The inmates really are running the asylum

Today I am experiencing an Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass moment, not surprisingly, as events in these United States during the reign of George W. Bush have become, as Alice said of her own adventures, curiouser and curiouser.

Lewis Carroll’s words ring in my ears. For as the master wrote: ” ‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, / ‘To talk of many things: / Of shoes _ and ships _ and sealing wax _ / Of cabbages _ and kings.’ ”

Of course, in those few lines, I identify with the Walrus. I have the whiskers. I have the girth. I have the bemused look. On Fridays, I even have the fish on my breath, courtesy of Debbie’s Famous Fish Sandwich in the staff cafeteria.

I also have the big voice with which to talk of many things. And what I wish to talk about today are the cabbages and kings _ or at least one approximation. I am not just chortling in my joy here. I have reason to talk of these things.

According to a Washington Post piece this week, officials at the Department of Agriculture recently “were stunned … to receive e-mailed instructions that include Bush administration ‘talking points’ _ saying things such as ‘President Bush has a clear strategy for victory in Iraq’ _ in every speech they give for the department.”

Post columnist Al Kamen quoted a May 2 e-mail from USDA speechwriter Heather Vaughn. The column said that the president has requested all members of his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet to incorporate message points on the global war on terror into speeches. They are supposed to include specific examples of what each agency is doing to aid the reconstruction of Iraq.

While conservatives are apt to become crimson with fury and shout “off with their heads” at the mere mention of the Post, I don’t doubt the newspaper has reported this accurately.

It is all of a piece with the Mad Hatter’s-tea-party nature of the Bush administration, with the white rabbit of reason fleeing down the hole into an alternative universe, with every official a Cheshire Cat with no body to support the smiling.

Perhaps the secretary of agriculture could speak at some American version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, perhaps the K Street Project, and talk about how cabbage production in Iraq is winning the war on terror.

I can just imagine it: “The terrorists hate freedom but the brave Iraqi people _ although we are infidels in their eyes and we invaded their country _ love a good cabbage better than anything. Remember always that President Bush has a clear strategy: To win the hearts and minds and stomachs of the Iraqi people and to make democracy safe for cabbages.”

Unfortunately, because of the Jabberwock-loving media, cabbage production is little appreciated by the public as a tool to defeating terrorists. But Bush officials could effectively ask: “Has Osama bin Laden ever been reported hiding behind a cabbage? No! By planting cabbages, we build terrorist-free fields of freedom. In counting who is for us and who is against us, we have overwhelming numbers if every head of cabbage is counted.”

Of course, Bush’s clear strategy is so much more: To put a smiley face on the mask of tragedy, to be as stubborn as he can be, to never admit a mistake and not to hold anyone in the administration responsible for anything, least of all the vice president (Tweedledum) and the secretary of defense (Tweedledee).

Yes, it’s very clear. Unfortunately, being possessed of that “poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” as the White Queen put it in “Through the Looking-Glass,” a few of us remember the last time the white rabbit went down the hole and we tried to win hearts and minds _ only to lose our own minds. Americans did all sorts of worthy civic projects in that supposed garden of democracy called South Vietnam, where we arranged elections and got the Vietnamese to stand up as we stood down. In the end, it counted for nothing.

The introduction to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” speaks to our own time: “All in the golden afternoon / Full leisurely we glide, / For both our oars, with little skill, / By little arms are plied, / While little hands make vain pretence / Our wanderings to guide.”

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)