In the last line of "The Unfeeling President," novelist E.L. Doctorow’s masterful 2004 essay on President Bush, he wrote: "He cannot mourn but is a figure of such moral vacancy as to make us mourn for ourselves."
Many Americans would have agreed with Doctorow's assessment four years ago. Today, far more have accepted this reality about the man who sends our sons and daughters off to die in his never-ending war of choice. Yet, by and large, our national press corps still covers President Bush as if he were a king, treating him with a deference and submissiveness equal to the contempt and belligerence he affords its members, the American people, world opinion and the rule of law.
In a telling prelude to the grim milestone of 4,000 American dead in Iraq (of which 97% were killed after the president, with his "Mission Accomplished" banner aloft, declared major combat operations over), Mr. Bush, less than two weeks ago, gushed about how "romantic" it would be to fight right now on the "front lines" in Afghanistan. You know, trudging through clouds of depleted uranium while sniper bullets whiz by your head, wondering if the next roadside bomb has your name on it. On March 13, in a videoconference with U.S. military and civilian personnel stationed in Afghanistan, our president spoke of war as if it were a videogame (to date, roughly 482 US troops have died in Afghanistan):
"I must say, I'm a little envious," Bush said. "If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.
"It must be exciting for you ... in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks," Bush said.
Adding insult to injury, on that very same day, March 13, the Pentagon released an exhaustive study confirming that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, our uber chickenhawk of a president - who, along with his multiple draft-deferring vice president, avoided serving in Vietnam - had expressed a similar callous, G.I. Joe vision of warfare in September 2007. Writing for the Washington Post, Dan Froomkin reported on Bush's "misguided sense of bravado":
President Bush wishes that he could be alongside the troops in Iraq -- except that he's too old. At least that's what he reportedly told a blogger embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq...."N.Z. Bear," one of the eight guests sitting around a table with Bush at the White House, reported: "Responding to one of the bloggers in Iraq he expressed envy that they could be there, and said he'd like to be there but 'One, I'm too old to be out there, and two, they would notice me.'"
Froomkin also noted that since declaring an end to major combat missions operations on May 1, 2003, Bush, through September 2007, had only visited Iraq three times, for a total of fewer than 15 hours. Here's the courageous breakdown:
Bush's first trip was a two-and-a-half-hour visit to the Baghdad airport on Thanksgiving 2003, where he teared up at the sight of the soldiers and was famously photographed posing with a prop turkey.
In June 2006, Bush spent five hours visiting Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad, although he didn't let the prime minister know he was coming.
During his most recent trip, two weeks ago, Bush was on the ground for seven hours, never leaving the confines of a military base known as Camp Cupcake, a heavily fortified American outpost for 10,000 troops with a 13-mile perimeter.
And how does Bush's vice
president soften the oncoming blow of 4,000 American dead? In response
to ABC's Martha Raddich pointing out that two-thirds of Americans think the war was a mistake, Dick Cheney replied, "So?"
And so, now this: 4,000 Americans have fallen in Iraq but nothing changes. President Bush and Vice President Cheney can say and do anything with seeming impunity. The blood of 4,000 American men and women is spilled and the press corps' questions - in context to this administration's seven-and-a-half years of death, destruction and brazen criminality - still aren't much tougher than they were on the eve of the invasion, when one of their sharpest inquiries was: "Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war, with many organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus pushing for continued diplomacy through the U.N., how is your faith guiding you?" During that same press conference, President Bush himself, in a bizarre and now forgotten meta-gaffe, admitted the question and answer session was a farce. The White House press corps reacted by chuckling along in complicity:
PRESIDENT BUSH: The risk of doing nothing, the risk of hoping that Saddam Hussein changes his mind and becomes a gentle soul, the risk that somehow -- that inaction will make the world safer, is a risk I'm not willing to take for the American people. We'll be there in a minute. King, John King. This is a scripted -- (laughter.)
