Hi, everyone. Sam here. Chris didn’t put up a HWGH this week, and in light of recent events, y’all clearly need a pick-me-up, so here’s part of a never-published manuscript I wrote many years ago called The Night Was Spent that suddenly seems relevant to the coming midterm elections.
The year was 2004 and Peter Fitzgerald was in a pickle. Elected to the Senate in 1998 as a Republican, Fitzgerald was constantly at odds with his party. The government of his home state, Illinois, was notoriously corrupt, and Fitzgerald was eager to bring the federal government in to investigate both the state’s former governor, George Ryan, and its new governor, Rod Blagojevich.
More seriously, Fitzgerald made a constant effort to bring massive government projects to Illinois, such as a $150 million presidential library for Abraham Lincoln. A freshman, Republican leaders accused him of grandstanding, and by 2003 had all but confirmed that they would not support his re-election. Fitzgerald declined to run for a second term. In his place, Illinois Republicans narrowly nominated Jack Ryan, a wealthy investment banker-turned-Chicago schoolteacher who had won just 35.5% of the primary vote. The Democrats in turn resoundingly nominated a 43-year-old State Senator named Barack Obama.
In 2004, which saw the Republicans solidify their existing majority in the Senate, Obama was only modestly favored to defeat Ryan. Then two things happened that transformed the campaign and both their lives. In the spring of that year, public pressure increased to release records of Ryan’s 1999 divorce from the actress Jeri Ryan, best known for playing Seven-of-Nine on the television series Star Trek: Voyager. After much deliberation, Los Angeles Superior Court judge Robert Schneider released the records to much ridicule and contempt, with Ryan alleged to have unsuccessfully pressured his ex-wife to perform public sexual acts in various locations around the globe. A week after, Ryan ended his campaign. In desperation, the Republican Party replaced him with Alan Keyes, a perennial candidate for various offices who had never lived in Illinois.
Just as Ryan’s campaign collapsed, Barack Obama was invited by the Democratic National Committee to give the keynote address at the party’s convention in Boston. Obama was well-connected due to his time at Harvard Law School, and it was thought that a high-profile black candidate could help energize African-Americans to vote for Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for President.
Obama was also a great speaker in a party notoriously lacking in oratory. In January, Tom Daschle, leader of the Senate Democrats, had been chosen to give the official response to President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address, wherein he dispassionately argued for the demonstration of American patriotism by labeling canned vegetables with their country of origin. Such fiery rhetoric failed to enchant the public. Even Senator Kerry was known for tripping over his own words, a trait that clashed wildly with his dead-serious public persona and would only become more pronounced after his narrow failure to unseat President Bush.
Obama’s keynote address, “The Audacity of Hope,” was the highlight of a Democratic Convention that consisted mostly of blandness– even Kerry’s acceptance speech was widely received as a groaner. Barack Obama had suddenly become a household name without even attaining national office– though not even the Republican Party expected him to lose the Senate race, which is probably why they ran Keyes. True to form, Obama defeated Keyes by a margin of 43 percentage points.
Though Bush’s re-election that year was narrow, it was far more convincing than his contested first victory in 2000; meanwhile fellow Republicans netted three seats in the House of Representatives and three more in the Senate, leaving the political talk show circuit abuzz that Bush had received a “mandate” to fulfill a Republican agenda that included privatizing Social Security, restricting access to abortion, and increasing tax cuts to the rich. For the Republicans, this was the Holy Grail, the consummation of decades of demographic shifts, political polarization, and extreme message discipline. White House counsel Karl Rove declared a “permanent majority,” a reordering of political norms and strategy such that the Democrats would never– could never– take power again. In fact, it was the beginning of the end.
George W. Bush began his presidency with an approval rating in the 50s, tainted by the fraught and dubious election process of 2000. Then the 9/11 attacks happened. Although Bush’s national security team had previously shown an alarming disinterest in the threat of terrorism, and ignored warnings of a major attack, the tragedy did wonders for the President’s popularity, peaking at 90%, slightly higher than that of Franklin Roosevelt after the Pearl Harbor attacks, before immediately subsiding. It rose again during the Invasion of Iraq, but then continued to sink apace. On Election Day 2004, the President’s popularity was once more around 50%. By inauguration day in 2005, more Americans disapproved of the President than approved. By summer 2008, Bush’s rating bottomed out at 19%, interestingly rendering him both the most and least popular President in American history.
