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When Secret Government Is Called 'Democracy'
New York events shine spotlight on U.S. invasion of Iraq
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-06-12 17:33 (KST)   
Two different cultural events in New York City provide important insights about the U.S. government and its planning for the invasion of Iraq. On Tuesday, June 6, the 92nd Street Y in New York City sponsored a conversation with journalist Helen Thomas titled "The Presidency and the Press." Thomas is known as the Grand Dame of the White House Press Corps.

At the Public Theater in the East Village, the play "Stuff Happens" is being performed as part of the Public Theater's 50th anniversary celebration. The play is a portrayal of the events leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Taken together these two events help to paint a portrait of the White House rarely available to the public.

The conversation with Helen Thomas helped to set the stage in a very profound way for the drama that unfolds in "Stuff Happens." Thomas was part of the White House Press Corps for over 50 years, first covering the White House as a young journalist during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. She has covered nine Presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Born in 1920, Thomas grew up in Detroit and then went to Washington to work her way up as a journalist.

Though she described every Presidential administration that she covered as "secretive", the Bush administration "is the worst" she explained. Once they got into the Oval Office, an Iron Curtain came down, Thomas told the audience. As a reporter for the United Press International (UPI) wire service until it was bought by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, she often had the privilege of asking the first question at a White House Press briefing. It was the tradition, she told the audience, that the journalists from the two wire services would rotate to ask the first question at the briefing. Describing the White House Press Briefings, Thomas explained that there would be a short 15 minute meeting before noon with the White House Press Secretary who would provide journalists with a preview of the President's day and of what would happen later at the press briefing, which would be held at 12:30 p.m.

Though the Press Secretary of the recent Bush administration would usually refuse to call on Thomas, she was allowed on March 21, 2006 to ask President Bush a question about his decision to invade Iraq at one of his rare press conferences. Thomas asked,
"Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war?"
Bush's response was to talk about why he had invaded Afghanistan. Only after several minutes of his response did he realize that he wasn't talking about Iraq, but about the invasion of a different country. Describing the incident, Thomas explained, "I was talking about Iraq. He was talking about Afghanistan. To this day we are in a war for three years and he still can't explain it. That's a tragedy."

Thomas' discussion of her experience with the Bush White House raises the question of what happens when journalists are not able to find out what is going on at the highest levels of a government like the U.S. The play "Stuff Happens" provides a profound answer to this question.

The play was commissioned by the National Theatre of Great Britain and was first performed in Great Britain on Sept. 1, 2004. The play was performed in the U.S. in May 2005, and opened in New York in April 2006. The run has been extended twice due to the play's popularity. The play traces the events in the White House and in the British government leading up to the invasion of Iraq. The playwright, David Hare, has written an impressive script, which masterfully provides more insight and understanding of what has happened at the presidential level than any journalistic account has even attempted. While the play is but a play, the playwright, actresses and actors successfully present what appears as a closer representation to reality than the public otherwise has access to by watching the U.S. government in real life.

Scene from the play "Stuff Happens"
©2006 The Public Theater

Take for example, the actor playing George W. Bush. He plays his role as if he is a chief executive for some large corporation, determining what strategy to follow for the corporation to maintain its power. This is a different view of the U.S. presidency than the view one gets when one watches for example, President Bush give a State of the Union speech. In such instances he appears to be naively simple and angry, but determined. He is likely to identify some conjured-up threats to supposed U.S. interests and to propose how to eradicate them. Consider, as an example, Bush's State of the Union address in January 2003 when he insisted that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium in Africa and he would stop this danger from threatening the U.S. and the globe.

The portrait of Bush in the play, instead, presents Bush as more intelligent than the characterization usually presented by Bush's handlers to the public. When comparing the image usually presented of the U.S. president and the character in the play, it is clear upon some thinking that the play's portrayal is more likely in line with the reality. The problem, however, is that the U.S. is not a corporation, and a political figure who has no concept of any public obligation in his activities, presents a serious problem for the citizens of the U.S. and the world.

Other characters presented in the play are similarly thought-provoking characterizations correcting the public mythology that the real cast of characters in the U.S. White House have falsely offered to the people of the U.S. and the world.

