Distortion of things past

Avoiding any mention of domestic issues, convention speakers instead rewrite history, and seal the demise of the Republican Party's moderate wing.

By Sidney Blumenthal
Published August 31, 2004 4:05PM (EDT)

On the first day of the Republican Convention not one speaker mentioned a domestic issue -- not education, healthcare or the economy. Delegates were summoned back to another country, a past that began on 9/11. It was a moment crystallizing enduring national unity that saw the emergence of a president whose strategy against terrorism required an invasion of Iraq. Anyone who believed other than the patriotic consensus wrought by the moral clarity of the president was being misled by documentary filmmaker and prankster Michael Moore.

The remembrance of things past was evoked by the two most erratic partisan Republicans, now recasting themselves as the ultimate loyalists perhaps because both still harbor wild and quixotic ambitions to become president themselves. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain are outriders from the entire Bush social agenda, but neither is representative of the evanescent moderate wing of the party, "a dying breed," as a retiring moderate Republican congressman lamented Monday.

In the afternoon, a radical conservative platform against stem cell research, abortion rights and gay rights was approved by the convention without a murmur of dissent. Once, the moderates of the Northeast repelled right-wing insurgencies, sending them back into their dark woods to nurse their resentments. In 1960, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller compelled presidential nominee Richard Nixon to accept his provisions for the platform, an agreement called the Treaty of Fifth Avenue, long recalled with bitterness by conservatives as evidence of pragmatic betrayal. Under Bush, the first Southern conservative American president (since Jefferson Davis), the moderates are a nonentity, and the appearance of Giuliani and McCain was testament to the decline of this historical wing of the party. The moderate remnants that filled appointments in the Bush administration -- former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as Environmental Protection Agency administrator and corporate executive Paul O'Neill as secretary of the treasury -- have left in disillusionment, and Secretary of State Colin Powell has become the invisible man. While the true powers of the party, like House Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, are like hidden imams in New York, Giuliani and McCain assumed the stage.

Giuliani's political reputation was rescued by his steady public performance on 9/11 and an unexpected favor from Bush. In the jungle of New York politics, he had made a world of enemies, plotting ceaselessly against virtually every other Republican. Beyond the Hudson, he was a pariah. When he dropped out of the race for Senate in 2000 with operatic flourish after publicly jettisoning his second wife and parading his girlfriend before photographers, he was already doomed in the polls against Hillary Rodham Clinton. But when the planes struck the World Trade Center towers, he became a national beacon of reassurance, in large part because President Bush was not to be seen for days. Giuliani's ascension in the crisis rested on Bush's absence.

Now he came to praise Bush's steadfastness. "Let us write our own history," said Giuliani. Bush was retooled as no less than the reincarnation of Winston Churchill, who "saw the dangers of Hitler while his opponents characterized him as a warmongering gadfly." The Bush who ignored his President's Daily Brief from the CIA of Aug. 6, 2001, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside U.S.," a memo described by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as "speculative" and containing only "historic information," went down the memory hole. Bush was "clear, precise and consistent"; John Kerry, Giuliani reminded his audience 11 times, was not. And, by the way, Saddam Hussein wasn't removed just because of weapons of mass destruction but, in the classic threat conflation of the Bush administration, because he was "a pillar of support for global terrorism" -- despite a key finding of the 9/11 commission that he was not.

McCain, in truth intensely disliked and distrusted by most Republicans, Bush's internal nemesis, standing only for himself, now embraced him, raising a storm of questions. What does McCain want? "Emperor has always appealed to me," he said the day before the convention. One source close to him suggested that he had nursed the idea that Bush might dump Dick Cheney for him. Others wondered whether this was a bizarre case of the Stockholm syndrome.

McCain, too, evoked the spirit of 9/11 past. "We were not two countries. We were Americans." The divisions that have split the country since went unmentioned -- nearly half a million had marched against Bush the day before. Also unmentioned were Osama bin Laden and any reference to the spread of al-Qaida, which now operates from Fallujah and other captured cities within Iraq. In the Iraq war, McCain explained, the choice "was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our political opponents. And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker." In private, McCain confessed to his friend R.W. Apple Jr., of the New York Times, that he found the vicious TV commercials against Kerry produced by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, closely coordinated with the Republican Party, to be "completely nauseating."

"Now there are some who would like to rewrite history -- revisionist historians is what I like to call them," President Bush had remarked last year in an effort to dismiss criticism of his justifications for the Iraq war. In the past few days, however, his explanation has wandered. The turmoil in Iraq was not caused by his strategic blunders, he said, but a consequence of "catastrophic success." Now it is the speed of the military's victory that is at the root of the failures. Shock and awe were not the prelude to Paris 1944. But at the convention it is revisionist history that is on message.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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