The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremismby Ron Suskind
From Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author Ron Suskind comes a startling look at how America lost its way and at the nation's struggle, day by day, to reclaim the moral authority upon which its survival depends. From the White House to Downing Street, from the fault-line countries of South Asia to the sands of Guantánamo, Suskind offers an… See more details below
From Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author Ron Suskind comes a startling look at how America lost its way and at the nation's struggle, day by day, to reclaim the moral authority upon which its survival depends. From the White House to Downing Street, from the fault-line countries of South Asia to the sands of Guantánamo, Suskind offers an astonishing story that connects world leaders to the forces waging today's shadow wars and to the next generation of global citizens. Tracking down truth and hope within the Beltway and far beyond it, Suskind delivers historic disclosures with this emotionally stirring and strikingly original portrait of the post-9/11 world.
In a sweeping, propulsive, and multilayered narrative, The Way of the World investigates how America relinquished the moral leadership it now desperately needs to fight the real threat of our era: a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists. Truth, justice, and accountability become more than mere words in this story. Suskind shows where the most neglected dangers lie in the story of "The Armageddon Test" -- a desperate gamble to send undercover teams into the world's nuclear black market to frustrate the efforts of terrorists trying to procure weapons-grade uranium. In the end, he finally reveals for the first time the explosive falsehood underlying the Iraq War and the entire Bush presidency.
While the public and political realms struggle, The Way of the World simultaneously follows an ensemble of characters in America and abroad who are turning fear and frustration into a desperate -- and often daring -- brand of human salvation. They include a striving, twenty-four-year-old Pakistani émigré, a fearless UN refugee commissioner, an Afghan teenager, a Holocaust survivor's son, and Benazir Bhutto, who discovers, days before her death, how she's been abandoned by the United States at her moment of greatest need. They are all testing American values at a time of peril, and discovering solutions -- human solutions -- to so much that has gone wrong.
For anyone hoping to exercise truly informed consent and begin the process of restoring the values and hope -- along with the moral clarity and earned optimism -- at the heart of the American tradition, The Way of the World is a must-read.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
The New York Times
Suskind's take on the downfall of America's authority begins with what led to the attacks on September 11 and charts the country's subsequent tarnished international identity. Tackling tough issues with historic disclosures (including the accusation that members of the U.S. government forged documents and lied to win approval for going to war in Iraq), the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter offers compelling and provocative stories. Unfortunately, Alan Sklar's narration will surely cause many listeners to lose interest. Sklar tends to drone and his dry, monotone voice bears very little passion or intensity. His uninspired reading lessens the impact of Suskind's masterful research. A HarperCollins hardcover. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Meet the Author
RON SUSKIND is the author of The Way of the World, The One Percent Doctrine, The Price of Loyalty, and A Hope in the Unseen. From 1993 to 2000 he was the senior national affairs writer for The Wall Street Journal, where he won a Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt
Usman Khosa awakes to the voices of his roommates in the kitchen. A hazy sun is shining in, giving the exposed brick above his bed an orange hue. He checks his night-table clock – 7:15 – and slips back into the deep sleep of a young man.
It is morning in America. Or at least in an apartment near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., where three young, well-educated men start a summer’s day. They are friends, a few years out of Connecticut College, dancing through the anxious glories of first jobs and few obligations. It’s a guy’s world. Linas, a strapping Catholic, American-born, with Midwestern roots, is an economic analyst; David, Jewish and gay, with wavy brown hair and movie-idol looks, is a public relations staffer for an international aid organization. After breakfast, they slip out together, each in a blazer and khakis, Christian and Jew, straight and gay, into the flow of the capital’s professional class.
Their Muslim roommate hears the front door shut and rises with a sense of well-being. He’d worked late, as usual, and then met some friends for dinner, a night that went late with loud talk and drink. He came south to D.C. from Connecticut just over three years ago, a day after receiving his diploma with its summa cum laude seal, to a waiting desk at an international economic consulting firm, Barnes Richardson, with offices across the street from the U.S. Treasury Department and a block from the White House. He finds the work fascinating because it is: taking sides in bloodless struggles between countries and their major corporations over product dumping and tariffs. Trade wars. It’s the kind of conflict that smart folks thought the world was moving toward in the mercantile 1990s, when the Soviet Union’s fall was to usher in a post-ideological age, a period when aggression would be expressed, say, with tariffs on imported cars and wheat dumping. It was a hopeful notion that issues of progress and grievance, the fortunes of haves and have-nots, would be fought on an economic field where the score could be kept in terms of GDP, per capita income, and infant mortality rates. It wouldn’t turn out that way, as the few who saw the rise of religious extremism foretold.
