June 18, 2001
Does anyone know for sure that George W. Bush has forsaken drugs? He sounds stoned half the time. Either that, or the American president has a tiny transistor implanted in one ear and someone is always telling him what to say. That would explain the halting cadence of his speech, the furious blinking as he strains to hear his next word.
On television news, he looks like an action figure come to life. His movements are stiff, his speech emerges in pre-digested paragraphs, and, like those other pint-sized plastic heroes, he lacks the suppleness and potential to surprise of a real human being. Like an action figure, too, he appears not so much an individual as a symbol of a fixed set of cultural and political values -- an obligation that always discourages innovation.
To anyone looking for signs of intelligent life in the new American presidency there wasn't much hope last week in Europe. Bush behaved less like a curious tourist than an embodiment of Brand America. He was abroad to sell his missile defence system to skeptical Europeans whether they like it or not. In his manner at his brief news conferences, Bush displayed toughness behind a sheen of affability, an intense patriotism that verges on chauvinism and only condescending interest in anyone unlucky enough not to be American.
(He liked Vladimir Putin, however, Russia's coldly correct leader, a former spy boss and bureaucrat with a reputation for ruthlessness. Maybe Bush finally found, in Putin, a European leader as right-wing as he is; maybe he isn't intimidated by Putin because the Russian leader is still a relative newcomer on the world scene. Whatever the explanation, the U.S. president even invited Putin to his Texas ranch, telling reporters, "I wouldn't have invited him if I didn't trust him." (Jean Chretien's invitation, presumably, is in the mail.)
American politics is littered with robo-pols like Bush : identical, silver-haired senators; tall wealthy corporate captains with perfect teeth and trophy wives; interchangeable wafflers, preachers and glad-handers of all political persuasions, all smartly dressed and dauntingly fit.
Fortunately, this is one American cultural quirk we have not yet adopted. By comparison, our politicians are a rumpled, unfashionable lot, even when someone else picks their suits.
Ralph Klein, for example. The Alberta premier was in Washington last week to meet with the brains behind Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney. Klein was turned out elegantly in a subtle grey check and comported himself well -- impressed by Cheney and the former oilman's knowledge of Alberta's oilsands, yet not cravenly so. But Klein, squat and often dishevelled, isn't central casting's idea of a successful politician. Who, in Canadian politics, is? Chretien? Joe Clark? (There is no stereotype for a successful female leader, only for an ambitious one.)
The last Canadian prime minister who looked the part was John Turner and we all know how that ended. The hair, the blazing blue eyes, the regular features: not enough, not when accompanied by a nervous harrumph, a jerky conversational style that makes everyone tense and a vernacular rooted in the 50s. Among contemporary leaders, new British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell could pass for an American with his dark suits, silver hair and fashionable glasses. So could Stockwell Day, one of the most attractive- looking leaders we have ever had in this country.
Unfortunately for Day, looks don't count enough in Canada. But education still does and so do brains. On both counts, Day -- one of a dwindling band of active politicians (including Klein and Brian Tobin) who didn't finish university -- comes up short. Had Day made a fortune in the private sector, it would compensate for his lack of a degree -- in the U.S., for sure. In Canada, we are still mistrustful of millionaires and especially of millionaires' kids.
That's another difference: a family fortune is almost an entry requirement for high office in the U.S. nowadays The last presidential contest was a battle between two wealthy dynasties. In Canada, it is hard to name one leader, federal or provincial, who came from privilege. Alexa McDonough maybe; her father owned a successful Nova Scotia construction business. Paul Martin's dad was a cabinet minister. Preston Manning's father was a premier. They, and a few others, are financially comfortable. But hardly, by American standards, filthy rich.
If our politicians are wealthy, they've usually made the money themselves. Most aren't. And the smoother they sound -- the more scripted, primed and Bush-like -- the less we trust them. Good for us.
July 26, 2001
GEORGE W. BUSH sallies forth on the world stage proclaiming that the United States will go it alone on global warming and missile defense. These are acts of such arrogance that it takes one's breath away.
This is the man who lost the popular vote by about 500,000 votes and beat his opponent by only four electoral votes (even that was a judgment call). Yet he functions as though the American people gave him a mandate to do anything he wishes.
He seems caught up in wanting to appear strong. But his actions belie such pretension. Deliberately upsetting the status quo without recognizing the consequences is a sign of confusion.
Bush has brought back the imperial presidency with a conceit not seen since the days of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. His foreign policies are undermining the substantial progress, so painstakingly achieved since World War II, to solve world problems through international cooperation.