Throughout Bush’s second term, both the White House and its allies in Congress collapsed into mayhem. One of Bush’s first policy goals post-reelection was revisit the privatization of Social Security– meaning to eliminate it. This self-described “reform” alarmed and infuriated the general public and was quickly abandoned. At the same time in Congress, Republican leadership had become inordinately concerned with the fate of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who had spent the previous two decades in a vegetative state, and whose husband wanted to pull the plug. Most Americans agreed that the husband was within his legal rights. More still agreed that it was none of the business of the United States Senate. Approval ratings for Congress dipped below 20%, the lowest in history at that time.
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the City of New Orleans, and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, proved appallingly incompetent at relieving the flooded city, which increasingly resembled a fetid post-apocalyptic landscape. In the days following the hurricane, President Bush declined to end his summer vacation, but congratulated FEMA’s director, Michael Brown, who he said was doing a “heck of a job.” Brown was a personal associate of Bush’s with no experience in emergency management. Previously he had judged show horses.
2006 proved a similar embarrassment. Early that year, it was revealed that the military had been torturing prisoners of war at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, and at undisclosed “black sites” around the world. Any expert could have told the administration that torture is only useful to extract false confessions, and many did, but most in the administration and quite a lot of media maintained that actionable evidence was obtained. Around that time, Dick Cheney, the Vice President and the man generally agreed to be the real power behind Bush, accidentally shot a hunting partner in the face. It was obviously an accident, but more stories of Cheney’s obsessive secrecy and paranoia quickly emerged, such as that he kept an office in a bunker with a man-sized safe, and marked mundane paperwork with his own legally void “top secret” stamp.
The War in Iraq had also reached an all-time low. Insurgents kept attacking American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. It was clear by now that there was no rationale to invade the country besides that it had simply been the administration’s plan. Members of the administration were beginning to be investigated for falsifying evidence to go to war. Some went to prison. Most Americans just wanted to be done with it all.
The cherry on top came from Congress. Shortly before the 2006 midterm elections, Republican members of Congress were embarrassing themselves left and right. Widespread corruption, racist comments, supporting de facto slavery in the American colony of Saipan? They had it. Finally, in October of 2006, it was revealed that Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida had engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with an underage male aide, and that Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert– himself later exposed as a child molester– had tried to keep it secret.
Democrats gained 6 seats in the Senate and 31 in the House of Representatives to becoming the majority in Congress. Immediately, they set to work fighting back against the faltering Bush-Cheney agenda. America, it seemed, had woken up, and was eager to find a new President. Someone who could extricate a nation from a Middle Eastern quagmire and restore American credibility abroad. Someone dignified and eloquent, who would lead from the front and take seriously the work of fixing the nation. An optimist. A uniter.
For the time being, that person was not Barack Obama.
Bush and his cabinet furtively attempted to meet the new Democratic Congress halfway, approving new environmental policies and signing onto an increase in the minimum wage. In the war, they put a new general, David Petraeus, in charge of reinforcing the American presence to drive out insurgents, while strategists on the ground came up with new ways to build trust with local leaders. The crux of this project, the “Anbar Awakening,” was largely devised by Army Captain Travis Patriquin, a sort of Army anthropologist, under the direction of Colonel Sean MacFarland. Patriquin wrote his thesis in the form of a crude PowerPoint presentation. He was killed by a roadside bomb in 2006, but the presentation, “How to Win in Al Anbar,” was a massive hit and succeeded as part of General Petraeus’ 2007 “surge.” It is now taught as part of officer training in the US Military.
Nevertheless, public trust in the Bush White House was irretrievably lost as yet more scandals emerged from the Executive branch. Shortly after the midterm election, the White House dismissed seven US Attorneys from the Justice Department, allegedly because they had been unwilling to target members of the opposition for investigation without probable cause. Under recently updated provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Bush administration was free to replace those attorneys without Congressional oversight; the attorney general and much of the White House legal staff thus endeavored to pack the department with new attorneys who were “loyal Bushies,” in the words of Justice Department counsel Kyle Sampson. After a summer’s worth of investigation by Congress, the administration more or less gave up.
Yet Gonzales’ resignation went largely unnoticed. Scandal in the Bush White House had become as normal as closing the post office on Sunday. Even before 2008 began, the race to replace the sitting President had been at the forefront of the public mind. In the coming year, George W. Bush might as well have been out of office already.