Stop Beating Around The Bush

The election is finally upon us, which means all you mythical undecided voters are going to have to get off the fence. Our own William Broyles and Paul Burka have known for months who they’re supporting and why.

November 2004By Comments

TO: Bill
FROM: Paul
September 27, 9:19 p.m.

I read your online essay about why you were joining with other Texas writers, artists, and musicians to oppose the reelection of George W. Bush, and while your writing is as eloquent as ever, I thought the case you made for John Kerry was ultimately unconvincing. It was based almost entirely on his performance in Vietnam and its aftermath. You and I are old friends, and I know what a pivotal role your own service in Vietnam played in your life, but I can’t understand what Kerry’s war record—or, for that matter, Bush’s lack of one—has to do with why either man should or should not be president today. I don’t think that the average voter cares. I respect Kerry’s war record, and I detest the scurrilous campaign to discredit it, but it’s not a sufficient reason to vote for him. Here we are, a couple of days before the first debate, and Kerry has yet to provide a rationale for why he should be president except that he is the UnBush. He squandered his chance at the Democratic convention to define the central issues in the election and to define himself, and so the Republicans did both for him: The central issue is terrorism and Kerry is weak. I agree on both counts. I wrote him off when his so-called plan for the war on terrorism in his acceptance speech was a bland “As president, I will fight a smarter, more effective war on terror.”

Not that I was ever going to vote for him anyway—for two reasons. One is that I like George W. Bush. I observed him at close range when he was governor, and I thought he did a great job. The Bush-Bullock-Laney years were what politics ought to be: leaders from opposite sides working together in the public interest. It’s hard to vote against somebody I admire, even if I disagree with some of his policies as president. I still can’t believe he put the kibosh on stem cell research.

The other reason is more substantive. Like it or not, we are living in a time that requires the use of American military power. The world economy is dependent—because of oil—on the region of the world that has the least freedom, the least political stability, the least regard for human progress, and the most radical ideology. It is obvious to me that Kerry, and especially his party, is uncomfortable with the unilateral use of American power. Maybe Bush and his party are too comfortable with it, but if that is the choice, then I have to choose Bush.

This is what we in America should be talking about, not Vietnam. The biggest mistake Kerry has made is to focus on what he and Bush did more than thirty years ago instead of on what he would do as president and what Bush has done and would do. I’m sure that Karl Rove would have paid for the airtime for Kerry to attack Bush’s record in the National Guard instead of his record as commander in chief. So, Bill, here’s what I’m wondering. Who are you more angry with today—my candidate or your candidate? Bush or the UnBush?

TO: Paul
FROM: Bill
September 28, 3:27 p.m.

Let me get this straight. Your number one argument for voting for Bush is that you like him? Amid all the great issues of war and peace that are at stake, you offer us a rationale that doesn’t mean anything to anyone but you. Well, I know the president too: My daughter and his twins were in the same classes at Austin High; he kept up with my son David’s high school athletic career; we even long ago dated some of the same women. There is no doubt he has a great talent for personal connections and can be a very likable guy. But that’s not a good reason to vote for him. I “liked” Jimmy Carter. He was a man of sincere Christian faith, a veteran, a small-business man, a Southerner who had moved to heal racial divisions. But even though I am a lifelong Democrat, I voted against him in 1980 and for Ronald Reagan, a man with whom I had little in common politically. Why? Because in my opinion, Jimmy Carter had failed at foreign policy and at managing the economy; therefore, he did not deserve another term of office. Neither does Bush. That’s why we have elections. To hold the people in power accountable for their actions.

You, of all people, who has followed politics for forty years, who has always been suspicious of ideology, who has always seen politics as the art of building alliances, should be the loudest voice against not just the substance of Bush’s failures but the style of them. Your man has failed utterly, and the stakes are much higher than with Carter and Reagan. Bush promised to be a uniter, not a divider; he has divided America. He was given a chance through the tragedy of 9/11 to unite the world behind the effort to end terrorism; instead, he has done the unthinkable: Through arrogance and incompetence and naive ideology he has left us all but alone in that fight. He promised to be the education president; he has gutted his own No Child Left Behind Act. On every domestic issue, from health care to the environment, he has left America worse than he found it. He came in with a budget surplus; he has given us gigantic deficits as far as the eye can see. The cost of his misconceived and mismanaged war in Iraq now stands at over one thousand American lives and will soon reach $200 billion. Those lives are irreplaceable. That $200 billion—TWO HUNDRED BILLION!!!—could have been spent making our lives better and safer here at home.