And that’s why the boy brushing his teeth this particular morning – July 27, 2006 – is not just any young professional on the make. He is, notably, a Muslim from the fault line country of Pakistan – the home, at present, of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Pervez Musharraf and Mullah Omar, fifty-five nuclear weapons and countless angry bands of Islamic radicals. Usman, from this place, of this place, strives with an ardent, white-hot yearning to be accepted into America’s current firmament of fading hopes. Like each fresh wave of newcomers, he presses mightily to make that hope new. Whether he means to or not, he’s testing American ideals at a time of peril.
It’s a fault of cultural nearsightedness, or worse, that he is not immediately seen as identical to immigrants glorified in oft-told tales of potato famines or Russian pogroms or, back further, a search to worship freely by some Mayflower stowaway. He is, after all, identical to them in every essential way.
But his journey involves a blue ’78 Toyota Corolla. In Pakistan, a car is a symbol of a man who can move as he wishes, where he wishes. A new one is a rarity, a luxury, and Usman’s father, Tariq, was given the car as a wedding gift from his father, who told Tariq that a married man should have a car, and he should be his “own man, beholden to no one.”
The Khosas have a deep history in the region that now lies at the geographical heart of modern-day Pakistan, but the family is not among the few dozen elite who long ruled South Asia and cut deals with the British when the empire took over in the 1860s. The shaping hand of the Brits is still keenly felt in the region, particularly in its cutthroat academic tradition. Competition would be too generous a word. It was more emancipation through recitation, a test of classical British learning with a million contestants, a handful of winners, and enormous prizes, all determined by a crucible known as the civil ser vice exam. In the vast country of India, a fraction of the highest scorers would win coveted acceptance into the civil service – the bureaucracy, running their country for the British – which came with grants of significant leverage over their countrymen and subtly stolen rewards. Even after India broke free in 1947, the civil service test remained, grandfathered in by the country’s ruling elite, who could recall the posting of scores – the day, the minute, the sensation – like a family’s second birth, cited often and judiciously from parent to child across eras.
Usman’s grandfather, a very good student, finished one slot out of the money, so to speak, but carried the fervor of the runner-up into the newly created state of Pakistan. As a young man, he met Muhammad Ali Jinnah and thoroughly internalized the great man’s vision of a Muslim state that would break away from Hindu-dominated India; an Islamic republic with mosque-state separations and protections modeled loosely on Western democracies, where religion would be largely a private matter and rigorous education all but deified. Jinnah’s idea was that this balance would allow the growth of a professional class that would become the country’s cornerstone of progress. Usman’s grandfather embodied that vision. He became a lawyer, involved himself in countless public causes, and began to sell what land the family had built up in the past few centuries to educate his children in the finest regard Pakistan had to offer. Usman’s father, Tariq, was the eldest and the first beneficiary, taking his college degree and that blue Toyota on an array of edgy professional missions and rising through Pakistan’s competitive bureaucracy to become one of the leading law enforcement officials in the country. Like many bureaucrats, he moved between government houses, even had government servants, but acquired little cash, and so the remainder of the family’s land was sold to educate his children at Pakistan’s best schools. This meant that Usman’s sister, two years his senior, starred at Lahore’s finest private academy for girls and won a full scholarship to the London School of Economics. And that Usman, a blazing student at Lahore’s exclusive Aitchison School – built a century before by the British to educate the children of India’s feudal families – was given a full scholarship to Connecticut College. The problem came down to what wasn’t covered: the costly flight from Pakistan to America.
After twenty-two years of faithful service, the Toyota spoke to Tariq. He’d invested an abundance of attitude and nostalgia in the old blue beast, buffed it regularly, scraped out rust; he could feel the distance traveled, for both car and driver, in the sag of the chassis, the glossy bareness of the upholstery. Everyone knew what the car meant to him, and what it meant when he sold it for his only son’s plane fare to America.
That’s how the Khosa line – Jinnah’s line, in a way – passed to Connecticut, where Usman studied fiercely, headed the Muslim Students Association, and became a leader in the student government. He met his current roommates as a sophomore presiding over the freshman class’s disputed student government election, in which both Linas and David were candidates. They both ended up winning their races, and all three now see this as rich and ironic, that Usman – hailing from the due process—challenged Pakistan – was the Connecticut College election commissioner who handed out victories. They furthermore think it’s “sitcom-worthy” that a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim are sharing an apartment as the world’s us-versus-them divisions seem to be boiling over. They argue, with fierce good nature, over who should do the dishes or whether Usman should introduce Linas to a nice Muslim girl or find a nice Muslim boy for David. No loss of confidence in the cross-border ideal, not here. In fact, this three-bedroom apartment – galley kitchen, utilities included – is a safe house of sorts, the opposite number to a cell of young religious radicals arguing over the dishes in Wembly or Karachi or Kabul.
