Don't Mention The War!

[ Posted Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 – 16:42 UTC ]

I certainly never thought I'd have this opportunity, but today's title is a quote from one of the funniest episodes of one of the funniest television shows of all time: the Fawlty Towers episode "The Germans." If you haven't ever seen it, you should. The show features John Cleese of Monty Python fame, and while it only lasted one season is still absolutely hilarious. Cleese, as Basil Fawlty, owns a hotel he runs with his wife. During the episode, he repeatedly gets knocked on the head (even once fleeing the hospital instead of recovering from a particularly bad knock), and then in a daze manages to offend his German guests by "mentioning" World War II in practically everything that comes out of his mouth. The goose-stepping scene is one of Cleese's finest comedic performances, in fact.

The opportunity for me to run today's ironic "Don't Mention The War!" title for a political column was dished up by none other than Jeb Bush, due to a recent interview with Fox host Megyn Kelly. Here is the full exchange:

KELLY: On the subject of Iraq... obviously very controversial. Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?

BUSH: I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.

KELLY: You don't think it was a mistake?

BUSH: In retrospect the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. And in retrospect, once we invaded and took out Saddam Hussein, we didn't focus on security first. And the Iraqis, in this incredibly insecure environment, turned on the United States military because there was no security for themselves and their families. By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took place as well? George W. Bush. Yes, I mean, so just for the news flash to the world, if they're trying to find places where there's big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.

Hoo, boy. The reviews were scathing, in response to Bush's answer -- even from conservative pundits. Here's just one reaction, from Laura Ingraham: "You can't still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do. If you do, there has to be something wrong with you." Another, perhaps influenced by the memory of Basil Fawlty's injuries, wondered "just how many times Jeb was dropped on his head as a child."

Rather than piling on Bush along with all the others, though, I actually believe a Bush spokeswoman who now says Bush "misheard the question." In particular, the part of the question about "knowing what we know now." I believe Bush either did mishear the question, or (even more likely) had a canned response ready to go and just heard the word "Iraq" and decided to trot it out. I take the spokeswoman at her word, because that really is the only way Bush's answer even makes sense. The question he was answering (rather than the actual question Kelly asked) was: "If you had been in your brother's place back then, knowing only what he did at the time, would you have invaded Iraq?"

Bush's answer proves this, in fact. In his initial response, he qualified his support by pointing out that Hillary Clinton agreed -- at the time -- as well as "almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got" -- again, at the time. It's impossible to make sense of Bush's answer if you think he was actually listening to the "knowing what we know now" part of the question. "The intelligence they got" is not the same as "the intelligence we now know is true," in other words. Bush even reinforces this in his second statement, which begins with "In retrospect the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty." He is separating what we know now with what everyone was being told back then. Which is why I believe he either truly did mishear the question, or he just wanted to answer a different question in the first place (in fairness, he certainly wouldn't be the first politician to attempt this trick). But either way, his answer is not what some are trying to make it.

Of course, this still leaves us all with no Bush answer to Kelly's original question. This is the more interesting problem, to me. Bush knows that this is going to be a sticky issue for him during his campaign. His association with his brother's policies in the public eye is a big negative for him with the general public, but might be surprisingly positive for him among the subset of Republican primary voters who still think George W. Bush was right, and still believe everything he did was justified -- even invading Iraq. So it's easy to see why Jeb's campaign has already considered the "Don't mention the war!" problem, which is obviously also why Jeb had such a practiced answer at the front of his mind, ready to go.

Kelly's original question is kind of a lose/lose situation for Bush. If he answers the way a "sane human being" would, the answer is quite clearly: "No -- knowing what we know now, the Iraq invasion was tragically wrong." But Bush could follow this up with some version of:

But that's the thing about being president -- you can't go into the future and use hindsight. You have to make a decision based on what you know at the time, which is why it's kind of a silly question to even ask. Knowing what I now know, I could bet correctly on this year's Kentucky Derby and win a bunch of money -- except that time travel is impossible.

This would go a long way towards turning the tables on the interviewer and the question itself.

