Mark Danner

How George Orwell's Dystopian Novel '1984' Illuminates the U.S.'s Endless War on Terror

The following is an excerpt from the new book Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War by Mark Danner (Simon & Schuster, 2016): 

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Bush Has the Nerve to Say He Found Inner Peace on Iraq

Introduction note by Tom Dispatch editor Tom Engelhardt.

"I made my arguments and went down in flames. History will prove me right."

Yes, that was George W. Bush. No, he wasn't talking about Iraq. The date was September 1993 and Bush, then managing general partner of the Texas Rangers, had voted against "realignment and a new wild-card system" at a Major League Baseball owners meeting. "Bush," writes Jerry Crasnick of, "was the lone dissenter in a 27-1 vote."

Skip a few years to February 2003, when Bush found himself involved in another owners' meeting involving "realignment" -- in this case, of the Middle East -- and what was certainly an attempt to install a new "wild-card system." Again, he cast his lone vote. At stake was the fate of the planet and, unlike in 1993, it didn't matter, in the end, how the other owners, then gathering at the United Nations, voted.

The catastrophic results of this realignment effort, we now know well; that Bush again believes history will prove him "right," we also know. Whatever documentation may exist for that 1993 baseball meeting, recently we received a striking document from February 22, 2003 -- a transcript, published in the Spanish newspaper El País, of a conversation at the President's "ranch" in Crawford, Texas, between Bush and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. This was less than a month before the President launched his invasion of Iraq. As recorded, his was a remarkable performance, a window into the Presidential mind -- and, as with the famed Downing Street Memo when no one else in the mainstream was willing to publish it, the New York Review of Books is publishing this transcript, newly translated, in its upcoming issue. (It can now be read at the Review's website.)

The invaluable Mark Danner, who has covered the Iraq War and the Bush administration for the New York Review of Books, has written an illuminating piece on what we can now see of a President, at the edge of an invasion, and eerily "at peace with himself." More than four-and-a-half years and the same President later, it remains a chilling vision of the man the Supreme Court put in charge of what his followers once loved to hail as the planet's "lone superpower," its New Rome. Thanks to the kindness of the editors of the Review, it is posted below. Tom

"The Moment Has Come to Get Rid of Saddam"Bush's Faith Run Over by History
By Mark Danner

[This essay appears in the November 8, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.
-- Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar to President Bush, from the Crawford Transcript of February 22, 2003

Surely one of the agonizing attributes of our post-September 11 age is the unending need to reaffirm realities that have been proved, and proved again, but just as doggedly denied by those in power, forcing us to live trapped between two narratives of present history, the one gaining life and color and vigor as more facts become known, the other growing ever paler, brittler, more desiccated, barely sustained by the life support of official power.

At the center of our national life stands the master narrative of this bifurcated politics: the Iraq war, fought to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, brought to a quick and glorious conclusion on a sunlit aircraft carrier deck whose victory celebration almost instantly became a national embarrassment. That was four and a half years ago; the war's ending and indeed its beginning, so clearly defined for that single trembling instant, have long since vanished into contested history.

The latest entry in that history appeared on September 26, when the Spanish daily El País published a transcript of a discussion held on February 22, 2003 -- nearly a month before the war began -- between President Bush and José María Aznar, then prime minister of Spain. Though the leaders met at Mr. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, some quickly dubbed the transcript Downing Street Memo II, and indeed the document does share some themes with that critical British memorandum, mostly in its clear demonstration of the gap between what President Bush and members of his administration were saying publicly during the run-up to the war and what they were saying, and doing, in more private settings. Though Hans Blix, the UN chief inspector whose teams were then scouring Iraq for the elusive weapons, had yet to deliver his report -- two weeks later he would tell the Security Council that it would take not "years, nor weeks, but months" to complete "the key remaining disarmament tasks" -- the President is impatient, even anxious, for war. "This is like Chinese water torture," he says of the inspections. "We have to put an end to it."

Even in discussing Aznar's main concern, the vital need to give the war international legitimacy by securing a second UN resolution justifying the use of force -- a resolution that, catastrophically, was never achieved -- little pretense is made that an invasion of Iraq is not already a certainty. "If anyone vetoes," the President tells Aznar,
"we'll go. Saddam Hussein isn't disarming. We have to catch him right now. Until now we've shown an incredible amount of patience. There are two weeks left. In two weeks we'll be militarily ready.... We'll be in Baghdad by the end of March."

The calendar has already been determined -- not by the inspectors and what they might or might not find, nor by the diplomats and what they might or might not negotiate, but by the placement and readiness of warplanes and soldiers and tanks.

When did war become a certainty? The gradations of the President's attitudes are impossible to chart, though as far back as the previous July, the head of British intelligence, Sir Richard Dearlove, on his famous consultations in Washington, had detected "a perceptible shift in attitude." As Dearlove was quoted reporting to the British cabinet in the most famous passage in the Downing Street Memo:
"Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route...."1

It is on this point -- the need of the Europeans to have a UN resolution justifying force, and thus a legal, or at least internationally legitimate, war, and the deep ambivalence among Bush administration officials about taking "the UN route" -- that much of the drama of the Crawford transcript turns, making it into a kind of playlet pitting the sinuous, subtle, and sophisticated European, worried about the great opposition in Europe, and in Spain in particular, to an American-led war of choice with Iraq ("We need your help with our public opinion," Aznar tells Bush), against the blustery, impatient, firing-straight-from-the-hip American cowboy. Bush wants to put out the second resolution on Monday. Aznar says, "We'd prefer to wait until Tuesday." Bush counters, "Monday afternoon, taking the time zone differences into account." To Bush's complaint that the UN process was like "Chinese water torture," Aznar offers soothing understanding and a plea to take a breath:
"Aznar: I agree, but it would be good to be able to count on as many people as possible. Have a little patience.

"Bush: My patience has run out. I won't go beyond mid-March.

"Aznar: I'm not asking you to have indefinite patience. Simply that you do everything possible so that everything comes together."

Aznar, a right-wing Catholic idealist who believes in the human rights arguments for removing Saddam Hussein, finds himself on a political knife edge: more than nine Spaniards in ten oppose going to war and millions have just marched through the streets of Madrid in angry opposition; he is intensely concerned to gain a UN resolution making the war an internationally sanctioned effort and not just an American-led "aggression." Bush responds to his plea for diplomacy with a rather remarkable litany of threats directed at the current temporary members of the Security Council. "Countries like Mexico, Chile, Angola, and Cameroon have to know," he declares, "that what's at stake is the United States' security and acting with a sense of friendship toward us." In case Aznar doesn't get the point, he describes to the Spaniard what each nation will suffer if it doesn't recognize "what's at stake":
"[Chilean President Ricardo] Lagos has to know that the Free Trade Agreement with Chile is pending Senate confirmation, and that a negative attitude on this issue could jeopardize that ratification. Angola is receiving funds from the Millennium Account that could also be compromised if they don't show a positive attitude. And Putin must know that his attitude is jeopardizing the relations of Russia and the United States."

What is striking about this passage is not only how crude and clumsy it is, with the President of the United States spouting threats like a movie gangster -- he presumably wants the Spaniard to convey them directly to the various leaders -- but how ineffective the bluster turned out to be. None of these countries changed their position on a second resolution, which, in the event, was never brought before the Security Council to what would have been certain defeat. Bush, in making the threats, did the one thing an effective leader is supposed always to avoid: he issued an order that was not obeyed, thus demonstrating the limits of his power. (The Iraq war itself, meant as it was to "shock and awe" the world and particularly U.S. adversaries, did much the same thing.)

Along with bluster comes stern self-righteousness. Aznar asks whether "there's a possibility of Saddam Hussein going into exile" -- "the biggest success," he tells the President, "would be to win the game without firing a single shot" -- and Bush answers that there is: the Egyptians
"say he's indicated that he's willing to go into exile if they let him take $1 billion and all the information that he wants about the weapons of mass destruction."

And would such exile, asks Aznar, come with a "guarantee" (presumably against prosecution or extradition)? "No guarantee," declares Bush. "He's a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal. Compared to Saddam, Milosevic would be a Mother Teresa." Though it's hard to evaluate whether Saddam was really willing to leave Iraq -- the Egyptians, Saudis, and others who were then touting the possibility all had an interest in seeing Saddam leave and the Sunni power structure remain in place -- it is inconceivable that he would do so without some sort of guarantee, a possibility Bush forecloses.

What is most interesting in this passage, and indeed in the entire transcript, is what it reveals about Bush's attitudes and character. One moment he blusters and threatens, the next he speaks reverently and self-righteously about how he is guided by "a historic sense of responsibility":
"When some years from now History judges us, I don't want people to ask themselves why Bush, or Aznar, or Blair didn't face their responsibilities. In the end, what people want is to enjoy freedom. Not long ago, in Romania, I was reminded of the example of Ceausescu: it took just one woman to call him a liar for the whole repressive system to come down. That's the unstoppable power of freedom. I am convinced that I'll get that resolution."

He did not get it, of course. Despite his strong conviction, neither Chile nor Angola nor Russia proved ready to change their votes, threat or no threat. There is a difference between being sure and being right. Bush's conviction, here as elsewhere, came not from an independent analysis of the facts -- of the interests and intentions of the nations involved -- but from the wellspring of faith. He has confused rhetoric, however uplifting, and reality. Aznar, the sophisticated European, comments wryly on this. It is the most Jamesian moment in the playlet of Crawford; one can almost see the subtly arched eyebrow:
"Aznar: The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.

Bush: I am an optimist, because I believe that I'm right. I'm at peace with myself. It's up to us to face a serious threat to peace."

