, particularly during the current economic distress, if he's seen to be favoring the rich. Capital gains cuts are not the way to inspire and unite the public (or recharge the economy) in a time of national sacrifice.

So even if the Republicans did rob the Democrats, the man in the White House these days is acting suspiciously liberal. And he seems to be doing what needs to be done. Now if he can stay the course and stand up to Dick Armey the way he is with the Taliban, he will seem even more genuinely presidential.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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Al Gore George W. Bush