Usman, like immigrants before him, is a walker. It’s something about the crowd, its intimacy and anonymity, and the way you can flow inside of it. It draws him in. Any trip of a few miles or less he takes on foot. He keeps business suits and sport jackets in the closet at work, or at the dry cleaners near his office. So each day of summer he slips into shorts, Nikes, and a T-shirt and squeezes his laptop into a backpack.
It is a warm day, but not nearly as warm as Lahore, he thinks, stepping outside. Oh yes, Lahore is much hotter than this, and dusty. Washington, even at its most humid, feels temperate and superior, lovely and fresh, and seems to wash ancient grit from his pores. He stops on the top stoop, spins his iPod to a play loop of Arabic tunes, and sets forth for Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Thank you, that’s fine for today,” George W. Bush says, as he dismisses a half-dozen attendees of his morning intelligence briefing and settles behind the world’s most famous desk. He’s agitated, doing his best to get things in order before he leaves for his annual August vacation in a week. But the world won’t heed his will, not anymore. The Oval Office is quiet – an unscheduled half hour – and a precious moment to step back, to take stock. His best-laid plans for this summer are already in tatters. It was to be a season to focus on his strengths, with the midterm elections just over three months away. That meant domestic issues, where he has capital with a reasonably strong economy, and events highlighting his one remaining area of strength in the foreign arena: handling terrorists.
Except everything, and everyone, has been conspiring against him. His poll numbers are in the basement, with several mid-July tallies putting his approval rating at just 40 percent, the lowest for any modern president going into the midterms. Casualties in Iraq have been steadily rising since the spring – the country is all but exploding in sectarian violence. Karl Rove and Condi Rice are talking about shifting the rhetoric on Iraq away from the value of America’s eventual triumph to the unthinkable dangers that would attend America’s withdrawal. He spent yesterday, July 26, with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Malaki, who gave a speech to Congress that the White House staff worked and reworked until it screamed. The consensus sentiment in the morning’s papers is that al-Malaki gave a campaign speech that was completely divorced from reality.
If people want depressing reality, there’s plenty of that to go around. Israel is sinking deeper each day into a disastrous engagement, now two weeks along, with a stronger-than-expected Hezbollah. It’s a mess. The morning’s reports from the region show the worst day of Israeli losses yet – 9 dead – and ever worsening PR blowback from two weeks of “unintended” casualties, now at 489 Lebanese civilians. Meanwhile, only 20 Hezbollah fighters have perished. And, two days ago, 4 United Nations workers died when a clearly marked UN outpost was hit by Israeli bombers. Reports have emerged of the humanitarian workers madly radioing Maydays to the Israeli army in their last moments.
Bush talked this morning at 7:30 to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, about all this. The unified front on Israel and Hezbollah they both helped craft at the G8 meeting last week in Russia is in tatters. Yesterday Rice was in Rome, where representatives from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East met to try to hammer out a cease-fire. But the terms were untenable, and Bush, talking to Rice, opposed it. He was instantly pilloried for that in last night’s news cycles, and all the G8 partners – everyone except the Brits – are distancing themselves. So when he talked to Merkel, he told her no one is saying that aggression is the first choice, not for the Americans in Iraq or the Israelis in Lebanon. But it must be an option. In his first National Security Council meeting as president he tried to set the tone, telling all the NSC principals his view that “sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things.” Couldn’t have been much clearer than that. Said it again this morning to Merkel, and still believed it, more strongly than ever. Merkel at least understood this position. She wasn’t like her predecessor, Gerhardt Schroeder, who opposed the United States on Iraq and didn’t seem to think force was ever justified. No, Merkel understood. She’d said so on the phone – their second call this week – and that she would make statements in the coming days in support of the United States and Israel. Some things were worth fighting for.
But what’s really driving Bush’s calculations at the moment is the just-finished intelligence briefing. It involved a plot that he’s been hearing about for some time. The British have been working it since last year: a major terror cell in the suburbs of London. While it’s their case – they’ve made that very clear – U.S. involvement has deepened as the tentacles of the cell have spread across Britain to Pakistan. With about forty suspects, sending plenty of e-mails and making calls, the Brits have increasingly had to rely on what Bush likes to call the “firepower of Ft. Meade,” the massive National Security Agency surveillance complex in the Maryland hills.