It is worrying, as Aznar remarks, to rely on optimism grounded only in belief. The Spaniard knows that gaining that second Security Council resolution, and thus the critical international legitimacy for the war, will be very hard; in many nations, launching a war against Iraq, particularly before the UN inspectors have finished their work, is deeply unpopular. Faith cannot replace facts, nor can a historic sense of mission. Both may be personally comforting -- they plainly are to George W. Bush -- but they don't obviate the need to know things.

Bush came to office a man who knew little of the world, who had hardly traveled outside the country, who knew nothing of the practice of foreign policy and diplomacy. Two years later, after the attacks of September 11 and his emergence as a self-described "war president," he has come to know only that this lack of knowledge is not a handicap but perhaps even a strength: that he doesn't need to know things in order to believe that he's right and to be at peace with himself. He has redefined his weakness -- his lack of knowledge and experience -- as his singular strength. He believes he's right. It is a matter of generations and destiny and freedom: it is "up to us to face a serious threat to peace." For Bush, faith, conviction, and a felt sense of destiny -- not facts or knowledge -- are the real necessities of leadership.

So Bush is confident -- confident about winning the second resolution and thus international legitimacy; confident, because "we're developing a very strong humanitarian aid package," that "there's a good basis for a better future" in a "post-Saddam Iraq." In fact, of course, at the very moment he is telling these things to the Spanish prime minister in Crawford, Texas, the postwar planning in Washington is a shambles, consisting of little more than confusion and savage internecine warfare between the Defense and State Departments.

The plan for governance in "post-Saddam Iraq" does not exist, all discussion of it having been paralyzed by a bitter dispute between officials in the Pentagon, State Department, and CIA that the President will never resolve. The Iraqi "civil society" that he tells Aznar is "relatively strong" will soon be decimated by the prolonged looting and chaos that follows on the entry of American troops into Baghdad. The "good bureaucracy" he boasts about in Iraq will shortly be destroyed by a radical de-Baathification ordered by the American proconsul that he almost certainly never approved. The Iraqi army that he decides in early March will be retained and used for reconstruction will instead be peremptorily dissolved, to catastrophic effect.

If these radical departures from the President's chosen plan have dampened his optimism and faith -- or indeed have even led him to try to discover what happened -- there is no evidence of it. When Bush's latest biographer, Robert Draper, asked him why the Iraqi army had not been kept intact, as the President had decided it should be, Bush replied, "Yeah, I can't remember. I'm sure I said, 'This is the policy, what happened?'"3

"This is the policy, what happened?" As a subtitle for a history of the Iraq war, one could certainly do worse. Prime Minister Aznar is gone now, having been fatally weakened by his support for the Iraq war and the failure to obtain United Nations support for it; almost exactly a year after the war began, jihadists targeted the Madrid train station, killing nearly two hundred Spaniards and sending the prime minister to electoral defeat. Tony Blair, the star of the Downing Street Memo, is gone as well, his popularity having never recovered from his staunch support of the war. George W. Bush, on the other hand, nearly five years after he launched the war, remains confident of victory, just as he was confident he would win that second UN resolution. There is no sign that his confidence is any more firmly rooted in reality now than it was then. Instead of reality we have faith -- in himself, in the deity, in "the unstoppable power of human freedom." He stands as lead actor in his own narrative of history, a story that grows steadily paler and more contested, animated solely by the authority of official power. George W. Bush remains, we are told, "at peace with himself."


1. Dearlove's consultations had taken place on July 20, 2002, in Washington and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and he reported to a meeting of the British "war cabinet" at Ten Downing Street three days later. See Mark Danner, The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History (New York Review Books, 2006), pp. 6-7 and pp. 88-89.

2. And not just for George Bush. The mystique of leadership -- of faith over facts -- pulled others along in its wake. Condoleezza Rice, for example, makes a curious appearance in the discussion, assuring the President and the Spanish prime minister that she has "the impression" that Hans Blix, whose report is due the following week, "will now be more negative than before about the Iraqis' intentions." In fact, quite the opposite: Blix will tell the Security Council that "the key remaining disarmament tasks" can be achieved not in "years, nor weeks, but months." Here is what Blix told the Security Council on March 7, 2003:
"How much time would it take to resolve the key remaining disarmament tasks? While cooperation can and is to be immediate, disarmament and at any rate the verification of it cannot be instant. Even with a proactive Iraqi attitude, induced by continued outside pressure, it would still take some time to verify sites and items, analyse documents, interview relevant persons, and draw conclusions. It would not take years, nor weeks, but months. Neither governments nor inspectors would want disarmament inspection to go on forever. However, it must be remembered that in accordance with the governing resolutions, a sustained inspection and monitoring system is to remain in place after verified disarmament to give confidence and to strike an alarm, if signs were seen of the revival of any proscribed weapons programmes."
Blix's conclusions were not only not "more negative than before about the Iraqis' intentions"; he suggests that inspections of all the suspect sites could be completed in a matter of months. President Bush, needless to say, is not willing to wait for months, or even for weeks, for the additional inspections to be completed. What would have happened if he had been? On the one hand, the administration's willingness to delay might have secured a deal whereby additional countries would have supported "all means necessary" to deal with Saddam. On the other, the inspectors, given more time, would have discovered no weapons, likely leading the administration to argue that the inspections themselves were useless -- not that the weapons didn't exist. But the momentum for war would have been blunted.

3. According to the New York Times account of this exchange:
"Mr. Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein -- era military, 'The policy was to keep the army intact; didn't happen.'

"But when Mr. Draper pointed out that Mr. Bush's former Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, had gone ahead and forced the army's dissolution and then asked Mr. Bush how he reacted to that, Mr. Bush said, 'Yeah, I can't remember, I'm sure I said, "This is the policy, what happened?"' But, he added, 'Again, Hadley's got notes on all of this stuff,' referring to Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser."
See Jim Rutenberg, "In Book, Bush Peeks Ahead to His Legacy,"The New York Times, September 2, 2007, and Robert Draper, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (Free Press, 2007), p. 211.

Mark Danner, who has written about foreign affairs and politics for two decades, is the author of The Secret Way to War, Torture and Truth, and The Massacre at El Mozote, among other books. He is Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs, Politics, and the Humanities at Bard College. His writing on Iraq and other subjects appears regularly in the New York Review of Books. His work is archived at

Why the Memo Matters

[On May 16, the New York Review of Books put the original Downing Street memo in print in this country for the first time. Mark Danner wrote an accompanying analysis, The Secret Way to War. In response to that piece, John Walcott of Knight Ridder news service wrote a brief letter and Danner, in answering, has now taken the opportunity to return to the significance of the Downing Street memo and the press coverage of it. This exchange will appear in the July 14 issue of the New York Review of Books.]

To the Editors:

Mark Danner's excellent article on the Bush administration's path to war in Iraq ["The Secret Way to War," NYR, June 9] missed a couple of important signposts.

On October 11, 2001, Knight Ridder reported that less than a month after the September 11 attacks senior Pentagon officials who wanted to expand the war against terrorism to Iraq had authorized a trip to Great Britain in September by former CIA director James Woolsey in search of evidence that Saddam Hussein had played a role in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Then, on February 13, 2002, nearly six months before the Downing Street memo was written, Knight Ridder reported that President Bush had decided to oust Saddam Hussein and had ordered the CIA, the Pentagon, and other agencies to devise a combination of military, diplomatic, and covert steps to achieve that goal. Six days later, former Senator Bob Graham of Florida reports in his book, he was astounded when General Tommy Franks told him during a visit to the US Central Command in Tampa that the administration was shifting resources away from the pursuit of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan to prepare for war in Iraq.

John Walcott
Washington Bureau Chief
Knight Ridder

Mark Danner replies:

John Walcott is proud of his bureau's reporting, and he should be. As my colleague Michael Massing has written in the pages of the New York Review of Books, during the lead-up to the Iraq war Knight Ridder reporters had an enviable and unexampled record of independence and success.

But Mr. Walcott's statement that in my article "The Secret Way to War" I "missed a couple of important signposts" brings up an obvious question: Signposts on the way to what? What exactly does the Downing Street memo (which is simply an official account of a British security cabinet meeting in July 2002) and related documents that have since appeared, prove? And why has the American press in large part still resisted acknowledging the story the documents tell?

As I wrote in my article,
The great value of the discussion recounted in the to show, for the governments of both countries, a clear hierarchy of decision-making. By July 2002 at the latest, war had been decided on; the question at issue now was how to justify it -- how to 'fix,' as it were, what Blair will later call 'the political context.' Specifically, though by this point in July the President had decided to go to war, he had not yet decided to go to the United Nations and demand inspectors; indeed, as 'C' [the chief of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA] points out, those on the National Security Council -- the senior security officials of the U.S. government -- 'had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record.' This would later change, largely as a result of the political concerns of these very people gathered together at 10 Downing Street.
Those "political concerns" centered on the fact that, as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw points out, "the case [for going to war] was thin" since, as the Attorney General points out, "the desire for regime change [in Iraq] was not a legal base for military action." In order to secure such a legal base, the British officials agree, the allies must contrive to win the approval of the United Nations Security Council, and the Foreign Secretary puts forward a way to do that: "We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors." Prime Minister Tony Blair makes very clear the point of such an ultimatum: "It would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the inspectors."

On February 13, 2002 -- five months before this British cabinet meeting, and 13 months before the war began -- the second of the articles Mr. Walcott mentions had appeared, under his and Walter P. Strobel's byline and the stark headline, "Bush Has Decided to Overthrow Hussein." The article concludes this way:
Many nations...can be expected to question the legality of the United States unilaterally removing another country's government, no matter how distasteful. But a senior State Department official, while unable to provide the precise legal authority for such a move, said, 'It's not hard to make the case that Iraq is a threat to international peace and security.'... A diplomatic offensive aimed at generating international support for overthrowing Saddam's regime is likely to precede any attack on Iraq...
The United States, perhaps with UN backing, is then expected to demand that Saddam readmit inspectors to root out Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs... If Baghdad refuses to readmit inspectors or if Saddam prevents them from carrying out their work, as he has in the past, Bush would have a pretext for action.
Thus the stratagem that the British would successfully urge on their American allies by late that summer was already under discussion within the State Department -- five months before the Downing Street meeting in July 2002, and more than a year before the war began.

