Free Pass For The President

The most underplayed story of the past month was the one about the events of September 11 and Saddam Hussein. There is no direct link between the two. This despite the fact that George W. Bush and the members of his administration have labored tirelessly to suggest one ever since they decided to invade Iraq. This despite the fact that they've been spectacularly successful at convincing American citizens of this fiction: more than two out of three believe the Iraqi leader was personally responsible for the terrorist attacks. "No evidence," the president finally was forced to admit publicly, that this was so.

The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune ran this extraordinary exercise in backpedaling on page one, where it belonged, but most other major papers buried it inside. The New York Times gave the story barely 300 words on page A22. The New York Post didn't mention it at all, perhaps because it happened soon after it turned out the link between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck had also been overstated.

Until now George W. Bush has been uncommonly lucky. He has managed to turn a budget surplus into the most monumental deficit in history, in part because of ill-conceived tax cuts. He mounted a war in Iraq with the promise of weapons of mass destruction that have never materialized. He went after two sworn enemies, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and has managed to apprehend neither despite the most expensive intelligence-gathering apparatus on earth. He used Saddam and Al Qaeda in the same sentence in his State of the Union address, then had to confess that his innuendo had false underpinnings. He traveled the other day to the United Nations to ask for help from a body whose members he treated with utter, unilateral contempt not long ago.

To truly appreciate what a free pass the president has gotten, it is necessary only to imagine what the response from Republicans--and reporters--would have been if Bill Clinton had been responsible for one of those things, much less all of them.

Clinton is one reason George W. has developed a Teflon coating slicker and thicker than that of Ronald Reagan. Bush's predecessor set the bar low: as long as the American people were convinced that the president was not having sex in the Oval Office, they felt mollified.

The tenor of the last election also gave President Bush little to live up to. If there was one prevailing theme, it was that he was none too bright. He may be the only Yale grad ever to give a speech at the school in which he boasted of his lousy average. The result was that the president could not easily be seen as duplicitous or even particularly responsible. Rummy, Wolfie, Condi: it was as though the president and his advisers were a ventriloquism act.

But the Teflon has begun to show telltale scratches. The war is dragging on and soldiers continue to die, and increasingly Americans--even Americans in the military--are asking what the point was. The economy is a mess, the tax cut a sop. There was never a better time to ask for sacrifice from the American people than in the wake of September 11. Except for that of the soldiers, no sacrifice was demanded except the sacrifice of removing your shoes in airports and ceding your civil liberties to John Ashcroft.

This is what happens when personality trumps positions. It's also what happens when the major parties are pinatas, bright and empty. The Republicans genuflect to the right wing, wink at the millionaires and ignore the moderates who used to be their base. The Democrats are afraid to be the party of the disenfranchised, to demand a real working wage and to take a strong stand against unnecessary aggression.

Wesley Clark, who has suddenly become a white-knight candidate in this time of conflict because of his military experience, has had a hard time giving a straight answer (or even a single answer) to the question of whether he would have voted for the Iraq war resolution. In the most recent debate he said, "If I've learned one thing in my nine days in politics, it's you better be careful with hypothetical questions." That's what we've come to, a time in which it is possible to confuse the hypothetical and the principled, since the bottom line is the electable.

Someone once described to me the admissions standards of a prestigious public high school to which students are admitted based on a single test. On your test paper you don't put a name or address. No one knows your neighborhood or ethnicity. There's just an ID number and your answers, right or wrong.

Maybe that's how presidential elections ought to be handled. Just a long checklist of positions: the minimum wage, free trade, tax policies, the use of force, the Supreme Court, entitlements. Then people, including us news people, wouldn't spend so much time on the candidates' chins or whether a spouse was going to be a liability and instead could concentrate on what matters. That is, finding a leader who is willing to take straightforward positions and support them with facts, not innuendo and suggestion and then the disingenuous coda "no evidence." Instead of a Teflon president with a phalanx of frontmen, the opposite is what is called for: a person willing to say, "The stuff sticks here."