The other morning, I got a call from Cheney canceling our scheduled interview. He came up with some lame excuse about grieving over a buddy recuperating from a pheasant hunt. Adding to his distress was the early demise of his pet canary. Apparently, the two tragedies had left him too distraught to give coherent answers. After expressing proper condolences for his bird and recommending a discount pet cemetery – I suggested that a stint in Vietnam might have improved his marksmanship. He meekly conceded my point before hanging up.
Needless to say, I was peeved about Cheney’s last minute cancellation. Interviews are my bread and butter. That explains why the landlord hasn’t seen a dime in six months. Unable to restrain my emotions, I picked up the phone and gave Karl Rove a piece of my mind. He said I was complaining to the wrong department and advised my to get in touch with Lewis Libby.
“Nice try, Karl. But we both know Libby is on an extended vacation to trim a few spruce trees with Judith Miller. I don’t like to issue threats but if you people keep this up –” I will never ever do another Cheney interview. And that’s a promise.”
My response caught Karl off guard. It must have felt like a cold water shower on a dark Alaska winter’s night. I knew his astute political instincts were going into overdrive and calculating the potential consequences of a refusal to deal with the alternative press. One thing about Karl –” he’s a real fixer. The man knew he had to ropa dope his way out of a major crisis.
The phone went silent for what seemed like two or three seconds –” something like an eternity in my line of work. The next thing I heard was an offer to send Bush to my office after lunch. Being in a charitable mood, I figured that was a decent enough compromise and decided to settle for a chat with Cheney’s right hand man.
Lunch was a leisurely affair. On Thursdays, I always take full advantage of Gino’s ‘all you can eat triple discount salad bar’. To make a long lunch story short, by the time I finished my third helping, I was ten minutes late for my presidential interview. As I approached my office –” which also doubles as my kitchen table –” I couldn’t help but notice the floating Armada in the sky. At first, I thought it was a mock training operation for the invasion of Venezuela. But then it occurred to me that the flying gunships were part of the president’s escort service.
An irate neighbor had forced his way through the Secret Service cordon and was threatening to tear down my anemic rose bush if I ever disturbed his peace again. Who can blame him? He works the night shift at a local chicken plant and has been out of sorts since the bird flu killed a couple of Albanians in –” of all places – Albania. I curtly told him to get a real job and threatened to retaliate by painting obscene graffiti on his lawn mower.
After greeting the president with the usual pleasantries and a couple of derogatory remarks about my neighbor, we sat down for a fireside chat. Unfortunately, I neglected to pay the utility bill and the occasion called for more light than heat.
The president is an amiable folksy fella. “Down in Texas our neighbors are more understanding. Otherwise, we shoot their pet dog.” It sounded like a splendid idea –” except that I don’t own a gun and my neighbor doesn’t have a dog.
The following is my vague recollection of my interview with the president. Due to the poor lighting, this first draft might be slightly embellished and anyone who owns a dictionary is perfectly entitled to correct all spelling mistakes.
Q: “Mr. President. Let’s not beat around the bush. We all know you’d rather visit a back alley dentist than show up for a mano-a-mano interview with the alternative press. So, let me warn you upfront that some of my questions are going to seem like the dental equivalent of a triple bypass root canal by a blind intern.”
President Bush: “Bring it on. Fortunately, I always travel in the company of my personal anesthesiologist.”
Q: “Let’s start with the war in Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction. No Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda. What were you thinking?”
President Bush: “You know something. We’re a hopeful society and we want to give all Iraqis the hope they will live through this ordeal. Frankly, they need to me more cooperative. We sent our finest men to help them get rid of a brutal dictator. The problem is that Iraqis are not nearly as hopeful or helpful as we expected. What I mean to say is …"
Q: “Before you go on, allow me to get back to my original question. I’m hopeful that you still remember what it is. I was asking you about the phantom WMD stockpiles.”
President Bush: “Well, we intend to continue with our efforts to build a democratic Iraq that will be an ally in the war on terror. We will stand up when they sit down. I mean we will sit down when the stand up. The bottom line is that we can both stand up or both sit down. It’s really up to the Iraqi people to step up to the plate and make that vital decision. Once our mission is accomplished, many of our detractors will stand up and take notice. That’s when we can all sit down and stop worrying about the terrorists.”
Q: “I don’t mean to be insistent. But I still want to know if you stand by your pre-war assessment that Iraq was an imminent threat to our national security.”
President Bush: “I appreciate that question. We’ve taken our case to the American people. On my watch, tyrants like Saddam will never threaten innocent life in our country. We will fight the terrorists over there before we have to fight them over here. The American people understand that.”
Q: “But some people are questioning the premise that Iraqis threatened our people over here before we invaded their people over there. Some have gone so far as to suggest that pre-war intelligence was deliberately and systematically fabricated to make a case for a war with a secret neo-con agenda.”
