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Faith, Power & Bush's American Way

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.



Two schools now dominate high criticism of President Bush and his administration: the Faith Critics and the Power Critics.

Faith Critics theorize that President Bush essentially governs by his faith, ignoring inconvenient facts — "reality-based" argument — and instead relying on instinct, gut or even divine calling.

Power Critics make an argument more traditional in American politics: that the Bush administration has become drunk on power and thus indulges its predilections for secrecy, manipulation and imperiousness.

Partisans, of course, attack the administration from every angle on every point. But I think you could even sort most of their low criticism into these two buckets if you were heavily into rhetorical deconstruction. (Conservative criticism of the president, be it libertarian or Tory, probably does not fit very neatly into this pattern.)

I am not applying to either school. Increasingly, I have come to believe that this White House behaves how the worst American corporations behave: self-interested, opaque except under duress, deceptive, market-sensitive, skilled and blinkered. I apologize if that seems naïve or simplistic.

But the presidency wasn't intended to function as a publicly traded corporation, nor has it for most of our history. Modern campaigns have profoundly changed modern government, pushing them toward this commercial model. The evolution started with Ronald Reagan and Bush has put it on steroids. Call me a CCC: Corporate-Campaign Critic.

The summa theologica of the Faith Critics is a article in The New York Times Magazine by Ron Suskind that appeared a few weeks before the 2004 election. Under the headline "Without a Doubt," Suskind argued that Bush had created "a faith-based presidency."

"All of this — the 'gut' and 'instincts,' the certainty and religiosity — connects to a single word, 'faith,' and faith asserts its hold ever more on debates in this country and abroad. That a deep Christian faith illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge. But faith has also shaped his presidency in profound, nonreligious ways. The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision — often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position — he expects complete faith in its rightness."
Faith Critics snatch support from the memoirs and insights of several senior officials who left the administration disenchanted, with Christine Todd Whitman, Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill at the top of the list.

They see a portrait of a president who has decided the great issues of the day on raw conviction — Saddam must fall, global warming isn't a problem, tax cuts always help — and then is impervious to empirical contradiction or logical argument. He is always certain, void of self-doubt, and seen to demand the full fellowship of belief from his vast staff and the expulsion of heretics, whether in the NSC, NASA, or EPA.

While some parts of this picture seem descriptive, and it is a tempting, fun grand theory, it's far too big a pill for me to swallow. It entails believing that George Bush is a nut somehow able to command the allegiance of boy-genius Svengalis and flocks of bureaucratic cows and ostriches. Really it is absurd.

Power Critics have no foundational text. But a fine example of the genre ran on the op-ed page of The Washington Post this week. Written by David Ignatius, its title, conveniently, was "Arrogance of Power."

Ignatius took the lack of prompt disclosure that the vice president accidentally shot a guy as the latest example of this regime's contempt for the press, the public and open government. He boosts his case by citing the recent disclosures from Paul Pillar, who coordinated intelligence on the Middle East at the CIA form 2000 to 2005.

Pillar is the first high-up spy guy to really blow the whistle on the Bush White House, arguing it had decided to topple Saddam long before it saw any real intelligence, coerced the intel agencies to provide supporting material and systematically misled the public.

The administration acted as if was above the rules, laws and customs of government, just as it did when it ordered secret, warrantless wiretaps or interrogation techniques that were, in all but name, torture. "Let's say it plainly," he wrote, "This is the arrogance of power, and it has gone too far in the Bush White House."

My main problem here is that if this administration is arrogant, it came into office arrogant. As Pillar demonstrates (his article is a must-read), the administration was unshakably committed to war long before it had time to get power crazed. Team Bush has behaved consistently from the 2000 campaign, through the contested Battle of Florida, 9/11, war, the 2004 elections, and Katrina.

The creepy hubris of the Bush administration doesn't seem especially unique to me.

At least since political consultants and fundraisers replaced political parties as the main engineers of elections, campaigns are a mix of conviction, substantive debate, marketing, polling, mergers and acquisitions and dirty tricks. As we know, campaigns have become permanent. Campaign mechanics dominated the Clinton White House and do so even more in Bush's.

In campaigns, the standards of truthfulness and honesty are very low. They resemble the standards we've stooped to in corporate life, just as the techniques of campaigns imitate corporate ones.

We've come to expect companies to behave like Enron. We know they are full of smart, talented, highly trained people — most of them honest and good. But we don't expect corporations to be altruistic, honest or transparent. We do expect books to be cooked and companies to pursue profit ruthlessly.

We expect regulators, tax agents and consumers to be deceived. We fill our gullets with their deceptive, manipulative advertising every day, without complaint. We let publicly traded companies pretend they "care" about us and maybe some believe it. We pretend reality television is more real than make believe. We hope markets work.

You can like the president and his policies and there's still not much in this picture that doesn't fit. There's not much going on at the White House that isn't business as usual at our other large institutions. Pundits and political scientists better figure that out soon and come up with some analytic tools.

Unfortunately, the Bush White House embodies the new American Way.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.

By Dick Meyer

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