As Bush himself wrote about the war in Vietnam, he finally turned against it when it was clear there was no plan for victory, no clear mission, and no exit strategy. I submit all three are true for Iraq. And the obsession with Iraq has distracted us from the real war, the one on terrorism. The president and his allies have poisoned political life in this country: They deliberately paint anyone against them as anti-Christian and anti-American. They have slimed three Vietnam veterans: John McCain, Max Cleland, and now John Kerry. They will say and do anything to win.

But I am just as angry at Kerry and his campaign as I am at Bush. There is a strong case, a powerful case, to be made against the president. Kerry isn’t making that case. When Dick Cheney says the terrorists want Kerry to win, instead of whining that Cheney isn’t being fair and how mean it is to say that kind of thing, Kerry should be hitting back. It’s the president who has played into the terrorists’ hands. It’s the president who has made us less safe. It’s the president who has . . . You get the idea. Kerry should be arguing that it is unconscionable to leave our troops isolated in besieged bases in the midst of no-go zones that have been ceded to terrorists. Kerry should be saying, “Mr. President, put in enough troops to do the job and win, or bring them home. Don’t waste their patriotism and their sacrifice on half measures.” But he’s not. He seems so caught up in focus-group nuances that the clear, tough message isn’t getting made. There is still time to make it, but not much.

So it doesn’t matter if I “like” Kerry or Bush. It’s who would do better the next four years. Bush has failed. We need to give the other guys a chance. They couldn’t do worse.

TO: Bill
FROM: Paul
September 29, 4:53 p.m.

So I am supposed to be for John Kerry just because a war is going badly and the country is divided? I used to think that way once upon a time. It was 1968, and a war was going badly, and the country was divided, and I decided that the Johnson administration—represented by Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s vice president, as the Democratic nominee—didn’t deserve my vote. And so I voted for Richard Nixon. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It was the worst vote of my life. And what happened? The war continued to go badly, and the country continued to be divided badly, and the man I voted for violated his oath to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States. I learned my lesson. Like you, I was a Carter voter in 1976 who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980. But I did so not only because I thought Carter had failed but also because I believed Reagan would succeed. I have seen nothing from Kerry in this campaign that leads me to believe that he can successfully lead this country.

TO: Paul
FROM: Bill
September 30, 7:13 p.m.

You keep holding Kerry to standards you don’t apply to Bush. What has Bush shown in this campaign? What are his plans and programs? You can only claim Kerry might mess up. We know Bush has. And don’t feel so bad about supporting Nixon. We wouldn’t be in this fix if the Republicans of today were Nixon Republicans: the ones who passed the Environmental Protection Act, respected our allies, built bridges to our adversaries, and continued a strong legacy on civil rights, housing, health care, and education. If what you care about for your children in the future is being sure there is a ban on gay marriage, then today’s Republicans are your party. But if you care about good education, clean air and water, cops on the streets, decent health care even for the poor, and a strong economy, then you have to go with the Democrats. Clinton proved that once they shed their big-spender label and became fiscally responsible, the Democrats could manage job creation and prosperity. Bush has only one plan: cut taxes on the rich and on corporations. It’s not working. His vast, undisciplined deficits will burden your kids and mine. He is the only president to preside over a net loss of jobs since Herbert Hoover. Hey, if he were the coach of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones would have fired him long ago. We need to do the same. And now it’s almost debate time.

TO: Bill
FROM: Paul
September 30, 7:22 p.m.