Then, in the past few days, everything changed. Electronic surveillance revealed, finally, the nature of the plot: airliners taking off from Heathrow carrying explosives and headed for the U.S. East Coast. Talk among the suspects revealed it could involve as many as a dozen planes blowing up over U.S. cities. That would make it the biggest plot since 9/11– the so-called second wave that Bush and Cheney have been waiting for all these years. Reports of all kinds have been coming to Bush’s desk as the U.S. anti-terror machine has secretly ratcheted up. Mike Chertoff, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, is working his intelligence unit around the clock; NSA’s working overtime; and CIA is doing what it can, especially with its sources in Pakistan.
This morning’s briefers said that the British are advising the United States to sit back and take a deep breath. The Brits have been stressing that this might be just early logistical talk, that they have these suspects so completely wired that they can’t sneeze without generating an electronic dispatch, and that no one is doing anything that would pass for an active operation. Bush has heard this before. Patience, patience. The British are saying that all the time; and that they’re better at intelligence work than the United States – they’ve been doing it longer, they have experience with the IRA’s terror network, and they’re especially well placed in target communities, such as the Pakistanis and the Saudis. The United States, with all its electronic firepower, is having more and more trouble in recent years with the basic spy craft of recruiting spies and getting actionable information from walk-in informants. The big breaks, of course, have come from sources on the inside or nearby, sources that took time to develop, and from informants in communities close to the action. The United States is too anxious and trigger-happy, the Brits complain, taken to picking up some bit of an overheard conversation and then sweeping up suspects. Blair said in a recent conversation with Bush that this was “the error of relying on the capability you have rather than developing the capability you need.”
The Brits, after their experience in Northern Ireland, were starting to believe that the key was to treat this not as a titanic ideological struggle, but rather as a law enforcement issue. This required being patient enough to get the actual evidence – usually once a plot had matured – with which to build a viable case in open court.
But waiting didn’t feel right to Bush, not now. It could take six months or more – who knew? – until this plot became operational. Blair was flying to Washington late tonight. They had a full morning planned for tomorrow, a long meeting and then a joint press conference. Blair was a good man, and they’d covered for each other plenty of times. Blair would come through.
Bush looks up at the Tiffany grandfather clock in the far corner. Ten past nine. He has to leave for a bill-signing ceremony on the South Lawn in five minutes, then he meets the Romanian prime minister, in town for a visit, then they’ll do a press conference together, then lunch, and then he has an economic speech to give in front of the National Association of Manufacturers. He flips absently through a briefing book with some talking points for the day and forces himself to focus. For him, it’s always been a struggle between the analytical and the emotive – the former, an effort; the latter, so natural, so clarifying. His feelings, his hunches, have gotten him and his nation into some tight spots. He’s aware of that. So he’s tried to be more attentive lately, tried to read the briefing books – to study them, with their seasoned, prudent, boring-as-hell advice.
What no one understands, no one but Cheney, is how hard some days are. People are not bending to his rightful desires as they used to. He remembers what it felt like, in the two or three years after 9/11, to possess native authority, and he misses it.
But in this one area – the secret world of intelligence, of foiling terrorists and their plots – he still has control. Everything unfolds in shadows. The results are what he says they are. Now that they have the terrorists on tape saying their plot is directed at America, he wants it shut down, ASAP. This is what he, and his Republican Party, gets paid for – protecting America – something the voters might benefit from being reminded of. What could be more important?
Through the leaded glass windows of the Oval Office, a limousine and four black SUVs idle in the driveway near the portico – Cheney is gearing up to deliver a speech at the Korean War memorial on the Mall. The July sun is burning off a morning mist. It’s going to be a hot one. Bush puts on his suit jacket, ready for his day, as the motorcade roars toward the gates.
Usman Khosa is walking east along the White House’s ornate wrought-iron fence, tapping it with his hand, like one might tap a white picket fence. A U.S. Park policeman moves toward him. The officer is saying something. Usman can see his lips move, shouting. He pulls out his earplugs. Arab music blares. “Cars will be passing out of this gate. You need to stop!” Usman nods, apologizes, and fusses with his iPod as other walkers back up behind him. The gates slowly begin to open. He looks up at the majestic building – he loves looking at it. He takes a route each morning down Sixteenth Street, where the White House is visible from a mile away and grows larger with each passing block. It makes him feel consequential to walk toward it, like he’s going to meet Bush, or could, and often thinks about what that’d be like. Bush is the most known person in the world – his presence, his face, has become the face of America; his pointing finger, punching the air, an emblem of the way the United States engages with the world. Usman feels he knows the man and that, as a Muslim and a lover of America and someone who often finds himself reluctantly defending Bush to invective-spewing Pakistanis, he and Bush might actually have a worthwhile conversation.
