Remember that classic SNL skit from 1986 with Phil Hartman playing President Reagan? Various visitors come into the Oval Office and Reagan bobs his head and offers jellybeans and homey anecdotes, but when they leave he snaps fingers and barks orders at subordinates who just can't keep up with his overwhelming energy and intellect. It was a great play on our perception of Reagan as a president who was, in fact, losing it.
I thought of this while watching, DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, a Showtime movie from 2003, written and produced by British-born Hollywood conservative Lionel Chetwynd, which first aired, amid controversy, in September 2003.
I know. Life's short, why waste two hours? Unfortunately I'm writing an article about presidents on film to coincide with the release of Oliver Stone's W., and DC 9/11 is part of the price you pay.
But I quickly began to see the humor. SNL came to mind when Pres. Bush, on Air Force One, switches to commander-in-chief mode and starts barking orders at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: "Hike military alert status to Delta! That's the military, the C.I.A., foreign, domestic, everything! And if you haven't gone to Defcon 3, you oughtta." He barks orders at a submissive Cheney. He tells everyone, over and over, that Osama bin Laden will pay:
We're gonna hunt down and find those folks who committed this.
Whoever did this isn't going to like me as president.
We're going to kick the hell out of whoever did this. No slap on the wrist this time.
I like the "this time." The movie has an overwhelming and injured sense that, before President Bush, the United States was spit upon daily by the wretched refuse of the world. But Bush makes it clear, in a phone conversation to Tony Blair, that things have changed: "I want to bring damage, inflict pain. Enough to let them know there's a new team here." He tells Cheney: "It's a war. Just a different kinda war. Needs a new playbook." Football metaphors abound. Chest-thumping abounds. Boys who never went to war get to use the words of war.
But it wasn't until Rumsfeld raises the specter of Saddam Hussein that I saw the true brilliance of DC 9/11. This is a movie that actually celebrates the worst foreign policy decisions we've ever made. It's like finding a 1964 film celebrating the Gulf of Tonkin resolution or a 1943 film celebrating the internment of Japanese Americans. It's like, dare I say, something by Leni Riefenstahl. Just not, you know, artistic.
The conflation of al Qaeda and Iraq gets stronger during the Sept. 13 cabinet meeting:
Powell: The mission is the destruction of al Qaeda. Hussein isn't your man.
Rumsfeld: He is if we're talking about terrorism in the broadest sense. We know he never stopped developing weapons of mass destruction...
Cheney: Al Qaeda lacks weapons. That's why they used our own aircraft. You put Hussein and bin Laden together...?
Bush: Is that an immediate threat?
Cheney: The enemy is clearly more than UBL [bin Laden] and the Taliban. If we're including people who support terrorists, that does open the door to Iraq. But unlike bin Laden, we know where to find them.
There are more meetings. Bush becomes more certain, more messianic. Rendition and domestic spying are implied. You're either with us or with the terrorists. In the Sept. 15 meeting, Powell warns Bush that if we go after someone besides al Qaeda our allies may fall away and leave us isolated. Bush replies: "At some point, we may be the only ones left standing. And that will have to be OK. That's why we're America." Powell repeats that bin Laden attacked us, not Saddam, and Wolfowitz replies:
Only because he was unable. But he's got the arms. He's been developing everything from nuclear weapons to smallpox to anthrax. A whole range of weapons of mass destruction. ... All he's lacked is the means to deliver those weapons to our shores. Well, UBL has shown him he's got a system of delivery.
Here's what's awful. The reason our foreign policy mistakes were disastrous are there in the script for anyone to see -- and they were visible from the get-go. 9/11 did require a new playbook. We were attacked by a loose organization that could hide, rather than a nation-state that couldn't. Yet our ultimate response was to attack a nation-state because, in Cheney's words, "We know where to find them." Which is the very reason we shouldn't have attacked them. That was the old playbook. It's still the old playbook.
DC 9/11 is either so funny it's sad or so sad it's funny. It should become a cult classic like Reefer Madness: a propaganda film that, through its over-the-top idiocy, proves its opposite. It's also a good reminder of what once constituted conservative spin. Remember Bush as action hero? As cowboy? "[Saddam] is surely developing WMDs," Bush says. "Wanted: Dead or Alive," Bush says. We're going to "rid the world of evil," Bush says. "This will decidedly not be another Vietnam," Bush says.