Column: The Public Eye: President Bush Plays by His Own Rules By Bob Burnett

Friday October 14, 2005

If you have ever played a competitive sport, you understand that there are actually two sets of rules. In regular games, there are formal rules and, usually, referees to ensure that all players abide by them; the competition is governed by an ethic: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” 

In irregular contests, pick-up games, there are informal rules—in some venues called “jungle” rules—and no referees; in this situation, the game is often reduced to doing whatever it takes to win. The contrast between the two is the difference between boxing, conducted by the Marques of Queensbury rules where fighters may only strike the head and upper body with their gloved hands, and extreme fighting, where anything goes. 

When we question the actions of the Bush administration, it’s useful to keep this distinction in mind, as George Bush and company talk as if they abide by the political version of the Marques of Queensbury rules but actually play by jungle ethics where anything goes—Bush rules. 

Two recent news stories graphically illustrate the nature of Bush rules. It’s been well documented that the administration was indifferent to the tragedy wrought by Hurricane Katrina, until there was an enormous public outcry. What hasn’t been talked about is the contrast between this occasion and their response to Hurricane Frances in September of 2004. Two months before the presidential election, Frances was threatening Florida, with its 27 electoral votes, and the Bush administration leaped into action. The National Guard was mobilized and a federal-state-nonprofit task force was launched—before Frances hit. 

Bush rules dictated that the administration had to perform well in this time of crisis, because it represented a political opportunity. Katrina didn’t command the same urgency as it didn’t occur in an election year—Bush was making speeches in California on the day the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast. 

Bush rules have also governed the White House response to the outcry over the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The president told the press that he wanted “to get to the bottom” of the leak scandal; his press secretary, Scott McClellan commented, “The president has set … the highest of standards for people in his administration…If anyone in this administration was involved in [the leak], they would no longer be in this administration.” Since those comments, we learned that top administration officials—including key presidential adviser, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney’s chief-of-staff, Scooter Libby—were involved. Yet, no one was punished by the White House. Moreover, according to a July 24 New York Times story and comments made by political commentator, George Stephanopolous on Oct. 2, the president and vice-president were deeply involved in the discussions about Valerie Plame, before her identity was revealed by conservative columnist Bob Novak. 

(Federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, questioned Bush for 70 minutes on June 24, 2004; at the time, legal observers remarked on how unusual this was and opined that it indicated a suspicion that the Plame leak occurred at a high level in the administration.) 

The hypocrisy of Bush rules might be dismissed as political business-as-usual if it were Richard Nixon who was president; “Tricky Dick” was known to be a slippery character, more interested in political gain than in the common good. However, George W. Bush has made a huge issue of his personal integrity. When he was first nominated to run for president, he made it a point to distinguish his morality from that of Bill Clinton and, by implication, Al Gore. 

“Behind every goal I’ve talked about tonight is a great hope for our country … we must usher in an era of responsibility. And our nation’s leaders are responsible to confront problems, not pass them onto others. And to lead this nation to a responsibility era, that president himself must be responsible. So when I put my hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the laws of our land, I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God.” 

Bush promised to bring honor and responsibility to the presidency. Moreover, he claimed to be a Christian; not a superficial believer like Clinton, but a “born again” Christian. His profession of faith bolstered his declaration of integrity. 

Americans know a lot about Christianity as more than 80 percent identify with that religion. We understand that orthodox Christians do not lie, put their personal fortune above the common good, or believe that the ends justify the means. Proper Christians operate by the ethical equivalent of the Marques of Queensbury rules. Most believe that it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. 

But George W. Bush plays by his own rules. As Americans watch this administration unravel—as the electorate begins to understand the folly of the Iraq occupation, the fantasy of homeland security, and the abandonment of governance in the pursuit of political gain—one wonders which realization will come first: Will it be that Bush the President is incapable of leading the United States, or will it be that Bush the man doesn’t deserve to be called a Christian? 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net. This article also appears in the Huffington Post.