He’s more right about this than he realizes. Though Bush represents America electorally, his life is as unrepresentative as it could be, a cocoon of rare luxuries and sycophants, a carefully crafted, busy, filtered array of activity, much like the lives of those sitting atop so many venerable institutional mountains, only more so. But those snowcapped peaks are, in the modern age, melting – the range itself, crumbling – under pressure from the shifting, heated, quaking landscape of the individual. The information age, after all, is the age of the individual, a time when great waves of personal choice and expression – magnetic fields of impulse, connected on a borderless, global grid – can level the assembled power of armies and nations. The now common term asymmetric suggests that the comfortable symmetries, strategies, and conversations between those on the mountaintops are increasingly inconsequential as power shifts from the peak to the base, not only to petulant, entrepreneurial “rogue states” but also all the way to the bottom, to those – many among the multitude – who are representative in their experiences, their sensations and swift judgments. They move in vast heartbeat migrations, both sensing nascent currents – anger, fear, hope, rage – and creating them in a kind of dizzying simultaneity, open-source and dynamic, that overwhelms institutional norms of fact gathering and review and analysis. It is on this landscape – no less startling for now being familiar – that a president laments that he gets better, more immediate intelligence from CNN than CIA; where some religious purist who posts a beheading video – downloaded endlessly, driving news cycles – is the black-sheep cousin to a college-dropout-cum-billionaire who creates Facebook.com; where two guys in a cave confound the message and might of the world’s most powerful nation; and a few ardent twenty somethings, with modest, acquirable skills and stolen credit cards, could assemble a device that wipes out Midtown Manhattan.
Usman Khosa, as a young Muslim man in search of a better life, busily ingesting the widely available fare of modernity’s mishmash, is representative in ways that are particularly consequential at this moment in history. Like it or not, he – and countless others like him – is in a discussion with the isolated man memorizing “talking points” in an oval office 164 yards away.
And, in present tense, the ornate gates are now open. The limo and security SUVs speed out of the delicately cobblestoned roadway between the White House and the U.S. Treasury Department. Usman and a dozen people who’ve gathered in the past minute watch them pass and attempt a futile glimpse though tinted glass. Usman fiddles with his iPod as the gates close and begins to walk among the crowd toward Treasury.
Right in front of the statue of Alexander Hamilton, at the base of a long sweep of steps leading to Treasury’s neoclassical pillars, he thinks he sees a flash of white out of his left eye. A bicycle is being flung. He turns as a large uniformed man lunges at him.
“The backpack!” the man yells, pushing Usman against the Italianate gates in front of Treasury and ripping off his backpack. Another officer on a bicycle arrives from somewhere and tears the backpack open, dumping its contents on the sidewalk.
Usman is in a daze, spread-eagle, grabbing cool iron. “What? What!”
Pedestrians start madly dispersing, sprinting in crouches, hands over ears, running for cover.
Usman is mortified, breathless. He can’t speak for a minute, maybe longer, as his bag is repeatedly searched and he’s roughly patted down once, then again.
“You’ve made a mistake,” he croaks.
The Secret Service officers look at him, unflinching. One talks into his walkie-talkie, calling for backup.
“Are you a U.S. citizen?”
“Do you have any weapons on you?”
“No, I’m from Pakistan. I have a visa.”
“Do you have your visa on your person?”
“No, um, I don’t carry it with me.”
“It’s illegal not to have it on you.”
“I thought it wasn’t a good idea.”
“Do you have your visa control number?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Do you have any guns or weapons on you?”
“Do you like guns?”
“What? No, not really.”
And around they go. Minutes pass.
Usman sees a reporter approach, a woman, late thirties. She’s gazing warily at him as she motions to one of the officers to huddle, and they cozy up. She says she’s with the Washington-something – Usman can’t quite make it out, the Post, or the Washington Times – and he sees, with crushing clarity, what she and the gawking crowd, now rimming an estimated blast radius the size of a baseball diamond, all see: Pakistani terror suspect arrested at white house. The officer and she go around the corner to talk, privately, leaving Usman and the other officer alone at home plate. He wants to scream to her, to everyone, that he got an A in freshman English, that he’s read The Federalist Papers from beginning to end – in Urdu, for God’s sake – and can quote passages verbatim. Hamilton is standing right next to him. Ask Hamilton!
He takes a deep breath and tries to reason with the remaining officer. “My passport is right in this building, right here.” He points to the office building over the officer’s shoulder, just across the street. “I work right there.”
The officer turns, a muscular uniformed man looking up at this smooth temple of white-collar privilege, and then turns back.
