The Empire Strikes Bush

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 16, 2005; 12:48 PM

"This is how liberty dies -- to thunderous applause."

So observes Queen Amidala of Naboo as the galactic senate grants dictator-to-be Palpatine sweeping new powers in his crusade against the Jedi in the final "Star Wars" movie opening this week.

It's just one of several lines in "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," that reveal the movie to be more than just a sci-fi blockbuster and gargantuan cultural phenomenon.

"Revenge of the Sith," it turns out, can also be seen as a cautionary tale for our time -- a blistering critique of the war in Iraq, a reminder of how democracies can give up their freedoms too easily, and an admonition about the seduction of good people by absolute power.

Some film critics suggest it could be the biggest anti-Bush blockbuster since "Fahrenheit 9/11."

New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott gives "Sith" a rave, and notes that Lucas "grounds it in a cogent and (for the first time) comprehensible political context.

" 'Revenge of the Sith' is about how a republic dismantles its own democratic principles, about how politics becomes militarized, about how a Manichaean ideology undermines the rational exercise of power. Mr. Lucas is clearly jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders. At one point, Darth Vader, already deep in the thrall of the dark side and echoing the words of George W. Bush, hisses at Obi-Wan, 'If you're not with me, you're my enemy.' Obi-Wan's response is likely to surface as a bumper sticker during the next election campaign: 'Only a Sith thinks in absolutes.' "

Agence France Presse reports that the movie delivers "a galactic jab to US President George W. Bush."

It's been generating "murmurs at the parallels being drawn between Bush's administration and the birth of the space opera's evil Empire."

Are some people reading too much into the movie?

Filmmaker George Lucas insists that the genesis of his story dates back 30 years. But he pointed out that certain themes do seem to repeat themselves, whether here and now or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Bruce Kirkland writes in the Toronto Sun: "Star Wars is a wakeup call to Americans about the erosion of democratic freedoms under George W. Bush, filmmaker George Lucas said yesterday.

"Lucas, responding to a question from the Sun at a Cannes Film Festival press conference, said he first wrote the framework of Star Wars in 1971 when reacting to then U.S. President Richard Nixon and the on-going events of the Vietnam War. But the story still has relevance today, he said, and is part of a pattern he has noticed in his readings of history.

" 'I didn't think it was going to get quite this close,' he said of the parallels between the Nixon era and the current Bush presidency, which has been sacrificing freedoms in the interests of national security. 'It is just one of those re-occurring things. I hope this doesn't come true in our country. Maybe the film will awaken people to the situation of how dangerous it is.' "

David Germain writes for the Associated Press: "Lucas never mentioned the president by name but was eager to speak his mind on U.S. policy in Iraq, careful again to note that he created the story long before the Bush-led occupation there.

" 'When I wrote it, Iraq didn't exist,' Lucas said, laughing.

" 'We were just funding Saddam Hussein and giving him weapons of mass destruction. We didn't think of him as an enemy at that time. We were going after Iran and using him as our surrogate, just as we were doing in Vietnam . . . The parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we're doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.' "

Lucas said he has long been interested in the transition from democracy to dictatorship.

"In ancient Rome, 'why did the senate, after killing Caesar, turn around and give the government to his nephew?' Lucas said. 'Why did France, after they got rid of the king and that whole system, turn around and give it to Napoleon? It's the same thing with Germany and Hitler.'

" 'You sort of see these recurring themes where a democracy turns itself into a dictatorship, and it always seems to happen kind of in the same way, with the same kinds of issues, and threats from the outside, needing more control. A democratic body, a senate, not being able to function properly because everybody's squabbling, there's corruption.' "

Harlan Jacobson writes in USA Today: "Since screenings began last month at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, people have been discussing parallels between the final film in Lucas' six-film Star Wars saga and current political events. . . .

"Lucas said Darth Vader's saga is about how a good man turns himself into a bad one.

" 'Most of them think they're good people doing what they do for a good reason.' "

Marijke Rowland writes in the Modesto Bee: "Lucas' longtime producer Rick McCallum insists that the resemblances are coincidental.

" '(The film) was started well before we even knew this disaster was going to happen,' he said, referring to Iraq war.

"Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid, who plays the evil mastermind Chancellor Palpatine, who installs himself as emperor, said the film manages to reflect modern events while addressing timeless themes.

" 'It is a film about how easily (freedom) can disappear, how easily we can all be seduced into surrendering it while thinking we're having a good time,' he said. 'It chimes with the zeitgeist.'

Adds McDiarmid: "It's a film that reflects contemporary events, but it is a film. Enjoy the metaphor."

