Wall of Spin: Bush Takes the Charm Offense Abroad

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


Wall
of Spin

Phil
Spector’s signature technique as a record producer was the "wall of
sound," achieved by mixing tracks on top of one another so that not even
the tiniest interstice of silence or soloing remained. George Bush’s first
tour of Europe last week was mixed into a similar "wall of spin." The
press strategy Bush followed was the one his father’s Pentagon imposed on
war correspondents during the Panama invasion of 1989. Reporters traveling with
the President saw little, learned little and were forced to report on the White
House’s message of the day.

That
meant slim pickin’s. Bush may be the only American alive who could turn a
trip to a Spanish forest into a sensory-deprivation experience. Unlike Clinton,
Dubya has no travel bug. He has asked his staff to try to scale these big European
get-togethers back from two or so a year. Extraordinarily for a visiting American
president in Europe, Bush had no contact with the population at large. There was
a scripted visit to a Belgian chocolatier, followed by a brief, weird press conference.
The real trip disappeared beneath fluffy articles on either how well-briefed the
President was, or how much regular-guyness he exuded ("Plain-Talking Bush
Is Using His Charm On European Stage," as The New York Times
put it last Saturday).

There
were two big things to accomplish on the real trip: first, to bring Europeans
around to our way of viewing the Kyoto environmental accords. Our way of viewing
these accords is as a worthless piece of posturing by environmental busybodies.
That, secretly, is Europe’s way of viewing Kyoto, too. But in the half-decade
since 95 U.S. senators voted to condemn the treaty, Europeans have used the unequivocal
bluntness of America’s opposition to play the issue both ways. The Kyoto
treaty would slow down their economies every bit as much as it would ours, but
as long as our opposition is blunt and unequivocal, the Europeans can pose as
environmentalists with no fear that the accords will come into effect. The second
goal was to make Europeans comfortable with the decision of Bush and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld to unilaterally abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed
with Russia in 1972. Bush accomplished neither of these goals.

The
highlight of the trip was Bush’s stirring speech at Warsaw University Library.
"The partition of Europe was not a fact of geography," he said. "It
was an act of violence." Yes–but Bush had better have an idea of how
dead-seriously this kind of oratory is taken in Central Europe. If such gestures
are not merely retrospective chest-thumping, then they’re serious implicit
commitments that ought to be given a lot more thought than they have been. Britain
and France saw their credibility weakened in the 1930s by a commitment to defend
Poland that neither country had the zeal to enforce.

What’s
more, Bush’s eagerness to expand NATO risks creating new areas of friction.
The best European argument against abrogating the ABM treaties–that
diplomatic calm will do more than technological superiority to dispel the risk
of nuclear war–has implications for the NATO argument. Anything that pisses
off Russia, as NATO expansion surely does, falls afoul of the European way of
looking at defense. Europe has never been as keen on NATO expansion as the U.S.
But Bush seems to have no interest in European input, and spent much of the week
running to the head of a parade and claiming to be leading it. The big European
defense story at present is the European Union’s ongoing work at organizing
a "rapid reaction force" that France, at least, hopes will form the
core of a defense arm independent of the United States. Does anyone in the administration
realize this?

There
is an underside to charm. The failure of Bush’s Europe trip had its roots
in the very Middle American dippiness that led him to treat the tour as a "charm
offensive." Bush seems to believe our differences with the Europeans result
from their not believing we’re sincere. So when he spoke of the ABM
treaty, he described it as "a relic of the past" that "prevents
freedom-loving people from exploring the future." True enough, but that’s
true of every commitment made in the past. You could say that about the
Helsinki accords or the Versailles treaty or the Edict of Nantes. The more Bush
tried to give a rationale for abrogation, the deeper the doo-doo he plashed in.
"People know," he said, "that I’m intent upon doing what I
think is the right thing in order to make the world more peaceful." That’s
a platitude. It’s true of everyone. Even Stalin was "intent upon doing
what he thought was the right thing in order to make the world more peaceful."
It’s just that what he thought was the right thing was liquidating the parents
of the people Bush spoke to in Warsaw.

Brownsville
Station

One
of the arguments against capital punishment that never convinces anyone is that
it "coarsens" the culture. This argument doesn’t work because,
confronted with wanton violence, the culture wants to be coarsened. The
man on the street pondering the deeper meaning of Tim McVeigh does not say, "You
know, thinking about mass murder makes me wish I were more refined. I really ought
to eat more Reblochon and hang around in art galleries when I have the time."
No–he says, "Hang him high."

Whether
we’re for or against capital punishment, there’s no doubt that a widespread,
wished-for coarsening takes place. You could see the evidence last week.
As Mexican drug dealer Juan Raul Garza stepped out of the on-deck circle and made
his way toward the lethal-injection batter’s box in Terre Haute, no one seemed
able to tell the difference between him and McVeigh.

Garza
was convicted of murdering three people back when he ran his drug ring. One of
them was 36-year-old Tom Rumbo. Interviewed by The Washington Post,
Rumbo’s brother recalled, "The event literally tore our family apart…
He was a friend to everyone. He was not a sophisticated man. He liked sailing
his Hobie Cat on the Gulf Coast. He cared about his family. He was a father. He
was woven into his community."

Certainly,
but Garza has children, too. There’s no evidence Garza didn’t "care
about his family." And if Rumbo was "woven into his community,"
it’s partly because he worked for Garza. He supplied the trucks that
distributed Garza’s marijuana to America’s small-town main streets and
suburban high schools. When Texas authorities stopped one of his trucks, he ratted
Garza out, and Garza had him whacked.

Capital
punishment leads to a corruption of narrative. We try to slot people into neat
allegorical roles, as either Satanic perps or innocent victims. That Rumbo had
it coming is not something you’ll hear from me. Rumbo’s crimes aren’t
a justification for killing Rumbo any more than Garza’s are for killing Garza.
But Rumbo was a mid-level figure in a vast drug operation, and he was a snitch.
Let’s not confuse Rumbo with the seven-year-olds blown to smithereens in
the Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

 

Snow
Job

After
two weeks of saying he wouldn’t leave the Republican Party for the Democrats,
Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee now says that "if some issues that I feel
strongly about are not addressed, the answer is yes." In particular, he told
Tony Snow of Fox News that he would consider switching if the Republicans were
about to retake the majority. That’s an extraordinary statement. It amounts
to saying that his vote is contingent not on his beliefs (otherwise, why not join
the Democrats now?) but on his perception of where power lies–his own personal
power, not his constituents’. Chafee’s assessment of the power angle
is probably accurate enough. Where he’s deluded is in his belief that striking
a Jeffords-style bargain will seem less opportunistic if he’s announced it
beforehand.

 

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