“You go to college in the U.S?”
“Yes sir, I went to Connecticut College, in Connecticut, from 2000 to 2004.” Thank God, the miracle of education. Keep talking. “And, um, last year I did a semester at Dartmouth, Dartmouth College, at the Tuck School, a pre—business school program.”
“Dartmouth?” the officer says.
Usman nods. A golden name, Dartmouth.
“So, what, you’re some kind of smart ass?” The officer says this with a mocking tone, but Usman can’t find the edge, the pertinent context. Is it a class thing, or racial, or something someone from Dartmouth once did to this guy?
“No sir, no, I’m not so smart.”
Just over on the South Lawn, George W. Bush steps up to the microphone. “Thank you. Good morning. Welcome. Thanks for being here on this special day. Please be seated. America began with a Declaration that all men are created equal . . .”
Black faces glower from the mostly hostile crowd of five hundred gathered on the freshly mowed grass. After Bush gives this short speech, he’ll sign the reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which finally put the full might of federal law and the federal courts behind the right of African Americans to vote.
If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the stepfather. The Republican Congress, seeing a downturn in their poll numbers, actually pushed through the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act a year early to have something, anything, to court the black vote in November. The modern Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, has not been a favorite with blacks for decades – about 90 percent have voted Democratic since the New Deal. But the past few years have been notably miserable. Their current Republican standard-bearer, George W. Bush, got 8 percent of the black vote in 2000 and 12 percent in 2004, but after the Hurricane Katrina debacle in the fall of 2005, his approval rating among African Americans fell to an astonishing 2 percent. Early this year, Republicans in Congress appealed to Karl Rove; some had significant black populations in their districts, and Bush, along with the entire Republican leadership, needed to show a little effort. So the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized. And three weeks ago, Bush finally, after six years of demurrals, deigned to speak at the annual convention of the NAACP.
He hated doing it. He hates speaking in front of hostile crowds. Always has. It’s the residue of being doubted since he was a boy – “the problem with Junior” – and on through the first twenty years of his adult life, as he limped through college and moved from one middling business to the next, until companies started wanting him because of his famous father. Becoming president himself, and then being reelected, was a kind of cathartic revenge, a shattering of all that. Then the doubts started to reassemble, surprisingly, shard by shard – particularly in the past two years with Iraq and Katrina. Doubters, now, everywhere he turned. The White House political team has worked harder than ever to keep him in front of friendly crowds – military, conservative, and, especially, religious.
Today is the exception, but they’ve conjured up a twist: cover those black faces with church fans, old-style, handheld Southern Baptist church fans, with voting rights act printed on the back. Considering it’s eighty-one degrees by nine-thirty in the morning, everyone starts fanning, giving the South Lawn the feel of a big-tent revival, where someone might want to preach.
The religious trappings offer comfort, but no one is expecting much. Just adequacy, just get through it, and Bush continues his short speech on the terra firma of the Declaration of Independence, saying, “it marked a tremendous advance in the story of freedom, yet it also contained a contradiction: Some of the same men who signed their names to this self-evident truth owned other men as property. By reauthorizing this act, Congress has reaffirmed its belief that all men are created equal; its belief that the new founding started by the signing of the bill by President Johnson is worthy of our great nation to continue.”
He botches that last line, but people applaud anyway – how could they not? – and it’s enough to get him to the reading of the names, a page-long list of the dignitaries present that includes virtually the entire black leadership of the United States since the ’60s – John Lewis; Jesse Jackson; old standbys such as Benjamin Hooks; the children of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Abernathy’s wife, Juanita; NAACP chairman Julian Bond. Also in attendance are Nancy Pelosi and every liberal Democrat who could get through the gates, along with a few stalwart Republicans, such as obstreperous Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter.
Bush, seeing the end in sight, seems to ease up, winging it, thanking the Washington mayor for coming, and quipping, “Everything is fine in the neighborhood. I appreciate it.”
He gets a laugh, a victory, and four minutes later he signs the reauthorization. Bush said he’d do anything possible for his Republican brethren. What’s more, facing a Democratic Congress, at this point, would all but end his presidency and, he believes, make America less safe. He hopes this signing helps matters, but he’s skeptical. He knows this crowd will never forgive him for the way black voters were disenfranchised in Florida in 2000, or for the way he’s snubbed them since, or for Katrina. But what did it really matter? The civil rights community is old – just look at them – from a time when it was all about winning rights. Now it’s about equal opportunity, a slippery standard. And since 9/11, race – like so many other issues – has been eclipsed by more urgent matters.
