Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Indiana Jones School of Government

One of the best lines in Raiders of the Lost Ark comes when Indiana Jones is trapped in one of those impossible situations and the heroine asks wailingly, “What do we do now?” Indy replies, “I don’t know; I’m making it up as I go along.”

That seems to be the current modus operandi with the current administration and their flailing attempt at governing.

When Karl Rove emerged from the White House Monday morning to speak at the American Enterprise Institute, the most ominous moment came during the introduction. Christopher DeMuth, the president of the conservative think tank, went out of his way to praise Rove’s “equanimity” in the face of “sharks in the water.”

In Washington, when they are about to erect a statue in your honor, they praise your “genius and vision.” When they are trying to decide whether to send a handwritten note in case of your indictment, they praise your “calm and equanimity.”

For Woody Allen, 90 percent of life is showing up. For Rove these days, it is 100 percent. While Rove was supposedly at AEI to offer an overview of the president’s inspiring economic record, that cover story was as preposterous as claiming that America invaded Iraq to safeguard its vineyards. Monday’s speech and the 30-minute question-and-answer session that followed was all about projecting the image of control and nurturing the illusion of business as usual.

But everything in the world of George W. Bush these days smacks of desperate improvisation. Apologizing that his purportedly long-standing date at AEI conflicted with the thematics of the president’s Monday night television address, Rove said, “I am so completely off message on a day that we’re talking about immigration, I don’t know if they’ll let me back into the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”


But the big story of this dispiriting week for Bush is that Godot-like drama called, “Waiting for the Grand Jury.” Rove’s indictment has been confidently forecast on the blogosphere more often than Fidel Castro’s downfall with, thus far, similar results. In contrast, I will confess to being the only journalist on the Web who has no idea when or whether Patrick Fitzgerald will charge Rove with a crime in the CIA leak inquiry.

Still, Rove’s Monday appearance at AEI gave off a whiff of a farewell tour over the battlefield of political argument. Rove, who normally prefers big themes in politics rather than boring details, brandished number after number in a bold attempt at statistical prestidigitation to convince Americans that they have never had it so good. I almost expected Rove to start asking, “Who are you going to believe? My statistics or your checkbook balance?”

But when the president’s approval rating is bobbing around 30 percent and less than a quarter of the electorate thinks that America is on the right track, a political strategist like Rove can carry braggadocio only so far. Asked to explain Bush’s dismal poll ratings, Rove sounded like Cindy Sheehan in blaming everything on the Iraq war. “Look, we’re in a sour time,” he said. “I readily admit it. I mean, being in the middle of a war where people turn on their television sets and see brave men and women dying is not something that makes people happy and optimistic and upbeat.”

That was an oddly passive answer, as if Rove and the president whom he has so loyally served had nothing to do with the foreordained decision to invade Iraq. But then, as he waits for a final legal determination by Fitzgerald, Rove may be getting used to dealing with life-changing issues that are utterly beyond his control.

The difference between Indiana Jones and Karl Rove (aside from the fact that Mr. Rove looks more like a garden gnome than a matinee idol) is that Professor Jones was best at improvisation. The Bushies can’t seem to function without a script, and once they’re thrown off message — even if it’s by their own devices — they flail around like an upside-down turtle. We’ve seen how they handle unplanned disasters — vis Hurricane Katrina — so with the headlines bringing more and more bad news and revelations every day, it makes you wonder what’s next that will be drive them over the edge: snakes, bugs, rats, or spiders?

The worrisome factor is that when people who are so used to controlling everything find themselves spiraling out of control, they usually lash out and do something extremely bizarre (remember the mission to Mars?) or dangerous. So don’t be surprised if we invade Montserrat next week.