Bush the Scholar And Politics 101
   by smoking Joe Conason

For most of the three decades since Watergate, Americans have retained a healthy, democratic skepticism about their Presidents. In this new era of apprehension and insecurity, however, White House flacks and their friends in the national media have seized on the changed public mood to encourage an opposite tendency. We are now supposed to admire the occupant of the Oval Office, mostly because he is there, and to believe things about him that are very unlikely to be true.

This recent trend scraped the nadir of credibility the other day when George W. Bush’s aides provided a press briefing about the sources of his graduation speech on "volunteerism" at Ohio State University. This quite ordinary address, it seems, had been inspired by a panoply of great literary and political figures: Alexis de Tocqueville and Adam Smith, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and—to advance slightly beyond absolute cliché—Benjamin Rush, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Pope John Paul II, Aristotle and Cicero.

No particular quotations were cited, and the President uttered the names of none of these worthies. But testing credulity to the utmost, his aides boldly mentioned Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics, a long disquisition on virtue as dull as any book by William Bennett, though somewhat more challenging than The Very Hungry Caterpillar, that perennial Bush favorite. Somehow, Jesus didn’t make the list this time.

The point, as The Financial Times noted, is that the Bush White House feels free to indulge in "the most far-fetched spin" to burnish the President’s image. There are surely many passages in Aristotle and Cicero that seem immediately relevant (such as the Greek’s warning against "empty vanity" in the work cited, or the Roman’s denunciation of the Enron-like merchant, "shifty, deep, artful, treacherous, malevolent," in an essay on business).

Trying to portray Mr. Bush as a serious scholar is about as believable as earlier efforts to paint him as a selfless statesman who heeds no polls, adheres always to principle, and indulges in nothing so base and "Clintonian" as political calculation. Citizens who wish to preserve such illusions should avoid reading the PowerPoint presentation by White House chief political adviser Karl Rove about Republican electoral strategies and prospects.

That computer disc, reportedly left on a public street by an intern, fell into the hands of a Democratic Congressional staffer, who handed it over in turn to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill weekly. Used by Mr. Rove and his associates to lecture Republican activists visiting the White House, the slides on that disc reveal an unusually cynical approach to public policy, even for a President. (Anyone eager to be disillusioned, or just amused, may view the entire presentation at www.politicspa.com.)

Consider slide 21, which summarizes the White House plans for various constituencies that Mr. Rove hopes to draw into the Bush camp over the next two years. It says that they intend to "maintain" support from "Coal & Steel," "Farmers" and "Ranchers." Then skip ahead to slides 24 through 26, which show the states most narrowly won or lost by Mr. Bush in 2000, including West Virginia (coal), Missouri (farmers), Iowa (farmers), Pennsylvania (steel), Ohio (coal and steel), Wisconsin (farmers) and so on.

What Mr. Rove omitted from his show-and-tell, of course, were the little actions the President took to help himself in these states of "special concern," as they’re called in PowerPoint prose.

The political guru might have added a slide of Mr. Bush signing that $190 billion farm bill, which the White House obstructed for months as a supposed affront to its free-market ideology, but now touts as its own. He might also have added another slide detailing those steep new steel tariffs announced by Mr. Bush a few weeks ago, in direct contradiction of the administration’s free-trade rhetoric. Or he could have slipped in a slide about Mr. Bush’s abandonment of his promise to reduce carbon dioxide and other air pollution, a straight sellout to the coal industry.

Such additions would no doubt have been excessively candid. Speaking of candor, Mr. Rove’s purloined disc delineates several states where the White House expects bad trouble in the midterm elections. Notable on the "special concern" list was Florida, where the President’s brother is seeking re-election as Governor (and where the White House, coincidentally, announced a plan to buy unpopular offshore-drilling leases, despite the "energy crisis" that necessitates drilling off California and in Alaska.) Also notable was Texas, where Mr. Rove evidently fears that his party may lose both the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

As soon as the disc leaked out, the White House announced that its contents didn’t accurately reflect Mr. Rove’s opinions. None of the Republicans is really in trouble, they insisted. A senior official also told the Associated Press that recent policy reversals by the President have "no connection to political gain" for him and his party.

Maybe they should add Nixon, Machiavelli and Jon Lovitz ("Yeah, that’s the ticket!") to the White House roster of inspirational philosophers.

You may reach Joe Conason via email at: jconason@observer.com.

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