But the really urgent matter is how fast he can get away from all these doubters – angry black doubters, at that – and back into his safe house. Bush often tells his senior staff that his schedule matters, that he’s prompt and decides, in advance, how much of his time a particular task or meeting should command. “My schedule,” Bush once said to Colin Powell, “is my way of sending a message about what I think is important or not.” Powell, of course, met with the president privately only a handful of times during his five-year tenure. In this case, Bush walks briskly from the ceremony at 9:52. His speech, the signing of the reauthorization, and brief cordialities take exactly sixteen minutes.
A parallel conversation about race is occurring, meanwhile, near the Alexander Hamilton statue.
“Reggie? It’s me, Usman.”
“Yo, Khosa. Where are you, man? The staff meeting is starting, like, right now.”
“Listen, Reggie. I’ve been detained down on the street, right in front of the White House, I mean in front of Treasury. They think . . . you know . . . well, me being from Pakistan and all.”
The receptionist at Barnes Richardson, Reggie McFadgen is a large jocular African American, thirty-three, who grew up in Washington, went to the tough D.C. schools, and once sang with the hiphop group Salt ’n’ Pepa. He and Usman have become close friends over the past two years; they go out often. Reggie, tough and streetwise, is protective of “Khosa.” They call each other “my brother from another mother.”
Like many educated foreigners, Usman happens to know quite a bit about American history; after all, the history of the United States, the world’s most powerful country, is taught in most accredited schools overseas. Special attention is generally accorded to slavery and to the current state of the black American. The long saga is viewed as America’s original hearts-and-minds struggle, and, from afar, the nation’s character is often assessed, surprisingly, through this lens. What’s clear, and oddly moving, is that Usman is crazy proud that he and his black friend call each other “brother.” It makes him feel like an American-in-the-making, free, by virtue of his Pakistani heritage, to improvise some solutions to the country’s long-standing dilemmas of race.
At this moment, though, Reggie is feeling that he possesses the pertinent expertise about what Usman is facing. His friend is being profiled.
“Khosa!” he shouts into the phone. “Don’t you move or say a word to any officer of any fucking kind. I AM COMING DOWN TO KICK SOME ASS!”
Oh God. “No, Reggie, please. Trust me. That’ll just make things worse. I’m in enough trouble. Just go to my top desk drawer and get my passport and put it somewhere safe. I may need you to bring it somewhere. I’ll try to call you as things progress. Okay?”
A second later Reggie is racing through Barnes Richardson like a town crier. Usman has been detained! Right in front of Treasury! Work stops. People pour from their offices toward the suite of the boss, Matt McGrath. They crowd around the wide window in his office, trying to catch a glimpse of what’s happening on the street below.
Ten stories down, things are progressing quickly. A black SUV screeches up to Alexander Hamilton. Two men in dark suits get out.
“Usman Khosa?” one of them says, a tall, neat man, midthirties, with dirty-blond hair. “Get in the car.”
“No way. I’m not getting in that car,” Usman says, surprising himself. He feels like he’s going to vomit. These are the bosses of the uniformed guys. He’s read about Guantánamo. If he gets in that car, he may never be seen again.
“Mr. Khosa, it’s not a question,” Dirty Blond says, emphatically. “Get in the car.”
Usman backs away. Assesses his options. “Okay, okay, I’ll get in . . . just as long as I can make a few quick phone calls first. Then, I promise, I’ll go with you.”
Dirty Blond nods, and then huddles with his partner, a short, wide, ethnic Italian-looking guy.
Usman calls the Pakistani embassy, tells them he’s being taken into custody. They take down his information and his present location. There’s nothing they can do. He calls his friend Zarar, a guy who runs a large network of Pakistani young professionals and who knows people. “If I don’t call you in two hours, Zarar, call someone. I don’t know who. Anyone!” Then, he pauses for a moment, a moment to wince, before he calls Pakistan. Tariq Khosa is currently the second-ranking law enforcement offi cial in Punjab Province, home to nearly half of the country’s population, along with Lahore, the nation’s cultural hub, and Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Usman is sure his father currently knows people in law enforcement in America. He must. All he gets is voice mail. He tries to compose himself: “Dad, I’m in trouble. I’m being arrested by the Secret Service. I have to get into a car, a black SUV, in front of the White House. I don’t want you to worry, but if you don’t hear from me in a few hours, um, see, maybe, if you could call someone.” He pauses. “And please, don’t tell Mom.”
While the old guard from the glory days of Montgomery bus boycotts and King’s speech about American dreams slowly disperses – the ink drying on a renewal of their greatest legal victory – an unscripted ceremony of fear and hope and race is unfolding on a nearby sidewalk.
