The Bush nostalgia of Rahm and the Beltway

The Washington script was re-written to feign disgust with Bush while still yearning for his core policies

Published February 21, 2010 10:22AM (EST)

When President Obama's approval ratings were still very high, we were regularly bombarded with sycophantic profiles of Rahm Emanuel that touted his vast power in the West Wing ("arguably the second most powerful man in the country," the New York Times declared last January; "perhaps the most influential White House chief of staff in a generation" with "prominence in almost everything important going on in Washington," gushed the same paper last August).  But now that Obama faces serious political difficulties, and the health care debacle and his confused Terrorism approach continue to weigh him down, we are treated to the exact opposite storyline:  Obama's woes are caused by his following the advice of others rather than that of his poor, ignored, powerless Chief of Staff. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank dutifully read from this Rahm-protecting (and Rahm-authored) script in his column yesterday, and in doing so, voices (as he always does) conventional Beltway wisdom masquerading as quirky contrarianism:

Let us now praise Rahm Emanuel. . . . Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters. . . .

The president would have been better off heeding Emanuel's counsel. For example, Emanuel bitterly opposed former White House counsel Greg Craig's effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year, arguing that it wasn't politically feasible. Obama overruled Emanuel, the deadline wasn't met, and Republicans pounced on the president and the Democrats for trying to bring terrorists to U.S. prisons. Likewise, Emanuel fought fiercely against Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to send Khalid Sheik Mohammed to New York for a trial. Emanuel lost, and the result was another political fiasco.

The same person hailed in the NYT last August as "the principal author of Mr. Obama’s do-everything-at-once strategy" has now been transformed in Milbank's column to someone who has been unsuccessfully urging Obama to pursue a less ambitious course and a less sweeping (and "liberal") health care policy.  Emanuel has also been making it known that he vehemently opposed Obama's release of the OLC torture memos, arguing that the administration should have kept them suppressed.  In other words, according to Milbank's Beltway mind, Obama's failure is that he should follow Rahm's instructions to embrace Bush's defining policies (Guantanamo, military commissions, lawbreaking-shielding secrecy) even more so than Obama has already been doing.

Beltway journalists are nothing if not wet-finger-in-the-air sycophants.  What they most revere and most eagerly serve is political power, those who are successful manipulators of the political game (which is why NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen describes them as "the Church of the Savvy").  That's why they revered Karl Rove and why they do Emanuel's bidding:  those are the ultimate political manipulators, the High Priests of Savviness (the prayerful language which begins Milbank's column -- "Let us now praise Rahm Emanuel" -- is illustrative).

When George Bush and Dick Cheney left office as two of the most despised American political figures of the last century -- and Barack Obama was hailed as the new, shiny, popular wielder of power -- the Beltway media parroted the sentiment.  Until recently, when Obama became weakened and conservatives appeared rejuvenated, Beltway media treatment of the new President was largely deferential, while the Bush/Cheney era was treated as an embarrassing, "American-values"-violating disgrace to be stuffed away in the attic and forgotten entirely (Look to the Future, Not the Past!).  The Democrats were now in power and their opponents were rejected, and thus the dominant Beltway mindset was (as always) to praise and serve the new King and his court while feigning opposition to the deposed.  The ethos had shifted, and therefore, so did the words issuing from Beltway mouths.  The same media that spent years hailing Bush officials as the Serious, Strong Adult Leaders and mocking Democrats as hapless losers simply reversed the script, to dutifully fulfill their central role as spokespeople-servants to those who wield political power.

But the reality was the opposite:  the same Beltway media that cheered on those Bush/Cheney "values-violating" policies while they were being implemented still believe in those policies and yearn for them.  That's why it's possible to open the The Washington Post and see that Rahm Emanuel is openly boasting to his stenographers that he has been counseling adherence to those policies and to read Beltway mavens like Milbank now insist that Obama must stop deviating from the Bush/Cheney template.  The Washington media script was (at least temporarily) re-written as of January 20, 2009, but their belief system -- which cheered on and enabled the horror show of the prior eight years -- most certainly did not.  To placate an angry public and to serve their new Washington rulers, they pretended to find Bush and Cheney ever so distasteful, all while continuing to love and insist upon the very policies that defined them.

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To be honest, I've been having a bit of a difficult time getting myself to write about the DOJ whitewash, which predictably rejected the finding by the Office of Professional Responsibility that John Yoo and Jay Bybee violated their ethical duties when they authored their torture memos.  After all, what is less surprising than having politically powerful criminals shielded from accountability and seeing, yet again, that the central tenet of American justice is that the rule of law does not apply the politically powerful (Look Forward, not Backward!!)?  Reading through the voluminous documents that were released, I will certainly have several specific points to make about them.  But in the meantime, it's not possible that anything better will be written about this episode than this perfect and scathing analysis from Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin.  It says everything that needs to be said and I can't recommend it highly enough (and on the pervasive myth that political officials are immune from prosecution as long as they can find DOJ minions to write memos authorizing their criminal conduct, see this analysis from DCLaw1).

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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