I want to watch the debate too, but I can’t let this shot go unanswered. Say what you will about Bush, but when you start messing with the Cowboys, you’ve gone too far. Remember Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones’s first coach after he became the owner? Jerry fired him, all right, not because he lost but because he won—back-to-back Super Bowls. But Jimmy got the credit Jerry craved, and so he had to go. Come to think of it, you remind me of Jerry: You want the American people to fire George W. Bush when he is winning. I’m not talking about Iraq; that game isn’t over yet. I’m talking about the home front. Just imagine that on September 12, 2001, pollsters had asked voters when they thought Al Qaeda would strike America next. I’ll bet that very few would have believed that no attack would occur over the next three years. That alone is reason enough to extend Bush’s contract for another four seasons.

TO: Paul
FROM: Bill
September 30, 7:43 p.m.

Winning? I don’t think so. And American voters are too smart to think that Coach Bush’s defense is impregnable. They know terrorists can strike anywhere, anytime. And since 9/11, they have struck all over the world, from Bali to Spain, killing more innocent Europeans, Americans, Asians, and Africans than died in the World Trade Center. No matter what George Bush or John Kerry might do, terrorists may strike us again, anytime. Even Bush knows better than to stake his presidency on that. We’re in for a long, long struggle. Are we keeping our eye on the ball or are we sinking our economic and precious human resources into a mire of distraction in Iraq? So far everything Bush has promised us about Iraq has been spectacularly wrong: Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; he was linked to 9/11; our troops would be greeted as liberators; oil prices would fall . . . I could go on and on. And if your coach keeps trying trick plays that fizzle, you find a new coach who can go back to basics with a new game plan.

TO: Bill
FROM: Paul
September 30, 8:02 p.m.

It isn’t game plans that win football games—or wars. It’s determination. Have you forgotten? “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” You may have heard this before, but . . . you have to be steadfast and resolute.

TO: Paul
FROM: Bill
September 30, 10:42 p.m.

You left out one thing. You have to be steadfast and resolute and fighting the right war. That’s what George Bush doesn’t get. Look at the debate tonight: It wasn’t just about foreign policy; it was about character, George Bush’s character. The flaws that were so evident during the debate were character flaws: narrow-mindedness, incuriosity, aversion to challenge and criticism. If this is what Bush is like in meetings when the great issues of our time come up, then the decision-making process is completely corrupt. He kept saying what “hard work” it all is, over and over. I got the distinct impression he was overwhelmed by his job and needed a good long vacation, say, starting in January.

The fact that he still has a small lead is testimony to the ruthless efficiency of the Republican attack machine and to some lingering goodwill he still has in the hearts of the American people. But I think the American people are smart enough to see through the attacks, and that goodwill has its limits.

TO: Bill
FROM: Paul
October 1, 4:36 p.m.

Debate? What debate are you talking about? When I turned on the TV, all I could find were Saturday Night Live reruns. Isn’t it amazing how much Will Ferrell looks like the real George W. Bush? He even has that same glassy stare, as if he can’t think of anything to say.

If only it were true. The debate was a disaster for Bush, not only because of the glassy stares but also because he gaffed by mentioning the tax gap as the reason for the shortcomings in homeland security. He should have defended his tax cuts as a standard economic tool to jump-start a faltering economy. The pundits should have jumped on his answer; instead, they wanted to talk about Bush’s mannerisms. That’s TV for you: pictures over substance.

I think you fell into the same trap. You interpreted his mannerisms as evidence of a weak character. In fact, they are nothing more than evidence of a weak debating technique. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

So don’t get too carried away with your man’s performance. I don’t think it was the kind of victory that means a whole lot. Kerry’s bearing was better, and he exceeded expectations. But Bush won on themes: Our enemies are evil people. America is safer because Saddam Hussein is out of power. Freedom in the Middle East is vital to America’s security. America’s leader must be steadfast and resolved and can’t send mixed signals to the world. Kerry’s themes, on the other hand, were all about process: Reach out to our allies. Reach out to the Muslim world. Reach out to the U.N. Call summits. Don’t rush to war.

This is feel-good stuff, but it won’t work—France and Germany have said they’re not going to send troops—and it does nothing to clear up the fuzziness of his views on Iraq, which has been Kerry’s albatross from the start. So, while Kerry stopped his month-long slide, gave heart to his supporters, and found some chinks in Bush’s armor, he failed—again—to establish his credibility as a commander in chief in Iraq.

