In American politics, there are crystalline moments. Something small happens to sum up things bigger. Jimmy Carter fights off a "killer rabbit." Jerry Ford stumbles. Michael Dukakis rides in a tank. The elder George Bush puzzles over a modern cash register. To that, we can now add: George W. Bush designates a dump in Fresno as a national historic landmark.
A single image, one deed, and all the preceding speechifying and posturing fade like afternoon clouds. The air grows quiet. Nothing more needs saying.
Carter went down as weak. Ford as a bumbler. Dukakis as a geek. The elder Bush as out of touch. And now his son can be seen for what he is: Dirty George.
Yes, Bush's Interior Department quickly pulled back on landmark designation once someone noted that the oozing, gaseous California dump was a Superfund site, which had poisoned the surrounding water and forced the closure of playgrounds. But too late. No brass plaque necessary to remember this flight of lunacy.
Americans want to believe in a new president. It's the nature of democracy to hope for the rightness of our choice, even if it wasn't exactly our choice. But then there comes one of those moments.
Wait, don't blame Bush! Interior Secretary Gail Norton did it! It was a mistake! Hey, this is the oldest "sanitary landfill" in the country. It was a dump-and-cover innovation imitated around the world. It deserves recognition!
The fact is, Bush has turned his administration over to people who actually think to memorialize a 145-acre heap of rotting garbage as a notable part of our heritage. And it's not just the deed, which might be a minor lapse except it occurs when Americans of both parties wonder how an administration can be so utterly tone-deaf to concerns about stewardship and a clean environment.
So, we despair. But let's also take heart. With a festering mound of trash to symbolize George W. Bush's view of America, greater scrutiny is apt to now befall the more serious outrages he envisions. For instance, how about $35 billion in subsidies the administration is pushing for its pals to perpetuate our dependence on oil, gas, coal and nuclear power?
It won't be so easy this autumn to turn our heads and hope for the best as the Senate takes up the president's "Securing America's Future Energy Act."
Strip away the claim about "balancing" resources and the public interest and we have to ask:
Do those petroleum giants really need accelerated write-offs for their gas distribution pipelines to save themselves $3.5 billion in taxes over the next decade? Do gasoline refiners need $1.3 billion of such write-offs?
Why, when the Congressional Budget Office is telling us we're going to need $9 billion from our Social Security reserves this year--making a lie of Bush's solemn campaign promise--are we being asked to pump billions of tax dollars into an industry that just this summer was sitting on what the Wall Street Journal reported was $40 billion in cash?
Wasn't it enough that our power and natural gas bills went through the ceiling? Do we have to subsidize these prosperous free-market industrialists?
Do they need, as Friends of the Earth have calculated, 83 cents in tax breaks for every 17 cents allotted to solar research, wind power, fuel cells and other sources of energy that don't turn our skies into toxic dumps and our public lands into industrial parks?
Should we reimburse oil drillers with $370 million in cash to hire consultants to write fast-track environmental assessments? Should we give them $3.9 billion in low-cost leases and loans so they can move into the deep ocean? Must we subsidize their low-producing oil wells by cutting royalty charges $491 million?
Should we add $2 billion to the $2.3 billion that has been frittered away without results in the last 15 years trying to transform coal into something that isn't coal?
All of these, and more, are contained in the president's energy bill as passed by the GOP-controlled House.
Last week, perhaps, the administration could have fuzzed up this math. It could have drawn from the storehouse of public trust that each chief executive is allotted. At the least, the administration might have hoped we would disbelieve.
No good Republican would throw away tax money like that, right?
No president would tilt the table that far for his buddies, would he?
Nobody would be so reckless with our heritage, surely?
But now, after a single goofy moment in the Central Valley of California, we won't be so gullible. We can see now.