The only other way to answer the question ties Jeb completely to his brother's foreign policy, for better or worse. In fact, this seems to be what Jeb is attempting to accomplish, as evidenced by the last few sentences in his response. This makes a certain degree of logic for two reasons. Jeb has invited most of George W.'s old foreign policy team to advise his own presidential campaign, so he's now surrounded by people who are never going to admit they screwed the pooch so badly on the whole "let's invade Iraq" thing. They are, obviously, telling Jeb that politically tying himself to his brother's record is a great idea. The second reason this makes sense is that there are many Republican voters for whom no Republican president has ever done anything wrong (period, end of sentence). Self-criticism isn't a popular concept among many Republicans, to put this another way.

Now that the question (and Bush's non-answer) has caused a mini-tempest in the media world, it's expected that all the candidates will soon be asked the same thing. Hillary Clinton has already answered the question, and she'll likely be happy to now reinforce that answer. She knows her vote for the Iraq War in the Senate was one of the biggest political pieces of baggage she is destined to always carry, and she's repeatedly said she now thinks the war was a gigantic mistake. It'll be more interesting to hear what the other Republican candidates have to say on the subject, though. Rand Paul would almost certainly respond "No" to the question, but how many of the other Republican candidates would do the same?

In the meantime, Jeb Bush himself is almost certainly going to have to come up with an actual answer to the actual question he was asked. Right now he's laying kind of low, as evidenced by the fact that a spokeswoman is offering up an excuse right now (rather than the candidate himself). But even if you take the "misheard" explanation at face value, the original question still remains unanswered.

Jeb Bush has entered a Basil Fawlty trap of his own making. Rather than hewing to the "Don't mention the war!" rule of thumb by just dodging the question, his advisors had agreed upon an answer designed to put the whole issue behind him, so the candidate could focus on other things. Because Jeb fumbled his response so badly that even conservative pundits raked him over the coals, he now cannot really avoid eventually coming up with an answer to the "what we now know" part of the question.

Just as Hillary Clinton is eventually going to have to distance herself somewhat from Barack Obama (in response to the inevitable "she'll just be a third Obama term" complaint), Jeb is going to have to eventually distance himself from his brother in some fashion, whether he wants to or not. The Iraq War should have been the easiest place for him to do so, in fact. He is indeed going to get asked this question again, likely the very next time he faces a reporter. And not mentioning the war is no longer really a viable option for Jeb.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


10 Comments on “Don't Mention The War!”

  1. [1] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    He'd be another blood-thirsty, pyromaniac. It's a family thing. Luckily, there's video. He should go away.

  2. [2] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    He actually chanted the family mantra today: "mistakes were made". So predictable. It's all about the personal responsibility.

  3. [3] 
    dsws wrote:

    Ignoring the question and reciting your irrelevant talking point is currently less an option than a requirement. I don't think it has ever had any downside for any politician until this flap with Jeb.

    It would be nice if candidates were expected to answer the questions, knew they were expected to answer the questions, knew they would be raked over the coals if they ignore the question and recite some irrelevant sound-bite, and therefore answered the questions. Failing to answer the question would be a rookie mistake, the way answering a question is now. Never going to happen on this planet, though.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Never going to happen on this planet, though.

    Amen to THAT!!!


  5. [5] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Jeb gives his stalled campaign a good thrashing. "I warned you!"

    Who is The Major in a Bush/Fawlty mashup?

  6. [6] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Letterman had fun with this.

    The gag de jour being approximately:

    Jeb says he would have done the same thing in iIraq if he had his brother's intelligence.
    Oh my God, Jeb admits he not as smart as his brother!

    Why does anybody want to run for Prez?

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    The Democratic Party is burning with Blue on Blue violence and ya'all are worried about an ancient issue that has been done to death???

    Ostrich much?? :D


  8. [8] 
    TheStig wrote:

    M -7

    We're just trying to stay on topic, which I'm pretty sure is Fawlty Towers. :)

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    We're just trying to stay on topic, which I'm pretty sure is Fawlty Towers. :)

    Touche' :D


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    Ignoring the question and reciting your irrelevant talking point is currently less an option than a requirement.

    Kinda like how it is here in Weigantia, eh? :D


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