Again, what does all this prove? From the point of view of "the senior State Department official," no doubt, such an admission leaked to a Knight Ridder reporter was an opening public salvo in the bureaucratic struggle that reached a climax that August, when President Bush finally accepted the argument of his secretary of state, and his British allies, and went "the United Nations route."

Just in the way that unnoticed but prophetic intelligence concealed in a wealth of "chatter" is outlined brightly by future events, this leak now seems like a clear prophetic disclosure about what was to come, having been confirmed by what did in fact happen. But the Downing Street memo makes clear that at the time the "senior State Department official" spoke to the Knight Ridder reporters the strategy had not yet been decided. The memo, moreover, is not an anonymous statement to reporters but a record of what Britain's highest security officials actually said. It tells us much about how the decision was made, and shows decisively that, as I wrote in my article, "the idea of UN inspectors was introduced not as a means to avoid war, as President Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible."

The Knight Ridder pieces bring up a larger issue. It is a source of some irony that one of the obstacles to gaining recognition for the Downing Street memo in the American press has been the largely unspoken notion among reporters and editors that the story the memo tells is "nothing new." I say irony because we see in this an odd and familiar narrative from our current world of "frozen scandal" -- so-called scandals, that is, in which we have revelation but not a true investigation or punishment: scandals we are forced to live with. A story is told the first time but hardly acknowledged (as with the Knight Ridder piece), largely because the broader story the government is telling drowns it out. When the story is later confirmed by official documents, in this case the Downing Street memorandum, the documents are largely dismissed because they contain "nothing new."

Part of this comes down to the question of what, in our current political and journalistic world, constitutes a "fact." How do we actually prove the truth of a story, such as the rather obvious one that, as the Knight Ridder headline had it, "Bush has decided to overthrow Hussein" many months before the war and the congressional resolution authorizing it, despite the President's protestations that "no decision had been made"? How would one prove the truth of the story that fully eight months before the invasion of Iraq, as the head of British intelligence reports to his prime minister and his cabinet colleagues upon his return from Washington in July 2002, "the facts and the intelligence were being fixed around the policy"?

Michael Kinsley, in a recent article largely dismissing the Downing Street memo, remarks about this sentence:
Of course, if 'intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,' rather than vice versa, that is pretty good evidence of Bush's intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right. And we know now that was true and a half. Fixing intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy is the Bush II governing style, especially concerning the war in Iraq. But C offered no specifics, or none that made it into the memo. Nor does the memo assert that actual decision makers had told him they were fixing the facts.
Consider for a moment this paragraph, which strikes me as a perfect little poem on our current political and journalistic state. Kinsley accepts as "true and a half" that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" -- that is, after all, "the Bush II governing style" -- but rejects the notion that the Downing Street memo actually proves this, since, presumably, the head of British intelligence "does [not] assert that actual decision makers had told him they were fixing the facts."

Kinsley does not say from whom he thinks the chief of British intelligence, in reporting to his prime minister "on his recent talks in Washington," might have derived that information, if not "actual decision makers." (In fact, as the London Sunday Times reported, among the people he saw was his American counterpart, director of central intelligence George Tenet.) Kinsley does say that if the point, which he accepts as true -- indeed, almost blithely dismissing all who might doubt it -- could in fact be proved, it would be "pretty good evidence of Bush's intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right."

One might ask what would convince this writer, and many others, of the truth of what, apparently, they already know, and accept, and acknowledge that they know and accept. What could be said to establish "truth" -- to "prove it"? Perhaps a true congressional investigation of the way the administration used intelligence before the war -- an investigation of the kind that, as I wrote in my article, was promised by the Senate Intelligence Committee, then thoughtfully postponed until after the election -- though one might think the question might have had some relevance to Americans in deciding for whom to vote -- then finally, and quietly, abandoned. Instead, the Senate committee produced a report that, while powerfully damning on its own terms, explicitly excluded the critical question of how administration officials made use of the intelligence that was supplied them.

Still, Kinsley's column, and the cynical and impotent attitude it represents, suggests that such an investigation, if it occurred, might still not be adequate to make a publicly acceptable fact out of what everyone now knows and accepts. The column bears the perfect headline, "No Smoking Gun," which suggests that failing the discovery of a tape recording in which President Bush is quoted explicitly ordering George Tenet that he should "fix the intelligence and facts around the policy," many will never regard the case as proved -- though all the while accepting, of course, and admitting that they accept, that this is indeed what happened. The so-called "rules of objective journalism" dovetail with the disciplined functioning of a one-party government to keep the political debate willfully opaque and stupid.

So: if the excellent Knight Ridder articles by Mr. Walcott and his colleagues do indeed represent "signposts," then signposts on the way to what? American citizens find themselves on a very peculiar road, stumbling blindly through a dark wood. Having had before the war rather clear evidence that the Bush administration had decided to go to war even as it was claiming it was trying to avert war, we are now confronted with an escalating series of "disclosures" proving that the original story, despite the broad unwillingness to accept it, was in fact true.

Many in Congress, including many leading Democrats who voted to give the President the authority to go to war -- fearing the political consequences of opposing him and thus welcoming his soothing arguments that such a vote would enable him to avoid war rather than to undertake it -- now find themselves in an especially difficult position, claiming, as Senator John Kerry did during the presidential campaign, that they were "misled" into supporting a war that they believed they were voting to help prevent. This argument is embarrassingly thin but it remains morally incriminating enough to go on confusing and corrupting a nascent public debate on Iraq that is sure to become more difficult and painful.

Whether or not the Downing Street memo could be called a "smoking gun," it has long since become clear that the UN inspections policy that, given time, could in fact have prevented war -- by revealing, as it eventually would have, that Saddam had no threatening stockpiles of "weapons of mass destruction" -- was used by the administration as a pretext: a means to persuade the country to begin a war that need never have been fought. It was an exceedingly clever pretext, for every action preparing for war could by definition be construed to be an action intended to avert it -- as necessary to convince Saddam that war was imminent.

According to this rhetorical stratagem, the actions, whether preparing to wage war or seeking to avert it, merge, become indistinguishable. Failing the emergence of a time-stamped recording of President Bush declaring, "I have today decided to go to war with Saddam and all this inspection stuff is rubbish," we are unlikely to recover the kind of "smoking gun" that Kinsley and others seem to demand.

Failing that, the most reliable way to distinguish the true intentions of Bush and his officials is by looking at what they actually did, and the fact is that, despite the protestations of many in the United Nations and throughout the world, they refused to let the inspections run their course. What is more, the arguments of the President and others in his administration retrospectively justifying the war after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- stressing that Saddam would always have been a threat because he could have "reconstituted" his weapons programs -- make a mockery of the proposition that the administration would have been willing to leave him in power, even if the inspectors had been allowed sufficient time to prove before the war, as their colleagues did after it, that no weapons existed in Iraq.

We might believe that we are past such matters now. Alas, as Americans go on dying in Iraq and their fellow citizens grow ever more impatient with the war, the story of its beginning, clouded with propaganda and controversy as it is, will become more important, not less.

Consider the strong warning put forward in a recently released British Cabinet document dated two days before the Downing Street memo (and eight months before the war), that "the military occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise." On this point, as the British document prophetically observes, "US military plans are virtually silent." So too were America's leaders, and we live with the consequences of that silence. As support for the war collapses, the cost will become clear: for most citizens, 1,700 American dead later -- tens of thousands of Iraqi dead later -- the war's beginning remains as murky and indistinct as its ending.

Class of 9/11

The following is based on the commencement address given to the graduating students of the Department of English of the University of California at Berkeley in the Hearst Greek Theatre, May 15, 2005.

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked for a title. I dillied and dallied, begged for more time, and of course the deadline passed. The title I really wanted to suggest was the response that all of you have learned to expect when asked your major: What are you going to do with that? To be an English major is to live not only by questioning, but by being questioned. It is to live with a question mark placed squarely on your forehead. It is to live, at least some of the time, in a state of "existential dread." To be a humanist, that is, means not only to see clearly the surface of things and to see beyond those surfaces, but to place oneself in opposition, however subtle, an opposition that society seldom lets you forget: What are you going to do with that?

To the recent graduate, American society -- in all its vulgar, grotesque power -- reverberates with that question. It comes from friends, from relatives, and perhaps even from the odd parent here and there. For the son or daughter who becomes an English major puts a finger squarely on the great parental paradox: you raise your children to make their own decisions, you want your children to make their own decisions -- and then one day, by heaven, they make their own decisions. And now parents are doomed to confront daily the condescending sympathy of your friends -- their children, of course, are economics majors or engineering majors or pre-meds -- and to confront your own dread about the futures of your children.

It's not easy to be an English major these days, or any student of the humanities. It requires a certain kind of determination, and a refusal -- an annoying refusal, for some of our friends and families, and for a good many employers -- to make decisions, or at least to make the kind of "practical decisions" that much of society demands of us. It represents a determination, that is, not only to do certain things -- to read certain books and learn certain poems, to acquire or refine a certain cast of mind -- but not to do other things: principally, not to decide, right now, quickly, how you will earn your living; which is to say, not to decide how you will justify your existence. For in the view of a large part of American society, the existential question is at the bottom an economic one: Who are you and what is your economic justification for being?

English majors, and other determined humanists, distinguish themselves not only by reading Shakespeare or Chaucer or Joyce or Woolf or Zora Neale Hurston but by refusing, in the face of overwhelming pressure, to answer that question. Whether they acknowledge it or not -- whether they know it or not -- and whatever they eventually decide to do with "that," they see developing the moral imagination as more important than securing economic self-justification.