The Rise of Executive Power

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "The president has clearly been trying to harness and expand the clout available to him and to present his office as even more the seat of power than it was under many of his predecessors. By many standards he has succeeded, in part through the good fortune of having a Republican Congress to work with, in part because of his role as commander in chief at a time of threats to the nation and in part because of his aggressive style of advancing his agenda and political interests.

"The question that has yet to be answered is whether he has fundamentally altered the presidency in ways that will outlast his tenure and wipe out the remaining legacies of Vietnam and Watergate, which were taken as object lessons in the dangers of a too powerful, too secret executive."

Poll Watch

According to AFP and PollingReport.com, the latest Time magazine poll has Bush's approval rating down two points since March, to 46 percent, with 47 percent disapproving.

Just 41 per cent of respondents say they approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, with 55 per cent saying they disapprove.

AFP reports: "Mr. Bush's popularity registered a particularly steep decline among the elderly, with 55 per cent of Americans aged 65 or older disapproving.

"He also had falling poll numbers among women, with just 42 per cent approval, down from 51 per cent before November's presidential election."

Recasting the Past

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "With American dissatisfaction over the conflict in Iraq reaching its highest level since the invasion two years ago -- and the initial reasons for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein undermined by the discovery that he possessed no weapons of mass destruction -- Bush has set out this year with carefully scripted tours of the recently liberated nations of Europe to cast all of these events as chapters of one great world saga.

"But the peaceful, homegrown movements of these nations bear little resemblance to what Bush has dubbed 'the Purple Revolution' of Iraq -- named for ink-stains on the fingers of Iraqis who voted in January for a new government.

"Critics contend that the president is masking the original, and later discredited, reasons for invading Iraq with his vow to end world tyranny, a theme Bush voiced in his second-term inaugural address and has repeated across Europe."

Domestic Focus

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush, fresh from a European trip and a White House summit with Central American leaders, returned to his troubled domestic agenda yesterday and tried to ratchet up pressure on a balky Congress to pass his Social Security, energy, legal liability, health care and tax proposals."

Here is the text of his speech Friday to the National Association of Realtors.

AFP reports that Bush said in his Saturday radio address that this week, he will "discuss our need for a comprehensive national energy strategy that reduces our dependence on foreign oil."

Bush talks about energy today at a biodiesel refinery in West Point, Va.

Judith Haynes writes in the Hampton Roads Daily Press that none of this visit is open to the public.

Incoming: Stem Cells

Karen Tumulty writes in Time magazine: "It was the toughest call of his young presidency, and George Bush chose an event no less momentous than his first prime-time address to announce that he had found a thin ridge of moral high ground on which to perch. The wrenching decision: whether to lend federal support to embryonic-stem-cell research, unleashing potential cures for horrific illnesses and life-shattering injuries, but at the cost of giving government sanction to the destruction of human embryos."

Bush's conclusion: "The government would move forward carefully, he promised, providing federal money for research on cell colonies that had already been created by that point, August 2001, but not edging one inch further down the slope of destroying additional human embryos. 'I spent a lot of time on the subject,' he later told reporters. 'I laid out the policy I think is right for America, and I'm not going to change my mind.'

"Now, the once solid ground that Bush staked out almost four years ago is crumbling beneath him, and he will probably soon find himself once again in the middle of an argument that he had declared settled."

Rove Watch, I

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times that the White House chief political strategist has had quite the hand in the formation of Justice Priscilla R. Owen of the Texas Supreme Court, one of the Bush nominees to a federal appeals court at the center of the partisan battle in the Senate over changing the filibuster rules.

Lewis cites "three crucial moments in her judicial career in which she seemed to have been guided by the hand of Karl Rove."

For instance, Owen was "a respected but little-known lawyer in Houston in 1994 when she was first elected to the State Supreme Court with Mr. Rove's support and tutelage."

Rove Watch, II

Holly Bailey writes in Newsweek: "Less than six months into his second term, Bush has paid multiple visits to the hard-fought states of 2004 --- and he's not the only one. Since March, Rove has been out headlining fund-raisers and county GOP dinners in battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin. Administration officials describe Rove's travels as a post-election 'thank you' tour to reward Bush's supporters. But others say it's an attempt to shore up the GOP base and stoke enthusiasm for Bush's agenda as the 2006 midterm elections approach."

Intel Watch

Erich Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "The White House has been slow to establish an oversight board charged with ensuring that the government's campaign against terrorism does not erode privacy and civil rights, a bipartisan group of senators said in a letter released Friday."

Here's that letter .

I'd send you to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board's Web site -- but there isn't one, of course.

Nuclear Question

I have written before about how the press corps sometimes seems to shun big questions in favor of littler ones. Here's a big one for the president: Could he envision a circumstance in which he would call for a preemptive nuclear strike? What would that circumstance be? If not, why is the Defense Department preparing contingency plans for doing such a thing?

William Arkin writes about such things in The Washington Post.

The Five Amigos

G. Robert Hillman writes in the Dallas Morning News about the five Texans who "came to the White House with President Bush four years ago and have settled in with him for a second term.

"Four are senior staff, longtime Bush confidants who have moved from one key post to another in the corridors of White House power: deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, counselor Dan Bartlett, legal counsel Harriet Miers and press secretary Scott McClellan.

"A fifth, Blake Gottesman, is literally closest to the president as his personal aide. His closet-size office is right outside the Oval Office, and he's at Bush's side all day long."

On Gottesman, Hillman writes: "His pockets are full of whatever the president might need: hand soap, notecards, black markers."

On Miers: "One of the president's closest confidantes, Harriet Miers was his personal and campaign attorney in Texas. At the White House, she moved up quickly, from the gatekeeper post of staff secretary, to deputy chief of staff for policy, to legal counsel."

Yalta Watch

Elisabeth Bumiller asks in the New York Times: "How did the unexpected attack on Yalta get in the president's speech? What drove his thinking? Did the White House expect the fallout?"

Her conclusion, in part: "Bush's assertion of American failure at Yalta was viewed at the White House as a model for what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin should - but did not - do. It was also a poke in the eye to the Russians, salve to Bush's Baltic hosts and an attempt to contrast what Bush promotes as his uncompromising vision for democracy in the Middle East with what he sees as the expedience of the past."

Bumiller quotes an administration official who, she writes, "requested anonymity because he wanted to let the president's words speak for themselves." That official told her that the White House had in fact not anticipated last week's fallout.


Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush paid tribute yesterday to 156 police officers who died in the line of duty last year, as colleagues and families of the fallen gathered under a somber gray sky at the U.S. Capitol for a national day of remembrance. . . .

"Afterward, the president spent nearly two hours signing mementos, embracing officers and their families and posing for pictures."

Here's the text of his speech.

Gifts and Wealth

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "A $14,000 shotgun, a $2,700 mountain bike and five fishing rods were among $26,346 in gifts President Bush accepted last year, according to his financial disclosure form released Friday which also listed millions of dollars the president has invested in U.S. Treasury notes and certificates of deposit.

"The annual disclosures required by law offered a glimpse into the president and Vice President Dick Cheney's wealth -- and what they gave each other for Christmas last year."

Plausible Deniability

What's the White House's view on the highly controversial Defense Department list of base closures?

Here's press secretary Scott McClellan in his press briefing on Friday: "The President had not seen the list before it being announced."

The Charlotte Simmons Mystery Solved?

John F. Dickerson writes in Time magazine: "When President Bush returned from his bike ride last week carrying 'I am Charlotte Simmons' under his arm, observers seemed more worried about whether he had completed the novel than whether the Leader of the Free World should be reading and mountain biking simultaneously. The President was supposed to have finished Tom Wolfe's critique of political correctness on college campuses months ago, so why was he hanging on to it now? White House aides were quick to put minds at ease. Bush's biking partner for the day, Mike Wood, had borrowed the book --- which includes ample accounts of steamy sex-play -- and had returned Bush's copy that day. Sources familiar with Bush's current bedside favorites say he is reading 'The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag' by Kang Chol-Hwan. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recommended the book, and now Bush is encouraging his staff to read it too."

Blogger Wonkette points out that Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times has another explanation.

Commencement Watch

Samira Jafari writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney steered away from politics and the war in Iraq during his commencement speech Friday at Auburn University, instead offering graduates humorous anecdotes and a bit of team spirit.

"Introduced by Gov. Bob Riley, Cheney received a hesitant standing ovation, but quickly won hearty applause and cheers as he began by noting the Auburn football team's achievement last season."

Here's the text of his speech.

Cheney shared one secret to success: "There is one very practical lesson that comes immediately to mind. As you might have heard, six months ago I was reelected Vice President of the United States. And we appreciated having the Auburn University Marching Band at our Inauguration. But you may recall how I got started on this journey. It was during the campaign in the year 2000, when then-Governor Bush of Texas called to ask if I would help him find a running mate to be his Vice President. The lesson I want to share with you is this: If you ever get asked to head up an important search committee, say yes."

And he poked fun at his own failures: "Those of us who've been around a while can also recall a few times when life took an unexpected turn, not always in a positive direction. As I mentioned a moment ago, I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming. My college experience, though, began at a place called Yale --- but I didn't finish there. Actually, instead, I dropped out after a few semesters. Actually, dropped out isn't quite accurate. (Laughter.) Was 'asked to leave' would be more like it. (Laughter.) Twice. (Laughter.) And the second time around, they said, don't come back. (Laughter.)"

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