There are times when the Bush administration simply beggars belief. It goes beyond mere blundering to a willful obtuseness that borders on psychotic. If you don’t believe me, consider this. How dangerous is a man who believes he can do no wrong? How dangerous is a man who believes he can do no wrong, and who has the power to send troops into battle? How dangerous is a man who believes that he can do no wrong, and who has the power to selectively enforce or ignore the law? To whom does he dispense mercy and to whom does he dispense harsh “justice”? And on what basis?
That’s the question that came to mind when I heard last night that Bush commuted Scooter Libby’s sentence.
President Bush commuted Monday the prison term of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, facing 30 months in prison after a federal court convicted him of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators.
A commutation is distinct from a pardon, which is a complete eradication of a conviction record — making it the same as if the person has never been convicted.
Bush has only commuted the jail term, which means that the conviction remains on Libby’s record and he must still pay a $250,000 fine.
Commutations are rarely granted, says CNN’s chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. A commutation is a total right of the president and it cannot be challenged by any attorney or court, he said.
It’s the fourth time Bush has issued one.
Earlier Monday, a federal appeals court unanimously ruled that Libby could not delay serving his sentence, which would have put Libby just weeks away from surrendering to a prison.
In his statement, Bush called Libby’s sentence “excessive” and reminded that the consequences of Libby’s sentence will be “long-lasting.” (Provided, that is, that Bush doesn’t grant Libby a full pardon before he leaves office.) The amount of consideration Bush apparently gave to Libby’s case struck me as a harsh contrast to the the degree of consideration — and the quality of mercy — he’s shown in other cases, in which much more than 30 months in prison was at stake, as well as the reason why.
As Swopa points out, over five years ago, the president swore that anyone in his administration who was found to have broken the law in the Plame scandal would be “taken care of.”
“If there’s a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush told reporters at an impromptu news conference during a fund-raising stop in Chicago, Illinois. “If the person has violated law, that person will be taken care of.
“I welcome the investigation. I am absolutely confident the Justice Department will do a good job.
“I want to know the truth,” the president continued. “Leaks of classified information are bad things.”
The revision of that statement soon followed, and one wonders if the video footage of that press conference will be revised as the “Mission Accomplished” footage has been. But not all of Bush’s history is so easily revised, and the consideration and concern shown to Libby reminded me of some Bush history from his years as governor of Texas, as recounted by Sis. Helen Prejean.
During that time, when Bush presided over some 152 executions (more than any other governor in recent history) and during which he claimed to “review each case carefully,” Bush gave the death penalty cases presented to him by Alberto Gonzales just 30 minutes of his time. Usually, this was on the day of execution, when his desk was the last stop and the last hope.
He might have succeeded in bequeathing to history this image of himself as a scrupulously fair-minded governor if the journalist Alan Berlow had not used the Public Information Act to gain access to fifty-seven confidential death penalty memos that Bush’s legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, whom President Bush has recently nominated to be attorney general of the United States, presented to him, usually on the very day of execution. The reports Gonzales presented could not be more cursory. Take, for example, the case of Terry Washington, a mentally retarded man of thirty-three with the communication skills of a seven-year-old. Washington’s plea for clemency came before Governor Bush on the morning of May 6, 1997. After a thirty-minute briefing by Gonzales, Bush checked “Deny”— just as he had denied twenty-nine other pleas for clemency in his first twenty-eight months as governor.
But Washington’s plea for clemency raised substantial issues, which called for thoughtful, fair-minded consideration, not the least of which was the fact that Washington’s mental handicap had never been presented to the jury that condemned him to death. Gonzales’s legal summary, however, omitted any mention of Washington’s mental limitations as well as the fact that his trial lawyer had failed to enlist the help of a mental health expert to testify on his client’s behalf. When Washington’s postconviction lawyers took on his defense, they researched deeply into his childhood and came up with horrifying evidence of abuse. Terry Washington, along with his ten siblings, had been beaten regularly with whips, water hoses, extension cords, wire hangers, and fan belts. This was mitigation of the strongest kind, but Washington’s jury never heard it. Nor is there any evidence that Gonzales told Bush about it.
Bush wrote in his autobiography that it was not his job to “replace the verdict of a jury unless there are new facts or evidence of which a jury was unaware, or evidence that the trial was somehow unfair” (italics added). But new information about a mentally retarded man’s battered, abused childhood that his jury never got to hear—wouldn’t that qualify?
When Berlow asked Gonzales directly whether Bush ever read the clemency petitions, he replied that he did so “from time to time.” Instead, Bush seems to have relied on Gonzales’s summaries, and they clearly indicate that Gonzales continuously sided with the prosecutors. One third of his summary of Terry Washington’s case is devoted to a detailed description of the gruesome aspects of the crime, while he fails to mention Washington’s mental limitations and his miserably ineffective defense lawyer. In response to Berlow’s direct question, Gonzales admitted that his conferences with Bush on these cases typically lasted no more than thirty minutes. Berlow confirmed this for himself when he looked at Bush’s appointment calendar for the morning of Washington’s execution and saw a half-hour slot marked “Al G—Execution.”