President Bush: “I know a lot of well meaning people fail to understand why we had to take the fight to the enemy. As we speak, our armed forces are doing the hard work of preserving our liberty and protecting our women and children from the terrorists. For their courage and their sacrifice, they deserve our support. Lest we forget, our way of life changed after 9/11. Our only option is to smoke the enemy out of his caves and drain the swamp. Once the mission is complete, our boys will come home to a grateful country and be greeted with the honor they deserve.”
Q: “OK. I get it. You don’t want to answer questions about pre-war intelligence or weapons of mass destruction. But you keep talking about the troops as if they are some monolithic band of brothers who enthusiastically support the war effort. Yet a recent Zogby poll reveals that most of them are not quite convinced that we should still be over there. They want to come home and soon. As commander-in-chief, have you failed to explain the mission to the troops.”
President Bush: “First of all, I resent the suggestion that I am being evasive. I will tell you this. Everybody who has the privilege to work in my administration knows that I don’t govern by poll numbers. I have gone to great effort to explain our mission in Iraq but some people in certain media circles are too distracted to notice the good news. We will not surrender to terrorists. Zarqawi and Al Qaeda will not intimidate us. And we will not retreat until we get the job done and raise the victory flag. The enemy is watching us. They think America is weak. They believe we will cut and run if they kill and maim a few thousand of our troops. They feel threatened by the emergence of a democratic Iraq that will be a beacon of hope in the region. That’s why they kill innocent life.”
Q: “Is that your final answer? Because frankly I am running out of time and need to do my laundry. But going back to the Zogby poll. Can you believe that most of our troops are under the mistaken impression that their mission is to take revenge for 9/11? You yourself are on record as having denied ever making such a suggestion. Don’t you think our young men and women in uniform should get a clear message that Saddam had nothing to do with the suicidal attacks on the World Trade Center? And could you give them a clear concise reason to justify their sacrifices.”
President Bush: “Our fine lads in the military know that Saddam was an evil dictator who brutalized his people. He attacked his neighbors. He used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1982. After 9/11, we no longer had the option to look the other way and wait for a mushroom cloud over New York or our nation’s capital.”
Q: “I’m confused. Are you again suggesting that Saddam possessed unconventional weapons capabilities and delivery systems capable of harming the United States of America.”
President Bush: “We went by the same intelligence as the British and the Israelis. If Saddam had weapons, he would not have hesitated to use them. We also faced the threat that he would transfer these lethal technologies to Al Qaeda terrorists. Saddam was a gathering threat. It was only after we invaded that we became certain that he didn’t have them. But we couldn’t take any chances. We went to war with the intelligence I have. And the level of intelligence I have told me to go smoke Saddam. “
Q: Mr. President, you couldn’t possibly be referring to the yellow cake uranium scam? I have before me a copy of the Downing Street memo that makes it clear that the intelligence was fixed to make a case for war. Powell’s Former Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson calls pre-war intelligence a ‘hoax on the American People.’ Yet, the Pentagon is taking its own sweet time conducting an internal investigation of Douglas Feith’s role is setting up the Office of Special Plans where most of the so-called intelligence was cooked up. Were you a victim of the hoax or a willing participant in the deception of the American people?
President Bush: “I know you people in the alternative press can get a little impertinent. But let me answer your question this way. My job is to delegate. Technically, the United States Postal Service is under my direct command. But don’t expect me to personally deliver your mail. If senior members of my staff were involved in any illegal activities –” they will be held to account. I’m not denying that a few of the architects of the war were slightly enthusiastic in their desire to bring democracy to the Middle East. They should be applauded for their idealism. But I took a serious look at the intelligence and it confirmed that Saddam posed a threat to our national security and we needed to attend to the matter.”
Q: “You certainly know how to tap dance, Mr. President. On a personal note, have you ever considered selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.”
President Bush: “After the dust settles in Iraq, we are hopeful that every Iraqi will live in freedom and prosperity and need more than a few vacuum cleaners. In the meantime, we are making our best effort to provide them with sufficient electricity to clean up the debris. Free people all over the world deserve modern appliances. As any historian will tell you, democratic societies never sabotage a neighbor’s lawn mower.”
Q: “It seems that every few months you come up with a new plan and follow it up with a media blitz to boost support for this increasingly unpopular quagmire. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you think that every new plan is basically an admission that the old plan didn’t work?”
President Bush: “A good leader is always open to new ideas. I am by nature a flexible sort of guy who rolls with the punches. We must adjust our plans to deal with unforeseen realities. Despite the steady progress in our mission, we are encountering unknowable outcomes that we didn’t count on in our original blue prints. Like the insurgency, the civil war and the possibility that Iran and Syria might emerge as a spoilers.”
