The Insult of Empty Gestures

This latest lackluster effort found bipartisan support as Democrats and Republicans united behind this empty gesture to mock us all by not addressing the energy crisis that is only just beginning. Not sure that’s what voters had in mind when they called for more bipartisanship.

It’s fine for President Bush to rely on symbols, but they aren’t a substitute for accountability

By Elan Barnehama

In the past, our nation has always risen to the task in response to crisis. While we often slog our way though important problems, we’ve been brilliant, innovative and quick to mobilize in support of emergencies. Think emergency medical care verse preventative health care. Think Sputnik or polio. Consider FDR’s call for 50,000 planes a year as the US entered World War II. He was mocked. Turned out that he was wrong, as US factory workers responded by producing twice that amount. But, when members of Congress decided to put a temporary halt to filling the government’s emergency oil reserve, as a response to the gasoline crisis, they may have signaled an end to our ability to respond to emergencies. This was their latest attempt to perfect the art of accomplishing nothing by getting nowhere and not solving anything – and maybe their way of telling voters to stop expecting solutions from elected officials.

Maybe having such high (any) expectations puts too much pressure on Congress and they don’t respond well to pressure. Lobbyists? Maybe. Pressure? No. Think Katrina. Think energy-mortgage-heathcare-environmental-educational-economic-security crisis.

This latest lackluster effort found bipartisan support as Democrats and Republicans united behind this empty gesture to mock us all by not addressing the energy crisis that is only just beginning. Not sure that’s what voters had in mind when they called for more bipartisanship.

To be fair, their action follows eight years of measuring success by a bar that’s been plunging ever since candidate Bush started winning debates by lowering expectations. But President Bush saw through Congress’ ruse this time and called them on it. Said their action was an empty gesture and threatened to veto the directive. He claimed the amount of oil that is placed in the emergency stockpiles is not enough to change the market and that their directive was just a symbolic one.

The problem is that President Bush twice stopped filling the emergency oil reserve when those publicity stunts served him well. Oil was much cheaper then. Now it’s more expensive than ever.

Still, I would not second guess the president on what constitutes a symbolic gesture. He has proven himself to be an expert on symbolic gestures and their ability to send powerful messages to friend and foes alike. That’s how, he told us recently, he came to the decision to sort-of-almost-for-the-most-part give up golf because he didn’t think the families of soldiers fighting and dying should see the commander-in-chief hitting the links.

I don’t really understand the correlation, but I’m pretty sure that our armed forces and their families are more interested in having confidence in the decisions President Bush and his administration make and the judgment they use to make those decisions.

That confidence took another hit last week when the latest inner circle Bush appointee tried to rewrite the history of their Iraq post-invasion policy. When Paul Bremer wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed about his decision to lay off 500,000 Iraqi soldiers instead of employing them to provide security and police presence, he implicated generals who were on the ground. Turns out those generals were not consulted. Turns out, those generals wanted to employ the Iraqi Army and thought it would have saved many lives and reduced the potency of the insurgency. But their counsel went unheeded. Now they are being blamed. The New York Times ran a less prominently placed video rebuttal by those generals. One has to wonder, will anybody in the Bush Administration EVER have to account for their catastrophic misdeeds?

When those U.S. factory workers rose to the occasion and turned the tide of World War II through their unexpected productivity, they were aided by a Nazi war machine that politicized science and technology and infused them with ideology (non-Jewish physics). This turned out to be a gift to the Allies who may have faced even more deadly weaponry had the Nazi ideologues not ignored the obvious or tried to change the facts on the ground to match their beliefs. Sounds all too familiar.

So, I don’t care if my President plays golf or mountain bikes or clears brush. I do care if my President shields his administration from any responsibility or accountability for, well, everything. It leaves no room for finding real solutions to real problems. The fact that Congress seems to be following our president’s lead, well that’s just plain insulting.

Elan Barnehama is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. He has taught at several colleges and was, most recently, a Senior Writer for Wesleyan University in Connecticut. His commentaries have aired on public radio and appeared in newspapers. E-mail Elan at:

See the generals’ video rebuttal (click here).

2 thoughts on “The Insult of Empty Gestures”

  1. Idealistically, things can be turned around. The situation we are in right now: a nearly total failure of leadership in the US has been experienced before – and survived.

    Real leadership is an ineffable phenomenon. How is it that at certain times, perhaps when most needed, there arises a Lincoln or a (Franklin) Roosevelt? Thinking about the circumstances of those examples is almost enough to make one believe in a special providence. Special because like other mystical/religious terms (like mercy or even salvation in certain sects) it is undeserved. And frankly, in my bitter, wizened, view few societies are less deserving of salvation or mercy than the US in the early twentieth century.

    But maybe leadership of the dramatic and transformational quality is something that is sometimes evoked by urgencies arising from a society that still retains untapped reservoirs of energy and potential. FDR, in addition to the fact that he was a master manipulator, had almost nothing in common with working class Americans. But he connected – and DELIVERED – in a way that was fundamentally responsive and generative.

    In those days immediately following 9/11, I remember holding my breath. Maybe the needs and urgencies of the circumstance would evoke an inspiring sense of responsibility and possibility in the patently illegitimate occupant of the White House? (I know I’ve watched too many Frank Capra movies.)

    But maybe it’s possible. And maybe it’s not too late. Maybe Obama really is “the one” Miss Jane Pittman wanted us to wait for. Or maybe there are special qualities that true responsibility and urgency will awake in Hillary, or maybe even McCain.

    I know some would say it is possible that we, as a culture, have outgrown “leadership” – at least in “conventional” forms. But somehow that (to me) seems even more nonsensical than any mystical or sociological conception of the type of leadership that we so sorely need. In any event, I can only hope that we do not continue to get the kind of leadership that we so seemingly deserve.


  2. McCain is the country’s only hope. Both Dems are clowns. That said, the only thing standing in the way of Democratic victory is the Democrats.


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