The Handbasket Report

Tonight, President Bush delivers his State of the Union address. It will be a tedious affair, guaranteed to have at least one "surprise" simply because we've already been told, endlessly, pretty much what he'll say.

The whole enterprise would be more interesting if, like the Super Bowl -- another overhyped event dissected by far too many play-by-play network anchors -- Bush's speech was overshadowed by the expensive and creative commercials. It would certainly be consistent with the spirit of Bush's presidency; the RNC is probably looking into it for next year.

This year, Bush will deliver, for the 547th time, his long-awaited Comprehensive Case to the American People as to Why We Should Kick Saddam's Fanny. He'll urge the privatization of Medicare (though he won't quite say it that way). He'll demand a comprehensive tax reform package so that this coming April 15 we will each be assigned a billionaire to whom we will make our check out directly.

He won't quite say that unswervingly, either.

And what Bush won't say at all could fill volumes. The reasons why millions of people around the world are in the streets protesting against America each week; the reasons why many tens of thousands (at least) of Muslims have probably newly pledged their lives to committing terrorist acts against America; the reasons for the remarkably deep anger among those Americans who dislike Bush's presidency; all will not find voice tonight, either in Dubya's speech or the "reply" by yet another Democratic version of Republican Lite -- this time Washington State Gov. Gary Locke.

In his home state, Locke has enraged most legislators and nearly all voters in his own party by responding to a severe state budget shortfall (over $2 billion in a $23 billion budget) with a "no new taxes, ever" budget plan that cuts spending mostly in social services. Republicans themselves are either delighted with Locke's priorities or alarmed that even by Republican standards they go too far.

Locke has dreams of a vice presidency some day -- he's relatively young, photogenic, Asian-American, and a shoo-in for a third term next year. He's remained popular by smiling a lot and refusing to take any actions in his first two terms to respond to his state's most urgent problems -- leaving legislators to face the heat as they debate various unpopular options.

This is the national Democratic Party's idea of a comprehensive rebuttal to George W. Bush's frontal assault on what America stands for: Smile a lot, do nothing, and try to cash whatever corporate checks the Bush juggernaut might have overlooked.

Meanwhile, in the two years of his presidency -- and particularly the 15 months since 9/11 -- Bush has turned American government, and America's role in the world, upside down. It's more than the headline items, like the childish bellicosity and the massive tax breaks for the obscenely rich. Every day, far away from the public eye, the Bush Administration has been busy remaking America's relationship to the world and Americans' relationship to our government.

Regulatory and judicial appointments; end runs around Congress through arbitrary rule changes; unprecedented expansion of police and secret agency powers at the expense of both civil liberties and the Constitution itself; a direct bid to make evangelical Christianity our governing religion; runaway spending which, combined with the tax cuts, amounts not just to class warfare but to a massive, and wildly successful, wealth transfer scheme. Examples of each of these threads of the Bush crusade, and many more, ooze out of Washington each day. And the Democrats, almost without exception, have either cowered or applauded.

A favorite tactic of all presidents in their State of the Union addresses is to tell the representative anecdote. So here are a handful of anecdotes for our Handbasket Report -- because after two years, an oversized, gas-guzzling handbasket is surely what America is being taken for a ride in.

  • Ever heard of Jerry Thacker? No? Well, of course not. Jerry's been down on his luck lately, the sort of touching story we love here in the Handbasket Report. A few years ago, his wife was infected with the HIV virus through a blood transfusion, and ol' Jerry -- a Pennsylvania marketing consultant, formerly employed by the notorious, er, antimiscegenationists at Bob Jones University -- was then infected as well. True to his Bob Jones-honed religious beliefs, Jerry, despite his personal misfortune, has rededicated his life to public education: for example, publicly referring to AIDS as "the gay plague."

    Last week, the Bush Administration selected layperson Gay Plague Jerry to serve on the Presidential Advisory Commission on HIV and AIDS, a prestigious panel that since the Reagan years has advised federal agencies on the best ways of dealing with the AIDS pandemic. AIDS and HIV service organizations and AIDS/HIV patient groups are outraged by Thacker's appointment. But who cares about them? God already judged them, right?