Only on foreign trade is Bush a paragon of internationalism.
And what is just as alarming has been the reaction from many members of the mainstream press and Congress. We are supposed to be a nation governed by the will of the people. Yet observing most media coverage of the president, a citizen could easily think that only the president has the power to make public policy.
With some exceptions, members of Congress have done little to temper Bush's headlong stumble into revolutionary change. There is no doubt that Bush is out to make over American policy.
He may call himself conservative, but he is not.
He is an insurgent who is out to upend America's defenses, eliminate our progressive tax system, undermine the separation of church and state, reduce environmental protection, and turn the clock back on reproductive rights.
Whether Democratic, Republican or Independent, members of Congress have been slow to respond to Bush's actions. Approving a tax cut that will soon bring us back into deficit spending has shown how spineless some public officials are.
The most ludicrous example of wastefulness was congressional approval of a letter to taxpayers, telling us we were going to get a tax refund, which will cost about $116 million. In the meantime, the surplus dwindles and the debt grows. And those in Washington, who told us last fall they would secure Medicare and Social Security, vote for short-term benefit and long-term damage.
Deference toward the president has reached egregious proportions in the last six weeks. Initially, the battle over federal funding of stem cell research focused on the president because President Bill Clinton had issued an executive order approving limited funding. But this battle is about more than what the president should do.
It is the first chapter in a long saga that will dominate scientific advancement in the 21st century. The decision as to whether medical researchers will be helped or hindered by the federal government is too important to be left to one man, yet the mainstream media have covered this story as though only Bush's decision would decide its fate.
Where has Congress been? Why have we been subjected to this simplistic will-Bush-do-it mystery when the final resolution must rest with members of the House and Senate? Why have Congress and the mainstream media been so slow to analyze in detail Bush's revolutionary assumptions? I don't think the motivating factor is fear of the president's wrath. The media have seldom been afraid on that count before. And why should Congress fear a president who doesn't have a mandate to overturn policies most Americans support? The culprit appears to be a misguided willingness to give the president the benefit of the doubt on too many issues. With his smile and his strange ways, he has dulled too many people's good sense.
It is time to take off the gloves. We need to question : Why the United States has become the odd-man out on world environmental and defense issues, Why the advancement of scientific inquiry is being held hostage at the White House, Why our carefully balanced separation of church and state doctrine is being torn asunder, Why the rich are gettting such great tax benefits from the government and Why environmental protections are being dismantled and reproductive rights undermined.
All of us, regardless of party, better wake up and start questioning where this accidental, revolutionary president is taking the nation. Bush's agenda is not business as usual.
Tanya Melich, a former Republican consultant, is a political writer and analyst. Marie Cocco is off.
August 6, 2001
Abraham Lincoln had it wrong. In his 1863 speech at Gettysburg, he said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
Well, maybe, Abe, but it seems to me that most of us know something about the famous speech but few of us know much about the battle.
In any event, talk is cheap, they say, yet it seems to carry great weight with the masses (i.e., you, me and others like us).
A case in point is the continued popularity of our Great National Embarrassment, George W. Bush. For reasons explainable only by God -- who isn't talking -- Bush continues to do anywhere from excellent to at least OK in the polls.
What makes that weird is that the same polls indicate people don't agree with his policies. They don't believe he's acting in their best interests or in the best interests of the United States.
What is it about him that's so attractive? Is it that he looks good in a suit? Is it that he's quick with a quip? Is it his boyish smile? Is it his attempt to look serious at the appropriate moments?
Perhaps the most widely publicized "success" of the young Bush administration is its big tax cut for the rich accompanied by a few sops for the non-rich. ("Rich" can be defined here as anyone in Bush's income bracket, the income bracket of Vice President Dick Cheney or any of their buddies.)
In simplest terms, it was an unneeded tax cut that went primarily to those who needed it least.
Was this a good thing? Well, maybe some of you missed it, but last week the U.S. Treasury started borrowing money to pay for the tax rebates being mailed out.
As recently as April 30, the Treasury thought it would be able to pay down $57 billion of our national debt this year. But things haven't worked out, so now, instead of reducing our debt by $57 billion, we're going to add to it by $51 billion to pay those rebate bribes.
This looks to me like a replay of the Reagan years, when the policy was "Borrow and spend, borrow and spend -- and blame it on the Democrats."
Under Bill Clinton, we were making pretty good progress at paying off Reagan's extravagances, but now, under the popular George W. Bush, we're starting to go into the hole again.
