the bush presidency, to borrow a phrase from its dour deputy, is in its last throes.
32 years ago it was a "second-rate burglary" that brought down the highest office in the land. today it appears, at first glance, far less — mere snippets of "almost gossip", delivered, we are told, in an "offhand, casual manner" — that now threaten again to collapse an office already on its knees beneath a debilitating barrage of ceaseless scandal.
bush's folly can be traced from his team's opening moves, when the texas governor, taking advantage of the climate lingering after clinton's impeachment, made a campaign mantra out of a sacred and solemn promise to usher in an age of honor:
august 11, 2000: i will swear to uphold the laws of the land. but i will also swear to uphold the honor and the integrity of the office to which i have been elected, so help me god.
august 13, 2000: americans want to be assured that the next administration will bring honor and dignity to the white house.
september 15, 2000: americans are tired of investigations and scandal, and the best way to get rid of them is to elect a new president who will bring a new administration, who will restore honor and dignity to the white house.
october 17, 2000: should i be fortunate enough to become your president, when i put my hand on the bible, i will swear to not only uphold the laws of the land, but i will also swear to uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which i have been elected, so help me god.
november 3, 2000: i want to conclude by telling you i understand the awesome responsibilities of this job. i understand the serious undertaking. i understand that when i put my hand on the bible, i will swear to not only uphold the laws of this land, but to answer the calls of the mothers and dads who i see all the time around america, who come to my rallies and hold a picture of their child and look me in the eye and say, "governor, i'm here to say, never let us down again," to hear those calls. i will also swear to uphold the honor and the integrity of the office to which i have been elected, so help me god.
it was a promise he would not forget to reiterate as he swore in his staff:
january 22, 2001: we must remember the high standards that come with high office. this begins with careful adherence to the rules. i expect every member of this administration to stay well within the boundaries that define legal and ethical conduct. this means avoiding even the appearance of problems. this means checking and, if need be, double-checking that the rules have been obeyed. this means never compromising those rules. no one in the white house should be afraid to confront the people they work for, for ethical concerns, and no one should hesitate to confront me as well. we are all accountable to one another. and above all, we are all accountable to the law and to the american people.
but my, what a difference 1900 days make!
even without such stultifying failures as the iraq occupation, the stillborn response to hurricane katrina and the dubious dubai port deal, the grinding investigation into the july 2003 outing of cia agent valerie plame seemed destined to erode the one asset that pundits continue to insist the president still commands:
blitzer: here's what you write in the book. you write: "candidates have to look closely at george w. bush and realize that they cannot win by running away from the leader of their party. rather, they have to identify the single greatest strength the president embodies and put it front and center in their campaigns." "that greatest strength," you write, "is, in fact, trustworthiness."
now, we looked at our most recent cnn/"usa today"/gallup poll. in february 2004, two years ago, 55 percent thought bush was honest and trustworthy. that has gone down now, in february 2006, to 47 percent, not even a majority.
hewitt: yes. but that's still much better than most of his other numbers on performance. it's his strongest calling card.
— the situation room, cnn, march 31, 2006
just as nixon had at the beginning of watergate, bush, speaking through press secretary scott mcclellan, denied all involvement and knowledge in the scandal. he even declared the leak a firing offense ...
september 29, 2003: the president has set high standards, the highest of standards for people in his administration. he's made it very clear to people in his administration that he expects them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. if anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.
... and speaking on his own, hinted suspiciously, that despite his sincerest efforts, the leaker might never be found:
september 30, 2003: there’s just too many leaks, and if there is a leak out of my administration, i want to know who it is.
october 7, 2003: i want to know the truth. … i have no idea whether we’ll find out who the leaker is, partially because, in all due respect to your profession, you do a very good job of protecting the leakers.
october 28, 2003: i’d like to know if somebody in my white house did leak sensitive information.
the press, however, failed the president, despite his sincerest hints. unwilling to suffer jail for contempt, time magazine reporter matthew cooper revealed that both karl rove and scooter libby were his sources on the plame story, forcing bush the next day to refine his position:
july 18, 2005: it's best people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions. i don't know all the facts. i want to know all the facts. i would like this to end as quickly as possible. if someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration.
but cooper's revelation had dealt bush's credibility a solid blow; an abc news poll found that only 25% believed that the white house was fully cooperating with fitzgerald's investigation and that 75% thought that rove should be fired if he leaked classified information.
by the time fitzgerald finally handed down his indictment of scooter libby on charges of obstruction and perjury, scott mcclellan informed the press that the white house had decided that the best defense was now no defense at all:
october 28, 2005 : because of the ongoing investigation and legal proceedings, at the direction of the white house counsel's office, all white house officials, including myself, are not going to be able to respond to questions or discuss the factual circumstances of the matter, except as requested by the special counsel, or in consultation with the white house counsel's office.
bush himself issued only his regrets at libby's resignation. a week later came the announcement of an eight-part refresher course on ethics for the staff, no doubt to the collective rolling of eyes from coast to coast.
but as embarrassing as the scandal grew, as tight as the noose became, the president himself remained unimplicated in the leak.
this, of course, would soon change.
ironically, it would be libby himself (considered by many the "firewall" between the prosecutor and his employers) who secured the knot, as revealed in fitzgerald's bombshell april filing in response to libby's request for documents for his own defense:
april 6, 2006: mr. libby is said to have testified that "at first" he rebuffed mr. cheney's suggestion to release the information because the estimate was classified. however, according to the vice presidential aide, mr. cheney subsequently said he got permission for the release directly from mr. bush. "defendant testified that the vice president later advised him that the president had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions of the [national intelligence estimate]," the prosecution filing said.
after several days of silence, bush would admit, in a cheneyesque display of sophistry, that while he had indeed authorized the leak, not only was the intel no longer classified, but his authorization meant that the leak wasn't really a leak at all:
april 10, 2006: i decided to declassify the nie for a reason. i wanted people to see what some of those statements were based on, so i wanted people to see the truth.
such noble sentiment. nonetheless, bush's noose is threatening to become a gibbet, as the fitzgerald filing also bluntly revealed a basis for conspiracy charges all around:
april 7, 2006: [libby] wants the materials because he thinks they will show that his misstatements were innocent and did not stem from an orchestrated administration campaign to discredit wilson, according to his court filings.
fitzgerald's brief uses unusually strong language to rebut this claim. in light of the grand jury testimony, the prosecutor said, "it is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of white house efforts to 'punish' wilson."
it appears that the game the white house has been playing over the last five years is drawing to a desperate close. it was a game in which honor and dignity were nothing more than chips and tokens; morals and ethics just a strategem. it is an old gambit, to be sure, and if there remains anyone left at all surprised by the endgame, it is probably only bush and his once-swaggering team. but now the entire board itself is in near total ruin, with his pawns being stripped, one by one, while the king himself stands naked:
pew research center: until now, the most frequently offered word to describe the president was "honest," but this comes up far less often today than in the past. other positive traits such as "integrity" are also cited less, and virtually no respondent used superlatives such as "excellent" or "great", terms that came up fairly often in previous surveys.
the single word most frequently associated with george w. bush today is "incompetent," and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: "idiot" and "liar." all three are mentioned far more often today than a year ago.
newsweek's johnathan alter: there are not a lot of people who expect him to move very much in the polls. and once you're tagged as an incompetent, that's pretty hard to recover from.
gop pollster tony fabrizio : these numbers are scary. we’ve lost every advantage we’ve ever had.