Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Miserable Failures

Terrorism For Dummies
Terrorism for Dummies (click)

When George W. Bush made his campaign appearance at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth on September 10, 2004, I was one of those peacefully demonstrating on campus against his administration and his policies. I held up a hand-lettered sign that read: BUSH: A MISERABLE FAILURE.

I was quoting a phrase Dick Gephardt had used to describe Bush's career. Referring to that phrase in The Atlantic Monthly, Jack Beatty had written, With one phrase Dick Gephardt has defined the issue to be decided next November. Can a ‘miserable failure’ of a president win re-election? Bush's victory would testify to a civic failure more dangerous to the American future than any policies implemented or continued during a second Bush term. A majority would have demonstrated that democratic accountability is finished. That you can fail in everything and still be re-elected president.”

I and the other demonstrators had been corralled on a traffic island at the entrance of the university, surrounded by yellow police tape, as if we were at the scene of a crime or accident. As we would learn, we were being quarantined, so the dissent we represented could be confined and insulated from the president. We were not going to be allowed to pop Bush’s bubble. Most vehicular traffic coming from the north, down Chillicothe St., would have passed our traffic island to enter the university, so we were under the illusion that the Bush bus entourage would have to pass us and possibly see our signs. We were na├»ve enough to think we were being given a chance to be seen, however fleetingly, by the President and his entourage. But those who planned Bush’s visit had directed his entourage to take a sharp right turn, instead of arriving at the university by the front door, they entered by the back, avoiding us demonstrators. His entourage drove to the university along Front St., where he could catch a glimpse of the murals. He was given a picture postcard view of Portsmouth’s past instead of having to look at the angry realities of America’s present. Bush had campaigned in 2000 as a unifier , not a divider, but he had polarized the nation like no one since Richard Nixon. As a unifier, at least, he was a miserable failure.

Through the efforts of an electronic prankster, George Johnson, who wanted to break through the Bush Bubble, web surfers who Googled the phrase “miserable failure” were directed to Bush’s official biography on the White House website. With Karl Rove at the wheel, the sharp right turns the Bush administration had been taking ever since 2000, had alarmed and angered many Americans. Bush handlers could maneuver the president away from demonstrators in Portsmouth, but electronically, out on the internet highway, “miserable failure” led directly to the White House. The name George Bush had become synonymous on the internet with miserable failure.

Keeping protestors out of sight, squelching or Swiftboating opponents and critics – this was standard operating procedure for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign and an integral part of what came to be known as Bush’s “Bubble Presidency.” Bush became the Bubble Boy. As he was in Portsmouth on Sept. 10, 2004, Bush has been carefully shielded from political reality, has been allowed to persist in a catastrophic foreign policy, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of lives, hundreds of billions of dollars, and precious opportunities to deal with America’s real enemies. From Social Security reform to Medicare, from FEMA to domestic wiretapping, Bush’s domestic policies have for the most part been dismal failures. If people were justified in the fall of 2004 talking about Bush as a miserable failure in his first term, what can we possible say, what adjective will be equal to the challenge of adequately describing his performance, foreign and domestic, in the sixteen months since then? “Miserable” no longer seems equal to the task. “Horrendous” would now be more appropriate.

In the 2004 campaign, Bush avoided visits to large universities, even avoiding the University of Texas, where the demonstrators would have protested in such large numbers that they would have burst any bubble his handlers tried to blow. They could not have corralled Texas students behind yellow police tape on a small traffic island. Bush campaigned instead at religious and military schools and on smaller universities in conservative areas, like southern Ohio. But because of Bush’s miserable failures, southern Ohio was no longer as conservative as it had once been, which was why a bubble was necessary even in Portsmouth.

From the transcript of Bush’s rally inside the Shawnee gymnasium, I can begin to get a sense of what it was like inside the Portsmouth bubble: a crowd of conservative, carefully screened Fox News junkies, a few prescreened, prescripted softball questioners, and a few Democratic turncoats, or “discerning Democrats,” as Bush called them in his Portsmouth speech. “I know this part of the world is like parts of Georgia and like parts of Texas,” Bush said, “where there's a lot of what we call discerning Democrats who – with whom we share a lot.”

Zell Miller: Working Both Sides of the Street

A “discerning Democrat” was with Bush at the rally at SSU, namely 72-year-old Senator Zell Miller, of Georgia, an experienced political prostitute for both political parties. In a speech at the Democratic national convention in Madison Square Garden that had nominated Bill Clinton twelve years earlier, Miller had given a rousing yellow-dog Democrat speech in favor of the Man from Hope, as Clinton had been packaged by his handlers. Miller had not settled for just praising Clinton, he had belittled President Bush’s father as “a timid man who hears only the voices of caution and the status quo” and a “commander-in-chief [who] talks like Dirty Harry but acts like Barney Fife.” Miller had not only questioned the senior Bush’s politics; he questioned his manhood. That was at Madison Garden, back in 1992.

Miller had been out of office when he was appointed to the unexpired term of Georgia’s Senate Republican in 2000, and he showed his gratefulness to Republicans by becoming as Zell-ous a Bush supporter as anyone in Bush’s rightwing base.

