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Published: Friday, 10/21/2005

The administration that keeps on spinning

TURNING political pratfalls into political promise is a specialty of the Grand Old Party.

Even the most devious Democrats can't hold a candle to Republicans in the dirty tricks and damage control disciplines. They learn their skills from the best. The late Lee Atwater was a hardball legend before a fatal illness gave him a bad case of the regrets.

But there was always his protege, Karl Rove, to emulate. For firm believers in the means justifying political ends, the brilliantly motivated White House strategist was a godsend. He found a place in the universe where he truly belonged among the smirking conservatives and compassionate neo-cons of the Bush Administration; a match made in mutual neediness.

With the career of the country's titular chief executive forever indebted to the mastery of his political operatives and the money of his equally focused corporate contributors, government policy could be crafted hassle-free to the satisfaction of all. With everybody on the same page, the administration could embark on a successful course to camouflage black as white and war as peace. Spin was easy, expert, and unrelenting.

In the lead-up to the American invasion of Iraq, top administration spinners went all out with their uniform Power Points to transform Saddam into evil incarnate and assure that a military rout of the monster was slam dunk. The Republican White House, fortified by the lockstep support of the Republican-led Congress, pushed the country into the kind of protracted, costly nation-building project the President once opposed. But in the wake of 9/11, controlling party leaders enjoyed an unusually wide berth from a traumatized public that allowed them to backslide, contradict themselves, or conduct disastrous foreign policy with few repercussions.

During the prolonged political grace period in Washington the propaganda rolling out of the White House was accepted without question by many. Criticism of Mr. Bush's disturbing pre-emptive military policy was largely muted even as the country devoted enormous sums of resources and troops to force regime change on a sovereignty halfway around the globe. Critics were denounced as unpatriotic.

To a shameful degree the press played along with the red, white, and blue fervor that separated loyal Americans from the galling few whose traitorous dissent was no doubt aiding and abetting the enemy. So great was the desire of the country to be led out of its 2001 nightmare that it was willing to go along with administration schemes to erode basic freedoms to an extent unimaginable prior to 9/11. Accommodating Capitol Hill Republicans rushed through the administration-inspired package of curbed constitutional rights and sold it to the public under false advertising as the Patriot Act.

Opposition to that travesty was effectively drowned out by advocates for giving the administration a free legal hand to fight the war on terror no matter whose rights were compromised in the process.

The terrorist attacks changed everything, including the Bill of Rights. And the sophistry of White House operatives to frame nearly every debate on the war or other administration policies with the dismissive refrain that "you're either with us or against us," worked remarkably well.

Critics on everything from fiscally untenable tax cuts and mounting deficits to corporate-driven energy policies and oppressive fuel costs were effectively marginalized by the kingpins wielding political leverage. It was my way or the highway until the road buckled. Katrina cracked it wide open.

Exposed was a flimsy bedrock of ineptitude, cronyism, rank incompetence, and nothing to show for compassionate conservatism. An unmasked administration scrambled to put the best political front on a gaping catastrophe. The experts at damage control and masterful spin performed admirably, but this time the public saw through a belatedly engaged President and wasn't buying the pitch.

Plummeting polls reflected a new awareness in the country with a leader who had dropped the ball or never had it to begin with. The strains of a suddenly weakened presidency and growing tussle for control within the GOP were compounded by majority leadership scandals and indictments in Congress. Republicans who never speak ill of each other began to jabber away as they sensed old loyalties becoming political liabilities.

Another White House miscalculation with the President's lawyer infuriated core conservatives and, any day now, a federal prosecutor is expected to bring indictments against key members of the Bush Administration. The always impressive Karl Rove might be able to turn even these pratfalls into promise, but with possible criminal charges hanging over his head it's not likely.



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