Flash forward five years later from that press conference and here's how the Associated Press frames Mr. Bush's handling of the 4,000 American soldiers, in an article titled "Bush Sympathetic As War Toll Hits 4,000":
Grim milestones such as new death toll often go unremarked by Bush. But he chose on this occasion to note the losses, albeit briefly and without taking questions from reporters.
As always, his message was determination.
And, as always, mainstream standard bearers like the AP give him a free pass. How "sympathetic" can a president be if he touches on the subject briefly and refuses to take questions from reporters? Moreover, isn't the AP and the rest of the DC press corps partially complicit in President Bush's ability to address this new tragic death toll by focusing almost solely, "as always," on his "determination" to stay the course? Wouldn't he be forced to confront this directly, as well as his choice to go to war even though no WMD existed in Iraq and Saddam had nothing to do with al Qaeda, if, say, the next time His Excellency deigned to allow reporters to question him, he was pressed on this point?
In September 2004, once the death toll for Americans reached 1,000, Mr. Bush said, "We mourn every loss of life." In March 2004, at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner - at a time when over 500 Americans had already lost their lives in Iraq - President Bush killed with a knee-slapping parody in which he showed a photo of himself first gazing out the Oval Office, as he said, "Those weapons of mass destruction got to be somewhere." Then a picture of him searching under furniture in the Oval Office: "Nope," Bush said. "No weapons over there." And another photo of him looking around his office: "Maybe under here." The crowd of Beltway journalists lapped it up, guffawing throughout.
One of the few in attendance who wasn't laughing, David Corn, then Washington editor of The Nation, later reported:
Bush told the nation that lives had to be sacrificed because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used (by terrorists) against the United States. That was not true....But rather than acknowledge he misinformed the public, Bush jokes about the absence of such weapons....Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had joked about the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident that he deceitfully used as a rationale for U.S. military action in Vietnam: "Who knew that fish had torpedoes?" Or if Ronald Reagan appeared at a correspondents event following the truck-bombing at the Marines barracks in Beirut--which killed over 200 American servicemen--and said, "Guess we forgot to put in a stop light." Or if Clinton had come out after the bombing of Serbia--during which U.S. bombs errantly destroyed the Chinese embassy and killed several people there--and said, "The problem is, those embassies--they all look alike."
Yet there was Bush--apparently having a laugh at his own expense, but actually doing so on the graves of thousands. This was a callous and arrogant display. For Bush, the misinformation--or disinformation--he peddled before the war was no more than material for yucks. As the audience laughed along, he smiled. The false statements (or lies) that had launched a war had become merely another punchline in the nation's capital.
Published the day after Mr. Bush's claim to "mourn every loss of
life" in the wake of the one thousandth US soldier killed in Iraq, E.L.
Doctorow's 2004 essay opened:
I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be. On the eve of D-Day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.
But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the weapons of mass destruction he can't seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man.
In October 2005, when the US death toll in Iraq reached 2,000, Mr. Bush, in his weekly radio address, said, "Each loss of life is heartbreaking." Just two months earlier, he had sat on his hands (which, for all intents and purposes, he's done to this day) while Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. After perpetrating his own criminal negligence and witnessing the lethal bungling of his FEMA chief, Michael Brown, Bush praised Brown's efforts with a phrase now synonymous with both the president's incompetence and amoral disregard for human life: "Heckuva job, Brownie." Meanwhile, in February of the same year, Bush's fiscal 2006 budget proposed to cut $350 million in veterans' home funding, eliminating at least 5,000 veterans' beds in nursing homes, increasing veterans' prescription co-pays by 100 percent and introducing a new $250 fee for any veteran seeking to enter the Veterans Administration healthcare program.
Strike you as a president who feels that "each loss of life is heartbreaking"?
In January 2007, when 3,000 American soldiers had fallen, The New York Times reported:
President Bush did not specifically acknowledge reaching the milestone of 3,000 American deaths, but a White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, said the president “grieves for each one that is lost” and would ensure that their sacrifices were not made in vain.