Some economists are predicting that the Bush administration will propose dipping into the Social Security trust fund before the end of the year, as expenses rise and tax income drops.
"If things continue to deteriorate, you will be [dipping into Social Security] this year," The New York Times was told last week by Robert J. Barbera, chief economist at Hoenig & Co., an institutional global-trading firm.
Bush, of course, is gambling on the tax rebates generating more tax income than the rebates cost. With that kind of gambling, in today's economy, I'd recommend he stay away from Las Vegas.
Or maybe he doesn't care what happens, one way or the other. He and his got theirs; what else matters?
What Bush said, in pushing his tax cut, was that he was returning "your money" to you. Sounded good, eh?
Well, it's not going to work out that way. The money "returned" to you today will have to be paid off by you or your children tomorrow.
You got snookered. You listened to words and didn't pay enough attention to actions.
Another example of slick talk covering up questionable actions is the Bush Administration's opposition to government funding of stem-cell research. That opposition is being sold to the American public as "pro-life."
It's about as "pro-life" as signing the death warrants of scores of Texas prisoners, as Bush did when he was governor there.
The "pro-life" argument is total hooey. It is designed to win over the hearts and minds of the people who oppose abortion under any circumstances, but in fact it has nothing to do with abortion.
The incredibly tiny stem cells used in medical research are taken from stored fetuses that would otherwise be destroyed. So, in essence, the argument against stem-cell research is an argument against turning trash into something useful.
Reverence for life has nothing to do with it. It's more like reverence for ignorance.
There is always a segment of society that clings to irrational beliefs. Copernicus and his followers suffered at the hands of those who insisted that Earth was the center of the universe.
Whatever anyone's feelings about abortion, the opposition to stem-cell research is irrational.
Fortunately, it appears that enough influential Republicans have a stake in the success of stem-cell research to prod the president into approving it, at least in part. Nancy Reagan, for one, would like to see a cure for Alzheimer's disease.
So would I. Although I never liked Ronald Reagan and I detested his elitist policies, it would do my heart good to see him up and around and "normal" again. Although a terrible president, Reagan was a remarkable man, and it's painful to know how he's slowly slipping away.
The odd thing about George W. Bush's know-nothing attitude on stem-cell research is that people who disagree with him still think he's a great president.
It has to be something he said. Very little he does makes any sense at all.
Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist and iconoclast. His column appears Mondays.
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 15, 2001
President Bush gets poor marks for his handling of international policy from a majority of Europeans, who say in a new poll that he makes decisions based entirely on U.S. interests and knows less about Europe than his predecessors.
European approval of his foreign affairs efforts runs anywhere from 40 to 60 percentage points below the levels former President Clinton held.
The people who said they didn't yet know how they felt about Bush's policies ranged from a fourth to a third in the four countries in the poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
"I don't think it's an irreversible situation," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, noting the high number of Europeans who haven't yet made up their minds. "Most of the people in these countries don't see a broader rift developing between the United States and Europe."
The survey was done in partnership with the International Herald Tribune and in association with the Council on Foreign Relations.
White House spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.
More than four in five disapproved of Bush's positions on the Kyoto treaty on global warming; two-thirds or more disapproved of his stand on missile defense. A majority approved of his support of free trade and his decision to keep U.S. troops in Kosovo and Bosnia.
More than seven in 10 in Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy said the president's international policy decisions are based on U.S interests, the poll indicated. Almost three-fourths of the Europeans polled felt that Bush understands Europe less than other presidents.
Approval of Bush's international policies ranged from one in six in France to three in 10 in Italy. Approval of Clinton's handling of international issues ranged from two-thirds in France and Great Britain to to almost nine in 10 in Germany.
"I found it surprising the extent of public opposition to some of the main Bush administration foreign policy initiatives," said Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "What it means is that the European leaders have less flexibility to alter their criticism of the White House and support Bush policies."
The disapproval of Europeans may have an upside in domestic politics, said Marshall Wittman of the conservative Hudson Institute.
"In the long run, it's an asset domestically because it shows the president is willing to stand up for American interests," Wittman said "It probably shows that Europeans suffer from Texaphobia."
Europeans may assume a leader from Texas is not sophisticated in international matters, he said.
The poll's findings that two-thirds or more of Europeans disapprove of deployment of a new missile defense system that requires withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty could be the thorniest issue for Bush, said Morton Halperin, a senior fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations. The opposition could make it tougher for European governments to yield to administration pressure to go along with the missile defense system if it involves terminating the ABM treaty, Halperin wrote in an analysis of the survey.
