Column: Bush in the Bunker

News at Home

Dr. Thomas M. Spencer is an assistant professor of history at Northwest Missouri State University.

Boy, what a week for the Bush administration! On February 28th, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle asked a few fairly obvious questions about the ongoing war on terrorism and was verbally assaulted by congressional Republicans as if he had committed treason or, at the very least, advocated normalizing relations with Cuba or some other crazy or outrageous thing. Amazingly, when Tom Delay and Trent Lott were confronted with their own seemingly"unpatriotic" statements about U.S. policy in Kosovo less than three years ago, they stared blankly as if they didn't seem to understand the inherent contradiction. The next day, news of a"shadow government" leaked out in the Washington Post. The idea that the federal government had gone underground and that 75-100 people (headed, of course, by Vice President Cheney) were being"selected" by the Bush administration to act as a back-up team in case of a disaster has caused a great deal of consternation. In fact, the people who were the most upset were congressional leaders of both parties, who appear to have known very little if anything about it.

Of course, the most telling development and what may have the most far-reaching implications foreign policy-wise is that it has become apparent that Bush's administration is rapidly losing public support for its policies. According to the American Research Group, Bush's approval rating has dropped from 74% to 62% from January to February, meaning he's within 10 points of his pre-September 11th approval rating using the American Research Group's measure. This has caused some smart-alecks on the web to wisecrack that Baghdad had better batten down the hatches because Bush will want to up that approval rating soon.

As a historian, I can say none of this is new. The unrelenting, cynical, and perpetual use of a war or even a"war-like" situation to encourage public support for an administration that is having political trouble is certainly something that has happened before. In fact, it has happened in every"war-like" situation in American history. From the Quasi-War with France, which was used in a frighteningly similar manner as the current situation by the Federalists against the Democratic-Republicans, to the attempts by Buchanan's government at creating a"Mormon War" to distract Americans from the sectional crisis in the 1850s, to essentially every major and minor conflict of the twentieth century,"wagging the dog" is something that, I am afraid, is quite a fixture in the history of American foreign relations. So, sadly, what Bush's administration and the Republican congressional leaders are doing politically regarding the war certainly has historical precedent.

Interestingly, what does not have any sort of historical precedent is the shadow government. While plans have existed for cataclysmic situations since Truman's administration, this is the first time they have ever been implemented. This is an interesting thing to ponder. While many presidents have seemed to have a"bunker mentality" and seemed to see enemies (both foreign and domestic) everywhere they turn, Bush is the first to create what is now essentially a"bunker government." Some in the media, like the Boston Globe's Glen Johnson have maintained that"Osama bin Laden has done what Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro never could: drive the United States government underground." The Bush administration's decision to create a"shadow government" should give us pause.

It certainly does provide us with a metaphor for Bush's presidency. The bunker government certainly seems an appropriate metaphor to describe the way Bush has run the government. His decisions to withhold information from the public about Cheney's energy task force and to limit access to the papers from Reagan's administration certainly seem to reflect this sort of bunker mentality -- and these were decisions made before September 11th.

In fact, some argued even before September 11th that Bush has his father's belief in an almost King-like presidency. According to Bush, no one should question his decisions. Furthermore, his administration clearly sees no need to share much information with the public. Many journalists and pundits pointed out Bush's Nixonian penchant for secrecy in an almost matter-of-fact manner before September 11th and after.

However, I would argue that one should stop and consider this"shadow government" proposal in a more philosophical way. What does it mean to serve in a public office? Are those who serve the public allowed to do so in private? Shouldn't public officials do their duties in public? Isn't it wrong for the Vice President to spend half his time out of the public's view in a bunker? By doing this, isn't he working as a federal employee rather than a public official? Part of the role of those who serve the public is to be visible to the public, accessible to the public and, at the very least, to BE public. Doesn't Cheney's participation in the shadow government shirk this public responsibility? Isn't part of serving as a public official to accept the inherent risks of being a public official?

This bunker government also makes the administration seem a bit panicky. Of all the crises weathered by the U.S. government in its history is this one really so unprecedented to make the government pursue such radical plans? Some have even gone so far as to argue this is evidence of the Bush administration's overall unsteadiness. The Boston Globe's James Carroll has raised the most extensive questions about the practice. Carroll argues"the revelation of US officials ordered into mothballed bunkers might reinforce the image of a callow, frightened president who, after all, spent the first day of this crisis on the run. But is something else at work here? Odd how all of these Bush-sponsored manifestations of a nation under siege shore up the state of emergency on which this government has come to depend for its exercise of power. If officials are in bunkers for the first time in the nation's history, how dare anyone raise questions about the policies those officials pursue?" Carroll argues that in the past government leaders had the sagacity to realize that such measures were not necessary. He contends that past presidents"understood the relationship between the appearance of mature judgement and the actual exercise of it. When a nation's leaders flail about, indulging their fears and insecurities, desperately taking cover against bad things that might happen, they make those bad things all the more likely."

Regardless of how we feel about this policy in the present, we should think seriously about what this move on the part of the Bush administration may mean for future administrations. Will every President from now on have a bunker government in place? Who takes part in these back-up governments? Shouldn't these folks be up for Senate confirmation? Are they government workers? Cabinet officials? Shouldn't they be elected if they really would take over the functions of elected officials?

Therefore, this bunker government raises many important questions. If this practice continues, we are obviously going to need to redefine what it means to be a public official because, under most definitions, Dick Cheney may not be fulfilling his duties by doing a large portion of his job in a secret bunker out of sight.

While the bunker government may provide historians with a delicious metaphor to describe the Bush administration's approach to the world and domestic politics, it also raises other real and troubling questions in the present.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

John - 3/11/2002

This lucid, dispaassionate analysis of the stratagems for and the ultimate meaning of the Bush Administrations "bunker mentality" and "shadow government" ought to be widely circulated and discussed. It is a rare and valuable piece of scholarly penetration of a development only superficially mentioned by
fragmentary news reports and mindless talk-shows.