Friday, May 05, 2006

The Orwell administration

It is a compliment to the writer George Orwell that his name has become a household adjective. But rather than simply applying the term "Orwellian" to some of the latest news developments, let us first consult his classic novel 1984.
Chapter Four, to be precise:

In the government's Records Department, "(a) process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs....Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was...scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary."

All history scraped clean...That sums up the Bush administration's Orwellian impulse. We have seen two fresh examples this week:

1. On Wednesday, Laura Bush sought to bring the past "up to date," as it were, by denying the factual reality of May 1, 2003 and imposing a new version.

On CNN, John King questioned her by saying, "This week was the third anniversary of what has become known as the 'mission accomplished' speech..."

But the First Lady said, "The fact is, when the president stood on the Abraham Lincoln, that Abraham Lincoln's mission was accomplished. They were coming into San Diego with all of their troops on board and that was the end of their term in Iraq..."

But clearly the Records Department hasn't done the requisite scraping, because as I look back, President Bush said nothing that day to suggest that the message on the "Mission Accomplished" banner was only about the ship. That day, the White House ensured that the banner would serve as a visual backdrop to Bush's declaration that "major combat operations" were over in Iraq.

Six months later, when it was clear that combat operations had not ended, Bush did try to shift the blame, by saying that the banner had been the Navy's idea (even though the White House arranged to have it made). The problem is, by that point he had already dug himself a hole by using the phrase "mission accomplished" in venues far from the Navy ship.

Not even Laura, with her high poll ratings, can scrape this one clean:
On June 5, 2003, Bush said to the U.S. troops in Qatar, "America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished."

2. But the Orwellian master is still Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.
On Thursday, he was ambushed in Atlanta by questioner Ray McGovern, who happened to be a retired CIA official who provided President Reagan with daily intelligence briefings. McGovern rebuked Rumsfeld for falsely claiming, during the early weeks of the war, that weapons of mass destruction had been located.

McGovern: "You said you knew where they were."
Rumsfeld: "I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were."

Memo to the Records Department: Call up all previous Rumsfeld statements and insert the words "suspect sites."

Too late. We already have the transcript of Rumsfeld on ABC. March 30, 2003.
Question to Rumsfeld: "Is it curious to you that (troops) haven't found any weapons of mass destruction?"
Rumsfeld: "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad, and east, west, south and north somewhat."

Another technique in 1984 was to simply dump inconvenient facts down the "memory hole." Rumsfeld has tried that numerous times already. One of my favorites: On Feb. 20, 2003, during the runup to war, he told PBS that the Americans "would be welcomed," a scene akin to Afghanisatan, where people were "playing music, cheering, flying kites." Seven months later, when a broadcast journalist read the PBS remarks back to Rumsfeld, the Defense secretary replied:
"Never said that. Never did...You're thinking of somebody else."

Could these myriad attempts to rewrite history have anything to do with the latest poll findings, which show that even 45 percent of self-identified conservatives are now voicing disappoval of the president?

But, speaking of history, let us pause for a minute to ponder the Kennedys.

The Kennedys have been cruising on their brand name for decades, and now we have another suspicious car incident which looks a bit like Chappaquiddik without a death or water.

Ted Kennedy's son, Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, driving with his lights off at 2:45 a.m. Thursday, crashed his car into a U.S. Capitol security barrier after narrowly missing a police cruiser. He told cops he was late for a vote.

Actually, he was very late; the House had adjourned around midnight.

Cops at the scene wanted to administer a sobriety test, because (as they said subsequently) they smelled alcohol on Kennedy's breath -- but they were overruled by supervisors who drove Kennedy home. The union that represents the cops is ticked off; president Lou Cannon said, "the officers just want to be able to do their jobs...he was extended a courtesy by virtue of his position."

Meanwhile, Kennedy took 19 hours to come up with a series of explanations. In an initial statement, he said he had consumed "no alcohol." Much later, he said he had been under the influence of two prescription drugs, both of which had been ingested at home. The problem is, the Boston Herald checked around, and discovered that he had been drinking that night at a popular Capitol Hill bar, the Hawk & Dove.

No charges have been filed, but the accident is under investigation, and the police are looking into whether Kennedy got special treatment - or, as it is euphemistically put, they are "reviewing steps taken during the initial accident investigation to ensure compliance with existing policies and procedures."

Unlike the Bushes and their Orwellian impulse, the Kennedys have no interest in changing the past or flushing stuff down the memory hole. Quite the contrary. They'll hang onto Camelot as long as they can.