In fact, Mr. Bush released a 2007 New Year's Day message on Dec. 31, 2006, the day the three thousandth American died in Iraq, in which he reviewed the prior year's "important goals" and "new challenges," yet he not only failed to mention this new death toll but hardly demonstrated that he "grieves for each one that is lost." Instead, he allotted but one line to the troops: "Our Nation depends on the fine men and women in uniform who serve our country with valor and distinction, and we remain mindful of their dedication and sacrifice." Mindful? Mindful means aware. Being mindful is not an expression of grief or loss or mourning. It's actually a term devoid of emotion, and, in this context, an intentional bulwark against taking ownership of the lives' lost.
So it should surprise no one that just a few weeks earlier, in an interview with People magazine, our ever mindful and pathologically remorseless president divulged, "I must tell you, I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume."
Nor should it be any surprise that when the US death rate in Iraq reached 4,000, the Bush administration rolled out The President Mourns Every Death line with the same cognitive dissonance it has applied to each prior US casualty milestone in Iraq. Of the 4,000 now dead, White House press secretary Dana Perino said, "The president feels each and every one of the deaths very strongly and he grieves for their families," adding, "He obviously is grieved by the moment but he mourns the loss of every single life."
On March 5, two and a half weeks before the four thousandth US soldier would die in Iraq, Bush, awaiting Sen. John McCain's arrival at a press conference to endorse the GOP candidate, was not exactly the picture of a man with a heavy heart. But you tell me. Is this a president who appears even remotely concerned about lives lost? For a Commander-in-Chief during a time of war, is this not one of the most callous displays of insouciance our country's ever seen?
I'm not saying Mr. Bush must spend his entire tenure in office in a dour mood. But, as this administration is fond of reminding everyone, we are in a time of war: shouldn't, then, the president - who has sent thousands of our troops to their early graves, not to mention tens of thousands of other troops into new lives shattered by devastating physical and psychological wounds - at least appear to grasp his responsibility for this, let alone show how it has impacted his life? It's one thing to joke around with the press in a light moment. It's quite another to plainly see in his smirking face and carefree body language that he bears unconscionably little to no burden for the lives and limbs our service men and women have sacrificed in his disastrous misadventure.
And how was our mourner-in-chief spending his day as our four thousandth soldier took one last breath in the sands of Iraq? Goofing around the White House and posing for pictures with a six-foot-tall Easter Bunny. No, really.
As Edward M. Gomez pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Noted the British newspaper the Daily Express yesterday: "Bush larked about with a 6-[foot-tall] Easter Bunny yesterday [Sunday, March 23] as his troops mourned their 4000th death in Iraq. The grim milestone was reached after four U.S. servicemen were killed when their patrol in southern Baghdad was hit by a roadside bomb on Easter Sunday. The president was pictured hugging the [Easter Bunny] at the White House as children...took over the South Lawn for the [annual] Easter Egg Roll...."
To express the breathtaking remorselessness of George W. Bush, it took not a pundit, politician or historian but an historical writer of fiction. To this day, no one has captured this aspect of our 43rd president more eloquently and honestly than E.L. Doctorow. In another passage from his 2004 essay, Doctorow lays bare the farce that is our president's mourning:
He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the 1,000 dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be.
They come to his desk not as youngsters with mothers and fathers or wives and children who will suffer to the end of their days a terribly torn fabric of familial relationships and the inconsolable remembrance of aborted life . . . they come to his desk as a political liability, which is why the press is not permitted to photograph the arrival of their coffins from Iraq.
How then can he mourn? To mourn is to express regret and he regrets nothing. He does not regret that his reason for going to war was, as he knew, unsubstantiated by the facts. He does not regret that his bungled plan for the war's aftermath has made of his mission-accomplished a disaster. He does not regret that, rather than controlling terrorism, his war in Iraq has licensed it. So he never mourns for the dead and crippled youngsters who have fought this war of his choice.
If you still believe President Bush truly mourns every, or any, of our fallen sons and daughters in Iraq (or Afghanistan), you might as well believe in the Easter Bunny.