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Bush's favorite joke is a lie (Read 144 times)


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Bush's favorite joke is a lie
Jun 28th, 2002 at 7:04pm
Hitting the trifecta: Bush's favorite joke is not only in bad taste, it's a lie
By David Neiwert, MSNBC

Professional stand-up comedians know that Sept. 11 jokes are radioactive. Not even the bravest have tried to turn the deaths of some 3,000 people into a laughing matter. But President Bush has forged ahead anyway. Bush has now been telling the same, spectacularly tasteless joke to a variety of mostly Republican audiences as part of his stock stump speech for the better part of four months now.

This is its basic telling:

“You know, when I was running for president, in Chicago, somebody said, would you ever have deficit spending? I said, only if we were at war, or only if we had a recession, or only if we had a national emergency. Never did I dream we’d get the trifecta.”

According to the transcripts, this joke usually elicits laughter from the mostly GOP crowds to whom Bush tells it.

So far, the president has told the joke on the record at least 14 times. It originated, evidently, as an anecdote he told to business leaders Oct. 3 — three weeks after the terrorist attacks — when he explained his three-part reasoning for going into deficit spending.

Bush appears to have added the “trifecta” joke for the first time before a group of visiting Republicans at the White House on Nov. 9. He pulled it out again for a huddle with congressional GOP leaders on Feb. 1. Since then, Bush apparently decided to make it part of his stump speech, beginning with a GOP luncheon on Feb. 27. The tellings have come more regularly, and have been largely at GOP fund-raising functions. The most recent appearance of the joke was June 14, at a reception for Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election campaign in Houston.

Bush appears to give “trifecta” a sort of rueful, ironic meaning. But therein also lies the morbid edge: After all, Bush — who in the weeks preceding the tragedy faced mounting questions about his ability as well as his legitimacy, all of which vanished afterward — is possibly the only American for whom Sept. 11 was indeed a stroke of incredible good fortune.

However, the real problem with the joke is that it is a complete falsehood. Bush never told any audience, or any reporter, in Chicago that he could foresee three conditions under which deficit spending might be necessary. In fact, throughout the entire campaign, Bush had been insistent that budget surpluses would continue, and only once does he appear to have told any public audience at any time that deficit spending might become necessary — a Sept. 22, 2000, interview with Paula Zahn, in which he defended his tax cuts even in the face of a “short-term deficit.” The only other times that Bush ever seems to have brought up the subject of deficit spending were those when he accused Al Gore of planning to resume the practice.

When pursued by reporters, the White House press office has been unable to come up with any evidence that Bush ever made the original remarks that he claims. Jonathan Chait first pointed this out in the New Republic, and a number of other journalists have gone looking.

This has made for some uncomfortable moments for the administration’s defenders. Tim Russert, on Sunday’s Meet the Press, tried to confront OMB chief Mitch Daniels about it:

Russert: “Now, we have checked everywhere and we’ve even called the White House as to when the president said that when he was campaigning in Chicago, and it didn’t happen. The closest he came was he was asked, ‘Would you give up part of your tax cut in order to ensure a balanced budget?’ And he said, ‘No.’ But no one ever talked about a war, a recession and an emergency, the trifecta. … [It] was not talked about in the campaign by the president, and the White House keeps saying, ‘Oh, yes, he made that caveat.’ No one can find it.”

Daniels demurred, declaring, “I’m not the White House librarian,” but claimed that he had often heard Bush make those three reservations.

Bush’s story, moreover, is fundamentally false as a purely chronological matter: Bush was already facing the certainty of deficit spending at the end of the summer of 2001, well before the attacks of Sept. 11. Some $4 trillion worth of budget surplus vanished over the spring and summer that year, and budget experts sounded the alarm about looming deficits then. The Congressional Budget Office warned Bush on Aug. 29 that Social Security funds would be needed to balance the books, forcing him to abandon a campaign promise not to use the retirement fund for other government spending.

Indeed, that is just what Bush proceeded to do in his actual budget, presented in January. According to the CBO, Bush’s budget plan would drain every dollar of the $527 billion surplus from the Social Security Trust Fund for the next two fiscal years even while creating a deficit. It would continue to raid the fund for varying amounts each year through 2012. Even with the fund’s help, the federal budget is expected to be in deficits through at least 2005.

Most economists peg the source of these nagging deficits on Bush’s tax-cut plan, the deepest portions of which loom ahead. The administration sternly denies this. Yet it’s clear that while Sept. 11 may have deepened and broadened the budget-deficit problem, the administration was faced with chronic budget deficits no matter what.

And that gets to the heart of the “trifecta” joke, whose entire purpose clearly is to blame the deficit on Sept. 11 and its aftermath. It lets Bush escape any serious questions about either his failure to balance the budget or, particularly, his campaign pledge to use the Social Security Trust Fund to pay down the national debt. The national tragedy gave him unparalleled political cover for his administration’s failures — and Bush has displayed no hesitation whatsoever about using it. Indeed, it has become his favorite joke.

Never mind that it is perhaps the most tasteless and insensitive joke in the annals of the presidency, or that it is ultimately a falsehood. What’s really noteworthy about Tale of the Trifecta is that the in-your-face political opportunism it represents is not out of the ordinary for this administration.

Since Sept. 11, Bush and his Republican colleagues have at every turn used the threat of terrorist attacks as cover for the administration’s difficulties:

* Attorney General John Ashcroft attacked critics of his anti-terrorism measures in December by telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that opponents of the administration “only aid terrorists” and “give ammunition to America’s enemies.”

* When Democratic leaders in the Senate — particularly Majority Leader Tom Daschle — questioned Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism, they drew accusations of “aiding and abetting the enemy” and dark suggestions about their patriotism.

* When questions emerged in early May about what Bush and his advisers knew about terrorist threats before Sept. 11 and Democrats began pushing for an independent investigation, the administration issued a series of warnings of yet more potentially imminent terrorist attacks. The criticism largely subsided.

* Four days after proposing, amid skepticism, a Cabinet-level Homeland Security department, the administration announced the arrest of a man suspected of plotting with al-Qaida agents to set off a radioactive “dirty bomb” in an American city. As it happens, the arrest had occurred a month before.

There have been other, less clear incidents suggesting a willingness to use Sept. 11 and its aftermath as not just a political shield, but a weapon. This probably should not be a surprise: after all, one need only recall Karl Rove’s instructions to the Republican National Committee last January to make the war on terrorism a political issue.

Perhaps because Republicans have been so open about turning Sept. 11 to their political advantage, they have created an environment in which a joke such as Bush’s “trifecta” quip seems nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, Bush keeps telling the joke even after it’s been pointed out, on national television, that he’s telling a falsehood.

In the face of that kind of chutzpah, no one inside the Beltway seems capable of pointing out that the emperor’s joke has no clothes. Given the GOP’s propensity for questioning others’ patriotism, it probably isn’t politically smart for anyone working in Washington to point out that Bush might have seen a national disaster as a political jackpot. Problem is, it’s the president himself who insists on making that suggestion.

David Neiwert is a Seattle-based free-lance journalist. His reportage on domestic terrorism for won a 2000 National Press Club award for distinguished online journalism.

Reprinted from MSNBC:
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