In the same Madison Square Garden on Sept. 1, 2004, working the other side of the street, Miller was the keynote speaker at the Republican Convention. Just as he had in 1992 questioned the manhood of the senior Bush, who had been a fighter pilot in the Second World War, Miller impugned the patriotism and manhood of John Kerry, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. Miller’s attack on Kerry was so stupid and vicious that it produced an immediate backlash in the media, forcing Bush’s brain, Karl Rove, to keep Miller away from Bush for the rest of convention. Rove was only too happy for others to do the President’s dirty work, and swiftboat the Democratic candidate, but he did not want those accusing Vietnam veteran Kerry of cowardice to get close to the President and Vice President, lest people be reminded of Bush and Cheney’s aversion for combat in Vietnam. The president and vice president wanted no part, thank you, of shooting anything larger or more threatening than an endangered species of bird or wing-clipped quail. A ranch in Texas, not a rice paddy in Vietnam, was where they preferred to prove their marksmanship.

So Miller did not sit in the presidential box at the Republican Convention at Madison Square Garden, reportedly because the president and the first lady were somewhat embarrassed by his attack on Kerry. “GOP backs away from Miller’s blast,” was the headline of an MSNBC report. “After gauging the harsh reaction from Democrats and Republicans alike to Sen. Zell Miller’s keynote address at the Republican National Convention, the Bush campaign — led by the first lady — backed away Thursday from Miller’s savage attack on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, insisting that the estranged Democrat was speaking only for himself.”

That was the Rove spin on things in the first week of Sept. But in Portsmouth, on Sept. 10, the traitorous Miller was the lionized political hero of Bush’s entourage. Bush flattered the “discerning Democrat” and praised him for the speech he had given at the Madison Square Garden convention. “And Zell gave a heck of a speech the other night, too,” Bush told the Portsmouth faithful.

Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican with insecurities about his cajones, liked to carry a big stick and travel to Africa to shoot big game. By contrast, Republicans leaders today who need to prove their manhood go to Texas to shoot small birds bred and clipped for just that purpose, and strut around in hunting clothes and flight jackets talking tough, “bring ‘em on,” and declaring missions, in which they had not fought, accomplished.

Success is counted sweetest
By those who never succeed.

There was at least one other Democrat at the Portsmouth rally, the mayor of Portsmouth, Jim Kalb. “I want to thank the mayor, Jim Kalb, for being here,” the president said. “Mr. Mayor, I'm honored you're here. Appreciate you taking time.” Whether he was a “discerning Democrat” and whether he ended up voting for Bush only Kalb knows for sure. But like Zell Miller, Jim Kalb is a politician who knows how to work both sides of the street. He has the support of the corrupt Republicans who control Portsmouth economically and he has the support of unions and the Democratic Party. Ted Strickland, the Democratic candidate for governor, swore Kalb into office.

Kalb became mayor of Portsmouth as a result of a recall election for which he got the ball rolling. Kalb turned over to the police chief, Charles Horner, evidence that the former Republican mayor, Greg Bauer, a failed businessman, had been engaging in criminal actions in connection with the city’s purchase of an empty old department store for $2 million. President of the Portsmouth City Council at the time, Kalb would automatically become mayor if Bauer was recalled. Police chief Horner also had a stake in Bauer’s recall, because Bauer was reportedly about to fire him because of his own shenanigans. Portsmouth has a serious drug problem, and the chief’s son David, an addicted drug dealer, was reportedly shown preferential treatment, including having his drug convictions expunged from court records. The chief was also accused by the Shawnee Sentinel of creating a personal bank account out of money obtained in drug busts.

Unfortunately, when some people who are much more ambitious than they are talented reach the end of their rope, when their failures in the real world finally convince them they can’t make it any other place, they go into politics. This was the case not only with George Bush, whose failures in the oil business and baseball preceded his failures in politics, but also with Kalb, who had gone about as far as he was going to go at the local Kroger’s supermarket, where in an example of the Peter Principle, he rose to be manager of one of the departments, a glorified "shelf-stocker" the Sentinel called him, but he rose no higher, apparently lacking the native intelligence, education, and executive ability to be a Kroger manager. To rework an aphorism attributed to George Bernard Shaw, “Those who can, become managers at Kroger’s; those who can’t, become mayors of Portsmouth.”

As a result of Kalb turning him in, Mayor Bauer was recalled from office, but neither he nor anyone else in city government was ever indicted for crimes in connection with the department store. It was only a game of musical chairs. Once in office Kalb became as enthusiastic a supporter of the purchase of the 100-year-old department store and its conversion into a “new” city hall, as Bauer had been.

Just as President Bush Kalb turned out to be America’s miserable failure, Kalb has turned out to be Portsmouth’s. Like Bush, the best thing Kalb likes about his job is the vacations. He also engages in bizarre personal feuds on Moe’s Forum, a local internet chat room, and behaves strangely at times in public, as I observed on one occasion when he and his wife Allison invited themselves to a meeting of his critics. Kalb has accused the councilman Bob Mollette of being a pawn in the hands of Teresa, his wife, who is an outspoken Kalb critic. Mollette isn’t a real man, the same charge Zell Miller had made against Bush Sr. and against Kerry. The irony of this charge is that Kalb does not do anything without first checking with his wife, who is to the mayor of Portsmouth what Karl Rove is to the president of the United States. If Rove is George Bush’s brain, she is Jim Kalb’s.

When Portsmouth’s mayor and first lady had been seen driving in a city car to buy Powerball tickets in Kentucky, she reportedly began putting a spin on it when they got back to Portsmouth. What did she tell people they had been doing before they made their excursion to Kentucky? They had been visiting the display of hundreds of American flags in Tracy Park, across the street from Kroger’s. It was a spin worthy of Karl Rove. How could they be doing anything wrong if they had just previously been honoring the nation's most sacred image and those who had died in defense of it? If politics is the first refuge of miserable failures, patriotism is the last.