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Issue Date:  September 16, 2005

Robertson's remarks reflected the president's

Only regime change at home can restore respect for the White House


It was with a curious sense of déjà vu that I listened to Pat Robertson’s outrageous call for the United States to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. I was sure I’d heard it all before. An Arnold movie?

Then it came to me: Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President Bush.

In October 2002, as the Bush administration was beating the drum for war in Iraq, Mr. Fleischer was asked about a Congressional Budget Office estimate that a war to topple Saddam Hussein might cost as much as $9 billion a month. Mr. Fleischer replied, “The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than going to war.” When such blunt talk of assassination prompted criticism, he clarified his position by stating, “Regime change is welcome in whatever form that it takes.”

That was my real moment of outrage. The spokesperson for the president of the United States of America was “welcoming” the murder of another country’s president, albeit a dictator. After the Clinton sex scandal, I had been supportive of President Bush’s stated resolve to restore dignity to the office of the presidency. Why then was his press secretary talking like a mobster?

I thought at the time that our society had become so inured to violence that even high government officials now expressed themselves in these terms. True enough, but in the intervening three years it has become clear that the problem isn’t only with our culture of violence. This particular administration divides the world into “us” and “them” and considers its perceived enemies to be almost subhuman. By propagating a way of thinking about its alleged foes as inhuman, it has lowered the bar of human decency, and that has had consequences. Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay are but two stark examples.

Robertson, though over-the-top, is not an original thinker. We all live downstream from the White House, and it is to be expected that extremists of various stripes will adopt President Bush’s attitudes and run with them. Though back in 2002, neither Bush nor Fleischer overtly stated that the United States intended to assassinate Saddam Hussein, is it any wonder now, after nearly 2,000 lives have been lost and nearly $200 billion squandered, that some Americans feel that we should have? In this atmosphere of frustration over a mission not accomplished, it is not surprising that a loose cannon like Pat Robertson would call for the United States to “take out” some other supposed enemy.

Bush has shown himself to be a man who prefers force over diplomacy, violence over negotiation. It will require a regime change at home if we are to truly restore the dignity of the office of the presidency and cease providing the American people with a model of inferior leadership that homegrown extremists will emulate.

Mark Klempner is a historian and author of the forthcoming book, The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage (Pilgrim, 2006).

National Catholic Reporter, September 16, 2005

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