Certainly, no one who truly cares about democracy
favors punishing critics and demonizing dissenters. But just such
hostility has been the calling card of George W. Bush and his backers
over the past five years as they have subjected public critics to
vilification, ridicule and retaliation.
While Bush doesn’t always join personally in the
attack-dog operations, he has a remarkable record of never calling off
the dogs, letting his surrogates inflict the damage while he winks his
approval. In some cases, however, such as the punishment of former
Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame, Bush
has actually gotten his hands dirty. [See below.]
The Bush-on-the-sidelines cases are illustrated by
what happened to the Dixie Chicks, a three-woman country-western band
that has faced three years of boycotts because lead singer, Natalie
Maines, criticized Bush as he was stampeding the nation toward war with
During a March 10, 2003, concert in London, Maines,
a Texan, remarked, “we’re ashamed the President of the United States is
from Texas.” Two days later – just a week before Bush launched the Iraq
invasion – she added, “I feel the President is ignoring the opinions of
many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world.”
With war hysteria then sweeping America, the
right-wing attack machine switched into high gear, organizing rallies to
drive trucks over Dixie Chicks CDs and threatening country-western
stations that played Dixie Chicks music. Maines later apologized, but it
was too late to stop the group’s songs from falling down the country
On April 24, 2003, with the Iraq War barely a month
old, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw asked Bush about the boycott of the
Dixie Chicks. The President responded that the singers “can say what
they want to say,” but he added that his supporters then had an equal
right to punish the singers for their comments.
“They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just
because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak
Bush said. “Freedom is a two-way street.”
So, instead of encouraging a full-and-free debate,
Bush made clear that he saw nothing wrong with his followers hurting
Americans who disagree with him.
Pattern of Attack
Other celebrities who opposed the Iraq War, such as
Sean Penn, got a similar treatment. Bush’s supporters even gloated when
Penn lost acting work because he had criticized the rush to war.
“Sean Penn is fired from an acting job and finds
out that actions bring about consequences. Whoa, dude!” chortled
pro-Bush MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough.
Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, cited
as justification for Penn’s punishment the actor’s comment during a
pre-war trip to Iraq that “I cannot conceive of any reason why the
American people and the world would not have shared with them the
evidence that they [Bush administration officials] claim to have of
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” [MSNBC transcript, May 18, 2003]
In other words, no matter how reasonable or
accurate the concerns expressed by Bush’s Iraq War critics, they could
With Bush’s quiet encouragement, his supporters
also denigrated skeptical U.S. allies, such as France by pouring French
wine into gutters and renaming “French fries” as “freedom fries.”
Bush’s backers even mocked U.N. arms inspector Hans
Blix for not finding WMD in Iraq in the weeks before the U.S. invasion.
CNBC’s right-wing comic Dennis Miller likened Blix’s U.N. inspectors to
the cartoon character Scooby Doo, racing fruitlessly around Iraq in
As it turned out, of course, the Iraq War critics
were right. The problem wasn’t the incompetence of Blix but the fact
that Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD were false, as Bush’s arms
inspectors David Kay and Charles Duelfer concluded after the invasion.
But the critics never got any apologies or repair
to the careers. As CBS’s “60 Minutes” reported in a segment on May 14,
2006, the Dixie Chicks were still haunted by the pro-Bush boycott three
“They have already paid a huge price for their
outspokenness, and not just monetarily,” said correspondent Steve Kroft.
Sometimes, Iraq War supporters even turned to threats of violence.
During one tour, lead singer Maines was warned,
“You will be shot dead at your show in Dallas,” forcing her to perform
there under tight police protection, said the group’s banjo player,
Emily Robison. In another incident, a shotgun was pointed at a radio
station’s van because it had the group’s picture on the side, Robison
Though the Dixie Chicks are still shunned by many
country-western stations, they have refused to back down. Indeed, one of
their new songs – entitled “Not Ready to Make Nice” – takes on the
hatred and intolerance they faced for voicing an opinion about Bush and
the Iraq War.
As Kroft noted, “Not Ready to Make Nice” received
favorable reviews and became one of the most downloaded country songs on
the Internet, but it still “fizzled on the charts” as Bush supporters
called up stations and demanded that it never be played.
Asked to explain why these tactics work, Maines
said, “when you’re in the corporate world, and when that’s your
livelihood, and when 100 people e-mail you that they’ll never listen to
your station again, you get scared of losing your job. And why did they
need to stand up for us? They’re not our friends. They’re not our
family. And they cave.” [CBS’s
“60 Minutes,” May 14, 2006]
The Plame Case
But what’s most troubling is that this intolerance
toward dissent is not simply overzealous Bush supporters acting out, but
rather loyal followers who are getting their signals from the top levels
of the Bush administration.
