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"mission Accomplished" Five Years Later

Today is the anniversary of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" fete aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, an occasion for many to lament the fact that the mission still isn't accomplished.

But May 1 always reminds me of a more specific failing of the Bush administration: its belief that laughter is the best medicine. That relentless optimism is not only what the public always wants, but even may have the power to tangibly improve events. It's the Law of Attraction as politics, a dubious application to leadership of the scientific idea that pretending to smile makes you happier by releasing happy-making endorphins. Think "heckuva job, Brownie": I think Bush actually hoped that saying that phrase would somehow make Brownie do a heckuva better job. This laughter-as-best-medicine doctrine has been our strategy Iraq more than anything else has been. Listen to Bush's words three weeks ago with Martha Raddatz:

BUSH: [In 2006] I thought [the war] was failing, yes, I did, and that's why -- and I listened to a lot of opinions. And as you remember, there were like all kinds of opinions. ...

RADDATZ: You were saying, 'We're winning. We have a plan for victory. We are winning,' up through October. ... But the overall thing -- when you say, "We're winning," you know what the American people hear. You know how that will play.

BUSH: Well, yes. I think we -- and I wanted -- that's as much trying to bolster the spirits of the people in the field as well as -- look, you can't have the commander in chief say to a bunch of kids who are sacrificing either, "It's not worth it," or, "You're losing." I mean, what does that do for morale?

As George Packer mournfully points out, "it wasn’t as though the White House was feverishly correcting in private the problems that it refused to acknowledge publicly for fear of crushing the spirit [of the people in the field]." But Bush's insistence that cheery optimism is the only fare bland enough to serve the people is also tragic because it's wrong. I think of Churchill, who told his country in 1940 that they were, basically, losing: 

Rather more than a quarter of a year has passed since the new Government came into power in this country. What a cataract of disaster has poured out upon us since then! The trustful Dutch overwhelmed; their beloved and respected Sovereign driven into exile ... Belgium invaded and beaten down; our own fine Expeditionary Force, which King Leopold called to his rescue, cut off and almost captured, escaping as it seemed only by a miracle and with the loss of all its equipment; our Ally, France, out; Italy in against us; all France in the power of the enemy, all its arsenals and vast masses of military material converted or convertible to the enemy's use ...

If "cataract of disaster" doesn't dampen your spirit, I don't know what would. But Churchill believed his listeners could handle some measure of the truth -- and more than that, telling it to them gave him a chance to outline the stakes of a final loss and to justify a bitter ordeal to come, rather than finding himself in the weird position of begging for more troops and more money than ever while reassuring people everything was going great.

It'll be sweet indeed to say goodbye to Bush's reflexive optimism next January. But I see its influence rippling out past him, in the notion that McCain's telling Michiganders some auto jobs weren't coming back during the primary was some huuuugely shocking political act, even in last month's Bittergate episode. A conservative reporter I know who spent time in depressed areas of Pennsylvania laughed at the whole brouhaha because, as he said, "they are bitter!" The idea that telling people their current outlook is not so good is an insult to their pride, a blow they can't endure, is very Bush.

Eve Fairbanks