    Any good Handbasket anecdote should have a pithy moral, and Thacker's personal tragedy does seem to have an obvious one. Repulsive as the man sounds, and as tragic as his personal circumstance may be, it does smack just a wee bit of a Divine Sense of Humor -- sort of like a Klansman contracting sickle cell anemia.

  • Along with Iraq and tax cuts for the superrich, the Bush team's third pre-election priority this year is to privatize Medicare. This past week, reports surfaced that in late December -- as if to get the privatization push underway a bit early -- a letter was quietly sent out to Medicare program contractors in each state. The letter terminated, effective immediately, all proactive efforts to provide patient or client information. Contractors are still allowed -- for now -- to answer direct patient inquiries, but there will be no more community programs and public outreach to explain things like what benefits, under Medicare's byzantine rules, its elderly and chronically ill or disabled patients are eligible for; or how to go about applying for those benefits or for reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses.

    This was the Bush Medicare program's holiday gift to its clients -- perhaps a warmup for the rapidly approaching day when those fixed income clients will be dumped, against their will, into the even less forthcoming world of HMOs and insurance industry parasites. But for now, Medicare officials explain that the move was simply a bid to save money. It was done, in classic Dubya style, by cheating people out of benefits they are entitled to in a program they, and we, have funded all our lives; it was done by targeting the people who by definition are the sickest, most disabled, least likely to have personal support, and therefore least likely to be able to easily negotiate Medicare's bureaucratic maze. It is an effort to offset the money Medicare is paying out to drug companies, HMOs, and bureaucrats by cheating it out the people most in need of help and least able to fight back. It's a perfect snapshot of America Under Dubya.

  • Last Thursday, at Bush Administration urging, the newly Republican-controlled Senate voted to lift existing restrictions on selling American weaponry to Indonesia. The Indonesian military, whose systematic execution over more than two decades of one third of the population of East Timor is only one of the genocides in its proud and unrepentant history, is still populated and run by many of the same thugs, never punished, who carried out those crimes. The ongoing, unapologetic atrocities provoked such a global outcry that even the Clinton Administration -- until Bush, the most aggressive arms merchants in American history -- was forced to curb its weapons sales to Djakarta's military. Now, under Dubya, we -- and they -- are back in business.

    With East Timor newly independent and "terrorist" resistance to Indonesian brutality sparking nasty fighting in Aceh, Irian Jaya, and other densely populated ends of the archipelago, those same Indonesian war criminals will now get brand-new, state-of-the-Dark-Arts kill toys. Naturally, virtually nobody in this country noticed this change in U.S. policy. But particularly since many of the civilian populations being targeted by Indonesia's unsavory practices are Islamic, a lot of people in the Islamic world noticed. As you may recall, those are the people the Bush brain trust has vowed to better tell our story to, so that they, too, will love America.

    These days, across the Islamic world, it's mostly the dictators, generals and practitioners of torture who love America. They, like the Indonesian generals, are perfect candidates for a White House dinner. Bet they're all Kissinger Associates clients, too.

    And so it goes. The Handbasket Report is the State of the Union, because at every level, high and low, the Bushites have been remarkably audacious -- and the Democrats, in response, timid. The sum result is the goal of remaking America into a country a dimly intelligent, arrogant, rich, white, male, heterosexual, evangelical Christian bully can truly love. Unfortunately, the rest of the world will loathe such a country and actively resist its empire-building. And the Bush America will be, invariably, a country that those of us not thrown in jail will still find a dreary, exhausting, culturally deadening place.

    The State of the Union address is no longer, in any real sense, a report to Congress on the union's state. It's now advertising; invariably it will sound great and the applause will flow. They've got unlimited asphalt they disguise as good intentions, and they're paving over everything in a thousand planet radius.

    And if the Handbasket Report isn't to become an annual address -- or a daily one -- it's up to each of us to ensure that our country is not turned into George Bush's version: an America antithetical to everything we've ever been taught that our country stands for. George Bush is the culmination -- so far -- of two decades in which our democracy, prosperity and freedom have been stolen. It's time to get them back. And we will.

    God bless, and good night.
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