Such an attitude has never been particularly popular in this country. It became downright suspect after September 11, 2001 -- and you of course are the Class of September 11, having arrived here only days before those attacks and the changed world they ushered in. Which means that, whether you know it or not, by declaring yourselves as questioners, as humanists, you already have gone some way in defining yourselves, for good or ill, as outsiders.

I must confess it: I, too, was an English major...for nineteen days. This was back in the Berkeley of the East, at Harvard College, and I was a refugee from philosophy -- too much logic and math in that for me, too practical -- and I tarried in English just long enough to sit in on one tutorial (on Keats's "To Autumn"), before I fled into my own major, one I conceived and designed myself, called, with even greater practical attention to the future, "Modern Literature and Aesthetics."

Which meant of course that almost exactly twenty-five years ago today I was sitting where you are now, hanging on by a very thin thread. Shortly thereafter I found myself lying on my back in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reading the New York Times and the New York Review -- very thoroughly: essentially spending all day, every day, lying on my back, reading, living on graduation-present money and subsisting on deliveries of fried rice from the Hong Kong restaurant (which happened to be two doors away -- though I felt I was unable to spare the time to leave the apartment, or the bed, to pick it up). The Chinese food deliveryman looked at me dispassionately and then, as one month stretched into two, a bit knowingly. If I knew then what I know now I would say I was depressed. At the time, however, I was under the impression that I was resting.

Eventually I became a writer, which is not a way to vanquish existential dread but a way to live with it and even to earn a modest living from it. Perhaps some of you will follow that path; but whatever you decide to "do with that," remember: whether you know it yet or not, you have doomed yourselves by learning how to read, learning how to question, learning how to doubt. And this is a most difficult time -- the most difficult I remember -- to have those skills. Once you have them, however, they are not easy to discard. Finding yourself forced to see the gulf between what you are told about the world, whether it's your government doing the telling, or your boss, or even your family or friends, and what you yourself can't help but understand about that world -- this is not always a welcome kind of vision to have. It can be burdensome and awkward and it won't always make you happy.

I think I became a writer in part because I found that yawning difference between what I was told and what I could see to be inescapable. I started by writing about wars and massacres and violence. The State Department, as I learned from a foreign service officer in Haiti, has a technical term for the countries I mostly write about: the TFC beat. TFC -- in official State Department parlance -- stands for "Totally Fucked-up Countries." After two decades of this, of Salvador and Haiti and Bosnia and Iraq, my mother -- who already had to cope with the anxiety of a son acquiring a very expensive education in "Modern Literature and Aesthetics" -- still asks periodically: Can't you go someplace nice for a change?

When I was sitting where you are sitting now the issue was Central America and in particular the war in El Salvador. America, in the backwash of defeat in Vietnam, was trying to protect its allies to the south -- to protect regimes under assault by leftist insurgencies -- and it was doing so by supporting a government in El Salvador that was fighting the war by massacring its own people. I wrote about one of those events in my first book, The Massacre at El Mozote, which told of the murder of a thousand or so civilians by a new, elite battalion of the Salvadoran army -- a battalion that the Americans had trained. A thousand innocent civilians dead in a few hours, by machete and by M-16.

Looking back at that story now -- and at many of the other stories I have covered over the years, from Central America to Iraq -- I see now that in part I was trying to find a kind of moral clarity: a place, if you will, where that gulf that I spoke about, between what we see and what is said, didn't exist. Where better to find that place than in the world where massacres and killings and torture happen, in the place, that is, where we find evil. What could be clearer than that kind of evil?

But I discovered it was not clear at all. Chat with a Salvadoran general about the massacre of a thousand people that he ordered and he will tell you that it was military necessity, that those people had put themselves in harm's way by supporting the guerrillas, and that "such things happen in war." Speak to the young conscript who wielded the machete and he will tell you that he hated what he had to do, that he has nightmares about it still, but that he was following orders and that if he had refused he would have been killed. Talk to the State Department official who helped deny that the massacre took place and he will tell you that there was no definitive proof and, in any case, that he did it to protect and promote the vital interests of the United States. None of them is lying. I found that if you search for evil, once you leave the corpses behind you will have great difficulty finding the needed grimacing face.

Let me give you another example. It's from 1994, during an unseasonably warm February day in a crowded market in the besieged city of Sarajevo. I was with a television crew -- I was writing a documentary on the war in Bosnia for Peter Jennings at ABC News -- but our schedule had slipped, as it always does, and we had not yet arrived at the crowded marketplace when a mortar shell landed. When we arrived with our cameras a few moments later, we found a dark swamp of blood and broken bodies and, staggering about in it, the bereaved, shrieking and wailing amid a sickening stench of cordite. Two men, standing in rubber boots knee-deep in a thick black lake, had already begun to toss body parts into the back of a truck. Slipping about on the wet pavement, I tried my best to count the bodies and the parts of them, but the job was impossible: fifty? sixty? When all the painstaking matching had been done, sixty-eight had died there.

As it happened, I had a lunch date with their killer the following day. The leader of the Serbs, surrounded in his mountain villa by a handful of good-looking bodyguards, had little interest in the numbers of dead. We were eating stew. "Did you check their ears?" he asked. I'm sorry? "They had ice in their ears." I paused at this and worked on my stew. He meant, I realized, that the bodies were corpses from the morgue that had been planted, that the entire scene had been trumped up by Bosnian intelligence agents. He was a psychiatrist, this man, and it seemed to me, after a few minutes of discussion, that he had gone far to convince himself of the truth of this claim. I was writing a profile of him and he of course did not want to talk about bodies or death. He preferred to speak of his vision for the nation.

For me, the problem in depicting this man was simple: the level of his crimes dwarfed the interest of his character. His motivations were paltry, in no way commensurate with the pain he had caused. It is often a problem with evil and that is why, in my experience, talking with mass murderers is invariably a disappointment. Great acts of evil so rarely call forth powerful character that the relation between the two seems nearly random. Put another way, that relation is not defined by melodrama, as popular fiction would have it. To understand this mass murderer, you need Dostoevsky, or Conrad.

Let me move closer to our own time, because you are the Class of September 11, and we do not lack for examples. Never in my experience has frank mendacity so dominated our public life. This has to do less with ideology itself, I think, than the fact that our country was attacked and that --from the Palmer Raids after World War I, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the McCarthyite witch-hunts during the Fifties -- America tends to respond to such attacks, or the threat of them, in predictably paranoid ways. Notably, by "rounding up the usual suspects" and by dividing the world, dramatically and hysterically, into a good part and an evil part. September 11 was no exception to this: indeed, in its wake -- coterminous with your time here -- we have seen this American tendency in its purest form.

One welcome distinction between the times we live in and those other periods I have mentioned is the relative frankness of our government officials -- I should call it unprecedented frankness -- in explaining how they conceive the relationship of power and truth. Our officials believe that power can determine truth, as an unnamed senior adviser to the President explained to a reporter last fall:

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.

The reporter, the adviser said, was a member of what he called "the reality-based community," destined to "judiciously study" the reality the administration was creating. Now it is important that we realize -- and by "we" I mean all of us members of the "reality-based community" -- that our leaders of the moment really do believe this, as anyone knows who has spent much time studying September 11 and the Iraq war and the various scandals that have sprung from those events - the "weapons of mass destruction" scandal and the Abu Ghraib scandal, to name only two.

What is interesting about both of those is that the heart of the scandal, the wrongdoing, is right out in front of us. Virtually nothing of great importance remains to be revealed. Ever since Watergate we've had a fairly established narrative of scandal. First you have revelation: the press, usually with the help of various leakers within the government, reveals the wrongdoing. Then you have investigation, when the government -- the courts, or Congress, or, as with Watergate, both -- constructs a painstaking narrative of what exactly happened: an official story, one that society -- that the community -- can agree on. Then you have expiation, when the judges hand down sentences, the evildoers are punished, and the society returns to a state of grace.

What distinguishes our time -- the time of September 11 -- is the end of this narrative of scandal. With the scandals over weapons of mass destruction and Abu Ghraib, we are stuck at step one. We have had the revelation; we know about the wrongdoing. Just recently, in the Downing Street memo, we had an account of a high-level discussion in Britain, nearly eight months before the Iraq war, in which the head of British intelligence flatly tells the prime minister - the intelligence officer has just returned from Washington -- that not only has the President of the United States decided that "military action was...inevitable" but that -- in the words of the British intelligence chief -- "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." This memo has been public for weeks.

So we have had the revelations; we know what happened. What we don't have is any clear admission of -- or adjudication of -- guilt, such as a serious congressional or judicial investigation would give us, or any punishment. Those high officials responsible are still in office. Indeed, not only have they received no punishment; many have been promoted. And we -- you and I, members all of the reality-based community -- we are left to see, to be forced to see. And this, for all of us, is a corrupting, a maddening, but also an inescapable burden.

Let me give you a last example. The example is in the form of a little play: a reality-based playlet that comes to us from the current center of American comedy. I mean the Pentagon press briefing room, where the real true-life comedies are performed. The time is a number of weeks ago. The dramatis personae are Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and soon to be promoted) General Peter Pace of the Marine Corps; and of course, playing the Fool, a lowly and hapless reporter.

The reporter's question begins with an involved but perfectly well-sourced discussion of Abu Ghraib and the fact that all the reports suggest that something systematic -- something ordered by higher-ups -- was going on there. He mentions the Sanchez memo, recently released, in which the commanding general in Iraq at the time, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, approved twelve interrogation techniques that, as the reporter says, "far exceed limits established by the Army's own field manual." These include prolonged stress positions, sensory deprivation (or "hooding"), the use of dogs "to induce stress," and so on; the reporter also mentions extraordinary "rendition" (better known as kidnapping, in which people are snatched off the streets by U.S. intelligence agents and brought to third countries like Syria and Egypt to be tortured). Here's his question, and the officials' answer:

Hapless Reporter: And I wonder if you would just respond to the suggestion that there is a systematic problem rather than the kinds of individual abuses we've heard of before.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I don't believe there's been a single one of the investigations that have been conducted, which has got to be six, seven, eight or nine --

General Pace: Ten major reviews and 300 individual investigations of one kind or another.