For instance, a new federal court filing by special
prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald revealed that Vice President Dick Cheney
apparently instigated the campaign to punish former Ambassador Wilson
for his criticism of the administration’s claims that Iraq had sought
enriched uranium from Africa.
After reading Wilson’s July 6, 2003, opinion
article in the New York Times, Cheney scrawled questions in the space
above the article, according to the court filing. Cheney’s questions
would soon shape the hostile talking points that White House officials
and their right-wing supporters would spread against Wilson and his CIA
officer wife, Valerie Plame.
“Those annotations support the proposition that
publication of the Wilson Op-Ed acutely focused the attention of the
Vice President and the defendant – his chief of staff [I. Lewis Libby] –
on Mr. Wilson, on the assertions made in his article, and on responding
to these assertions,” according to a May 12, 2006, filing by
Cheney’s questions addressed the reasons why the
CIA sent Wilson to Niger in 2002 to check out – and ultimately discredit
– suspicions about Iraq allegedly seeking “yellowcake” uranium from
“Have they [CIA officials] done this sort of thing
before?” Cheney wrote. “Send an Amb[assador] to answer a question? Do we
ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send
him on a junket?”
Though Cheney did not write down Plame’s name, his
questions indicate that he was aware that she worked for the CIA and was
in a position (dealing with WMD issues) to have a hand in her husband’s
assignment to check out the Niger reports.
Over the next several days, White House officials,
including Libby and Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove, allegedly
disseminated information about Plame’s CIA identity to journalists in
the context of knocking down Wilson’s critical article. In effect, the
White House tried to cast Wilson’s trip as a case of nepotism arranged
by his wife.
On July 14, 2003, Plame was publicly identified as
a CIA operative in a column by right-wing commentator Robert Novak,
destroying her career at the CIA and forcing the spy agency to terminate
the undercover operation that she had headed. A CIA complaint to the
Justice Department prompted an investigation into the illegal exposure
of a CIA officer.
Initially, when the investigation was still under
the direct control of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Bush and other
White House officials denied any knowledge about the leak. Bush
pretended that he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.
“If there is a leak out of my administration, I
want to know who it is,”
Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. “I want to know the truth. If anybody
has got any information inside our administration or outside our
administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the
information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are
Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and
calling for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding
the fact that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets
about the Niger uranium issue and had ordered Cheney to arrange for
those secrets to be given to reporters.
In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about
how the anti-Wilson scheme got started – since he was involved in
starting it – he uttered misleading public statements to conceal the
White House role and possibly to signal to others that they should
follow suit in denying knowledge.
The cover-up might have worked, except in late
2003, Ashcroft recused himself because of a conflict of interest, and
Fitzgerald – the U.S. Attorney in Chicago – was named as the special
prosecutor. Fitzgerald pursued the investigation far more aggressively,
even demanding that journalists testify about the White House leaks.
In October 2005, Fitzgerald indicted Libby on five
counts of perjury, lying to investigators and obstruction of justice. In
a court filing on April 5, 2006, Fitzgerald added that his investigation
had uncovered government documents that “could be characterized as
reflecting a plan to discredit, punish, or seek revenge against Mr.
Wilson” because of his criticism of the administration’s handling of the
Beyond the actual Plame leak, the White House
oversaw a public-relations strategy to denigrate Wilson. The Republican
National Committee put out talking points ridiculing Wilson, and the
Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee made misleading claims
about his honesty in a WMD report.
Rather than thank Wilson for undertaking a
difficult fact-finding trip to Niger for no pay – and for reporting
accurately about the dubious Iraq-Niger claims – the Bush administration
sought to smear the former ambassador and, in so doing, destroyed his
wife’s career and the effectiveness of her undercover work on WMDs.
Plame has since quit the CIA.
The common thread linking the Plame case to the
attacks on the Dixie Chicks and other anti-war celebrities is Bush’s
all-consuming intolerance of dissent.
Rather than welcome contrary opinions and use them
to refine his own thinking, Bush operates from the premise that his
“gut” judgments are right and all they require is that the American
people get in line behind him.
Bush then views any continued criticism as evidence
of disloyalty. While Bush will tolerate people voicing disagreement, he
feels they should pay a steep price, exacted by Bush’s loyalists inside
and outside the government.
So, when Bush’s supporters malign his critics as
“traitors” and spit out other hate-filled expressions bordering on
exhortations to violence, Bush sees no obligation to rein in the
Instead, Bush almost seems to relish the
punishments meted out to Americans who dissent.