In it, a young Pakistani man, whom terrorists have succeeded in turning into a racial suspect, steps into a black SUV. Ten stories up, a consulting firm that looks and feels like the great promise of America’s future – every major race represented, competing fiercely, hoping for bonuses and playing softball on Saturdays – watches, in horror, faces of every color pressed against a wide plate-glass window. One of their own is down there. But is he one of them? Of course he is. About the best analyst they’ve got, a gentle kid, smart as a whip, works like a stevedore and hopes for things worth hoping for. But then again he’s being taken away by grim authorities of the U.S. government and maybe there’s a chance – a slim chance – that there’s some good reason for it; that, maybe, they don’t really know him.
The black SUV’s doors slam shut. “This is so wrong,” Reggie says, almost to himself. Matt McGrath, next to him, snaps to attention: “We should call anyone that anyone knows in the government.” A dozen people run to the phones.
The SUV, meanwhile, makes a U-turn and drives back toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, stopping at the far entrance. Usman is trundled from the SUV, escorted through the West Gate, and onto the manicured grounds. No one speaks as the agents walk him behind the gate’s security station, down a stairwell, along an underground passage, and into a room – a cement-walled box with a table, two chairs, a hanging light with a bare bulb, and a mounted video camera.
Even after all the astonishing turns of the past hour, Usman can’t quite believe there’s actually an interrogation room beneath the White House, dark and dank and horrific. He mops the perspiration from his brow.
Real sweat. It’s no dream.
Aboveground, the bounce has returned to George Bush’s step.
Romanians. He likes the Romanians, and he likes their president, Traian Basescu. And what’s not to like? His aim is to please the United States, to be a member of the club. That means both the European Union – which Romania is hoping to become a full member of soon – and the coalition of countries aligned, without a doubt, behind the United States.
They sit in the wing chairs near the fireplace and chat, the two of them. Basescu has a visa issue he wants resolved. Bush says he’ll get on it, open things up for sure. An early member of the coalition of the willing, the Romanians have stuck it out. They’re the only country in their region with soldiers in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
After a half hour of chat, Bush rises. “Let’s bring in the jackals.”
Reporters file into the Oval Office.
Bush reads a brief statement, written before the meeting, of course, about what they’ve just discussed, and then Basecsu reads his version of “we are good friends as are our nations.”
Bush first goes to Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, who dives right into the morning’s fare, that Israel’s Justice minister has said that the lack of a cease-fire call from the international community at the Rome conference – a result of U.S. opposition – gives Israel the “green light” to push further, and that a top Israeli general is saying that fighting will continue for a few weeks. “Is your administration okay with these things?”
Bush sighs. Here we go. “I believe that, as Condi said yesterday, the Middle East is littered with agreements that just didn’t work. And now is the time to address the root cause of the problem. And the root cause of the problem is terrorist groups trying to stop the advance of democracies.” It’s a stretch, and he knows it. Hezbollah provides social services and protection to a significant segment of Lebanon. They’re settled. They have offices, weapons depots, bank accounts. They’re more like an unauthorized government. And he goes with that, moving from terrorism to issues of electoral legitimacy.
“I view this as a clash of forms of government,” he says to the reporters. “I see people who can’t stand the thought of democracy taking hold in parts of – in the Middle East. And as democracy begins to advance, they use terrorist tactics to stop it. . . . But our objective is to make sure those who use terrorist tactics are not rewarded.” Don’t reward bad behavior – that’s what Cheney often says – but Bush, at this point, knows this kind of global experiment in behavior modification is like running a calculus equation with fast-changing variables. Surprises every minute.
He pauses, exasperated. “Want to ask somebody from the Romanian press.” He gets a Romanian question and talks about visas and the Black Sea, all the stuff in his briefing book. Then the next question – from Steve Holland of Reuters – mentions a tape released yesterday by Zawahiri, urging Muslims to fight and become martyrs.
Bush seems to lift. He wets his lips, and his head does that funny forward cock. He can connect it all – the political, the theoretical – through this one. He can make it personal. Him versus Zawahiri . . .
“My answer is, I’m not surprised people who use terrorist tactics would start speaking out. It doesn’t surprise me. I am – Zawahiri’s attitude about life is that there shouldn’t be free societies. And he believes that people ought to use terrorist tactics, the killing of innocent people to achieve his objective. And so I’m not surprised he feels like he needs to lend his voice to terrorist activities that are trying to prevent democracies from moving forward. . . . You know, here’s a fellow who is in a remote region of the world putting out statements basically encouraging people to use terrorist tactics to kill innocent people to achieve political objectives. And the United States of America stands strong against Mr. Zawahiri and his types.”
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