(The Supreme Court, by the way, just blocked the execution of a schizophrenic inmate in Texas.)
And there is, of course, Bush’s now famous mocking of Karla Faye Tucker prior to her execution, reported by Tucker Carlson. Prejean points out that Bush’s portrayal of that moment in his career as governor is somewhat different than what was reported.
In his autobiography, Bush claimed that the pending execution of Karla Faye Tucker “felt like a huge piece of concrete…crushing me.” But in an unguarded moment in 1999 while traveling during the presidential campaign, Bush revealed his true feelings to the journalist Tucker Carlson. Bush mentioned Karla Faye Tucker, who had been executed the previous year, and told Carlson that in the weeks immediately before the execution, Bianca Jagger and other protesters had come to Austin to plead for clemency for her. Carlson asked Bush if he had met with any of the petitioners and was surprised when Bush whipped around, stared at him, and snapped, “No, I didn’t meet with any of them.” Carlson, who until that moment had admired Bush, said that Bush’s curt response made him feel as if he had just asked “the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed.” Bush went on to tell him that he had also refused to meet Larry King when he came to Texas to interview Tucker but had watched the interview on television. King, Bush said, asked Tucker difficult questions, such as “What would you say to Governor Bush?”
What did Tucker answer? Carlson asked.
“Please,” Bush whimpered, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “please, don’t kill me.”
Carlson was shocked. He couldn’t believe Bush’s callousness and reasoned that his cruel mimicry of the woman whose death he had authorized must have been sparked by anger over Karla Faye Tucker’s remarks during the King interviews. When King had asked her what she planned to ask Governor Bush, Karla Faye had said she thought that if Bush approved her execution, he would be succumbing to election-year pressure from pro–death penalty voters.
Yet, in the case of Libby, there is careful consideration and concern about both the nature of his sentence and the consequences of his conviction on his career. The General has also posted two more cases that Bush might consider for clemency, given his leniency with Libby.
I came across Prejean’s article when I was researching a three part series about the psyche of the president (and the country), and I thought of it again when I read about Bush’s commutation of Libby’s sentence on the same day that I read a long Washington Post article about a president Bush who, though it scarcely seems possible, is more isolated than ever.
At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.
Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I’m facing? How will history judge what we’ve done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?
These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration. For all the setbacks, he remains unflinching, rarely expressing doubt in his direction, yet trying to understand how he got off course.
George Bush looking for answers at this point in his presidency and his entire life is a bit like a gunslinger looking for answers to the questions he should have asked before he sent bullets flying. But even that analogy doesn’t quite work, because those questions were asked and answered long before he indulged his trigger finger in Iraq, by people like the historians, philosophers, and theologians he confers with offer colas now. But he didn’t listen then, as Jim Wallis pointed out in God’s Politics, religious leaders opposed the Iraq war in a show of unprecedented unity. But the Bush administration never agreed with those religious leaders. (Tony Blair, on the other hand, did.) and the Post article suggests that he’s still not listening, somehow managing to stave off any doubt about his direction while simultaneously wondering how he “got off course.” The cognitive dissonance — that going in the “right direction” and being “off course” are incompatible — is as lost on him as any other nuance.
The cognitive dissonance of lacking doubt while surrounded on all sides by evidence disastrous choices has its roots in Bush’s well-known, much touted faith, which fuels his absolute belief that he — no matter what he does — is doing “God’s will.”
Much of the discussion focused on the nature of good and evil, a perennial theme for Bush, who casts the struggle against Islamic extremists in black-and-white terms. Michael Novak, a theologian who participated, said it was clear that Bush weathers his difficulties because he sees himself as doing the Lord’s work.
“His faith is very strong,” said Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Faith is not enough by itself because there are a lot of people who have faith but weak hearts. But his faith is very strong. He seeks guidance, like every other president does, in prayer. And that means trying to be sure he’s doing the right thing. And if you’ve got that set, all the criticism, it doesn’t faze you very much. You’re answering to God.”
That certainty of rightness and righteousness is both dangerous and comforting. Dangerous to the rest of us because if you believe that you are absolutely doing the will of God, then there is very little wrong you can do if you’ve “got that set.” Not only can you do no wrong, but you don’t have to answer to anyone else. In any other person, any average person, the above would be considered delusional in some extremes, especially if it leads to actions that are criminal and/or bring harm to others.
But it’s comforting to George W. Bush, because he is liberated from having to think much about his course action or its consequences. Nor does he have to think of himself as then responsible for any disaster that ensues. As Justin Franks points out, this also frees Bush from any anxiety of the rightness of wrongness of his decision. He can repeat over and over again, as he has in interviews “I made the right decision for America,” rather than suffer the doubts that plagued his predecessor in similar circumstances.
There are lots of different ways of managing anxiety, and, there are several of them that have come out since he stopped drinking. But, of course, the first way to manage anxiety is through alcohol. But, by being a born-again Christian, he can also manage anxiety by being connected to God, by feeling that he’ll be saved in any kind of a rapture, by feeling that he’s always on the side of the Good.
