State of Disunion

By Alterman, Eric | The Nation, February 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

State of Disunion


Alterman, Eric, The Nation


These are dangerous times. George W. Bush is set to make another State of the Union address.

The last one was a doozy. Few speeches in political history have caused so much damage based on so little forethought by so many wise guys.

Not long after that famous "Axis of Evil" 2002 address, I was sharing a moment with William Kristol at a transatlantic confab in Brussels (where I happen to be again). He seemed a happy man, and why not? After a long and relatively public struggle, the Bush Administration had just adopted the neoconservative foreign policy doctrine of global military unilateralism and was promising to beat up bad guys--Iraq, Iran and North Korea--just as soon as it got around to it. I congratulated Kristol on his victory, but given how little sense it made to lump these three very different nations together, even for rhetorical purposes, one question nagged at me, "How can you be certain they mean it?" I wondered. "What if it was just a speechwriter?" Kristol told me not to worry. "In any other speech, at any other time, I'd be concerned," he averred. "But not the State of the Union. It's too important. Every sentence is fully vetted and deeply considered. Nothing gets in there that they are not sure they mean."

We now know that Kristol was being overly generous. As former Bush aide John DiIulio admitted before he was forced to make his show trial-style confession, we are living in "the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis," in which everything--and I mean everything--[is] being run by the political arm.... There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus."

Witness the 2002 address. David Frum, a former staffer of Kristol's at The Weekly Standard, was the original author of the "axis of evil" phrase during his fourteen-month sojourn as a White House speechwriter. We learned this first when his wife, Danielle Crittenden, sent out a mass e-mail announcing it. But Frum confirms the details in his score-settling memoir, The Right Man. Frum, who alternately describes Bush as "quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result ill-informed," and "a sharp exception to the White House code of niceness," says he originally came up with the term "axis of hatred," but it was later massaged by chief speechwriter Michael Gerson in order to employ "the theological language that Bush had made his own since September 11."

He had been assigned by Gerson to come up with a justification for war with Iraq. This, in itself, is rather alarming. After all, Frum was a relatively junior speechwriter with no experience in foreign affairs. The Administration had been trying to pin September 11 on the Iraqis almost from the beginning, and despite the energetic efforts of the punditocracy propaganda brigade, led in this case by the New York Times's William Safire, they failed miserably. Even the professionals at the CIA explicitly denied their case and gave Iraq a clean bill--terrorism-wise--since 1993. …

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