Nov. 22 marked the much commemorated 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. "For of those to whom much is given, much is required," he famously remarked in 1961. It was his idea not only of the citizen's relationship to the nation, but of the United States' obligation in the world. But George W. Bush has changed the maxim, at least in regard to Britain: For of those of whom much is required, nothing is given.
In London, in the days before the anniversary, Bush stood before a scrim reading "United Kingdom." The words, endlessly reproduced, were not there for the benefit of his hosts, who presumably knew where they were, but as a subliminal backdrop for possible TV commercials to be used in the Bush-Cheney campaign to prove his diplomatic mastery by virtue of traveling to another land. The British visit was Bush's latest variation on his landing on the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier, attired in flight costume, banner unfurled behind him reading: "Mission Accomplished." From Buckingham Palace to Tony Blair's working-class district of Sedgefield, the "United Kingdom" became his campaign theme park.
In his Nov. 18 speech at Banqueting Hall (avoiding an appearance before Parliament where backbenchers might make rude noises), Bush freely displayed his erudition, citing Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, Tyndale and Wesley, to cast himself as a liberal idealist and internationalist in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson. "We're sometimes faulted for a naive faith that liberty can change the world," he said. "If that's an error, it began with reading too much John Locke and Adam Smith." One wonders how often Bush has perused the "Second Treatise of Civil Government." Certainly his speech was a repudiation of his father's foreign policy realism: the Oedipal Doctrine.
Putting his volume of Locke aside, Bush entered into negotiations with Blair to act out something more resembling Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan."
Blair had been put into the position of having to appear before the president as petitioner. He asked for relief on U.S. tariffs (Bush had raised them on steel in an election play to steel-producing states, a move earlier rejected by Clinton); for rendering British prisoners at Guantánamo to Britain; and for substantive U.S. pressure on the Israel-Palestine peace process. But Blair was rebuffed.
Peter Riddell, in his book "Hug Them Close," writes that out of initial anxiety about representing British interests Blair has grown to see Bush as something of a soul mate. Blair's rhetoric during the visit sounded trumpet notes as though it was still the call to the war in Iraq and the postwar realities had not intruded. Riddell reports that Blair in retrospect regards Bush's predecessor as "weird." That fact or factoid, true or not, may be interpreted as perhaps another gesture of ingratiation, as demeaning Clinton is always deeply appreciated by Bush.
I recall being present at meetings between Blair and Clinton where, in about 10 minutes, apparently difficult problems, including over trade, were easily resolved to Britain's advantage. How weird was that?
Now Blair has equated the long-term interests aligning the U.S. and the U.K. with adamantine support for the short-term strategies of the Bush administration. Yet the tighter the embrace, the weaker the influence.
As Blair rightly insists, the U.S. is the world's most powerful democracy and sets an example for the rest of the West. The rise of the social welfare state in Britain followed the New Deal; the Labour resurgence of the mid-1960s followed the New Frontier and the Great Society. Conversely, Margaret Thatcher followed the conservative reaction of Richard Nixon and then became the partner for Ronald Reagan. Clinton was the trailblazer for Blair and New Labour. Now, America under Bush has taken a radical swerve toward authoritarian conservatism, creating an international undertow. Will Britain have a special exemption?
Wearing the laurels of his London triumph, Bush returned to Washington to roll back one of John F. Kennedy's great social initiatives and challenge the patriotism of Democrats.
Bush's draconian bill deranging Medicare (or public health care for the elderly) is the most significant attack on the social compact since the New Deal. It will drop about one-quarter of workers from their coverage for prescription drugs; 6 million elderly will lose coverage; another 3.8 million will have it reduced or eliminated; the whole $400 billion program will be financed by regressive taxation in contrast to the current untaxed entitlement; and $125 billion will flow directly into the coffers of the private healthcare industry and pharmaceutical companies, who are major Bush campaign donors. Such is Bush's tribute to Kennedy. Meanwhile, Karl Rove, Bush's senior political aide, announced that "reform" of Social Security, foundation stone of the New Deal, is the next target.
While Republicans kept Democratic leaders out of the Senate conference committee, in violation of all precedent, to ram the bill through, the Republican National Committee began running an advertisement on TV. "Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists," intoned the voiceover. But no Democrat was doing that. Bush himself appeared: "Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent," he said. But it was Bush who pointedly ignored intelligence to make the case that "the threat is imminent" in Iraq. Then, the voiceover: "Some call for us to retreat, putting our national security in the hands of others." But it was Bush who was planning troop reductions during the election year. Who were the "others"? The United Nations? He could not have been referring to Blair, who pays any price, bears any burden.