Dancing in the dark

By Maureen Dowd

I can't wait to see what's next. Dick Cheney carpooling downtown with Brownie? Rummy rollerblading down the bike path to the Pentagon? Condi huddling by a Watergate fireplace in a grey cardigan? Maybe our new conservation president will downgrade from Air Force One to a solar-powered Piper Cub as he continues to stalk the Gulf Coast towns and oil rigs like Banquo's ghost. The once disciplined and swaggering Bush administration has descended into slapstick, more comical even than having Clarence Thomas et al sit in judgment as Anna Nicole Smith attempts to get more of the moolah of her late oil tycoon husband.

We've got the clownish Brownie still on FEMA's payroll, giving advice on cleaning up the mess he made. We've got two oilmen in the White House whose administration was built on urging us to consume and buy as much oil and energy as possible. Now they're suddenly urging us to conserve. (Since Cheney considers conservation a ``personal virtue'', at least he'll get some virtue.)

The president called on Americans to drive less, and told White House staff members to turn off their computers at night, turn down the air-conditioning, form carpools and take the bus.

At the same time, he set a fine example by wasting gazillions of gallons of fuel with all the planes and Secret Service vans and press motorcades and police escorts that follow him around every time he goes on one of his inane photo-ops from the Colorado bunker to what's left of the Mississippi Delta and the Bayou. He did his part by knocking off a few cars from his motorcade on his seventh trip to the gulf Tuesday _ but if residents had hoped he'd bring them some water, they went thirsty.

``Even so,'' as The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller wrote, ``security dictated that Bush's still-impressive caravan pick him up at the base of Air Force One in Lake Charles, Los Angeles _ and drop him off just yards away for a meeting with local officials at an airport terminal.''

Noting that the Bush administration has proposed new fuel economy standards that critics say could make huge SUVs and pickups even more popular, Reuters published some arithmetic about the president's notorious fuel inefficiency. Air Force One costs $83,200 to fill up and more than $6,000 per hour to fly. Then there's the cost of helicopters and a 2006 Cadillac DTS limo that gets less than 22 miles per gallon.

Karen Hughes, the Bush nanny who knows nothing about the Muslim world and yet is charged with selling the US to it, wasted even more fuel this week flying to Saudi Arabia to tell women in black abayas how much she likes driving even though they can't. She knows so little about the Middle East that she looked taken aback when some Saudi women told her that just because they could not vote or drive did not mean that they felt they were treated unfairly.

One thing Saudi women like even less than not having certain rights is to have hypocritical Americans patronise them.

The moment when America should have used its influence to help Saudi women came on Nov 6, 1990, as US forces gathered in the kingdom to go to war in Iraq the first time. Inspired by the US troops, including female soldiers, 47 women from the Saudi intelligentsia took the wheels from their brothers and husbands and drove a short way until the police stopped them.

They were branded ``whores'' and ``harlots'' by Saudi clerics, had their passports revoked, and were ostracised from society for a dozen years. Even their husbands suffered.

The experience made them more angry at the US than at their own rulers. They feel that the Bushes play up the repression of women in the Middle East when it suits their desire to bang the war drums, but do not care what happens to women once the ideological agenda has been achieved.

They feel the administration and the American media have emphasised the repression of Saudi women post-9/11 as a way to demonise Saudi Arabia and paint Saudi men as bullies and terrorists.

When Hughes goes to Saudi Arabia to introduce herself as ``a mom'' and to talk about Americans as people of faith, guzzling fuel all the way in a country getting flush selling us oil, I think we can consider it taxpayer money well spent.

W doesn't really need to worry about turning down the lights in the White House. The place is already totally in the dark.