That may be one reason why many interviewed for the Post article described Bush as “upbeat,” “at peace with himself,” “serene,” and “amazingly calm” in circumstances that would have carved lines of concern in the faces of many other leaders, who might have some understanding of the gravity of their decisions and the scope of the price paid if they’re wrong. But there’s another reason that Franks talks about, that’s just as applicable.
Another way to manage anxiety is to make other people anxious, so he can project his anxiety into the rest of us. So we can experience the kind of anxiety—and the rest of the world does, in lots of ways, experience the kinds of anxiety that he must have felt as a child. Another way of managing anxiety is to simplify things; to divide the world, his own inner world, into good and bad, into black and white. And, we certainly see that in his Second Inaugural address today, where he talks about, the world is divided in half in terms of good and evil. So, it’s another way to manage anxiety.
Could that be because, as Frank pointed out, he is at peace because he has projected his anxiety so effectively on so many Americans that his ratings have suffered as a result? And could the denial of his own anxiety be so strong that he actually doesn’t realize why people don’t love him for all he’s inflicted upon them?
And what kind of anxiety could he have experienced as a child? In Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, Frank goes on about the most significant event of Bush’s early years — the death of his younger sister, Robin, from leukemia — and the extremely detached way it was handled by his distant, emotionally detached parents, who neither told him of his sister’s illness or death until they day they came home without her, when he was about seven.
From that point on there never any adult modeling or supervision. From youth onward Bush has been bailed out by his family and its powerful connections. He’s never had to face the consequences of his choices or shortcomings. He’s never had to apologize or make amends. He’s never had to admit wrongdoing. He’s never had to listen to anyone.
It shows in more ways than one, and not just in his stubborn refusal to admit error. Just below that stubbornness there is, I think, a deep anxiety that admitting an error or wrongdoing is an indelible mark against his personhood. I know that’s a term that will make some eyes roll, but as a parent I’ve learned that when we correct Parker for something we have to be sure to separate what he does from who he is. In other words, doing something “bad” doesn’t make him inherently “bad,” it means he’s made a “bad” choice, and depending on how we correct him he can learn why it was a bad choice and why he shouldn’t make it again.
Likewise, when the hubby or I make a mistake, we admit it to him up front. I can’t count how many times in one week we might say “Papa make a mistake” or “Daddy made a mistake” and apologize if our error had a negative impact on him. I don’t think it’s something we ever consciously discussed, it’s just what we do as parents. And it hasn’t undermined our authority with him (our aim has always been to be authoritative parents as opposed to authoritarian) or his confidence in us. In fact, I think it humanizes us for him, and gives him confidence that when we make mistakes we own up to them and try to make thing right. I guess our hope is that doing so will model for him how to handle his own mistakes.
It makes me wonder if George W. Bush ever had that model. I’m inclined to believe, if he didn’t have to deal with the consequences of his own mistakes, if he was always rescued, he had no model at all. No model for recognizing his own personhood or that of others. Indeed, his own is so fragile that to protect it he must detach himself from anything that might threaten it, whether that’s the consequences of his own choices or the reality of someone else’s humanity. He must distance himself from responsibility for one and to the other if he is to remain “upbeat,” “at peace with himself,” “serene,” and “amazingly calm” in the face evidence of his own destructiveness; even face to face with it.
[Rep. Peter] King, the GOP congressman, introduced him backstage to a soldier injured in one eye. Bush teared up and asked the young man to take off his dark glasses so he could see the wound, King recalled. “Human instinct is when someone has a serious injury to look the other way,” King said. “He actually asked him to take them off. He actually touched the eye a little. It was almost as if he felt he had to confront it.”
As they headed back to Washington a few hours later, with the televisions aboard Air Force One tuned to the New York Mets game, King mused that Bush must be feeling the weight of his office.
“My wife loves you, but she doesn’t know how you don’t wake up every morning and say, ‘I’ve had it. I’m out of here,’ ” King told him.
“She thinks that?” Bush replied. “Get her on the phone.”
King dialed but got voice mail. Bush left a message: “I’m doing okay. Don’t worry about me.”
And he will always be “doing okay.” He will be “doing okay” the day he leaves office, and every day thereafter, even as Americans and Iraqis continue to be wounded and die in his war.
He will make sure he’s “doing okay” because otherwise he will have to face much more than he can handle.
And that’s why he places such a huge importance on loyalty, and why he commuted Libby’s sentence. Even as the clock ticks down on his presidency, he relies on loyal staff who seldom challenge his long-standing beliefs — however mistaken they may have been and have been shown to be — and guard against the admission of any information or evidence that might undermine his fragile sense of self, rightness and righteousness. Not to mention their own, in that steadily shrinking circle.
So, Scooter Libby will be taken care of, the way “Brownie” was taken care of for as long as possible, and the way Alberto Gonzales continues to be taken care of. Because the nature of their positions and their loyalty, they are in some ways extensions of George W. Bush. And like him they must be taken care of, because if they aren’t “doing okay” then neither is George W. Bush. And he must be “going okay.” Always.
To the degree that Bush takes care of Libby, Gonzales, or anyone else, Bush also takes care of Bush. Always,