TO: Paul
FROM: Bill
October 3, 10:15 a.m.

Just how do you think Bush has established his credibility as commander in chief in Iraq? Our military is stretched thin and exhausted. We can barely manage to maintain the number of troops we have there, and that number is well below what it would take to actually win the peace. Our reserves and National Guard troops have been ruthlessly exploited; my radioman in Vietnam has just been notified he is being called to active duty in Iraq. He is 54 years old. That represents a colossal failure of military leadership. Regular troops have seen their enlistments forcibly extended. In effect, men and women who have given voluntary service have been drafted. Before the Iraq adventure, we had the appearance and the reality of power. Now we have neither. Our enemies have been emboldened. Those who wish us harm in Iran, North Korea, and especially Iraq could not be happier. President Bush could not be doing more to further the terrorists’ interests.

As many generals tried to tell the president and the cloud-cuckoo-land neoconservatives in the Defense Department, to handle their fantasy vision of Iraq would take much longer and far more troops than was planned and would be problematic at best. All that is coming true. My own son is there on his second tour. I ache for the misuse of his patriotism and sacrifice and for that of all the men and women there. And this abuse of our dedicated military means we have no power to finish the job in Afghanistan, where we could have had Osama bin Laden (remember him?) when he was cornered in Tora Bora. But the president was so intent on taking down Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, that he blew the chance. And we are in far more danger because of that failure.

Kerry emphasized his Vietnam credentials at the Democratic convention for two reasons. One was because the Republicans had been so successful at painting Democrats as “soft” and unpatriotic. The other is that it does help to have served in combat. That experience teaches you that the military is an imperfect instrument. When the head of the joint chiefs of staff tells you it is going to take 400,000 troops to do the job in Iraq, you’d better listen. Bush didn’t. The lack of real military experience made it possible for the neoconservatives, and the president, to overestimate and overromanticize the military. I don’t think Kerry, because of his Vietnam experience, would have made that mistake.

I close with a question for you. You talk a lot about Kerry having no plan to fight terrorism. What is the president’s plan, exactly?

TO: Bill
FROM: Paul
October 4, 6:48 p.m.

The plan is very simple, really: Use American power to scare the hell out of every government that might take up with terrorists. Change the paradigm in the Middle East by putting our troops in the middle of the action. The objective is to make Iran, Syria, and especially Saudi Arabia think twice before they aid Al Qaeda. The idea is to isolate the terrorists and eliminate their financial support and their havens. The president can’t come out and say that, but he doesn’t have to. They get the message, just like Libya got the message. You may think it’s awful and embarrassing that our president is thought of as a cowboy and a gunslinger, but when you’re dealing with countries that regard you as decadent and soft, it’s not such a bad thing to have a leader who is thought of as quick on the draw.

I can’t tell you that the strategy is going to succeed, but I can tell you that it’s worth the gamble. I can also say that it has made us safer. Think back to where we were four years ago. We faced a tyrant in Iraq who was flouting United Nations resolutions and kicking out weapons inspectors. In eliminating him, we have removed the only ruler in the Middle East who had the motive and the resources to fund a major Al Qaeda attack on the United States or Israel. Some would say that in doing so we destabilized the Middle East, to which I would respond: When was it stable?

Since 9/11, we have seriously disrupted Al Qaeda’s ability to wreak mass havoc. Their leadership is dead, imprisoned, or in hiding, and their communications are not secure. Their sanctuary and training camps no longer exist. Governments and charities who would deal with them know that they do so at their peril. Today’s nascent jihadists have to consider that they are more likely to become casualties than to inflict them.

I don’t think that John Kerry is any less patriotic than George W. Bush or any less concerned about terrorists. But if I look beyond them to the people who will be giving advice, I believe that when it comes to foreign policy, conservatives tend to be realists and liberals tend to be idealists, and I feel much safer with the realists in charge. Perhaps it is our unfortunate choice to have to choose between a team that is too comfortable with the use of power and one that is too uncomfortable, but if that is the choice I have to make, then I choose the one that is too comfortable.

