August 22, 2003

Bush's "Old Boys' Club" looking for good numbers

At the beginning of "The Thomas Crown Affair," the title character, played by Pierce Brosnan, walks into his office at the top of a building that he owns, assertively strolls into his corporate bullpen, glad-hands some workers, says hello to his secretary, and then turns around and says to a character off-camera, "Give me good numbers today, Jimmy."

When the movie came out it was a throwaway line, meant to give the title character a kind of capitalistic panache. But what exactly are "good numbers"? We are taught that in business there are facts. There are overhead costs, gross and net profits, taxes, expenditures...all of those exact costs. Today however, we know what "good numbers" actually are. In the wake of corporate scandals we have come to realize that in global business, not only people but also numbers can be massaged, wined and dined to produce a desired result.

The more I think about this, the more I think of the Bush Administration. That scene, that line just keeps playing over and over again in my head when I try to think how, or why blatantly false information about Iraqi nuclear arms purchases got into the State of the Union address. When then-Governor Bush was running for office, he highlighted the fact that he was going to run the West Wing like a Fortune 500 company. And he has uncharacteristically kept to his word (ignoring his promises of a balanced budget, increased funding for schools, domestic security, and other things).

But what we the public have seen, the early morning meetings with sharply dressed Whitehouse staffers, the efficient use of the press in distributing the Administration's chosen "line" of the day, the clever use of cameras, backdrops, props, and aircraft carriers, has only been the exterior fa├žade of what is, in Mr. Bush's own admission, a Whitehouse steeped in the corporate culture of the 1990's.

Starting in early 2002 the President began to focus on Iraq, first through the United Nations, and then alone, without much international support. But as December and January rolled around, little new information was coming in.

President Bush used the 2002 State of the Union address to introduce to the American people the idea of a second attack, this time on Iraq, saying that Iraq "plotted to develop anthrax, nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade." But that wasn't enough. Less than one month after that, Four-Star Marine General Carlton Fulton Jr. met with the Nigerian President, among other officials, and returned to the United States "convinced it was not an issue" (Washington Post, 7/15/03).

But it didn't stop there. As Time magazine reported on July 13, Vice President Dick Cheney requested in early March of 2002 that the CIA investigate the Nigeria-Iraq uranium connection. The CIA reported back to him, after sending a former ambassador to Nigeria to investigate the claims, that the allegations were probably false.

Even after that report, Bush pressed on. State Department intelligence officers warned secretary of State Colin Powell that the claim was probably false.

Yet it continued. With a failing economy, a won war but a lost peace in Afghanistan (the US then, and now only has control over the capital, Kabul), Osama on the loose (sounds like a new FOX sitcom), and literally nothing to take to the country about the supposed Iraqi threat, the President or Vice President probably told their staff to get "usable information" or some other phrase that leaves room for a non-denial-denial.

And the thrice-debunked Niger claim was it. But this time, they spun it into the passive voice, placing blame elsewhere, themselves only the courier of the information: sixteen words were kept in the State of the Union Address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Bingo. Houston, we have justification for war, prepare to launch the cameramen to the President's side as he puts on his big John Wayne hat.

Never mind that it was a British intelligence officer who inserted the suggestion at an Iraq-Niger claim finally admitted that he simply "sexed up" the report, never mind that the CIA, State Department, and the United States Military warned George Bush that the information was false, those sixteen words stayed put in the speech.

In the "Old Boys' Club" that the Bush Whitehouse has become, I have no doubt that beneath the veneer of a 90's-style corporation is cabal of nickname-calling, inside deal-making country-club middle-aged upper-class white men; seriously, 90 percent of them are white, 90 percent are male, and 90 percent are millionaires. And when the grand Poobah of the fraternity walks in, I'd bet that he's doing the top-dog walk, jibbing his under staff about their personal lives (he loves it when they date each other), calling his staff by their nicknames "Scooter" (Lawrence Libby) or "Big Time" (Vice President Cheney), and most importantly, dropping those infamous words: "Give me good numbers."