Jean-Luc Godard once explained that commercials are only 30 seconds long because after that they’d have to start telling the truth about the product. George W. Bush‘s handlers obviously view their president in the same light. These days, his media presence is largely limited to walking across the White House lawn, fielding whiffle balls from Barbara Walters and reading speeches on Pearl Harbor Day. Aside from the odd, highly scripted town meeting, the president’s thoughts are now expressed by Ari Fleischer, whose Pong-like briefings take tedium to a level previously endured by only a handful of mystics high in the Himalayas. Why do the cable networks keep broadcasting this stuff, live and unedited? Where are soundbites when you need them?

With the president reduced to ceremonial functions, the job of explaining administration policy has fallen on his Cabinet members — with extremely mixed results. Tommy Thompson got the hook after three weeks, Colin Powell is still on location in the Middle East, and Dick Cheney keeps vanishing down some unknown rabbit hole, emerging only long enough to flash his Mad Hatter grin on Meet the Press. There was a lot of early buzz about bulldog-faced Tom Ridge, who looks like he could be J. Edgar Hoover‘s son (with Clyde Tolson the father?), but this dull, decent man seems destined to spend his life giving speeches on C-SPAN.

The one superstar to emerge from America’s New War is Donald Rumsfeld, the 69-year-old secretary of defense. Just last August, he looked to be a goner, with conservative publications like The Weekly Standard chasing him back into the private sector. (Slate even ran a regular item called ”Rumsfeld Death Watch.“) But once he started briefing the media about the war in Afghanistan, he instantly proved to be the government‘s most reassuring presence. Decked out in gray suits and rimless glasses, he strolls into briefings like Wyatt Earp into the saloon — smart, poised, confident that he’s the fastest gun in the West. The rap against Rumsfeld was always his arrogance, a quality much despised in bureaucrats. But in wartime, people want a cocksure leader, the kind of guy who enjoys sparring with reporters, grins when things appear to go badly and shows occasional glimpses of our national craziness — you never know, he really might just decide to flatten Baghdad. Like Osama bin Laden, Rummy clearly digs the war, and while most of the Bush team walks around wearing permanent expressions of hemorrhoidal despair, he looks like he‘s having fun.

He toys with his questioners (”I could answer, but I’m not inclined to“), employs straightforward words like kill and corpse, and cheerfully mispronounces Osama‘s surname as bin Layden. If Bush did that, we’d think he didn‘t know the correct way to say it; with Rumsfeld, it just seems like exuberant contempt. Rummy savors his words like a minor poet granted a reading at Harvard, and connoisseurs relish the moments when he jauntily punctuates his sentences out loud, referring to ”Osama bin Laden, comma, mass murderer“ or serving up small ironic gems: ”If you’re asking, ‘Would an arrangement with Omar where he could, quote, live in dignity in the Kandahar area or some place in Afghanistan be consistent with what I have said?’ the answer is no.“

A few weeks ago, Saturday Night Live ran a funny sketch in which Rumsfeld kept telling Pentagon correspondents that their questions were stupid. What was most telling about this spoof wasn‘t Darrell Hammond’s impersonation but the deadly-accurate portrait of how the secretary has cowed the press corps. They accept his bullying not only because he gives them quotable material, but because his disdain taps into their own quite reasonable self-loathing: These journalists know full well that they keep showing up to hear the official word from officials who make no pretense that their words are sure to be true. Rumsfeld was the first member of Bush‘s team to use Churchill’s famous line about how, in war, truth must be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.

Rummy makes being lied to entertaining, and that‘s part of what makes him dangerous. He kept denying civilian Afghan casualties from U.S. bombing long after international reporters had documented them, and once that proved impossible, he began attacking groups (including Doctors Without Borders) that reported on the noncombatant dead and wounded. Predictably, the Pentagon press corps haven’t pressed him any harder on the matter than they have on anything else; like the TV audience, they sit back and watch him perform. For all the talk of their liberalism or cynicism, the media respect politicians who are good at their jobs, whatever it may be, and at the moment nobody else stonewalls or twists the truth half so enjoyably.

John Ashcroft just makes life scary. While Rumsfeld embodies a jaunty American archetype — the maverick gunslinger with a star on his chest — our good Christian attorney general embodies a repressive one. He‘s the Puritan minister obsessed with ridding the countryside of Evil. Witch burner Cotton Mather once said, ”Never use but one grain of patience with any man that shall go to impose upon me a Denial of Devils, or of Witches.“ Three centuries later, you find the same mentality in Ashcroft. Where Rumsfeld dodges a tough question by suggesting you’re a dumb-ass, our attorney general‘s first instinct is to suggest you’re in league with the evildoers.

Bush gave him the job as payback to the loony Christian Right for their support in the election (it also provided him a certified extremist to hide behind). At first, Ashcroft must‘ve thought he’d landed a dream gig. It gave him a chance to roll back abortion, battle gun control, minimize antitrust prosecutions, de-emphasize civil rights laws and censor whatever art or Internet content he found offensive. But on September 11, he became responsible for protecting U.S. citizens, and from his first appearances in that role, you could viscerally feel his dread and inadequacy. On the day he announced the first terrorism alert, Ashcroft approached the podium with the slumped shoulders and the doomed expression of a man who expects that the alien will jump from his stomach any second now. Nothing he actually said was nearly as terrifying as his body language: He looked like a man who‘d been warned of a megadeath nuclear attack but wasn’t allowed to tell the public.

After that dismal performance, I felt sure that Bush‘s people would quietly arrange for him to take a professorship at Bob Jones University. Instead, he’s become Rummy‘s joyless alter ego, the face of the war at home. Ashcroft is constantly on the tube justifying the administration’s latest whittling away of constitutional rights — refusing to name detainees, eavesdropping on prisoners‘ conversations with lawyers, creating military tribunals in a presidential directive so slipshod that the rest of the so-called civilized world was shocked. The one right the attorney general fiercely protects involves the bearing of arms: He kept the FBI from examining the gun-purchase records of illegal immigrants. You have your favorite amendment to the Bill of Rights; Ashcroft and the NRA have theirs.

In the weeks since that initial terror alert, Ashcroft has remained ”frustrated and panic-stricken“ (to use the words of William Safire), but he has grown ever bolder in asserting the administration’s right to scupper the Constitution without even consulting the Congress. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, he sat uncomfortably at his table like Jabba the Hutt, chin melting into his shoulders, face stiff with a hanging judge‘s icy rectitude: ”To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America‘s friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil.“

When a Cabinet member talks like this to the majority party of the U.S. Senate, you can only imagine how he’d treat ordinary citizens who oppose his policies.

In fact, Ashcroft‘s performance on Capitol Hill last week may be the best single example of what’s dangerous in the Bush administration‘s attempts to put constitutional rights on hold. The point of such rights is to protect the accused from government officials who, out of ideology or hysteria, can scarcely be trusted to provide a fair trial. Hearing the attorney general talk to Democratic senators as if they were secret backers of al Qaeda, you knew that Ashcroft, for one, would rather punish hundreds of innocent people than worry he’d let a guilty one go free. Would you trust your life to a man who smells the brimstone stench of treason in simple disagreement?

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