I already miss the straight talk of 2001.
When the subject was Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, President Bush and his hard-nosed posse couldn't have been more forthright. There was no sugarcoated spinning or pantywaisted parsing of words. They told it like it was: "Lives will be lost" and "Anyone who thinks you can have an antiseptic war is wrong."
But now that Enron has bombed Tora Bora off the front pages, their language has gone all mushy. Team Bush is suddenly working from the Bill Clinton playbook on equivocation.
And the president is leading the pack. Kenneth Lay is no longer "Kenny Boy," the man behind a half-million dollars in Bush donations, who slept at the White House when George I was in office, and has boasted of spending "quality time with George W." Now he is dismissed by the president as merely "a supporter" -- just some guy wearing a Bush button at the Inaugural, to which, as it happens, he and his company donated $300,000. As it also happens, the president's parents had arrived courtesy of Enron's corporate jet.
The president was particularly Clintonesque when a reporter asked him when he had last spoken to Lay. Choosing his words carefully, Bush responded that he last "saw" Lay in the spring in Houston, at a fundraiser for literacy sponsored by his mother. Was this also the last time they spoke? Or does it all depend on what the meaning of "spoke" is?
Not surprisingly, all the president's men are dutifully playing follow the leader.
Chief among them is Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who has shown such a proclivity for verbal gymnastics that any day now we should be getting word that the president has transferred him from Commerce to the Ministry of Propaganda. Witness the Texas two-step Evans performed recently on CNBC. Asked about a phone call he had received from Lay seeking help in preventing the downgrading of Enron's bonds to "junk" status, Evans stressed that at no point did Lay ask him to call anyone on Enron's behalf. Instead, according to Evans, Lay said: "If there's any kind of support you could give us, we would welcome that." Oh, I see. That is different.
It's the kind of linguistic hairsplitting that would do Tony Soprano proud: "I'm not asking you to whack the guy, but if he should somehow turn up dead, we wouldn't be displeased."
But Evans really hit his obfuscating stride this past Sunday on "Meet the Press." No matter how many different ways Tim Russert tried to pin him down on the multitude of connections between Enron and the Bush administration, Evans always managed to dance around the question. He was the Fred Astaire of evasiveness. He tap-danced, did a time step, and spun like a top.
When pressed about the massive amounts of money Lay and Enron had contributed to the president, Evans, Bush's former campaign manager, launched into a long, rambling non-answer in which he claimed that whenever he asked people for a donation, he always let them know that there would be no quid pro quo: "For this contribution," he would tell them, "you're going to get good government; you're going to get a president that has a great mind, a big heart and an extraordinary leader this whole world can trust. And if you're looking for anything else, you got the wrong candidate." Evans failed to mention whether the big-buck contributors he said this to waited until he was finished with his spiel before they burst out laughing.
By the time Evans was finished, it was all I could do to keep from shouting at the TV, making like Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men": "Come on, Mr. Secretary, we can handle the truth!"
Meanwhile, over on "This Week," Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill couldn't, for the life of him, understand what all the fuss was about. He shrugged off the fact that Lay had called him sniffing around for help, and acted like he got such calls -- at home, on a Sunday, from a major contributor whose gargantuan company was about to go under -- all the time. O'Neill added that he never informed the president about these calls because "I'm a big boy. I've got responsibility, and I'm not going to spend endless hours running across the street to tell the president about phone calls."
He must think we're morons.
Watching these guys was driving me nuts. I couldn't help but think: There's got to be a better way to get to the truth. But what?
The answer came to me like a sleazy bolt out of the blue later that night when I happened across the premiere of "The Chamber," Fox's new game show. Contestants are strapped inside a high-tech torture chamber and must answer a barrage of rapid-fire questions while being subjected to "distractions" such as 150-degree heat, earthquake-level vibrations, hurricane force winds and intermittent zaps of electricity. Imagine "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" with Regis replaced by the Marquis de Sade.
It was a loathsome display. The contestant I saw, a massage therapist named Christina, was obviously in pain as she was tossed about, flames licking at her legs, electronic muscle contractors grabbing at her back. At one point, she cried out: "That hurts like hell!" That's entertainment? It reminded me of nothing so much as how the Taliban tried to turn public executions into outings that are fun for the whole family.
My first instinct was to mount a letter-writing campaign to get this garbage yanked from the air. Then it hit me: The show didn't need to be canceled. It just needed to be retooled -- its sicker-than-thou concept put to a higher calling.
Why not move the show to Sunday morning and put our political leaders on "The Chamber," forcing them to answer not silly game-show questions but questions vital to our democracy?
Can't you picture Don Evans or Paul O'Neill strapped into that wildly undulating chair, blasts of scorching wind pelting their face, fire singeing the hair on their legs, sweat dripping off their brows as the temperature soars past Death Valley levels, all while being peppered with pointed questions and knowing that they must answer forthrightly or be subjected to ever greater torments? Cokie Roberts could host, in a leather corset and a riding crop:
Cokie: "Secretary Evans, true or false: Big money has turned Washington into an ethical sewer?"
Evans: "Absolutely false, Cokie."
[Excruciating screams are heard as Evans is zapped and the chamber's flames roar higher.]
Evans: "My butt is on fire! Oh, dear God, yes! Yes, of course, it's true! Money buys access, and access buys influence. Our whole system is nothing but a corrupt cesspool of legalized bribery!"
Now that would be a show worth watching.