The first casualty

CALL IT A RETURN to the New Normalcy. America's might roared off to pound Kandahar, a place 99 percent of Americans had never heard of a month ago. And Osama bin Laden regained his status as our leading object of official and public outrage—supplanting Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher. Suddenly a smug, unfunny, vaguely conservative smart-ass like Maher becomes a free-speech hero. If the Bushies thought twice (imagine!) they'd have exploited Maher's crass but partly truthful remark—that flying a plane into a building wasn't cowardly, lobbing missiles from afar was. They could note that he was actually dissing Clinton's anti-terrorism strategy; Bush says essentially the same thing when he warns this won't be another bloodless war from on high.

Concede, for the moment, Bush spokesman Ari "Pinocchio" Fleischer's claim that he meant his notorious "People should watch what they say" as a warning rather than a threat. It's still an unsettling remark—but matches the spirit of the times. You've doubtless read about the editorial writers fired and the academics browbeaten for criticizing el Presidente. A few more dispatches from the Land of the Craven and Obsequious:

* Andy Burowitz, NPR Weekend Edition's favorite "humorist", explained his own newfound deference on Sept. 30: "If you have an audience and you know 90 percent of them are behind the president, you're just not going to make jokes about the president because you don't want to fail." Heaven forbid a comedian should offend! Where's Lenny Bruce when we need him?

* " ["Laughing at Shrub since 2001"] is down temporarily. Our hearts are with all of America as this tragedy unfolds. Thank you."

* Even Barbra submits. From "In light of recent events, I strongly believe we must support our government despite our disagreements on certain policies. . . . At this point in time, I have removed several articles from my website in an effort to encourage national unity instead of partisan divisions. Thank you."

* The Democrats are having trouble recruiting candidates for the 2002 congressional elections they'd lately salivated over. They forget (as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. notes) that the opposition always gains at midterm, even in wartime—if it's a loyal opposition, not a hallelujah chorus. The first one-term President Bush nearly matched his son's 90-percent approval rating when he went to war, but his support proved a mile wide and an inch deep. Nothing fades faster after a war than a wartime president; the British even dumped Churchill then. So rally 'round another Bush in his finest hour; afterward his true depth will show even more starkly.

* Meanwhile, the current President Bush tries to get it while he can, proposing—surprise—an antirecession tax cut. The ordinarily more judicious Seattle Post-Intelligencer responded Oct. 4 with a rousing banner headline: "Bush out to Kick-Start Economy: Restoring consumer confidence is goal of $75 billion stimulus plan." The story, by the P-I's D.C. correspondent, never noted how such tax cuts fatten the rich who don't spend and forestall recovery by driving up deficit spending and long-term interest rates—except in cryptic semirebuttals by Bush and Treasury Secretary O'Neill. Their argument is basically: Don't worry, we'll only give you a little poison this time.

Picture another headline: "Giant Asteroid Speeds Toward Earth. Bush Urges Emergency Tax Cut."

On Saturday The Seattle Times, belying its rightward drift, offered a less credulous story (from The Washington Post) and headline: "Bush Risks a Partisan Divide by Seeking $60 Billion Tax Cut." Thank you very much.

* The New York Times further demonstrated the power of headlines to deceive with this Sept. 30 classic: "Protesters in Washington Urge Peace With Terrorists." The story below (half the length of an adjacent story about a morning's flight closure at one Boston air terminal) ignored the prevailing peace argument: Let's make a criminal case against Osama rather than war against Afghanistan. I think that's wishful, but it's a legit case. The Times ran a longer, more nuanced story the next day, but it too ignored the thousands protesting in L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere. The only photo showed a counter-protest banner: "Osama Thanks Fellow Cowards for Your Support." This Monday, the P-I likewise featured a "Pacifists Aid Terrorists" sign in a story on Seattle peace protests. Thank you very much.

* Last week, an informative Washington News Council forum on media and war focused on media's responsibilities, not war makers' obligations to provide access and disclosure. The latter seems the more salient issue; the Grenada and Gulf campaigns saw a helluva lot more official blackout and misinformation than security breaching by the press. But, once again, the major media seem to be lining up for their pools, like sheep to the sideshow. Loose or not, your lips ain't getting anywhere near these ships.

* So who's had the loosest lips of all? President Bush, with his incendiary blabbing about a "crusade," "good vs. evil," and "dead or alive"—exactly the response terrorists seek as they try to provoke a "clash of civilizations." Maybe Fleischer meant he should watch what he says.

At least Bush has finally found a way to lay out the case against bin Laden to the world and the American people. Have Tony Blair do it.

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