Secretary Rumsfeld: And have you seen one that characterized it as systematic or systemic?

General Pace: No, sir.

Rumsfeld: I haven't either.

Hapless Reporter: What about-?

Rumsfeld: Question?


And, as the other reporters laughed, Secretary Rumsfeld did indeed ignore the attempt to follow up, and went on to the next question.

But what did the hapless reporter want to say? All we have is his truncated attempt at a question: "What about-?" We will never know, of course. Perhaps he wanted to read from the very first Abu Ghraib report, directed by US Army Major General Antonio Taguba, who wrote in his conclusion

"that between October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility, numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted.... This systemic and illegal abuse was intentionally perpetrated.... [Emphasis added.]

Or perhaps this from the Red Cross report, which is the only contemporaneous account of what was going on at Abu Ghraib, recorded by witnesses at the time:

"These methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information or other forms of co-operation from persons who had been arrested in connection with suspected security offenses or deemed to have an "intelligence value." [Emphasis added.]

(I should note here, by the way, that the military itself estimated that between 85 and 90 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had "no intelligence value.")

Between that little dramatic exchange --

Rumsfeld: And have you seen one that characterized it as systematic or systemic?

General Pace: No, sir.

Rumsfeld: I haven't either --

-- and the truth, there is a vast gulf of lies. For these reports do use the words "systematic" and "systemic" -- they are there, in black and white -- and though the reports have great shortcomings, the truth is that they tell us basic facts about Abu Ghraib: first, that the torture and abuse was systematic; that it was ordered by higher-ups, and not carried out by "a few bad apples," as the administration has maintained; that responsibility for it can be traced -- in documents that have been made public -- to the very top ranks of the administration, to decisions made by officials in the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense and, ultimately, the White House. The significance of what we know about Abu Ghraib, and about what went on -- and, most important, what is almost certainly still going on -- not only in Iraq but at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and other military and intelligence bases, some secret, some not, around the world -- is clear: that after September 11, shortly after you all came to Berkeley, our government decided to change this country from a nation that officially does not torture to one, officially, that does.

What is interesting about this fact is not that it is hidden but that it is revealed. We know this -- or rather those who are willing to read know it. Those who can see the gulf between what officials say and what the facts are. And we, as I have said, remain fairly few. Secretary Rumsfeld can say what he said at that nationally televised news conference because no one is willing to read the reports. We are divided, then, between those of us willing to listen, and believe, and those of us determined to read, and think, and find out. And you, English majors of the Class of 2005, you have taken the fateful first step in numbering yourselves, perhaps irredeemably, in the second category. You have taken a step along the road to being Empiricists of the Word.

Now we have come full circle -- all the way back to the question: What are you going to do with that? I cannot answer that question. Indeed, I still have not answered it for myself. But I can show you what you can do with "that," by quoting a poem. It is by a friend of mine who died almost a year ago, after a full and glorious life, at the age of ninety-three. Czeslaw Milosz was a legend in Berkeley, of course, a Nobel Prize winner -- and he saw as much injustice in his life as any man. He endured Nazism and Stalinism and then came to Berkeley to live and write for four decades in a beautiful house high on Grizzly Peak.

Let me read you one of his poems: it is a simple poem, a song, as he calls it, but in all its beauty and simplicity it bears closely on the subject of this talk.


On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas, A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn, Vegetable peddlers shout in
the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island, The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above, As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy, Repeats while he binds his
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

"There will be no other end of the world." I should add that there are two words at the end of the poem, a place and a date. Czeslaw wrote that poem in Warsaw in 1944. Can we think of a better place to put the end of the world? Perhaps Hiroshima 1945? Or Berlin 1945? Or even perhaps downtown New York in September 2001?

When Czeslaw Milosz wrote his poem in Warsaw, in 1944, there were those, as now, who saw the end of the world and those who did not. And now, as then, truth does matter. Integrity -- much rarer than talent or brilliance -- does matter. In that beautiful poem, written by a man -- a poet, an artist -- trying to survive at the end of the world, the white-haired old man binding his tomatoes is like yourselves. He may not have been a prophet but he could see. Members of the Class of September 11, whatever you decide "to do with that" -- whether you are writers or professors or journalists, or nurses or lawyers or executives -- I hope you will think of that man and his tomatoes, and keep your faith with him. I hope you will remember that man, and your own questioning spirit. Will you keep your place beside him?

Secret Way to War

It was Oct. 16, 2002, and the United States Congress had just voted to authorize the president to go to war against Iraq. When George W. Bush came before members of his Cabinet and Congress gathered in the East Room of the White House and addressed the American people, he was in a somber mood befitting a leader speaking frankly to free citizens about the gravest decision their country could make.

The 107th Congress, the president said, had just become "one of the few called by history to authorize military action to defend our country and the cause of peace." But, he hastened to add, no one should assume that war was inevitable. Though "Congress has now authorized the use of force," the president said emphatically, "I have not ordered the use of force. I hope the use of force will not become necessary." The president went on:

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How Bush Won

This piece appears thanks to the kind permission of the editors of the New York Review of Books who are letting Tomdispatch distribute it online.


"I have won what I call political capital and now I intend to spend it." – George W. Bush, Nov. 3, 2004

Driving north from Tampa on Florida's Route 75 on Nov. 1, as the battle over who would hold political power in America was reaching a climax but the struggle over what that battle meant had yet to begin, I put down the top of my rented green convertible, turned the talk radio voices up to blaring, and commenced reading the roadside. Beside me billboards flew past, one hard upon another, as if some errant giant had cut a great deck of cards and fanned them out along each shoulder. Hour by hour, as the booming salesman's voice of proud Floridian Rush Limbaugh rumbled from the radio, warning gravely of the dangers of "voting for bin Laden" ("Haven't you noticed that bin Laden is using Democratic talking points?"), and other ominous voices reminded listeners of the "hundreds of votes" Sen. Kerry cast "against our national defense" ("In a time of terror, when our enemies are gathering ... can we afford to take that risk?"), I watched rush by, interspersed with the blaring offers of "Florida Citrus! One Bag $1!" and "Need Help With Sinkholes?," a series of perhaps 50 garish signs announcing an approaching "Adult Toy Café!" and "Adult Toy Extravaganza!" and then "We Bare All!" and finally, the capper, "All Nude – Good Food – Truckers Welcome!"

It wasn't long before this billboard parade had acquired its stark spiritual counterpoint – "Jesus Is Still the Answer!" – and by the time I reached the promised "extravaganza" – a sad and windowless two-room shack just off the highway, smaller than most of the signs advertising it – I found, standing just down the road from the pathetic little house of sin, a resplendent white church more than twice its size. In the world of American hucksterism, the sin may be the draw but the payoff's always in redemption.

This was perhaps 36 hours before an army of self-interested commentators, self-appointed spiritual leaders, and television pundits hot for a simple storyline had seized on the answers to a clumsily posed exit poll question – more than one respondent in five, offered seven choices, had selected "moral values" as their "most important issue" – and used those answers to transform the results of the 2004 election into a rousing statement of Americans' disgust with abortion, promiscuity, R-rated movies, gay marriage, late-night television, and other "Hollywood-type" moral laxity. Some, like the Rev. Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, wrote the president with admirable directness to remind him what the election meant, and what he now owed:

"In your re-election, God has graciously granted America – though she doesn't deserve it – a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate. ... Don't equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ. ... Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government. You have four years – a brief time only – to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God. ... If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them."

And yet the voters of Union County, Florida's smallest, whom I found crowding the election supervisor's office in tiny Lake Butler, seemed unaware that they had been impelled to vote by a newfound quest for redemption. In Lake Butler, turnout was higher than anyone could remember; in Union County, voter registration had risen by 25 percent over 2000, when I had last visited. But none of the voters who spoke to me there volunteered a word about "moral values." Their answers tended to be much more concrete. "It's because of 9/11 – you know, because of the terrorism," said Babs Montpetit – a.k.a. Miss Babs, election supervisor of Union County since 1985. "Because of the terrorism people are afraid not to vote." Through the window behind her I could see Lake Butler's main street, with its scattering of stores and bars – a tiny, isolated place, with barely seven thousand registered voters, far from any major city. Why should its citizens worry about terrorism? "Why, who could have expected that would happen, that business in New York?" Miss Babs asked me in return, leaning forward and lowering her voice. "You just don't know."

Back in the car, I turned on the radio to find the Florida news feed, which led with this story: "A suspicious package that seemed to be vibrating forced the closing of the State Board of Elections today. The parcel, it turned out, was an ordinary package that happened to have been placed next to an air conditioner, the breeze from which accounted for the apparent vibrating action. ..." This embarrassing incident, which in other times might have been treated as a humorous item about the haplessness of government officials, was reported in dead seriousness: a dark dispatch from the front lines. As I left Lake Butler, stepping on the accelerator, I turned the radio up and the air around me filled again with the booming voice of Rush Limbaugh, in full and impressive rant:

"Osama bin Laden cannot launch an attack on the United States of America. Osama bin Laden can only deliver a tape, and on that tape, bin Laden appeals to the very appeasers in this country who would allow him to gain strength by agreeing with what he says and voting for the man who is being quoted by bin Laden. John Kerry, as much as Michael Moore, was quoted by Osama bin Laden in that video that we all saw. ... Michael Moore is not on the ballot; John Kerry is. Osama bin Laden parroting John Kerry in his tape on Friday. We have a unique responsibility to lead the world in confronting and defeating this evil threat. ..."

