Bush whacked

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 July, 2006, 12:00am

The US is now a nation whose leader can be recorded using an obscenity, but if the national broadcasters were to air him saying it, they'd be hit with a hefty US$325,000 fine. For sheer irony, look no further.

Thanks to legislation passed by the president himself only a few months ago, news media were this week thrust into the dilemma of whether or not to air George W. Bush's infamous scatological remark at this week's G8 Summit in Russia: 'You see the irony is what they need to do is get Syria, to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s*** and it's all over ...'

While it remains unclear as to what particular irony President Bush sees in the Lebanese crisis, the one he unwittingly created at home has drawn derision from all corners. Terrestrial networks such as ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox - the traditional moral compass of conservative thinking - declined to air the quote in full, clearly fearing the economic clout of the censor. Only CNN ran the tape in all its mundane, bread-munching glory.

The president recently put his signature to indecency laws passed by the US Federal Communications Commission, which enforces hefty fines for the broadcasting of profanity, a label under which 's***' was recently included. Fortunately for Mr Bush, the conservative right was clearly too preoccupied with a burning Middle East to administer its usual outburst of moral outrage this time around.

Which is just as well, because in the week that saw the president escape his PR straitjacket, things seemed to go from bad to worse. His unsolicited shoulder massage given to Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel provided the world with excruciating images. A Russian TV crew caught the incident, complete with a horrified Dr Merkel attempting to shrug off what the New York Post referred to as a 'Rootin' Teuton Massage'. German headlines screamed 'Groper in Chief'.

In terms of highlighting both the hypocrisy of his regime and some inept social skills, the president's week has been a success. These are the kind of disasters that his PR flacks hope to avoid on a daily basis, tethering him to certain protocols when in public. Yet just how disastrous the events at the G8 summit have been, depends on which side of the party line you stand.

During a White House press conference, Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked if he'd comment on the president's use of the swear word. 'Not unless you've never used it,' was his reply.

If Janet Jackson had been watching, she'd probably be wondering where such charity was to be found after her wardrobe 'malfunctioned' at the Superbowl two years ago - the event that effectively gave the censor licence to exert the sort of control it does today. A woman's breast has so far proved more controversial than the president swearing on TV.

While Californian Democrat Martha Whetstone reacted to the shoulder-rub saying that 'you could use this video for sexual harassment training', conservative pundits defended the president, saying that Mr Bush was simply a typically friendly Texan, for whom public displays of friendship are nothing new.

Indeed, the president may have demonstrated a more affable side to his personality as he lurched from cowboy diplomacy to 'sweater diplomacy' last week. In between mouthfuls of food and requests for Diet Coke, he squeezed in a sarcastic dig at British Prime Minister Tony Blair's choice of birthday present while berating his G8 colleagues for talking 'too damn long' when it came to speech time. 'Yo, Blair,' he shouted, before summing up his view of the crisis with his mouth full and describing one leader, either Bashar al-Assad or Kofi Annan, as 'sweet'.

Others viewed the incident as yet another in a litany of blunders associated with Mr Bush's six years in office. The British press had a field day, with papers such as The Independent splashing a protest at Mr Bush's behaviour across their front page.

Other parts of the world were equally surprised by his display. 'It's disheartening,' said Baria Alamuddin, foreign editor of the Arabic newspaper Al Haya, 'how lighthearted the president and the prime minister have been talking while hundreds of people are being killed and displaced. This is a full-blown war on Lebanon ... it's an irony that Blair and Bush are trying to extinguish this war on terror around the world when this situation is adding oil to the flames.'

Neither has Mr Blair emerged unscathed from the incident, with the British press turning on him for his perceived role as a simpering 'Yes Man' and deferring to Mr Bush's instructions to sort out the 'trade thingy' with Dr Merkel. Of course, that was before the president gave the massage.

Yet beyond the comic clumsiness with which Mr Bush has rendered his diplomatic relations this week, there are weighty issues beneath the surface. Many see his simplistic solution to the crisis as further evidence of a man not intelligent enough to be president. In doing so, it has reignited a debate that had died when the Democrats sought ways to win the 2004 election.

The previous consensus was that attacks on Mr Bush's intellectual credentials would be counter-productive: any slur on his mental prowess would portray the Democrats as even more of a leftist elite and bastion of snobbery than previously believed. It would also 'play directly into Bush's strength, which is that he comes across as a regular guy', as Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council said in 2002.

How much longer Mr Bush will be able to play to such strengths remains to be seen, as US foreign policy disintegrates all the way from North Korea to the Middle East. In his book The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, Peter Galbraith includes a rigorously sourced passage in which Mr Bush is revealed as not knowing what either terms 'Sunnis' and 'Shi'ites' encompassed. 'It became apparent ... that the president was unfamiliar with these terms,' the former US diplomat wrote of an incident that occurred in January 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq.

Or there's Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine, which portrays Mr Bush as a man who makes decisions based not on intellectual reasoning but on gut feeling, who 'is not much of a reader' and relies on spoken briefings. Suskind cites the president's failure to take seriously an August 2001 memo claiming that Osama bin Laden was about to launch an attack on US soil - because he never read it. This, after all, is the man who chose to parade on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln two months after beginning the war in Iraq, under the banner 'Mission Accomplished'.

As Mr Bush told the New York Daily News in 2002, 'this foreign policy stuff is a little frustrating'. Yet an inactive foreign policy has allowed tensions to fester, resulting in a new war that has claimed the lives of more than 300 mostly innocent Lebanese and dozens of Israelis, and counting.

The US government has given Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the green light to continue military operations for another week, or until success has been reached in Hezbollah giving up its prisoners. President Bush's blunt, profane and lightweight assessment at the G8 this week that all roads lead to Syria reinforces the simplistic 'them and us' mentality that his presidency will be remembered for. The directness of his latest words evokes the 'dead or alive' speech given in the wake of 9/11.

Two years ago, Mr Bush told a Republican convention why he's so often misunderstood. 'Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger,' he joked, 'which in Texas is called 'walking.'' Today, with an approval rating around 36 per cent, what we're seeing is neither swaggering nor walking. It appears to some as a presidency that is drowning, even if it claims to be waving.