Q: “I’ve also noticed that you usually stage these media events in front of neo-con audiences like the certifiable Likudniks at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies or the pro-Israeli lobbyists at the American Enterprise Institute. How much of the neo-con Kool Aid can one president digest?”
President Bush: “I don’t know what exactly you mean by ‘neo-cons.’ Sometimes certain people use that term to mean “the Jews.” Whatever one thinks about the war in Iraq, I don’t think anti-Semitism has any place in this debate.”
Q: “That sounds like a smear on those who would challenge the Likudnik ideology and credentials of the individuals who stridently marketed this war. I must remind you that many of the anti-war activists are Jewish. So, I hope you are not suggesting that anyone who wins an argument against a neo-con think tank is an anti-Semite. Because I take that as a personal insult.”
President Bush: That’s not what I said. I am sorry if I offended you.
Q: “Offense taken but apology accepted. Moving on. I went through that speech you gave to the FDD. Another day. Another speech. Another new plan for victory. Have you considered firing your speech writing team for criminal ineptitude and felonious redundancy? Every new plan comes with the same old sound bites. Are we paying these guys?
President Bush: I take you weren’t impressed with the speech.
Q: “I’ll take your answer for a ‘no.’ However, I did notice one new item in the speech. It’s the first time you have acknowledged that militias have infiltrated the security forces. You also mentioned a startling figure –” that less than 1 percent of last October’s police trainees were Sunni. So, I assume some folks in the Pentagon must have been aware that the police force was systematically being transformed into the military arm of SCIRI –” the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq –” a group that was established, armed, trained and indoctrinated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It’s also fair to assume that you must have heard of the well-documented accounts of police forces acting as death squads and operating torture cells a few blocks from the Ministry of the Interior. Was this just an oversight that you are now moving to correct? Why has it taken since last October to address this disturbing development? Was this just another blunder or an unintended consequence of whatever your last plan was? Some Iraqis are suggesting it was a deliberate plot to incite a civil war.”
President Bush: “That’s a long question. Before I give you an answer, I’ll have to review my speech and figure out what I was talking about. I can assure you and the American people that our commanders in the field are adjusting their tactics and strategies to handle new developments. War is an art –” not a science. We do our best to correctly assess our situation, adjust our goals and come up with solutions. Our mission is to complete the job and emerge victorious in our fight with a vicious enemy. On 9/11, we saw the nature of that enemy. We will never forget and we will never retreat.”
Q: “Your Ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently said that the invasion of Iraq has opened a Pandora’s Box that threatens the stability of the whole region and increases the terror threat. How do you respond?”
President Bush: “Pandora’s Box? Well – you know – life is like a box of chocolates –” you never know what you’re going to get. Everything hasn’t worked out the way we would have wanted. We’ve made a few mistakes and we’re taking corrective measures. But the terrorists are determined to roll back our progress in bringing democracy to the region. Unlike the Ambassador, I personally wouldn’t buy a box of chocolates from a girl named Pandora. That’s why I am a little more optimistic. I think the media has really neglected to tell the whole story in Iraq. Good news doesn’t sell.
We all know that. But the Iraqi people see tangible evidence that their lives are better than under Saddam.”
Q: “OK. But let’s go back to the bad news for a moment. Sectarian militias allied with Iran are now in virtual control of the ministry of the interior. Police officers fully attired in their official uniforms moonlight as death squads. The insurgency is still raging. Baghdad morgue employees say thousands of dead bodies have been delivered to their facilities with obvious signs of torture. Reconstruction efforts are now in deep freeze. Iraq has become a breeding ground for terrorists. Three months after the elections, the Iraqi parliament has yet to convene –” much less put together a functional government. The rule of law no longer exists; gangs roam the streets preying on innocent victims and kidnapping has become a growth industry. Now, tell me more about the good news?”
President Bush: “Iraqis voted in democratic elections. Saddam is on trial. We are hopeful that, once a new government is in place, the situation will improve very rapidly. We expect the insurgency will run out of steam and we can then begin do withdraw our troops. The decision on the number of troops we need to complete our mission will be made by our generals based on their best judgment of the conditions on the ground.”
Q: “You keep using that word ‘Hopeful’. Is ‘hope’ a foreign policy? Did we lose 2300 men, kill tens of thousands of Iraqis, torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib, use illegal phosphorous weapons in Fallujah, demolish the country’s basic infrastructure, ignite a civil war and waste hundreds of billions of our tax dollars only to be left with a hope and a prayer?”
President Bush: “I pray every day for the safety of our troops. Our mission in Iraq is a small price to pay for the security of our country. As your commander in chief, my primary responsibility is to defend our nation against foreign enemies –” regardless of the cost. We must succeed in Iraq to provide a hopeful future for our children and grandchildren.”
