Poor Bush, poor Cheney. They really thought they would have the November presidential election sewn up by now, what with their $200m electoral war chest and their monumentally self-righteous and supposedly patriotic stances over Iraq and terrorism. But then along crept something they cannot control and did not foresee: increasingly embarrassing revelations from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known here as the 9/11 commission.
Deliciously for the Democrats, the commission's final report is due to be published on 26 July - the very day the Democratic convention starts in Boston. The commission was set up by congressional legislation and Bush's signature in 2002; Bush was reluctant to support the idea, but then personally appointed the chairman and other members. He asked Tom Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, to chair it - and Lee Hamilton, a highly respected Democratic congressman for 34 years, now retired, to be deputy chairman. The 9/11 commission was set up on thoroughly bipartisan lines: five Republicans and five Democrats.
It should not have presented the Bush administration with too much trouble. Most Americans believe the 11 September attacks could not have been foreseen, and that the chaos and other communications failures on the day could, therefore, not reasonably be pinned on Bush and co. We now know, for example, that when the first planes hit the World Trade Center, Bush had to rely on using a mobile phone to talk to Vice-President Cheney and others in the White House from Florida - and that his motorcade, rushing to Air Force One to get safely airborne at a high altitude, started off in the wrong direction.
But it is the throwaway morsels from the commission which are bringing deep trouble to the Bush administration. The commission says there is no evidence
that Iraq and al-Qaeda had a "collaborative
relationship" - another of the planks used by Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld et al to justify the Iraq war. Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat representing Michigan, said: "I find it, frankly, shocking that the exaggerations of the administration before the war relative to that connection continue to this day."
Bush and Cheney have been pushed back on the defensive. Bush is never good when forced to defend himself, coming over like a whiny schoolboy trying to explain away his pranks. And Cheney's supposedly authoritative assertions are looking increasingly thin. Some of his words are coming back to haunt him: asked on television whether he knew more than the 9/11 commission, for example, Cheney replied: "Probably."
That infuriated Kean and his colleagues, whose hard work has lasted 18 months and taken members of the commission and their large staff to locales ranging from Afghanistan to the Oval Office; they have also had access to intelligence records and have questioned a vast number of administration and intelligence officials. So Kean's reaction to Cheney was that if the vice-president has information the commission does not have, he must present it to them. Cheney thus finds himself having his bluff called by a fellow Republican whom the administration thought it could rely on to be on its side.
Poor Dick. But the commission is concluding that Osama Bin Laden never wanted a close working relationship with Saddam's Iraq, a secular state that Bin Laden abhorred. Nearly 40 per cent of the American public still, nevertheless, believe that Saddam was behind the 11 September atrocities: but the murky innuendoes of Bush, Cheney et al over those supposed links and WMDs (which 40 per cent of the American public still believe were in Iraq) are being increasingly unmasked for what they are.
Cheney hopes to rely on the (now discredited) line that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 11 September attacks, met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague on 9 April 2001. But the commission found a photograph of Atta taken in the US just before that date, and subpoenaed his cellphone records - which showed that the phone was in continual use on, before and after that date. That, as the commission says, does not prove Atta was not in Prague on 9 April 2001, but it is good circumstantial evidence. In turn, the administration's apologists are arguing that Atta must have loaned his phone to someone else during that period.
Cheney is reduced to outright falsehoods. A television interviewer a few days ago said: "Let's go to Mohammed Atta . . . you have said in the past that it [the alleged Prague meeting] was, quote, 'pretty well confirmed'."
Cheney: "No. I never said that."
Cheney: "Never said that . . . absolutely not."
Compare and contrast, as my school exams used to ask me to do, with an interview Cheney gave to NBC's Tim Russert on 9 December 2001:
Cheney: "Well, what we have that's developed since you and I last talked, Tim, of course, was that report that - it's been pretty well confirmed that he [Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia [sic] last April."
Cheney and co apparently believe that if they repeat or imply something often enough, a significant portion of the American electorate will believe it when the November presidential election comes around. And that, it seems, is all that matters to Bush and Cheney. It is also what has actually been happening so far, but the numbers who believe Bush and Cheney on the reasons for going to war are slowly declining. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic candidate, will have a wonderful chance to demolish the administration's case on Iraq in Boston at the end of next month - though, as I have commented before, he is infuriatingly reluctant to seize the political momentum of the day.
Indeed, Kerry's poll showings are currently worse than they were in March. The Bush-Cheney campaign remains neck-and-neck with Kerry, and Bush's personal ratings even went up in the funereal week when his fellow Republican Ronald Reagan was formally beatified. That may have been only temporary, because a poll out on Monday showed the nation evenly split on Bush's "war on terror" - which his advisers planned to be the winning cause in his electoral campaign.
And the bipartisan 9/11 commission is coming up like artillery ambushing from behind, just when Bush and his cronies least expected such attacks. We can, therefore, expect to see plenty more whiny defences from Bush and highly questionable assertions from Cheney. However, notwithstanding the 9/11 commission's findings that are so damaging to the Bush administration, Kerry and the Democrats still have a long road to travel yet. A long, steamy summer for American politics has just begun.