Condoleezza Rice, for example, is skillfully portrayed. Rather than the naive but well meaning supporter of her President as she appears in person, the play version of Rice is cunning and careful to act as her President's alter ego, correcting any errors he makes and explaining his reasoning in words better than he could choose. The playwright's most skillfully developed characters, however, are Colin Powell and Tony Blair. Powell is presented as a popular member of the Bush cabinet who is the rare person to disagree with Bush and neo-conservative cronies like Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The basis of Powell's opposition, however, is not over the planned invasion of Iraq per se, but over how best to get the world to accept the invasion. Here Powell joins Tony Blair in urging the Bush administration to use the United Nations to give Blair and the British government's support for the Iraq invasion the needed legitimacy.

The character of Blair is similarly carefully created to portray a politician who has a domestic opposition to defeat, and a legal justification to craft. Blair is presented as clinging to the ideal that Britain is nothing without its alliance with the U.S., and hence must provide a moral and legal veneer for its support for the illegal acts of the Bush regime.

Cast members for "Stuff Happens"

Jeffrey DeMunn
Zach Grenier
Peter Francis James
Ken Marks
David Pittu
Gloria Reuben
Jay O. Sanders
Armand Schultz
Robert Sella
Brenda Wehle
Waleed Zuaiter
The Bush administration, for its part, recognizes that the Blair government must maintain a sufficient appearance of legitimacy to keep from losing a vote of no confidence. Hence the play presents Bush, Blair, and Powell using the U.N. to try to establish a diplomatic framework for the invasion of Iraq. The effort doesn't succeed. But just as Bush's 2003 State of the Union address presented false charges about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq to justify the war to the American people, so Powell's speech to the United Nations Security Council presented similarly false accusations to provide a pretext for the war before the world. A comment of Rice in the play helps to sum up the essence of the U.S. administration's rationale given for the invasion, "What do you want us to do, nothing?" she asks Powell. Powell's response is a helpful complement, "Force isn't force unless you threaten to use it." But it is Bush who most clearly articulates the rationale that ultimately guides the actions of the White House with regard to the Iraq invasion. "I'm the commander.... I don't think I owe anyone an explanation."

The significance of the play is that it shows what the public never sees, the discussions that result in an unjustifiable war against the people of Iraq, with the U.S. military being forced to fight in this illegitimate military adventure. The play also helps those in the audience to comprehend the fact that the U.S. has a secret government, a government which feigns a reality to its citizens, but which carries on a totally different reality behind the "Iron Curtain of the Oval Office."

At one point in the play, Rumsfeld cites the U.S. Declaration of Independence that a "government receives its authority from the consent of the governed." He cites this as his excuse to ignore international law. But a government that functions by lying to its own citizens, that erects a fraudulent veneer as the pretext to take a country into an illegal and unwanted war, is not a government that can claim to function with the authority that comes from the consent of the governed. Such authority requires that the people know what their government is up to and have a chance to determine if that is the desire of the people. This is a basic tenet of democracy.

The play succeeds in doing what Helen Thomas proposes as the role of the journalist. She called on journalists to treat the U.S. government according to the standards of "public employees," and to seek to present the truth about the government to the public. She urges that the President be questioned early and often. She warns that if this is not done, then the result is an "imperial presidency."

With the exception of a few journalists like Helen Thomas, the U.S. press corps has seriously failed in its obligation to the public. However, the author of "Stuff Happens" David Hare, and the actors, actresses and other members of the production at the Public Theater, have come forward and picked up the torch.

Secret government is not democracy. Hare's play "Stuff Happens" proclaims loudly and clearly that the governments headed by Bush and by Blair have failed to demonstrate any regard for the democratic processes and rights of their people. Thus the playwright is willing "to speak truth to power," even if most journalists in the U.S. aren't. This is an obligation that Helen Thomas proposes is critical for the future. It is fitting then that she was greeted with a standing ovation by the audience as were the actors in "Stuff Happens." The people in the audience at both cultural events affirmed that they want the truth about their government and they welcome and applaud those who have the courage to provide the public with that truth.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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