Monday, December 11, 2006

Shame the devil

Near the end of the movie Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren, prodded by a combination of his own conscience and a Congressional subpoena, appears before a committee investigating rigged television game shows. Employing sincerity and charm, as well as rhetorical tropes from the English literature he teaches to dazzled Columbia undergraduates ("I have flown too high on borrowed wings"), he both confesses and finesses his defrauding of the public. Since Van Doren is a beloved media celebrity, the Congressmen rush to thank him for his courage and probity. Then one committee member -- a minority member, no doubt -- remarks with exasperation, "I don't think an adult of your intelligence should be congratulated for finally, simply telling the truth." There is a moment of silence, and then, far up in the gallery, somebody starts to clap. Others join in until the applause fills the room, while the embarrassed chairman gavels for order.

I thought of that scene when Robert Gates appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to compete on "Who Wants To Be Secretary of Defense?" As someone noted, after Rumsfeld the Senate would have confirmed a house plant, but everyone pretended there was a lot at hazard here. "Dr. Gates," intoned one Senator -- by the way, when someone in public life uses the title "Dr." and is neither a physician nor a clergyman (Dr. Kissinger, Dr. Rice, and as long as she's in the news, Dr. Kirkpatrick), be sure you will sooner or later be sold a big old barrel of horse feathers. Keep your hand on your wallet and don't make eye contact. Where was I? "Dr. Gates," he asked, "are we winning the war in Iraq?" Gates paused, as if an adult of his intelligence had to think about it. "No, sir," he said. Nobody in the gallery applauded, but I knew it was all over bar the voting.

Having a Secretary of Defense with some grasp of reality is not much to cling to, but it's all we have. Bush doesn't get it, and he never will. When the Republicans lost control of Congress, he posed for a few tight-faced pictures with the new leadership and immediately left for Jordan, Latvia, anyplace that would have him, clearly hoping that Daddy would once again clean up the mess and make the bad Democrats go away. When the bare-facts report of his own Iraq Study Group was ready, he summoned the British prime minister ("Yo Blair!") to share the blame, responding with sarcasm and rage when British reporters dared to ask non-nerfball questions. This is a sad little neurotic who has been spared every character-building opportunity from childhood to the 2000 elections, and Daddy made him that way, though many millions share responsibility for putting him where he is. The next time somebody tries to pull a fast one in Florida or Ohio, I hope we will display some of the resolve and outrage demonstrated by the voters of Mexico who perceived that their election had been hijacked. We cannot afford any more Bushes. We must restore this country's once-friendly relations with reality. We must remember how to tell the truth.


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