"Returning to the days of appeasement, trying to meet a 'global test' of world opinion, ignoring threats from hostile nations and groups is a deadly mistake we simply can't afford to make. ... The Democrat Party in this country is eager to point to the things bin Laden said and suggest that he is right – a man who happily murdered three thousand Americans and is eager to do so over and over and over again! You say, 'Rush, I haven't heard the Democrats say that.' Oh, you can find it on their Web sites. You can find people who are going to vote for John Kerry who have said this. You can find people on various Democrat Web sites who are excited bin Laden said what he said. They're hoping for an Osama smackdown of Bush, if I may quote one of the things I saw."

Interspersed with Limbaugh's extraordinarily fluid and persuasively deceptive tirade – heard, according to his home station in Sacramento, by "nearly 20 million people over 600 stations" – came the political advertisements, one after another, which turned skillfully around a concentrated version of the same plotline: First, the threat America faces today is as great as any in the country's history. Second, that threat makes this election "the most important in history," because if Americans make "the wrong choice" they could make themselves and their families more vulnerable. Third, therefore, Americans must vote, and must make "the right choice." Fear is joined skillfully to risk: a risk that is personal and looming, and – most important – that could very well increase if the election goes the wrong way.

The script of the famous "Wolves" television ad, with its simple image of a pack of ravenous, circling carnivores readying for the attack, embodied this plotline in perhaps its purest form: "In an increasingly dangerous world ... Even after the first terrorist attack on America ... John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America's intelligence operations. By six billion dollars ... Cuts so deep they would have weakened America's defenses. And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm." A vote for Bush is a vote to stave off that weakness. More important, a failure to vote could make way for that "weakening of America's defenses." As I headed to Jacksonville, grave voices from the radio warned again and again of what was at stake:

"John Kerry. The most liberal man in the Senate. The most liberal person to ever run for president. He voted to cut our military ... To severely cut our intelligence agencies ... He voted for higher taxes 350 times ... And now he wants to be our president ... We live in a dangerous world that requires strong and steady leadership. John Kerry is a risky choice for America ... a risk we cannot take."

This rhetoric of risk carries forward a narrative that Republicans began shaping soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that came boldly to the fore as a political strategy the following May, when Vice President Cheney declared that the statements of several Democratic senators, who had rather timidly questioned some of the decisions made in conducting the war in Afghanistan, were "unworthy of national leaders in a time of war." Though this bold shot across the bow essentially put an end to any overt Democratic criticism of the administration on the conduct of the war on terror, Republicans clearly realized that when it came to terrorism and national security, as Karl Rove observed during a speech to the Republican National Committee in January 2002, they could "go to the country on this issue, because [Americans] trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."

That autumn Republicans triumphed in the midterm elections, largely because they effectively exploited Americans' apparent willingness to believe that the Republicans could better protect the country. This strategy was displayed most dramatically in Saxby Chambliss's victory over the incumbent Max Cleland in the Senate race in Georgia, in which the challenger portrayed Cleland, a highly decorated veteran who had lost three limbs in Vietnam, as an ally of bin Laden. Though the claims were obviously trumped up – they rested on the fact that Cleland had not instantly voted for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security – the images of Cleland's and bin Laden's faces side by side in effect doomed the incumbent.

The attacks of Sept. 11 restored to Republicans their traditional political advantage in matters of "national security" and "national defense" – an advantage the party had lost with the end of the Cold War – and Republicans capitalized on that advantage, not only by running President Bush as "a war president," as he repeatedly identified himself, but by presenting a vote for John Kerry – whom the Republicans succeeded in defining (with a good deal of help from the Swift Boat Veterans, and from Kerry himself) as indecisive, opportunistic, and untrustworthy – as a vote that was inherently, dangerously risky. The emphasis placed on Bush's much-promoted personal strengths – decisiveness, determination, reliability, transparency – served to base his candidacy at once on "moral values" and on "national security," in effect making possession of the first essential to protect the second. Bush's decisiveness was put forward as the flip side of Kerry's dangerous vacillation, the answer to the threat of weakness Kerry was alleged to pose. This equation was dramatized, perfected, and repeated, with much discipline and persistence, in thousands of advertisements, speeches, and "talking heads" discussion programs on conservative networks, especially Fox. (In Lake Butler, Miss Babs's husband, she told me, "watches only Fox News. He believes all the other channels are propaganda.") Despite all the talk about "moral values," the 2004 election turned on a fulcrum of fear.


Famously, as I have mentioned, more than one in five Americans – 22 percent – who spoke to pollsters as they left the voting places said, when presented with seven choices, that their "most important issue" had been "moral values," and of these four out of five cast their votes for George Bush. On the other hand, 19 percent selected "terrorism" and another 15 percent chose "Iraq," meaning that more than one in three voters said the war – the Iraq war or the "war on terror" – was their most important issue. In fact, the most striking single result of the exit polls was Bush's much stronger appeal to women – many of them, apparently, the much-discussed "security moms," who were thought to be especially concerned about protecting their families. All of these numbers and conclusions, needless to say, bear further scrutiny.

Using an exit poll to draw precise conclusions from a national election is like using a very blurry magnifying glass to analyze the brushstrokes in a huge and complicated pointillist painting. Our tools for judging what elections "mean" are quite crude, depending as they do on the willingness of voters to speak to pollsters, on their ability to speak honestly about the choices they made, and on their particular talents for understanding and expressing their own motives. As we saw this year – when faulty exit polls that suggested an overwhelming Kerry victory significantly distorted election-day press coverage – they can often produce downright wrong conclusions. Despite the "scientific" feel that numbers lend to any analysis, there is more art to it than science and, despite the impression that election and analysis are starkly separate, much analysis, as the Reverend Jones's letter to President Bush suggests, simply carries forward beyond the election a self-interested political narrative that preceded it.

If one stands back a bit and lets the drifting smoke of the pundits and the preachers and the exit poll analysts begin to clear, three interesting facts about the 2004 election stand out. The first is that the election was very close – historically close, in fact. The table below shows the margins of victory, in percentage of the popular vote and in electoral votes, of sitting Republican presidents who have won reelection during the last hundred years.

Margins of Victory: Republican Presidents Re-elected During the Last Hundred Years

1904 Theodore Roosevelt: 17% Popular Vote; 196 Electoral Vote
1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower: 16% Popular Vote; 384 Electoral Vote
1972 Richard M. Nixon:     23% Popular Vote; 503 Electoral Vote
1984 Ronald Reagan:             18% Popular Vote; 512 Electoral Vote
2004 George W. Bush:            2% Popular Vote; 34 Electoral Vote

As these numbers show, incumbency is a huge advantage; nonetheless, Bush's reelection was a squeaker, the closest for a Republican in more than a century. Four years after the historically close election of 2000, and after a hard-fought eight-month campaign in which the candidates, the parties, and so-called "independent" groups spent more than a billion dollars to woo voters, the electoral map hardly changed. Only three small states switched sides: the Democrats picked up New Hampshire (four electoral votes) and the Republicans very narrowly won Iowa (eight) and New Mexico (five). Bush had a net gain of only nine electoral votes, which, added to the seven that the Republicans gained through reapportionment, gave him his narrow margin of victory.

Had fewer than 60,000 Ohio voters decided to cast their ballots for the Democrat rather than the Republican (and according to the exit polls one voter in twenty decided whom to vote for on election day), John Kerry would have won Ohio's twenty electoral votes and with them the presidency – and would have entered the White House in January 2005, as George W. Bush had done in January 2001, having won the votes of fewer Americans than the man he defeated. About 2,991,437 fewer, which, as I write, is George W. Bush's margin of victory, out of 122,124,783 votes cast for president.

Which leads to the second interesting fact about the 2004 election: a great many more people turned out to vote, nearly seventeen million more, than turned out four years ago. Nearly 60 percent of those Americans eligible cast ballots in 2004, an increase in turnout of almost 6 percent. In the so-called battleground states, where vast sums were spent on advertising and one could not escape the barrage of political messages blaring from television and radio and pouring out of the telephone and the mailbox, the increase in turnout was even greater. A million and a half more Floridians cast ballots than had four years before: in 2000 – itself an intensely fought election in which turnout substantially increased – fewer than 56 percent of eligible Floridians voted; in 2004 more than 65 percent did.

This leads, finally, to the third interesting fact about the election, which is that in the days leading up to it many of the "indicators" which political professionals have traditionally taken to suggest whether or not an incumbent will win were running distinctly against President Bush. Most notably, more Americans (55 percent) said they thought the country was "headed in the wrong direction" than those who said it was headed in the right one, and fewer than half of Americans polled (49 percent) said that they approved of the president's performance in office. More disapproved than approved of the president's handling of foreign policy (49 percent to 45 percent) and of the economy (51 percent to 43 percent). Finally more Americans disapproved than approved of the president's handling of Iraq (50 percent to 45 percent), his most important foreign policy, and, perhaps most strikingly, more than two Americans in three told pollsters that Mr. Bush's tax cuts – his signal domestic accomplishment – had either been bad for the economy (17 percent) or had not made much difference (51 percent).

The President went into the election, then, with Americans mildly pessimistic about the direction of the country and broadly disapproving of his performance and his policies. Most polls showed the race "too close to call," and many of the major indicators, "historically" speaking, suggested the incumbent would lose. Small wonder that so many experts, including apparently the president's own political team, were willing to believe the election-day exit polls that into the early evening showed their man losing by a considerable margin. (The widely circulated numbers from the respected polling firm Zogby International, for example, showed Mr. Kerry winning 311 electoral votes.) The fact was that though President Bush was personally popular, many of his major policies were not. The problem for the Bush campaign was how to turn attention away from policies voters didn't like – particularly the President's decisions on Iraq and his conduct of the war there – toward policies they approved of – particularly his conduct of "the war on terror" (into which Iraq would be "folded") – and toward his personal qualities.


