The Pepper-Spray President


By Ciro Scotti George Walker Bush's message to the world on Inauguration Day 2005 was a lot like candidate John Kerry's on nomination night at the Democratic National Convention last summer: Help is on the way. Senator Kerry's rescue effort was abysmal on arrival, and even the most fervent believer in the power of the U.S. and resolve of the 43rd President has got to take any promise to deliver the world from evil with a salt deposit the size of Lot's wife.

On a cold day in Washington, Bush delivered a stirring, if somber, speech. And he did so with clarity, forcefulness, and nary a stumble in a performance befitting the leader of the planet's only (for now) superpower. Repressive regimes in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, and elsewhere surely took note that despite a still-running-free Osama bin Laden, bloody setbacks in Iraq, and a going-nowhere exit strategy from that shattered land, Bush did not shrink from the threat of future confrontation (see BW Online, 1/21/05, "Bush Sticks to His Guns").

SOUND BYTES VS. SUBSTANCE. "...It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," the President said, adding later: "Some have unwisely chosen to test America's resolve, and have found it firm."

And he went on: "We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.... We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators. They are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty."

Gosh, that sounds good. But let's examine the record more closely.

The truth, said Bush early in his speech, is that the survival of liberty of our republic depends on the spread of liberty around the globe. But will the globe ever put any stock in those high-minded lines crafted by a cadre of speechwriters when Americans are running scared?

LIES AND SLURS. At one point near the end of the President's oratory, a protestor letting his free speech ring was hauled off by the guardians of liberty. The crowd tried to drown him out -- as they are free to do -- but no one rushed to defend the protestor's right to shout at the President. During the Inaugural parade, Bush's motorcade sped by those demonstrating against the war. At one point, police used pepper spray to restrain the most vociferous among this group.

And that's pretty much the way it goes in George Bush's America. Plenty of platitudes about liberty, truth, and justice. And then we get Attorney General John Ashcroft; terrorism suspects denied rights; others transferred to torture-happy countries; Abu Ghraib; then a new Attorney General-nominee, Alberto Gonzales, who spent much of the past four years trying to parse the definition of liberty. Even in Bush's run for reelection, only those loyal to the President were allowed in at his campaign stops.

For truth, we get obfuscation about the run-up to September 11, fabrications about weapons of mass destruction and the reasons for war, misinformation about the threats to our soldiers, the character assassinations of patriots like former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, and vicious lies about a war-hero rival.

For justice, we'll have to wait for history to judge the freedom-loving, pepper-spray Presidency. Scotti is a senior editor for BusinessWeek in New York and offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online


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