George W. Bush exploits captive audiences as well as any president. During the last four years, he has ritually gone to military bases to uncork his biggest inanities regarding foreign policy. There are some howlers that can only be tossed out in front of an audience forbidden to laugh. No one in a military audience can heckle without having his career ruined. Thus, there is no danger of the television clip of the president’s speech being marred by non-groveling responses.
But, given the number of absurdities that the Bush administration feels compelled to emit, there are simply not enough military bases within the District of Columbia.
The Bush team has found something almost as good – maybe better: Think tanks. When Bush needed a craven audience for a speech just before he invaded Iraq, Bush went to an American Enterprise Institute dinner – where his absurd rationales for the war were received as divine truths. Attorney General John Ashcroft kicked off his 2003 Patriot Act Salvation tour, replete with denials that the government was carrying out warrantless wiretaps, at AEI. Vice President Cheney hustled his hokum in recent months at both AEI and the Heritage Foundation.
Think tanks have become as servile as military bases, as far as applauding lies from the highest level of government. A decade or two ago, some people expected think tanks to revolutionize politics in Washington, bringing ideas and principles to sordid political clashes. Instead, at least some think tanks have become mere props for politicians.
I deal with the role of think tanks in the corruption of Washington in my new book, Attention Deficit Democracy.