"If your babies were left all alone in the dead of night, who would you rather have setting there on the porch – John Kerry and his snowboard or George W. with his shotgun?" – Sean Michaels, professional wrestler, warming up the crowd, Tinker Field, Oct. 30, 2004

On a beautiful October evening three days before the election, Orlando's Tinker Field had become an enormous bowl filled with 17,000 screaming, chanting Bush partisans floating in a sea of red, white, and blue. On the stadium wall hung a great 50-foot high sign proclaiming that George W. Bush was "MOVING AMERICA FORWARD!" Inside, flanking the stage in letters that dwarfed it, and echoed by smaller signs bobbing up and down everywhere in the crowd, was the terse slogan "AMERICA: SAFER STRONGER BETTER!" And then, precisely placed around the stadium in enormous letters, were the words on which the campaign was built: "STRENGTH! LEADERSHIP! CHARACTER! INTEGRITY!" Disciplined, organized, relentless, the Bush campaign would never be accused of subtlety.

"Well ..., I'm just so proud of the way he handled 9/11 – I mean, that was ... amazing!" Dot Richardson-Pinto told me as we sat together near the podium. When I'd asked why she supported the President, she had had to search a moment for an answer, and not entirely because she couldn't understand how it could be that anyone wouldn't. She'd had to think for a moment, I came to realize, because her ardor had so much more to do with who he was than with what he did. And who he was could be summarized by those four giant words looming over the stage.

"It doesn't matter if the man can talk," Ms. Richardson-Pinto told me. "Sometimes, when someone's real articulate you can't trust what he says, you know?" As the security helicopters circled overhead, and the crowd launched into yet one more chant of "Kerry is scary!" I was struck again by how precisely the campaign had managed to define Bush's strengths in perfect contradistinction to what they had defined as Kerry's weaknesses, and then to devote all its resources to emphasizing both. Every repetition of what Bush was – and the repetitions were unending, and intricately varied – was crafted to be a perfect reminder of what his opponent was not. Practically every word emitted by the campaign, whether through the thousands and thousands of television and radio commercials, or the words of the campaign spokesmen, or the speeches of the candidate himself, moved in gorgeously disciplined lockstep to drive home to voters not only who George W. Bush was but who his opponent was not. As Bush became more and more Bush ("STRENGTH! LEADERSHIP! CHARACTER! INTEGRITY!"), Kerry, little-known, chilly, distant, was turned into the anti-Bush, a weak, shallow, flipflopping shillyshallyer whose every word was an attempt to deceive Americans about who he really was.

In blue shirt and black slacks the president strode into the stadium, flanked by his wife and brother Jeb, and raised his hands to the rock-star reception. When the thunderous chants – "Viva Bush! Viva Bush!" – had finally dropped off to a scattering of shouts, he launched into a speech whose terms I knew well but whose effectiveness, with Ms. Richardson-Pinto sitting beside me, I only now understood. George W. Bush seemed to be speaking directly to her, to be bringing her into his family:

"Sometimes I'm a little too blunt – I get that from my mother. [Huge cheers] Sometimes I mangle the English language – I get that from my dad. [Laughter and cheers] But you always know where I stand. You can't say that for my opponent. ... The fact is that all progress on other issues depends on the safety of our citizens. The most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people. [Loud cheers. Chants of "Four More Years! Four More Years! Four More Years!"] The president must make tough decisions and stand behind them. Especially in time of war mixed signals only confuse our friends and embolden our enemies. If America shows uncertainty or weakness in these troubling times the world will drift toward tragedy – and this will not happen on my watch!"

In a few blunt lines Bush had subsumed everything else beneath the preeminent shining banner of the war on terror, and subsumed that war beneath his own reputation for forthrightness, decisiveness, and strength. And he had identified uncertainty, hesitation, vacillation – even the sort of nit-picking that would seek to separate the war in Iraq from the war on terror – as not simply mistaken or foolish but dangerous. "Relentless"..."Steadfast"... Determined": these words came fast and strong, again and again. And then the climactic line: "We will fight the terrorists across the globe so we do not have to fight them here at home!" It drew a huge response and after the applause and chanting had finally died down he followed up with his most important words about the current shooting war: "I will use every asset at our disposal to protect the American people and one of the best assets we have is freedom! Freedom is powerful! Freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty's gift to everyone.... Iraq is still dangerous but Iraq will have free elections in January – think how far that country has come! On good days and bad days, whether the polls are up or the polls are down, I am determined to protect the American people!"

The Iraq war was not only irrevocably part of the war on terror – who could think, gazing at the car bombs and beheadings every night on television, that they were any different? – it had become a leading part of the ideological response to the threat of terror: a first step in the expansion of the holy cause of freedom. As Reagan had dared to go beyond staunch anticommunism and imagine a world after communism's collapse, so Bush looked beyond the present chaotic world of terror to see a blessed land of freedom. ("In this election, my opponent has spent a lot of time talking about a day that is gone. I'm talking about the day that is coming.") It was a striking vision, clear and absolutely simple to understand. And it linked, firmly and directly, the so-called "moral values" of justice, fairness, and the Almighty to the cause of national security, and specifically to the war on terror that the Bush people kept relentlessly at the campaign's heart. "Terror," "Iraq," and "moral values," supposedly separate "important issues," had been seamlessly joined.

Of course whatever its virtues as a campaign theme, the picture the President offered was not especially "fact-dependent." Many well-known facts – on which Kerry, in his campaign, had laid such stress – were either irrelevant to it (the missing weapons of mass destruction, which went unmentioned) or directly contradicted by it (the failure to demonstrate connections between Iraq and the attacks of Sept. 11). But the facts did not matter – not necessarily because those in the stadium were ignorant of them, though some certainly were, but because the president was offering in their place a worldview that was whole, complete, comprehensible, and thus impermeable to statements of fact that clearly contradicted it. The thousands cheering around me in that Orlando stadium, and the many others who would come to support Bush on election day, faced a stark choice: either discard the facts, or give up the clear and comforting worldview that they contradicted. They chose to disregard the facts.

Two weeks before the election, after the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the Duelfer Report, and after intensive news coverage of the administration's failure to find such weapons in Iraq, nearly three Bush supporters in four told pollsters they believed Iraq had either had weapons of mass destruction (47 percent) or had had a "major program" to develop them (26 percent). Nearly three in five said they believed that the widely publicized Duelfer Report, which directly contradicted this, had in fact confirmed it. Three in four believed that Iraq had either been directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks (20 percent) or had given al Qaeda "substantial support" (55 percent), and nearly three in ten wrongly believed that the 9/11 Commission had confirmed that they had. Similar majorities believed that the President and his administration still publicly supported these positions.

Many of the Bush supporters I spoke to were educated, well-informed people. They watched the news and took pleasure in debating politics. And yet they clung to views about important matters of fact that were demonstrably wrong. Steven Kull, the public opinion expert at the University of Maryland who authored the study from which these numbers are drawn, acknowledges that although one reason they "cling so tightly to beliefs that have been so visibly refuted ... is that they continue to hear the Bush administration confirming these beliefs," the prevalence, and persistence, of these misperceptions is "probably not due to a simple failure to pay attention to the news." Rather, Kull writes, "Bush supporters cling to these beliefs because they are necessary for their support for the decision to go to war with Iraq": "Asked whether the U.S. should have gone to war with Iraq if U.S. intelligence had concluded that Iraq was not making WMD or providing support to al Qaeda, 58 percent of Bush supporters said the US should not have, and 61 percent assume that in this case the president would not have. To support the president and to accept that he took the U.S. to war based on mistaken assumptions is difficult to bear, especially in light of the continuing costs in terms of lives and money. Apparently, to avoid this cognitive dissonance, Bush supporters suppress awareness of unsettling information."

This analysis suggests the difficulties Kerry faced in pressing home his highly "fact-dependent" argument that the Iraq war was separate from the war on terror and thus a mistaken distraction from it. Not only did accepting the point require a good deal of sophistication and knowledge, not only did it seem to contradict the evidence on Americans' television screens each night, which often showed vivid depictions of terrorism in Iraq; it also seemed to imply to some voters that they should take what must have seemed an unpatriotic position. For if they accepted the false pretenses on which the war had been based, how could they go on supporting it, as Kerry, somewhat illogically and even dishonestly, seemed to be asking them to do?

Those running the Bush campaign clearly counted on the talent and influence of impressive propagandists like Limbaugh, and the help they received from an often acquiescent mainstream press. More, they counted on the president's reputation for forthrightness, together with the political folk wisdom that many people, particularly "during wartime," believe "the man, not the fact." When Bush, in full rhetorical flower in Tinker Field, declared to his delirious audience that "Americans need a president who doesn't think terrorism is 'a nuisance,'" my neighbor Ms. Richardson-Pinto nudged me with her elbow and shouted over the laughter and cheers, "Do you believe Kerry said that?" Actually, I shouted into her ear, Kerry hadn't said that, and then I paraphrased for her the actual quotation: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution ... [and] illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where ... it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life." Hardly exceptional; indeed, Bush himself had only weeks before said something very similar. Ms. Richardson-Pinto, a well-educated, worldly woman – a doctor, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women's softball – listened to me intently, nodded politely, began to form a question, and then, thinking better of it, looked at me for a moment longer before turning back to the president. She'd had a choice of what – or rather whom – to believe; and she'd made it.


