Today marks the five-year anniversary of George W. Bush's second most disgusting trip to San Diego, California. First place will forever belong to the morning of August 30, 2005, when a smiling Bush pretended to play a guitar emblazoned with the presidential seal while country singer Mark Wills and the traveling press corps looked on. At the same time the president was mugging for the cameras, coastal Mississippi was staggering from a blow that had leveled entire towns and the breached levees of New Orleans were distributing their deadly flood waters into some of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States.
Second place goes to one of the most widely publicized events of Bush's entire regrettable administration. On May 1, 2003, the cocky commander-in-chief, donning a ridiculous (for him) flyboy outfit, hitchhiked aboard a Navy fighter jet and landed on an aircraft carrier off the San Diego coast. He could have taken a five minute helicopter ride or even arrived via a Coast Guard speedboat. But this was Bush at his cockiest, the frat boy fulfilled and ready to lord it over every girl who had ever dumped him for a richer, smarter, or nicer kid. Sailors were used a props for this made-for-television spectacular and some genius in the White House P.R. office decided that the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, named for a far nobler president, should be defaced by a banner reading "Mission Accomplished".
Five years doesn't seem like a long time once you get past a certain age. But sometimes it's important to remind ourselves of just how long it actually is. If you are fifty years old, ten percent of your life has passed since Bush's act of maritime hubris. Entire classes of high school and college students have passed from their first day as freshmen through their graduation ceremonies. Anyone who bought a car on May 1, 2003 (and I hope, for your sake, it wasn't a low mileage SUV) just finished paying it off. Many of the men and women who will vote for president this November were in junior high school the day Bush dishonored the uniform he refused to wear when he was their age.
The problem with the passage of time is that what was once aberrant eventually comes to seem normal. Five years ago, nobody would have believed that the country would still be at war less than nine months before George W. Bush's presidency passes into the pages of what will certainly be scathing history books. Yet now the twin conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are such an accepted part of life that they even have their own regular slot on CNN, a program called "The Week at War".
Half a decade earlier, even after the horrors of 9/11, most Americans would have been repelled by the very idea of torturing prisoners of war. Torture was something that other, less civilized countries did, and our renunciation of it was a source of national pride. When we first learned about the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the news was met with disgust and shame. But here we are now with the President of the United States admitting to the world that he personally approved the imposition of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on suspected bad guys and the story can't even break through the sideshow media obsessions with incestuous Austrian fathers and pitiful wives of West Texas polygamists.
Five years ago, the death of even a single American during wartime was cause for a headline. Each time the precious life of soldier or Marine was lost in combat the nation collectively mourned. Today, between one and two brave Americans die every day in the unforgiving deserts or the demolished cities and nobody screams out loud when the president calls it progress. In the month that just ended, 51 names were added to the list of those whose limitless futures were snuffed out in a hopeless war that arrogant, prideful politicians refuse to end. Almost nobody noticed.
In 2003, we were promised that our economy was slowly recovering from the devastation caused by the 9/11 attacks and that the cost of the mission that had supposedly been accomplished would remain in the millions. Today, the president's failure costs us over $300 million per day and the overall tally has exceeded half a trillion dollars. Even if all that money had been allotted to pork barrel spending, those "earmarks" that John McCain keeps yapping about, the country would have been far better off. Instead, our economy crumbles and the best solution the president can summon from his sycophantic advisers is a one-time rebate of a few hundred dollars in taxes.
And of course, sixty months ago, our military and civilian defense infrastructure was the envy of the world. Now recruitment is down to the point where we are enlisting felons, soldiers' families are dissolving under the strain of repeated deployments, and the stop-loss program reminds anyone who might consider a career in the reserves or National Guard that the only way they can be assured of getting out is never to get in. We are one international crisis from catastrophe and every honest general and politician knows it.
As for the Guard, much of our first line of homeland defense has been sent overseas to keep Bush's Mesopotamian house of cards from collapsing entirely. Thus, when the water rose on the streets of New Orleans in 2005, Louisiana's hapless governor knew she could not rely on the full contingent of troops that she needed. Perhaps the logistics of the disaster would have made their presence futile, but we'll never get another chance to find out. Or at least we fervently hope we won't.
If it were up to me, the FCC would require every television station every year on May 1 to replay Bush's "Mission Accomplished" ceremony in its entirety. Very rarely has a better cautionary tale been committed to video tape. It is almost as though we raided the catacombs and found the actual film of Nero plucking his violin amidst the flames of a dying Roman Empire. We may be far from finished as a nation, but we must never forget how little time it takes for incompetent, vainglorious politicians to push us toward the brink of disaster.
Happy Mission Accomplished Day, Mr. President.