All the President's Lies

In recent weeks, the press and some Democrats have finally taken up a critical White House deception about Iraq and uranium. What took them so long? And what about all the other lies?

The most consequential player in the rightward lunge of TV's chattering classes is of course the visionary Fox News chieftain and old Nixon/Reagan hand Roger Ailes. As Michael Wolff wrote in New York magazine last spring, the most important factor in Ailes's triumph is not the network's open right-wing politics but its success in crafting a persona that appeals to the confused and vaguely disaffected as well as the hardcore right. Fox has fashioned itself the voice of the beleaguered, commonsensical little guy who rightly suspects that he's not getting the whole story.

The right now owns the entire American political apparatus--the federal government, the putative opposition party, and the lion's share of news media. Thanks in considerable measure to Ailes, it controls the most charged political symbols as well, from the flag to that most cherished marker of American citizenship, the role of victim. Fox News and all the other right-wing pundits thrive by assuring their audiences that they are the real unfortunates, oppressed by problems as varied as big government, liberal media, taxes and the bottom-feeders they serve, car-pool lanes, and France. Ann Coulter, whose public descent into complete hysteria can be spectacularly entertaining on the right night, is only the best known of a whole battalion of right-wing ravers penning book after book about the abuse of conservatives and conservative values by mobs of elite liberal thugs--no, traitors.

Demographically speaking, Fox and the other children of Ailes get to have it both ways, sucking up to the right-thinkers and to those who simply feel bewildered and powerless. What's the competition to do? While neither CNN or MSNBC has embraced Fox's brassy, jingoistic trappings, they have followed Fox's lead where it counts most, by installing flocks of right-wing commentators and giving short shrift to any hint of dissent or disorder concerning Bush administration affairs.

Finally, an interesting and little-known fact: Fox News is currently under investigation in the UK (where it appears on cable systems) for violating British broadcasting's "due impartiality" rule with its ceaseless pro-Bush, pro-war drumbeat. The head of one English journalism organization, Julian Petley, described the basis of the complaint: "Murdoch would like to do with British television news what he has done with newspapers, which is to force people to compete on his own terms.... [I]f we allow into Britain the kind of journalism represented by Fox, that would [amount to] a form of censorship."

 

Recently John Dean published another essay on the White House's conduct. "The African uranium matter," he wrote, "is merely indicative of larger problems, and troubling questions of potential and widespread criminality when taking the nation to war. It appears that not only the Niger uranium hoax, but most everything else that Bush said about Saddam Hussein's weapons was false, fabricated, exaggerated, or phony. Bush repeatedly, in his State of the Union, presented beliefs, estimates, and educated guesses as established fact."

The public grows restless as well. Events in Iraq were already past the administration's grasp when the lies scandal broke. Thanks to television news, most Americans do not yet realize the extent of the troubles there, but they do know that they are bored and disappointed with this war. It's costing a lot in dollars and lives, it isn't good television anymore, and meanwhile the economy only grows worse. ("If American elections were decided by foreign policy," a friend reminded me recently, "our history would be entirely different. The economy and other domestic issues decide elections--much to the dismay of the pundit class, I know, but for a fact, nevertheless.")

Ever since 9/11, polls have attested to the breadth of the president's public support. Now we're seeing how shallow it was all along. Two weeks ago, a Zogby poll indicated that for the first time, more people opposed than supported Bush's reelection. If you are the Bush administration, the joy of a credulous, kept-in-the-dark populace is that they will believe practically anything you tell them; the danger is that, should events begin to spin out of your control, they are just as liable to believe anything your newly emboldened critics tell them.

Can Bush weather it? It's always instructive to read the transcripts of the daily White House press briefings, which offer a barometric reading on current media/administration relations. Lately they have been remarkably antagonistic on both sides, and the animus is personal. The administration has made reporters look like fools. And the White House, for its part, is visibly outraged that its word is no longer taken at face value. This is a recipe for protracted, open ugliness. Keep in mind that Bush's and Rove's tactical instincts are less Machiavelli than Genghis Khan. They are bullies and bludgeoners. Bush's spontaneous taunt to Iraqi guerrilla forces ("Bring 'em on!") seems to go for everyone in the world except Kim Jong-Il and the House of Saud.

More and more, the Soros critique of Bush's foreign policy--he makes the game too obvious--goes for domestic appearances too. A long time has passed since the Democrats and the Republicans had any serious or prolonged disagreements, which is doubtless part of what Rove meant when he told the New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann, "I think we're at a point where the two major parties have sort of exhausted their governing agendas." What Rove seems not to see is that it's precisely in the absence of real politics that the appearance of debate and disagreement is most vital. In their unstinting imperiousness, the Bush crowd is exposing the sham for all to see.

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