Q: “Most presidents take at least a passing glance at polls. The majority of Iraqis want us to pack up and leave. A majority of Americans –” including our troops –” seem to agree with the Iraqis. John Murtha and other congressmen wanted us out in six months –” six months ago. Can’t you read the handwriting on the wall?”
President Bush: “Like I said, I don’t govern by American or Iraqi polls. I’m a leader and my job is to lead not to follow poll numbers. Poll numbers go south and poll numbers go west but I still have the responsibility of being the war president in the East Wing. War is an unpredictable business. Some people lose their nerves in the heat of battle. It’s true that some members of Congress have defected to Cindy Sheehan. But the vast majority stands by my decision to initiate hostilities –” including Senator Clinton and other senior Democrats. I suspect that the renegades will probably come to regret the abandonment of their commander-in-chief half way through the battle.”
Q: “How about you, sir. Do you have any regrets? Have you ever considered doing what LBJ did and stepping down as commander-in-chief?”
President Bush: “I should have seen that question coming. It’s the first time you’ve called me ‘sir.’ No. I have no regrets. I make my decisions based on my gut feelings. I believe I made the right decision and I still say we should stay the course. If we leave now, we will abandon Iraq to Zarqawi and Bin Laden. We owe it to the Iraqi people to support their freedom march. Liberty is the God given right of every mother’s child. Is there anything as splendid as freedom. “
Q: Mr. President: “that was a splendid imitation of Mel Gibson. But could you refrain from pounding on my kitchen table. I already have enough broken furniture to keep this fire going.”
President Bush: (inaudible and unprintable)
Q: “Most Americans now believe that Iraq is sliding into a state of anarchy and civil war and that they don’t seem to share your passion for a mission they no longer understand.”
President Bush: “I think they are mistaken and misinformed. Let’s not prejudge history based on polls. We are in a situation that calls for patience and the threat of civil war is really overstated.”
Q: “Allow me to be a little confrontational. Rumsfeld has just testified before Congress that in the event of civil war –” American troops would take a neutral stand and leave it to the Iraqi army. Is that official policy?”
President Bush: “The policy of my administration is to prepare contingencies for all possibilities. In the unlikely event of a civil war, it will be up to the newly elected Iraqi government to shoulder the responsibility of intervening and cooling tempers. That’s not an appropriate role for our troops.”
Q: “Once again, you have me a little confused. If it’s their burden to handle a civil war that came about as a result of our intervention – why didn’t we consider it their responsibility to get rid of Saddam Hussein without our intervention?”
President Bush: “I don’t understand the question.”
Q: “Yes you do.”
President Bush: “No I don’t.”
Q: “Do you want me to rephrase the question?”
President Bush: “No I don’t.”
Q: “Do you want another question?”
President Bush: “No I don’t.”
Q: “Well then, I am just going to have to end this interview and attend to my laundry.”
President Bush: “I get to say when you do your laundry.”
Q: “No you don’t. This interview is over, Mr. President.”
President Bush: “No it’s not. I’m your commander-in-chief.”
Q: “No you’re not.”
President Bush: “Yes I am.”
Q: “Not for Long.”
President Bush: “This is your last interview.”
Q: “No it’s not.”
President Bush: “No more answers.”
Q: “Fine. No more questions you can’t answer.”
President Bush: “I can live with that. I take it we have an agreement.”
Q: “We do?”
President Bush: “It’s the same agreement I have with the mainstream media lads. In a spirit of patriotism, they have agreed to never ask questions I can’t answer. I appreciate the fact that you grasp the wisdom of their policy.”
As we bade each other a fond farewell, the president gave me a few ‘off the record’ tips on how to sabotage my neighbor’s lawn mower in the event of a breakout of inter-communal hostilities. And I reciprocated by giving him a few pointers on how to cope with early retirement.
Looking over my final notes, I became convinced that I would have gotten pretty much the same answers from Dick Cheney. As Bush’s flying Armada disappeared into the sunset, I got my laundry bag ready and couldn’t help but wonder who will end up paying the bill for cleaning the emperor’s new clothes.
Author’s Notes in the Margin: To those Iraqis and Americans who have lost their lives in this unilateral war of choice. To their families and loved ones and to the wounded who will bear the permanent scars of this conflict. To those anti-war dissidents who had the courage of their convictions and resisted the jingoism and yellow journalism that paved the path to war. To those who had the intellectual courage to change their pro-war stance and grasp the lunacy of this venture. To the Cindy Sheehans who led the anti-war struggle. Please accept my apologies if you find this article in any way offensive. I do not make light of the pain and brutality that has been inflicted by this useless war. On the third anniversary of the war, I share your anger and your pain. It is not my intent to treat the subject with levity but to portray it for the farce that it is and to indict George Bush as the man who bears primary responsibility for unleashing the carnage and slaughter that claims new victims every day.