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The Gift of Opportunity: George W. Bush and The Politics of Word Play

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Message Jayne Stahl
Nobody can say this president isn't gifted; he's gifted with opportunity, the opportunity to nominate two justices to the Supreme Court, and tilt it to the far right, the opening provided by 9/11 to deconstruct civil liberties, the prospect of classifying and declassifying information related to secret terror cells abroad based on political expediency, the capacity to introduce legislation, in the name of "the USA Patriot Act," that may forever change the First and Fourth Amendments, and now the chance to rewrite a manual that provides protocol to those inducted into the Army. Moreover, not only is this president gifted with opportunity, but he is also a gifted with the ability to seize opportunity.

While Mr. Cheney has, more often than not, been considered the "brains," and Mr. Bush the brawn, it's curious how a president who fumbles with the word "nuclear" can wax poetic when it comes to phrases like "Islamic Fascists." I know what you're thinking, that's Tony Snow's phrase, but remember this, the politics of word play predate Tony Snow. After all, the phrase "unlawful enemy combatant" dates back to the onset of the so-called war on terror. Yes, it was Donald Rumsfeld who coined that phrase, but it was this president who was gifted with the opportunity to employ it as a means to thwart the rights, and protections, traditionally afforded to Prisoners of War by the Geneva Conventions, a fact not lost on former Secretary of State Colin Powell who, you may recall, was the first, and only, member of this admininistration to call his president on violating Geneva.

While we can only agree with Amnesty International USA's director, Larry Cox, that it's a step in the right direction for the Pentagon, and the Bush administration, to acknowledge that the "Geneva Conventions apply," (AP) we're not convinced that this administration has any greater interest, or intention, of honoring those conventions unless forced to do so by the Supreme Court after failure on appeal. Our government's revisionist approach to the Magna Carta tradition of due process, a tradition that has lasted several hundred years, as well as its ongoing defiance of international law through the use of transparent linguistic chicanery has distracted maybe, but not duped anyone.

Yes, this president has been gifted, too, with the ability to provide a new army manual to our armed forces which now provides a laundry list of specific practices that are verboten, and yet remains sufficiently oblique to allow for psychological, and physical humiliations. Moreover, by inaugurating a policy by which the concept of torture itself is tweaked such that only certain practices are proscribed, without examining, and addressing, the fundamental notion of torture, this government is applying a tax loophole mentality when it comes to the treatment of those we detain both here and abroad. If only the Gross National Product were expanding as rapidly as our use of the word "terrorist," we'd be in no danger of a recession for generations to come.

Other modern Republican presidents come to mind who history will regard as gifted in certain ways. Richard Nixon may well be viewed, by future generations, as having had a flair for foreign policy. Though he could never have taught Economics 101, Ronald Reagan was a gifted Commander-in-Chief (Khaddafi---Khaddafi, who?) Maybe posterity will acknowledge the irony of this monosyllabic presidency and its phenomenal abililty to distract, and disarm by timing, as well as the politics of word play. How is it that a savvy country like America could be seduced into fighting a war with Iraq after a terrorist attack pulled off by a bunch of guys from anywhere but Iraq? Arguably, despite his reputation to the contrary, this president is a master of bait and switch, and will have a fine career selling large screen TVs at the Good Guys should he decide against a library, and the lecture circuit. After all, it would be ludicrous for a president who brags about not reading newspapers to build a library in his name.

But enough dumping on the president. One can only hope that Messrs. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld understand the maxim "you can fool some of the people some of the time" better than they do the Bill of Rights, but make no mistake, while it may be silent, the world community is listening, watching, and biding its time to call the egregious mistreatment of prisoners documented at Abu Ghraib, and other less than secret cells like Guantanamo Bay, for what they are high crimes and misdemeanors.

It is never a leader that poses a threat to a way of life, but a platform. Presidents come and go; at least, the''re supposed to. This is no longer about the president, it's about the precedent. Mr. Bush has been gifted with the greatest opportunity of all, the ability to make changes, enact laws, defeat laws, use signing statements, revise military rules of engagement, dissemble due process, checks and balances, as well as the First Amendment and, most importantly, know that he's put in place an infrastructure that will long survive his tenure. This is something those of us who care about progressive social change, and cherish our constitutional rights and liberties, must work fervently to prevent
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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