The report was based on roughly 1,000 telephone interviews apiece in Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany as well as a separate poll of 1,227 interviews in the United States. The poll, taken in early August, has an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Europeans expressed about as much confidence in Bush from 20 percent of the French to half of the Germans expressed confidence in the American President as they did in Russian President Vladimir Putin from 14 percent of the French to four in 10 Germans expressing confidence.
The European reservations about Bush probably "reinforce the liberal opposition to Bush in this country," said Wittman.
"But unless there is a threat to peace internationally," Wittman said, the European reservations about Bush "probably make no difference."
Pew Research Center
KEITH B. RICHBURG
August 16, 2001
Citizens of Europe's four largest countries largely disapprove of President Bush's handling of foreign affairs, with huge majorities believing he knows less about Europe than his predecessors did and that he slights European interests in making decisions. These are the results of a new poll taken jointly by the International Herald Tribune and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington.
The poll, conducted in association with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, found that Britons, French, Italians and Germans overwhelmingly opposed Bush's decisions to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and to develop a national missile defense system that might mean unilaterally abrogating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.
The poll also found that respondents in three of the countries, with the exception of Britain, overwhelmingly disapproved of the president's support for the death penalty, a thorny issue between Europeans and Americans. In Britain, however, 47 percent approved of Bush's stance, while 44 percent disapproved, with the remainder offering no opinion.
The poll was conducted between Aug. 1 and Aug. 9 in the United States and the four European countries after Bush visited the continent twice and respondents would have had an opportunity to assess his policies at closer hand. Administration aides label those trips successful, but the poll shows he did little to shift public opinion or win new support for his policies.
Conducted with the International Herald Tribune (which is owned jointly by The Washington Post and the New York Times), the poll of about 1,000 people in each country is believed to be the first of its kind measuring the attitudes of Europeans toward the new American president.
Europeans have been largely critical of Bush since he came to office in January, accusing his administration of a "new unilateralism" and a failure to consult with U.S. allies in Europe on issues such as the missile defense program and global warming. The sharp disagreement on issues such as the death penalty -- which Bush strongly supported when he was governor of Texas and the state led the nation in executions -- has led many European commentators to speak of a growing "values gap" across the Atlantic.
Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said the poll indicates "he hasn't gotten off to a good start in Europe, but there are still many people who haven't formed an opinion of him."
On many issues, opinions about former president Bill Clinton were not far from opinions about Bush. Thus, the high disapproval ratings of Bush may be as much because of a perception of the president's personality as his actual policies. For example, many Europeans seem to forget that Clinton also was a strong proponent of the death penalty, particularly when he was governor of Arkansas, and that Clinton did not submit the Kyoto accord for Senate ratification.
Kohut said Bush might also suffer, in European eyes, from his roots in Texas, which to many people in Europe is a state that carries many of their negative stereotypes about the United States. "He's a Texan -- that makes him an American squared," Kohut said.
The poll results also suggest that while Europeans have an unfavorable view of Bush more than six months into his term, they remain largely uninformed about his policies. A quarter of Italians and French, a third of Britons, and 12 percent of the Germans said they did not know enough about Bush's foreign policy to offer a viewpoint.
Overall, the poll found the Germans and French the most skeptical of Bush's handling of foreign affairs.
Asked about Bush's international policy, 49 percent of the British, 46 percent of Italians, 65 percent of the Germans and 59 percent of the French surveyed said they disapproved. Only 17 percent of British, 29 percent of Italians, 23 percent of Germans and 16 percent of French said they approved of Bush's handling of foreign issues.
By contrast, when Americans were asked the same question, 45 percent polled said they approved of Bush's overall handling of foreign issues while 32 percent disapproved, with 23 percent undecided.
Europeans are more familiar with Clinton's policies, the poll found, and overwhelmingly they liked what he offered. About 66 percent of Britons, 68 percent of French, 71 percent of Italians and a full 86 percent of Germans said they approved of Clinton's foreign policy, with much smaller numbers saying they had no view.
"Clinton was a known quantity," Kohut said.
Asked whether they had more confidence in the U.S. president than in Russian President Vladimir Putin "to do the right thing regarding world affairs," Bush outscored Putin -- but not by much. About 77 percent of French said they had little or no confidence in Putin, but 75 percent had little or no confidence in Bush. Among Germans, 55 percent had little or no confidence in Putin, while 46 percent had little or no confidence in Bush. Among Italians and British, more respondents expressed little or no confidence in Bush than they had in Putin.