W.'s Stiletto Democracy

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

February 27, 2005

WASHINGTON

It was remarkable to see President Bush lecture Vladimir Putin on the importance of checks and balances in a democratic society.

Remarkably brazen, given that the only checks Mr. Bush seems to believe in are those written to the "journalists" Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher and Karen Ryan, the fake TV anchor, to help promote his policies. The administration has given a whole new meaning to checkbook journalism, paying a stupendous $97 million to an outside P.R. firm to buy columnists and produce propaganda, including faux video news releases.

The only balance W. likes is the slavering, Pravda-like "Fair and Balanced" coverage Fox News provides. Mr. Bush pledges to spread democracy while his officials strive to create a Potemkin press village at home. This White House seems to prefer softball questions from a self-advertised male escort with a fake name to hardball questions from journalists with real names; it prefers tossing journalists who protect their sources into the gulag to giving up the officials who broke the law by leaking the name of their own C.I.A. agent.

W., who once looked into Mr. Putin's soul and liked what he saw, did not demand the end of tyranny, as he did in his second Inaugural Address. His upper lip sweating a bit, he did not rise to the level of his hero Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Instead, he said that "the common ground is a lot more than those areas where we disagree." The Russians were happy to stress the common ground as well.

An irritated Mr. Putin compared the Russian system to the American Electoral College, perhaps reminding the man preaching to him about democracy that he had come in second in 2000 according to the popular vote, the standard most democracies use.

Certainly the autocratic former K.G.B. agent needs to be upbraided by someone - Tony Blair, maybe? - for eviscerating the meager steps toward democracy that Russia had made before Mr. Putin came to power. But Mr. Bush is on shaky ground if he wants to hold up his administration as a paragon of safeguarding liberty - considering it has trampled civil liberties in the name of the war on terror and outsourced the torture of prisoners to bastions of democracy like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. (The secretary of state canceled a trip to Egypt this week after Egypt's arrest of a leading opposition politician.)

"I live in a transparent country," Mr. Bush protested to a Russian reporter who implicitly criticized the Patriot Act by noting that the private lives of American citizens "are now being monitored by the state."

Dick Cheney's secret meetings with energy lobbyists were certainly a model of transparency. As was the buildup to the Iraq war, when the Bush hawks did their best to cloak the real reasons they wanted to go to war and trumpet the trumped-up reasons.

The Bush administration wields maximum secrecy with minimal opposition. The White House press is timid. The poor, limp Democrats don't have enough power to convene Congressional hearings on any Republican outrages and are reduced to writing whining letters of protest that are tossed in the Oval Office trash.

When nearly $9 billion allotted for Iraqi reconstruction during Paul Bremer's tenure went up in smoke, Democratic lawmakers vainly pleaded with Republicans to open a Congressional investigation.

Even the near absence of checks and balances is not enough for W. Not content with controlling the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and a good chunk of the Fourth Estate, he goes to even more ludicrous lengths to avoid being challenged.

The White House wants its Republican allies in the Senate to stamp out the filibuster, one of the few weapons the handcuffed Democrats have left. They want to invoke the so-called nuclear option and get rid of the 150-year-old tradition in order to ram through more right-wing judges.

Mr. Bush and Condi Rice strut in their speeches - the secretary of state also strutted in Wiesbaden in her foxy "Matrix"-dominatrix black leather stiletto boots - but they shy away from taking questions from the public unless they get to vet the questions and audiences in advance.

Administration officials went so far as to cancel a town hall meeting during Mr. Bush's visit to Germany last week after deciding an unscripted setting would be too risky, opting for a round-table talk in Mainz with preselected Germans and Americans.

The president loves democracy - as long as democracy means he's always right.

E-mail: