Who's the Moral Relativist?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 17, 2008; 12:28 PM

Standing alongside Pope Benedict at the White House yesterday, President Bush took a swipe at moral relativism.

"In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism," Bush said-- borrowing a line Benedict coined to underscore his commitment to Catholic orthodoxy, shortly before his election as pope.

Yet some of Bush's most defining decisions -- such as launching a war of choice against Iraq and his picking and choosing which laws actually apply to him -- suggest a highly subjective sense of right and wrong. Most notably, he defends the use of interrogation tactics that violate human dignity by arguing that the ends justify the means.

Readers noted this in the comments section of yesterday's column and in e-mails to me.

Graydon Forrer called Bush's disdain for moral relativism "kinda ironic, given our torture policies are the ultimate act of moral relativism."

Kevin O'Sullivan wrote: "W's clear admission that torture is okay if it is really, really necessary stands even the weakest argument of moral relativism on its head!"

It's a point that hasn't been entirely lost on the pundit crowd, either.

A. Barton Hinkle wrote in his Richmond Times-Dispatch opinion column in February: "U.S. policy . . . seems to be that waterboarding of Americans is torture, and waterboarding by Americans before 9/11 was torture, but waterboarding by Americans after 9/11 is not. This is known as moral relativism, which conservatives used to abhor."

Eric Mink wrote in his St. Louis Post-Dispatch opinion column in October: "What is most dangerous about the Bush administration's reckless disregard for law is that it is the very embodiment of moral relativism. Indeed, without the certain foundation of the rule of law, moral footing becomes exceedingly slippery."

Blogger Chris Edelson wrote yesterday: "Bush likes to invoke 'moral clarity', and apparently believes he shares this quality with the pope, but reality says otherwise. . . .

"In Bush's world, there are, of course, plenty of exceptions to the moral absolute of human life: the death penalty is one example, the invasion of Iraq is another. Bush likes to describe the world in black and white terms when he makes speeches, but his own actions recognize the world, even as he sees it, is more complicated.

"Bush's prim, sanctimonious invocation of moral absolutes is laughable."

The President and the Pope

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The president, who long ago shed the anti-Catholic taint of Bob Jones University, was on his best behavior. He dug up his compassionate-conservative rhetoric for the pope, talking about 'the weakest and most vulnerable among us' and the 'universal call to feed the hungry and comfort the sick and care for the infirm.'

"The war leader also played the man of peace. 'We welcome you with the ancient words commended by Saint Augustine: Pax tecum,' Bush said, later reminding him of the American efforts to 'promote peace' in the world. . . .

"Bush did, however, enlist the pontiff's help in the war against 'some' people; the president did not identify this enemy, but he seemed to have in mind a combination of terrorists and Democrats.

"'In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that God is love,' Bush said. 'In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred. . . . In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism. . . . In a world where some see freedom as simply the right to do as they wish, we need your message that true liberty requires us to live our freedom not just for ourselves, but in a spirit of mutual support.' . . .

"The pope, tactfully, made no direct mention of Iraq, torture, global warming and other disputes with the administration, but he did call the Bush-hostile United Nations an 'effective voice for the legitimate aspirations of all the world's people.'"

Some of the coverage was a bit over the top.

Jay Carney blogged for Time yesterday: "First I read Mike Allen's Politico Playbook, in which Laura Bush's chief of staff revealed that the elaborate reception at the White House for Pope Benedict XVI was 'a sign of the President and Mrs. Bush's respect and love and friendship with the Holy Father.'

"I cringed.

"Then I heard Ed Henry on CNN inform viewers that President Bush and the Pope share 'a special bond.' [Actually, it was Kevin Corke on MSNBC, and he called it a "unique bond."]

"I groaned. . . .

"Please. This is silly. According to this morning's USA Today, President Bush has met this pope exactly once -- last June at the Vatican. According to the transcript of yesterday's White House press briefing with Dana Perino, it's quite possible that they've never once spoken on the phone. So from what shared experience springs all that love and affection? How exactly was their special bond developed?"

Awesome Speech

Here's video of Bush telling the pope, after his remarks: "Thank you, your Holiness, awesome speech."

Moment of Prayer

Reuters reports: "Pope Benedict and U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura prayed together in the White House on Wednesday, the Vatican said.

"Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said that the 'brief prayer' took place after the pope and Bush had finished their private talks in the Oval Office and Laura Bush joined them."

"'There was a brief prayer for the family (as an institution),' Lombardi said."

Bush's Hot Air

In line with my column yesterday, Bush's Third Climate-Change Fake-Out, Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday called for a national goal of halting the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, mostly by curbing power plant pollution. But his voluntary target fell well short of what most leading scientists say is needed to avoid dangerous climate change and was widely criticized by Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists.

"Bush's proposal -- which would rely on technological innovation for success -- was the administration's most definite public statement yet on global warming. Coming at a time when lawmakers and climate negotiators are focused on fashioning a binding climate accord under the next administration, however, it remained uncertain how much the president's initiative could influence the shape of legislation and impending treaty talks in the months to come. . . .

"Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the House select panel on global warming, said the speech 'further complicates the ability for Congress to produce legislation' because 'the real headline for today's announcement should be, "Bush pledges to do nothing before January 20, 2009, the day he leaves office." '"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The White House cast Mr. Bush's announcement in the Rose Garden as an ambitious effort by a president determined to lead on the climate change issue, even with just nine months left in office.

"But critics -- including environmentalists, scientists and lawmakers -- said the effort was too little, too late. They accused Mr. Bush of trying to derail legislation that would curb emissions even further. And because he did not offer any specifics for how to reach his 2025 goal, they dismissed the speech as irrelevant."

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that Bush "appeared to be trying to burnish his reputation on an issue on which, his critics believe, he will be judged harshly by history."

Alister Doyle writes for Reuters: "The world needs tougher action to combat global warming than a plan by President George W. Bush to halt a rise in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions only by 2025, delegates at a climate conference in Paris said on Thursday. . . .

"'This is disappointing,' one senior European official said in Paris. 'But Bush will be leaving office soon. What he says doesn't matter so much any more.'"

Jim Snyder writes in The Hill that Bush's were "greeted with relief by global warming skeptics in Congress and energy lobbyists on K Street."

Bryan Walsh writes for Time: "Over his Administration -- which has been disastrous for the environment -- Bush has slowly evolved on climate change, from denier, to doubter, to where he is today, a believer in the reality of global warming, but one who just isn't ready to take strong action. Maybe if he had a little more time -- perhaps 20 or 30 years -- he'd finally become convinced that this is one of the top threats facing America, and needs a similarly vigorous response. But by then, it'd be too late for the rest of us."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "President Bush strode to the lectern in the Rose Garden yesterday and once again passed up an opportunity -- perhaps his last -- to do something meaningful on climate change. 'Today, I am announcing a new national goal: to stop the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025,' he said. That pronouncement was a weak and inadequate response to the imperative that the United States provide leadership in combating global warming, a responsibility Mr. Bush has shamefully ducked throughout his presidency. . . .

"To achieve his low-ball goal, Mr. Bush announced no serious initiative but merely recast the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which was originally promoted as a means of weaning the nation off foreign oil. Those reductions not achieved through hiking fuel economy to 35 mpg by 2020, adding 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to the nation's supply by 2022, and increasing the efficiency of lights and appliances would 'depend on accelerating the development and deployment of new technologies,' the president said."

Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder issued this statement: "President Bush's proposal is a transparent attempt to block progress in the fight against global warming. This is a guy who broke his promise eight years ago to regulate global warming pollution, and who has fought tooth-and-nail on behalf of his oil company cronies ever since. The idea that President Bush is serious about fighting global warming is laughable. Fortunately, Bush's attempt to impede progress doesn't really matter. This is the last whimper from an increasingly irrelevant president. Bush will be gone in a matter of months and our country will then finally have an opportunity to show the leadership the world has been calling for."


Here's Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, at a press briefing yesterday.

Q: "This wasn't possible in 2001?"

Connaughton: "It was not possible in 2001 because we had to do the groundwork -- these things take a lot of effort and time to plan for, to prepare, to sell people on, to work out the economics, to work out the energy security implications, to build the political consensus. You don't do that overnight. This is the careful work of the strategy the President laid out in 2002 that is now bearing fruit in a new level of international engagement."

Here's Douglas Jehl and Andrew C. Revkin writing in the New York Times in March 2001: "Under strong pressure from conservative Republicans and industry groups, President Bush reversed a campaign pledge today and said his administration would not seek to regulate power plants' emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas that many scientists say is a key contributor to global warming.

"The decision left environmental groups and some Congressional Democrats angered at what they called a major betrayal. But the White House said a cabinet-level review had concluded that Mr. Bush's original promise had been a mistake inconsistent with the broader goal of increasing domestic energy production. . . .

"Administration officials . . . said the views of Vice President Dick Cheney and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham had been most instrumental in the final decision."

Scaremongering Watch

Damien Cave writes in the New York Times: "A federal judge declared a mistrial on Wednesday in the case of six Miami men charged with plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago as part of an Islamic jihad.

"It was the second mistrial in the federal case. Legal analysts called the outcome a significant defeat for the Bush administration, especially its publicizing of terrorism arrests.

"'In a lot of these cases, the government has really oversold what it's got,' said Jenny Martinez, an associate professor of law at Stanford who was involved in the Jose Padilla terrorism case. 'They've held these huge press conferences at the beginning that set up these expectations that the government cannot fulfill.'

"The approach, analysts said, often smacked of politics."

Brown's Visit

Matt Spetalnick and Sumeet Desai write for Reuters: "Prime Minister Gordon Brown will meet all three major U.S. presidential candidates on Thursday before seeing President George W. Bush, a reminder that world leaders are now looking beyond Bush to his successor. . . .

"With Bush in the twilight of his presidency, Brown is expected to walk a fine line, keeping some distance on issues like the unpopular war in Iraq while preserving Britain's long-standing 'special relationship' with the United States.

"Brown said on Wednesday he would seek 'coordinated action' to shore up the global economy, plagued by a credit crunch, record oil prices and market turmoil.

"Determined to avoid being tagged as 'Bush's poodle' like his predecessor Tony Blair, Brown seems as eager to lay the groundwork for closer relations with the next president as he is to maintain ties with the current one."

Foreign Policy Watch

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time that "diplomatically speaking" things aren't looking so good for Bush. "When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi killed Bush's Colombia Free Trade deal on Capitol Hill Monday, she added to a growing list of dead and dying diplomatic initiatives the Administration had hoped would revivify his presidency in its fading months. Talks on Israeli-Palestinian peace, North Korean nuclear weapons and missile defense cooperation with Russia are all foundering, threatening chances for a White House signing ceremony that could soften a legacy dominated by the hard facts of the war in Iraq."

White House E-Mail Watch

William Branigin writes in The Washington Post: "Citing 'significant deficiencies' in the preservation of e-mail by the White House and federal agencies, House Democrats yesterday introduced legislation to strengthen and modernize electronic record-keeping requirements. But a private watchdog group called the bill inadequate and issued a report describing federal record-keeping as antiquated and chaotic. . . .

"Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and two other Democrats on the panel sponsored the bill after investigations showed that the White House under President Bush may have lost millions of e-mails.

"The bill, H.R. 5811, directs the National Archives and Records Administration to set standards for capturing, managing, retrieving and preserving White House e-mails and other electronic communications, and to certify whether the White House system meets those standards. The bill also directs the National Archives to issue regulations within 18 months requiring federal agencies to preserve electronic communications in an electronic format. The agencies would have up to four years to comply....

"Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group known as CREW, . . . yesterday issued a 42-page report concluding that the federal government is mismanaging its electronic records and clinging to outdated and inefficient paper record-keeping systems. It also faulted the National Archives, saying the agency has abdicated meaningful oversight responsibilities and 'assumed only a passive role' by providing agencies with little more than general guidelines."

IT expert David Gewirtz writes for NiemanWatchdog.org (where I am deputy editor) about some overlooked points regarding the missing White House e-mails. The White House's e-mail archiving system, he says, is utterly inadequate, and he suggests that White House aides no longer be allowed to use non-secure communications channels for any of their communications.

Impeachment (Non) Watch

Lauren R. Dorgan writes in the Concord (N.H.) Monitor: "New Hampshire legislators yesterday debated whether they should petition Congress to impeach President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney before sidelining the bill at the request of leaders of both parties.

"The 227-95 vote to table the measure essentially kills it; resurrecting debate would take a two-thirds majority vote."

Cheney Humor

The Associated Press reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney has shown off his lighter side, filling in for his boss last night at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington. . . .

"The vice president worked in a reference to Democrat Barack Obama's controversial comments about 'bitter' voters and his own hunting mishap. He thanked the attendees for the kind welcome, saying, 'You're not the kind to look down on a bitter man who clings to his guns.'

"Cheney also quipped about his health issues, joking that he helps the environment by insisting on a hybrid ambulance every time he goes to the hospital.

"And the Veep recounted how he asked his wife at the breakfast table if it bugs her that people call him 'Darth Vader.' He said she answered, 'Not at all. It humanizes you.'"

Mark Silva, blogging for Tribune, has more Cheney lines and video.

The full transcript is here.

Said Cheney: "As the president said in his video message, he's hosting a dinner in honor of the visit of Pope Benedict, and I myself met with His Holiness this morning at the White House. So between that and this dinner with the media, it's been quite a day for me. I spent the morning with one infallible authority, and now I get to spend the evening with a thousand of them.

"I was glad to talk to the pope. It's rare that I run into somebody who's heard more secrets than I have. When the moment was right, I even took the pope aside and confided to him that I'd been thinking a lot of unkind thoughts lately about the news media. I went on and on, and finally said, 'Your Holiness, I just don't think they like me.'

"The pope replied, 'So?'

"It's always very exciting when the pope comes to town. And I am modest enough to realize that all of you would rather see the pope standing here than me. But instead of the successor to St. Peter, you're stuck with me, the successor to St. Al."

Referring to the MC for the night, comedian Mo Rocca, Cheney said: "Among his other credits, Mo used to host a TV show called 'Things I Hate About You.' I'm sure I've seen that program. Only I believe it's now called 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann.'"

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "Actually, one really embarrassing moment -- you see this on the news? When the Pope blessed the crowd with holy water, well, some of it splashed on Dick Cheney, burned his skin."

Cartoon Humor

Tom Toles on Bush's global warming plan; Tom Stiglich, Nick Anderson and Rob Rogers on Bush and the pope; Jim Morin on Bush's moral relativism.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive