Wall of Spin: Bush Takes the Charm Offense Abroad

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Wall of Spin

Phil Spector's signature technique as a record producer was the "wall of sound," achieved by mixing tracks on top of one another so that not even the tiniest interstice of silence or soloing remained. George Bush's first tour of Europe last week was mixed into a similar "wall of spin." The press strategy Bush followed was the one his father's Pentagon imposed on war correspondents during the Panama invasion of 1989. Reporters traveling with the President saw little, learned little and were forced to report on the White House's message of the day.

That meant slim pickin's. Bush may be the only American alive who could turn a trip to a Spanish forest into a sensory-deprivation experience. Unlike Clinton, Dubya has no travel bug. He has asked his staff to try to scale these big European get-togethers back from two or so a year. Extraordinarily for a visiting American president in Europe, Bush had no contact with the population at large. There was a scripted visit to a Belgian chocolatier, followed by a brief, weird press conference. The real trip disappeared beneath fluffy articles on either how well-briefed the President was, or how much regular-guyness he exuded ("Plain-Talking Bush Is Using His Charm On European Stage," as The New York Times put it last Saturday).

There were two big things to accomplish on the real trip: first, to bring Europeans around to our way of viewing the Kyoto environmental accords. Our way of viewing these accords is as a worthless piece of posturing by environmental busybodies. That, secretly, is Europe's way of viewing Kyoto, too. But in the half-decade since 95 U.S. senators voted to condemn the treaty, Europeans have used the unequivocal bluntness of America's opposition to play the issue both ways. The Kyoto treaty would slow down their economies every bit as much as it would ours, but as long as our opposition is blunt and unequivocal, the Europeans can pose as environmentalists with no fear that the accords will come into effect. The second goal was to make Europeans comfortable with the decision of Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to unilaterally abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed with Russia in 1972. Bush accomplished neither of these goals.

The highlight of the trip was Bush's stirring speech at Warsaw University Library. "The partition of Europe was not a fact of geography," he said. "It was an act of violence." Yes?but Bush had better have an idea of how dead-seriously this kind of oratory is taken in Central Europe. If such gestures are not merely retrospective chest-thumping, then they're serious implicit commitments that ought to be given a lot more thought than they have been. Britain and France saw their credibility weakened in the 1930s by a commitment to defend Poland that neither country had the zeal to enforce.

What's more, Bush's eagerness to expand NATO risks creating new areas of friction. The best European argument against abrogating the ABM treaties?that diplomatic calm will do more than technological superiority to dispel the risk of nuclear war?has implications for the NATO argument. Anything that pisses off Russia, as NATO expansion surely does, falls afoul of the European way of looking at defense. Europe has never been as keen on NATO expansion as the U.S. But Bush seems to have no interest in European input, and spent much of the week running to the head of a parade and claiming to be leading it. The big European defense story at present is the European Union's ongoing work at organizing a "rapid reaction force" that France, at least, hopes will form the core of a defense arm independent of the United States. Does anyone in the administration realize this?

There is an underside to charm. The failure of Bush's Europe trip had its roots in the very Middle American dippiness that led him to treat the tour as a "charm offensive." Bush seems to believe our differences with the Europeans result from their not believing we're sincere. So when he spoke of the ABM treaty, he described it as "a relic of the past" that "prevents freedom-loving people from exploring the future." True enough, but that's true of every commitment made in the past. You could say that about the Helsinki accords or the Versailles treaty or the Edict of Nantes. The more Bush tried to give a rationale for abrogation, the deeper the doo-doo he plashed in. "People know," he said, "that I'm intent upon doing what I think is the right thing in order to make the world more peaceful." That's a platitude. It's true of everyone. Even Stalin was "intent upon doing what he thought was the right thing in order to make the world more peaceful." It's just that what he thought was the right thing was liquidating the parents of the people Bush spoke to in Warsaw.

Brownsville Station

One of the arguments against capital punishment that never convinces anyone is that it "coarsens" the culture. This argument doesn't work because, confronted with wanton violence, the culture wants to be coarsened. The man on the street pondering the deeper meaning of Tim McVeigh does not say, "You know, thinking about mass murder makes me wish I were more refined. I really ought to eat more Reblochon and hang around in art galleries when I have the time." No?he says, "Hang him high."

Whether we're for or against capital punishment, there's no doubt that a widespread, wished-for coarsening takes place. You could see the evidence last week. As Mexican drug dealer Juan Raul Garza stepped out of the on-deck circle and made his way toward the lethal-injection batter's box in Terre Haute, no one seemed able to tell the difference between him and McVeigh.

Garza was convicted of murdering three people back when he ran his drug ring. One of them was 36-year-old Tom Rumbo. Interviewed by The Washington Post, Rumbo's brother recalled, "The event literally tore our family apart? He was a friend to everyone. He was not a sophisticated man. He liked sailing his Hobie Cat on the Gulf Coast. He cared about his family. He was a father. He was woven into his community."

Certainly, but Garza has children, too. There's no evidence Garza didn't "care about his family." And if Rumbo was "woven into his community," it's partly because he worked for Garza. He supplied the trucks that distributed Garza's marijuana to America's small-town main streets and suburban high schools. When Texas authorities stopped one of his trucks, he ratted Garza out, and Garza had him whacked.

Capital punishment leads to a corruption of narrative. We try to slot people into neat allegorical roles, as either Satanic perps or innocent victims. That Rumbo had it coming is not something you'll hear from me. Rumbo's crimes aren't a justification for killing Rumbo any more than Garza's are for killing Garza. But Rumbo was a mid-level figure in a vast drug operation, and he was a snitch. Let's not confuse Rumbo with the seven-year-olds blown to smithereens in the Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

Snow Job

After two weeks of saying he wouldn't leave the Republican Party for the Democrats, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee now says that "if some issues that I feel strongly about are not addressed, the answer is yes." In particular, he told Tony Snow of Fox News that he would consider switching if the Republicans were about to retake the majority. That's an extraordinary statement. It amounts to saying that his vote is contingent not on his beliefs (otherwise, why not join the Democrats now?) but on his perception of where power lies?his own personal power, not his constituents'. Chafee's assessment of the power angle is probably accurate enough. Where he's deluded is in his belief that striking a Jeffords-style bargain will seem less opportunistic if he's announced it beforehand.

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