When Donald Trump noted the other day in yet another example of the hackles-raising political theater characteristic of the Republican presidential race that George W. Bush happened to be president at the time of the 9/11 attacks, he broke a longstanding taboo in stating the obvious.
"When you talk about George Bush, I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time," Trump noted. "He was president, okay?"
An outraged Jeb Bush sought to shift blame to Bill Clinton, who was not president at the time, and harrumphed that "my brother kept us safe."
Beyond the fact that I have never felt less safe than during the Bush interregnum, Trump's jab at Jeb betrayed a truth that no Republican has dared utter: George Bush spent the entire month of August 2001 vacationing at his Texas ranch posing for photo-ops in a 10-gallon hat as he flashed his frat boy smirk, cleared brush and otherwise pretty much ignored what was going on in the larger world.
Stuff was happening, including the 9/11 hijackers trickling into the U.S. and assembling the pieces of their intricate plan to destroy the World Trade Center, Pentagon and perhaps the White House or Capitol building. And although historians are a little shaky on the details, Bush was so busy not being presidential that he never read or at least didn't pay any particular attention to an ominous memo from CIA Director George Tenet sounding the alarm that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike the U.S. by flying hijacked passenger aircraft into high-profile targets.
Tenet's memo was one of several detailed warnings that Bush, Vice President Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Adviser, received in the months before the attacks, including repeated unheeded pleas from their top counterterrorism expert to take bin Laden seriously. Tenet's warning was part of the "Presidential Daily Brief," which lends further . . . uh, credence to Bush being president at the time even if he did steal the election.
But back to that political theater thing:
Trump coupled his claim on Fox News Sunday that Bush was president on September 11, 2001 with the assertion that had he been president, he would have prevented the attacks, which in the cosmic scheme of things would make deporting 11 million illegal immigrants, as the lighter-than-air Trump avers he would do, seem like so much child's play.
Jeb, reaching into his grab-bag of facial expressions (he has three or four), put on his exasperated look and rejoinded on CNN that "I don’t know why he keeps bringing this up. Across the spectrum of foreign policy, Mr. Trump talks about things that-- as though he's still on 'The Apprentice.' "
He suggested Trump might next try to blame FDR for Pearl Harbor, adding "It just calls into question Mr. Trump's credibility as a commander in chief."
Now as entertaining as this stuff is, it is clear that Jeb Bush is almost as big a chucklehead as Donald Trump, and if he is half as smart as his big brother was dumb, he rues the day he decided to run for president, because he is making an extraordinary hash out of it. (It also occurs to me that part of the problem is that we've given him too much credit from the start; we've unknowingly put the bar too high.)
Jeb's success was going to be determined, to a great extent, by not allowing his brother's legacy to define him, but he has gone from not wanting to be defined by his brother to using his brother's legacy to define the Republican frontrunner. Dumb or what?
SLICK & SLICKER
Is Paul Ryan one slick dude or what? Well, maybe not as slick as Harry Reid.
Ryan the con man has a con plan: He may move himself to become House speaker, ending a weeks-long impasse following the implosion of Kevin "Truthiness" McCarthy, but only if all factions of the fractious Republican caucus unite. "We have become the problem," Ryan said. "If my colleagues entrust me to be the speaker, I want us to become the solution." But here's the deal: Ryan requires unconditional my-way-or-the-highway acceptance from the Gang of 40, which prefers to shut down government to governing.
It ain't gonna happen, and Ryan emerges unscathed with a big "Well, I tried, boys," with an unsolicited assist from Senate Minority Leader Reid, who administered a kiss of death the other day in saying that "I'm a Paul Ryan fan," which of course makes Ryan even more toxic to hard righters.
TYRANNY & JACKBOOTS
Ted Cruz may be a drama queen, but he's a damned scary one. Every time I turn around, the senator from Texas is advocating violence against the government.
Asked to comment on the first Democratic presidential debate, Cruz declared "It was more socialism, more pacifism, more weakness and less Constitution. It was a recipe to destroy a country." Turns out Cruz hadn't actually seen the debate, but that didn't slow him down: "We're seeing our freedoms taken away every day and last night [the debate] was an audition for who would wear the jackboot most vigorously. Last night was an audition for who would embrace government power for who would strip your and my individual liberties."
As Ed Kilgore of Washington Monthly points out, Cruz, and Dr. Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, as well, are on dangerous ground when they "claim the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to revolutionary violence against their own government if it engages in 'tyranny' or doesn’t respect our rights."
Even Dubya himself, who has kept an admirably low profile in the years since he trashed the Oval Office, was moved to speak up against Cruz at a recent fundraiser for Jeb, calling him cynical and self-serving.
"I don't like the guy," he said.
THE LONG WAIT IS OVER
Joe Biden might have "gotten in."
Political insiders thought he was getting in. Hillary Clinton's staff thought he was getting in. My one decent source with ties to his family thought he was getting in. Yet I don't know of anyone beyond some sycophantic friends who wanted him to get in. That, it turns out, is how Biden himself felt, who ended three months of speculation on Wednesday.
Biden's explanation was plainspoken and dignified: He has not been himself since his son Beau died in May of brain cancer.
"As my family and I have worked through the grieving process, I said all along" that the window for a presidential run might close before they were ready," he said in the White House Rose garden with President Obama and his family at his side. "I've concluded it has closed. Unfortunately, I believe we're out of time, time necessary to run a winning campaign."
Note that Biden's announcement was the day before Hillary Clinton's long scheduled interrogation by the Benghazi committee. That's class, and dampens the endless media speculation that he had it in for the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Meanwhile, let's hope that Jim Webb doesn't waste any time pondering a third-party run now that he's left the big dance. His chances of making a credible run hover between zero and none, which are the odds I'd have given Biden in taking on Hillary Clinton.
(Please click here for my earlier thoughts on Biden.)
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968. Click here for an index of previous Politix Updates.
IMAGE FROM DONKEYHOTEY/FLICKR. USED WITH PERMISSION.