"Saddam would never have disarmed." – George W. Bush, first presidential debate, Sept. 30, 2004

Seven o'clock on the evening of Election Day and the office of the election supervisor in downtown Jacksonville was mobbed, encircled by a raggedy line of hundreds and hundreds of late voters. In the street in front an enormous crowd of Democrats chanted, cheered, and sang, filling every inch of space and spilling out into the streets. Car after car, horn blaring, made its way carefully through the crowd, the drivers leaning out to administer high fives and to cheer, and cheer again. When word of the early exit-poll numbers seeming to confirm an overwhelming Kerry victory swept through the crowd, hundreds broke into song, to the tune of the old civil rights classic, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around": "Ain't gonna let nobody steal my vote/ Steal my vote, steal my vote/ Ain't gonna let nobody steal my vote. ..." It had been Jacksonville where in 2000 the infamous "caterpillar ballot" had led officials to discard tens of thousands of votes, votes cast overwhelmingly by African Americans. As I stood watching the dancing and the celebration – "We gonna elect one, not select one!" – the sense people had of justice finally being done was vivid. I had felt it all day as I went from polling place to polling place in the downtown neighborhoods of the city – they were overwhelmed with voters, and overwhelmed with a sense that a wrong would be righted.

What I didn't find was any sense of strong support for John Kerry as a politician or a leader, or even a feeling of familiarity with him. The personality of Bush seemed vivid among voters, whether they admired him or hated him; the personality of Kerry was faint, indistinct, and where I found its mark most strongly was among those Bush voters who saw the Massachusetts senator, or the depiction of him that the Bush campaign had succeeded in creating, as a threat to their security. To counteract this Kerry would have had to become a known quality, trusted, familiar; but even after the hundreds of millions spent on advertising and his strong performance in the debates, for most voters he seemed a distant figure. He never entered that great stock company of celebrities – the "Oprah touring company" – that ordinary Americans welcome into their living rooms and believe they have somehow come to know. Love him or hate him, the president had long since taken his place as a recognizable, powerful personality in that company; John Kerry never did.

I had seen Kerry speak two nights before in Tampa, before a crowd fully as delirious as the one that had greeted George W. Bush the night before. Though the Kerry crowd was recognizably younger and, for lack of a better word, "hipper," most of those present would not have seemed out of place at either event. Partly hidden behind a forest of yellow "Two More Days!" signs, Kerry, by far the tallest person on stage, stretched and shifted as he was introduced, raising and lowering himself on the balls of his feet: he was plainly exhausted. Nonetheless he gave a powerful, well-crafted speech, though built around the uninspired phrases "a fresh start" and "first we must choose." And then he turned to Iraq:

"The president tells us that in Iraq, his 'strategy is succeeding. ...' But every day on our TV screens, we see the hard truths. We see the consequences of this President's decision to rush to war without a plan to win the peace: the loss of over 1,100 of our brave men and women in uniform. A cost of $225 billion with billions more on the way. Entire regions controlled by insurgents and terrorists. By pushing our allies aside, George Bush's catastrophic mismanagement of this war has left America to bear almost 90 percent of the costs and 90 percent of the coalition casualties. We relied on Afghan warlords instead of American troops to hunt down Osama bin Laden, and the man responsible for murdering more than three thousand Americans walked away. ... On Tuesday, we have the opportunity to set a new course in up a new chapter in our relationship with the rest of the world ... and do whatever it takes to defend America and keep our troops safe.... When I'm president, I will bring other nations to our side and train Iraqis so that we can succeed and bring our troops home. As president, I will fight a tougher, smarter, more effective war on terror. We will hunt down, capture, and kill the terrorists wherever they are. I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president."

Kerry's indictment of Bush's stewardship of the war was strong, but he offered little by way of an alternative; his "new course in Iraq" amounted to bringing "other nations to our side" to train Iraqis. He would "do whatever it takes to defend America" – a broad, empty assertion that depended entirely on the trust a prospective voter was willing to grant him. And though Kerry struggled to separate Iraq and the war on terror, not just the imagery of the war – the descent of Iraq into a kind of terrorism that, ironically enough, seemed to confirm the President's insistence that it was in fact "the central front of the war on terror" – but Kerry's own discussion of Iraq and terrorism only seemed to bring them together.

For Kerry, this proved fatal. If Bush had succeeded in joining Iraq and terrorism and then wrestling to the very center of the election his chosen question – whom do you trust to protect you and your family from terrorism? – he had also succeeded, for too many of those famous "swing voters," in providing the answer. The exit polls make this clear: nearly six in ten voters said they trusted Bush to "handle terrorism." Nearly six in ten said they did not trust Kerry to do the same.

Of course it is easy to say, as many have, that Kerry's policy on Iraq and terrorism was inadequate or incoherent. It is much harder to say what that policy should have been. Kerry, it is true, did not prove himself a very creative or resourceful candidate, and the Bush campaign was ruthless and brilliant in seizing on his missteps – his mention of a "global test" for United States intervention abroad, for example, and his unfortunate statement that "I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" – and using them to color in vivid tones the picture they wanted to paint of the senator. Kerry gave them a good deal of help, particularly by focusing on Vietnam, and attempting to make his heroic service as a naval officer there a central part of his campaign while avoiding discussion of his more controversial leadership in the antiwar movement after he returned. The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, incensed by the antiwar Kerry, did great damage to the reputation of heroic warrior Kerry, and thereby did much to bolster the point that the Bush campaign, with the help of tens of millions of dollars in television and radio ads, had sought to drive home to American voters: that Kerry was inauthentic, untrustworthy, and "unfit to lead."

But Kerry's mistakes, however costly, in fact concealed a deeper problem, which was that Democrats themselves, haunted by the traditional charge of "weakness on national security" (which of course helped lead to Kerry's nomination), were deeply divided on what should be done about the Iraq war, with as many favoring withdrawal as not [10]. This is not surprising: the war itself, a costly, tangled, unending mess, admits of no obvious solution. The war may well be President Bush's greatest wound; but for candidate Bush the ability to depict Iraq as "the central front of the war on terror" and trumpet his willingness to confront the war and "stay the course" to victory was an audacious and astonishing act of political legerdemain. He took what looked to be his greatest weakness and made it his opponent's.

Kerry might have done better to declare early on that Iraq and the war on terror could no longer be separated, and to argue, forcefully and consistently, that Bush had conducted both incompetently – so incompetently, in fact, that four more years of his leadership would put Americans at ever greater risk. But to have been convincing, such a strategy, at least implicitly, would have meant accepting the necessity of going to war in Iraq – a position that many committed Democratic voters strongly disputed and that Kerry's own past statements tended to contradict. And it would have meant demonstrating the kind of single-mindedness, relentlessness, and rigor that the Bush campaign managed but the Kerry forces never did. Either way, as long as Bush was able to succeed in melding Iraq and the war on terror and placing them firmly at the center of the campaign, Kerry faced an incumbent "war president" who, whatever his missteps, Americans would be hesitant to abandon – without a very good reason for doing so. Kerry never produced that reason.

At about half past eight, as I stood amid the roiling sea of jubilant Democrats outside that election supervisor's office in downtown Jacksonville, I began to hear, through the civil rights songs and the laughter and cheers, a distant, booming, amplified chant. One by one people in the crowd before me heard it, and began turning to look down the street whence the chanting came, and then to look at one another. The voices grew louder and louder, and finally we saw their source: a group of twenty or so young men – they looked like football players – led by a beefy fellow holding high a blue Bush/Cheney sign, and chanting through a megaphone in a deep baritone: "Bush Won the State! Bush Won the State! Bush Won the State!"

The dream of a Democratic victory had been fueled by the enormous turnout and by a handful of faulty exit polls. Everyone had believed it, even those distinctly downcast Republicans I'd visited at their Jacksonville headquarters earlier that afternoon. But the dream had ended.

The Democrats had come remarkably close. They had matched the Republicans in fund-raising dollar for dollar and had mounted an unprecedented "ground game." On election day they managed the impressive feat of bringing eight million more voters to the polls than they had four years before. But the Republicans managed to bring in eleven million additional voters. George W. Bush, having gained half a million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000, defeated John Kerry by three million votes.

Still, the victory was "narrow but clear," as William Kristol described it, with candor rare among Republicans after the election. For all the talk of "moral values," had 60,000 Ohioans made a different choice on election day, we would now be discussing the unpopularity of the Iraq war and the President's failed economic policies. After his narrow but clear victory, George W. Bush remained a popular leader promoting unpopular policies. And though he managed to convince enough Americans that Iraq was "the central front in the war on terror," the truth remains that he has saddled himself and the country he leads with a worsening, increasingly unpopular shooting war that offers no obvious means of escape.

Now he faces a newly emboldened set of claimants. Though several million more evangelical voters turned out in 2004, and thus were critical to Bush's victory, they do not seem to have formed a higher percentage of Republican voters than they had four years before. Still, having accounted, in their increased numbers, for a third of Bush's margin of victory, the evangelicals unquestionably form the Republican Party's most reliable and aggressive base of supporters. Their leaders have been quick and aggressive in claiming full credit for the triumph and the press has been happy to play along. As so often in politics, the appearance, through repetition, becomes its own reality.

Leaders like the unabashedly direct Rev. Bob Jones III now demand, in the name of moral values and the political redemption they claim to have brought the President, that Bush "pass legislation defined by Biblical norms" and that he "leave an imprint of righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God." This is a tall order, and one fraught, like the war, with considerable political peril – from moderate voters, who, for example, support outlawing "partial-birth abortion" but oppose outlawing abortion itself; and even, perhaps, from Democrats who may one day come to focus on what they have gained in this election rather than what they have lost. After all the recriminations and all the analyses of how the party must change, the fact remains that the Democrats came very close to bringing off an almost unprecedented achievement: turning out an incumbent president in a time of war. They failed, but not entirely; they now confront a narrowly reelected president, encumbered with a grim and intractable war, constrained by a huge deficit of his own creation, and faced with increasingly extreme demands that will be satisfied only at great political cost.
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