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The banal and the evil 

The Washington Post, which has much to atone for, will doubtlessly win an award or two, maybe a Pulitzer, for its painstaking reporting on the cunning and treachery that guided decision-making at the White House under George W. Bush.

Everyone knows about the huge series in the Post last month on how Vice President Dick Cheney manipulated White House decisions from the war in Iraq to tax policy and more trivial matters. Even when President Bush wanted to do right, such as when he rejected Cheney’s plan for a second big round of tax cuts for the rich because he was sure that his tax cuts in 2001 had already amply rewarded their support, Cheney adroitly went behind his back. He maneuvered Bush into big capital gains reductions and accelerated depreciation for capital investments for big corporations, which further exploded the deficit and unmasked the president’s last claim to fiscal responsibility. All that Bush had really wanted to do for the rich then was to let them skate the taxes on their stock dividends.

The Post series did not dispel the biggest suspicion of all and undertake the biggest as-yet-unreported story of the decade: How exactly did Cheney land the job? We know that he chaired a committee that was supposed to find the best candidates for vice president for the Bush ticket in 2000 and that after a spell he pretty much concluded that it had to be him. Was Cheney the only one who he and the neocons were sure could manipulate the silly and banal man who had won the nomination?

The selection of Cheney, one that the Post gushingly admired at the time, is the most historic of all the disastrous choices Bush made. Theodore H. White, who wrote the four definitive president-making books starting in 1960, would have told us by now how the clueless nominee got snookered into ensconcing Darth Vader at his right elbow.

But this is about another story in the Post, one that the White House clearly had generated but that still subtly tells us just as much about the president. The Post reported on July 2 that Bush had been quietly bringing authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to help him sort through what was happening to him. It is supposed to counter the notion that George W. Bush is not curious, never engages in any reflection upon history or the underpinnings of his momentous decisions and is entirely heedless of public opinion and intellectual currents. In the end, the story pretty much confirms the common wisdom.

Unwilling or unable to go almost anywhere in public in his own land or the wider world unless the audience is narrowly screened so that he will not hear a disturbing sound, Bush is bringing thinkers into the executive living quarters for soda and sparkling water and to answer a few questions: What lessons does history provide for him in his current desperate situation? What is good and evil in 2007? Why do people suddenly hate America, or is it just him they hate?

The Post tracked down a few of the thinkers to see how the brainstorming went. They were gracious about the president, talking about his amazing serenity in the midst of so much cataclysm. But the discussions were not couched in a way that permitted second-guessing of his decisions on the war or anything else.

“You don’t get any feeling of somebody crouching down in the bunker,” Irwin M. Stelzer, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, said after one Oval Office session of scholars. “This is either extraordinary self-confidence or out of touch with reality. I can’t tell you which.”

He might have got a clue from his own exchange with the president. In a number of meetings Bush apparently was baffled about the United States’ unpopularity around the world, in regions where it had always been revered.

His question for Stelzer was this: “Do you think our unpopularity abroad is a result of my personality?”

And he laughed, Stelzer said. “I said ‘In part.’ And he laughed again.”

That was it. And that is the president of the United States. If the Hudson scholar believes that any significant part of the United States’ loss of global esteem, documented by the Pugh Center’s poll of foreign opinion, is owing to Bush’s swagger and smirk, he is as out of touch as the president.

If it were as simple as that, and not the demonstration of monumental incompetence in all tasks big and small and the destruction of bedrock American values of human rights, civil liberties and truth, everything would be set right by the next election. Sadly, it is not so simple and it was not recorded that any of his brainy guests could bring themselves to tell him so.

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