TO: Paul
FROM: Bill
October 5, 11:02 p.m.

Realists? To call these guys realists is a joke. You’re thinking of what Republicans used to be, back when they balanced budgets and looked clear-eyed at the world. These guys are caught in the traps of what the president’s father once called voodoo economics and, even more dangerous, in the naive rapturous vision of spreading freedom with the 101st Airborne. As Bush himself said in 2000, nation-building is not the function of the military. Your argument sounds good, but it ignores the defining fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. The country that furnished the money, the leadership, and almost all the terrorists who attacked us was the Bush family’s old ally, Saudi Arabia. Not a penny, not a terrorist, came from Iraq. Al Qaeda is in sixty countries. We can’t send Marines into all of them. We have to count on cooperation, on allies, on good solid intelligence. Saddam’s biggest enemy was Iran. We have been carrying the ayatollahs’ water. They’re developing their nuclear weapons in Tehran today, laughing at how gullible Bush was, how he fell hook, line, and sinker for the pro-Iranian Chalabi and his disinformation. These Bush guys aren’t realists. They’re chumps. They just talk a good game.

In the vice-presidential debate tonight, Cheney had this hypnotic drone that against my will I found to be convincing, even though I knew he was ducking and evading and downright misrepresenting. He and Bush have hitched their star to the idea that they were right then, they are right now, and they will always be right, end of discussion. That handily takes care of all the recent news about no WMDs, not enough troops, and no links to Al Qaeda, and the increasingly desperate situation on the ground. On that hypnotic certainty, I think Cheney wins the debate, at least on the Iraq part. Edwards unaccountably didn’t make the strong point Kerry did about how Bush is neglecting our safety here at home. In the second half Edwards did better, but I found myself drawn to the Twins against the Yankees—and how about all those double plays?!? Thank God for baseball.

TO: Bill
FROM: Paul
October 6, 7:06 p.m.

So little was at stake in this debate that I found it tedious to watch. So, like you, I’ll talk about Iraq. You’re wrong about Saddam’s biggest enemy. It wasn’t Iran; it was us. Invading Iraq was never about 9/11; it was about the threat this unstable tyrant represented to us in the future. As Brutus said of Caesar, “Lest he may, prevent.” The threat was real then, it is gone now, and how are we not safer for it? And while Iran appears to be developing atomic weapons, you can’t lay that at Bush’s doorstep. They were doing it anyway. The one thing they are not doing—contrary to what you say—is laughing at us. Not with an army on their doorstep. Oh, I almost forgot. Cheney. He looked more like a grown-up than Edwards did, and his answers were sharper, but what he gained in demeanor and knowledge he lost with transparent evasions and lies. Can we amend the Constitution, quick, so I can vote for Bush without voting for Cheney? So, who won? I think you had the right idea: the Minnesota Twins, 2–0.

TO: Paul
FROM: Bill
October 9, 10:48 p.m.

I thought Bush was different in the second debate than he was in the first, but not better. Like Gore in 2000, he switched personalities, from dour and tired to overcaffeinated and shrill, almost desperately insistent. He’s like the guy we all know who insists on driving the car, then gets lost, but is too boneheaded to ask for directions. The problem is, everyone else knows we’re lost. The deficit is historic. Three years after 9/11 and three tax cuts later, the economy is still anemic. Clinton averaged 250,000 new jobs a month. In September Bush created 97,000. He’s lost, but he’ll never admit he made a wrong turn. He’s going to keep on driving, right over the cliff.

Is America going to be like UT, stuck with Mack Brown, who keeps on losing to OU—or like the Astros, who switched leaders and won? We need someone who is not wedded to bankrupt ideologies and failed policies. That’s Kerry. He showed in the debate that he’s willing to walk through the complex issues of reconciling personal morality with public policy; how he could think abortion is wrong but not believe it should be against the law. I understand that, and I think most Americans do too. I trust Kerry to preserve our freedoms, to protect my environment, my food supply, my water, my kids’ education, and my safety. And I trust him to be competent in commanding the patriotism and sacrifice of young Americans like my son David who are fighting so bravely now in Iraq. I no longer trust George Bush to do any of this.

TO: Bill
FROM: Paul
October 10, 1:13 a.m.

Were we watching the same debate? I thought Bush killed Kerry last night. He was the alpha male, and he forced Kerry into being the very thing he said he wasn’t: wishy-washy. Especially on that question about using federal tax dollars for abortion. Kerry’s answer was all nuance, no message, talking about complexity and his personal views instead of about the issue. Debates are not about nuances; they’re about messages. Kerry had none. Even on the issues where I disagree with Bush, such as stem cell research, he gave the better, more heartfelt answer, about the need to balance ethics and science. When Bush called him a liberal, Kerry whined about labels. Bush confronted him and Kerry didn’t stand up for what he believed. To be honest, I was beginning to doubt Bush’s ability to lead the country myself after that first debate. I wondered whether he was in over his head, but tonight he seemed like the president, and Kerry seemed like he was a minor leaguer. If I can be allowed to mix my metaphors: This may be game, set, and match.

TO: Paul
FROM: Bill
October 13, 3:44 p.m.

Actually, Kerry is like the Astros. You think he’s on a losing streak and he keeps coming back. Bush can’t defend his own record, so he attacks Kerry’s. Bush labels Kerry a flip-flopper, but he himself has flip-flopped repeatedly. Remember how he was going to keep the social security surplus in a “lockbox” and never touch it? It’s gone. He flip-flopped on his vow not to use troops for nation-building. He flip-flopped on No Child Left Behind by not funding it. He was right on those issues the first time. The only two things he has truly been consistent on are tax cuts and Iraq, and they are his two biggest disasters.

Tonight Kerry should hammer him on jobs and tax cuts for the rich. He shouldn’t let Bush get away with the hoax that those tax cuts are to help small businesses. And Kerry should pound Bush on energy. We are paying billions more at the gas pump, pouring money into the hands of the Saudis and the very religious schools that breed terrorists. But the big question is, will we even be watching the debate? Go Astros!!

TO: Bill
FROM: Paul
October 14, 7:00 a.m.

I thought Bush did well in the third debate, but Kerry did better; Bush pitched his answers to his base, but Kerry pitched his answers to swing voters. Advantage Kerry—but the built-in Republican edge in the electoral college and brother Jeb may yet see him through to a second term. I found myself feeling a little melancholy afterward. I hope you, and the country, saw tonight that George Bush is a good man. His answers to the closing questions about faith, about being married to a strong woman, about immigration, about assault weapons, about how a “uniter” became a “divider” were totally genuine. For a few minutes the country saw the man I knew as governor of Texas. His answers were fluent and unrehearsed and smart, and he could reach through that TV screen and touch people. Where has that person been for the past four years, and why did his handlers keep him so isolated and controlled? I actually felt sorry for Bush tonight when he lamented, “Washington is a tough town.” It wasn’t the Democrats who wouldn’t let him be a uniter; it was Dick Cheney and Tom DeLay and the GOP strategists who scorn compromise and bipartisanship. If Bush loses, it will be the ideological zeal of the Republican party that did him in. So sad.

TO: Paul
FROM: Bill
October 14, 9:04 a.m.

You like George Bush. So do I. But the issue is not whether he is a good man but what he has done as president. In 2001, when President Bush reached out to Democrats on education and then, after 9/11, when he eloquently brought the country together, I thought the man I knew as Texas governor was in the White House. But that man is long gone. The man who most resembled that George Bush last night was John Kerry. So I feel sad too. But George Bush is not some helpless victim; he is the most powerful individual on the planet. If he wanted to do something about assault weapons, he could. If he wanted to help Americans who are not in the top income bracket, he could. If he wanted to build bridges and allies, he could. Kerry would. Bush won’t, because he himself decided to abandon his own legacy and champion the extremist ideas of the far right. The moderate Republicans in his Cabinet have been purged. Colin Powell is clearly on his way out. For the sake of our country’s future—its safety, its environment, its education, its Social Security, its economy, its standing in the world, and its very bedrock traditions—we can’t afford four more years of this kind of leadership. We need a change.

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