All the President's Lies
It seems a long time ago now, but May 1 was a big day for the president--Victory in Iraq Day, even though he could not say so officially without putting U.S. occupation forces on the wrong side of still more international laws. But the occasion was designed with all the martial preening of a victory celebration and then some. The White House announced that Bush would close the day by delivering an address to the world from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln just off the coast of San Diego. And he would arrive on board in a Navy Viking jet.
This bit of gaudy theatrics was attributed to the president's desire to avoid a post-docking ceremony that would delay the sailors' homecoming. Afterward, when someone pointed out to Ari Fleischer that the carrier was within helicopter range of shore when W made his fighter-jet entrance, Fleischer essentially shrugged and said, The president really wanted to ride in that plane. According to the Washington Post, Bush also took a course of "underwater survival training" in the White House swimming pool to prepare for his odyssey.
That afternoon the president's plane broke through the clouds and glided to a tailhook landing with the whole country watching on television. Bush, grinning like a kid who got a real F-18 for Christmas, emerged in a camouflage flight suit and gave a thumbs-up to the cameras. But if it looked at first like the sequel to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, there was also more than a whiff of Triumph of the Will in that Flight of the Valkyries entrance, especially with Karl Rove's own film crew on hand to shoot the opening scenes of the Campaign 2004 biopic.
Then Bush swapped the jumpsuit for a business suit and ran an exultant rhetorical victory lap, during the course of which he proffered boast after boast that happened to be untrue. The shooting war is over and we won... We've defeated an ally of al Qaeda... The Iraqi people are liberated... We are rebuilding Iraq... We are in control of events in Iraq... Iraqis are celebrating the U.S. presence... We don't do business with countries that harbor terrorists...
Not only were these contentions false; they were already known to be so by anyone who had made a point of keeping up with the international English-language press, including a growing though still small number of internet-prowling Americans. The administration's May Day pageant was strictly for the undifferentiated mass of folks at home, that majority of Americans who had gotten their news from TV and later told pollsters that Saddam was behind 9/11 (70 percent), or we'd already found WMDs in Iraq (33 percent). Needless to say, misapprehensions like these were not failures of the Bush information plan, but successes.
But now the extent and gravity of the White House's lies are beginning to look manifest even on television. One regular guest on the news-chat circuit, former Nixon counsel and jailed Watergate conspirator John Dean, recently wrote, "In the three decades since Watergate, this is the first potential scandal I have seen that could make Watergate pale by comparison. If the Bush administration intentionally manipulated or misrepresented intelligence to get Congress to authorize, and the public to support, military action to take control of Iraq, then that would be a monstrous misdeed.... To put it bluntly, if Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked. Manipulation or deliberate misuse of national security intelligence data, if proven, could be 'a high crime' under the Constitution's impeachment clause."
All very compelling, except for one thing. With the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, who's going to impeach him?
Lately the American press has demonstrated uncharacteristic spunk, dating to the White House's early July admission that the State of the Union uranium claim was false. The very first question--when did they learn this?--opened the floodgates, and incriminating details began swirling around Bush and Tony Blair alike. Before last week's triumphal shootout with Saddam's sons stole back the headlines for a day, the Bush gang had faced nearly three solid weeks of embarrassing revelations. Signs of open derision sprouted in the American press corps for the first time since September 2001. The heat on both sides of the Atlantic grew so intense that David Kelly, a member of Blair's intel staff and the source of a BBC report that Blair pressured his people to doctor intelligence, apparently killed himself.
Contrary to appearances, this is not some great spasm of reportorial enterprise we're witnessing. It is a window on the latest front in the administration's wars: the CIA versus George W. Bush et al. Every embarrassing leak to emerge so far has the Agency's fingerprints all over it; most involve matters only the CIA and the White House would know about. The White House humiliated the CIA in numerous ways while building Bush's case for war--ignoring the advice of its analysts, pressuring director George Tenet to sign off on the uranium claim when he had already stricken it from another Bush speech three months earlier, sticking him with the blame when the lie was exposed, and later, in a bit of blatant illegality, outing an undercover CIA agent--and now it's time for the Agency to settle a few accounts.
But if the tone of media reports and of political chatter has changed dramatically this month, it still leaves the past year to account for, all the months of numb collaboration in whatever the Bush administration chose to say or do to lay the foundations for an invasion. The most striking thing about the present age is not that a White House has lied and overreached itself in pursuit of its aims--hardly unique in the annals of the presidency--but that almost no one seemed to mind. No one who counted, that is; no one in a position to make his or her voice heard.
It's been said that this administration crucifies dissenters, and recent events bear that out. Valerie Plame, the CIA agent whose cover was blown recently by Bush officials speaking through columnist Bob Novak, is the wife of former Iraq ambassador Joseph Wilson. It was Wilson who traveled to Africa in 2002 at Dick Cheney's behest. He reported back at the time that the uranium story was bogus, and told the world he'd done so in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month. When Illinois Senator Dick Durbin brought up the Plame affair, the White House charged that he was discussing classified information publicly and tried to ride him off the Senate Intelligence Committee. On a more bizarre note, Bush flacks contacted their chief cyber-spokesman, Matt Drudge, to say that ABC reporter Jeffrey Kofman, who had broadcast a withering report on troop morale in Iraq, was both gay and Canadian. (Laugh if you like, but their not-so-funny point was that Americans should not be listening to anyone whose loyalty to the fatherland is in question.)
But however vicious the president's posse is capable of being, the truth is that until recently Bush rarely had to flex those muscles. He has owed his success to the pliancy and corruption of supposedly democratic institutions from the start. Most Americans still think the episode in Florida came down to the swinging chads on a relative handful of disputed ballots, but the real tipping point came earlier when brother Jeb's secretary of state, Katherine Harris, hired a company to vacuum the state's voter rolls of any convicted felons registered in error. The resulting purge of mostly poor and black voters did not confine itself to felons, however; it also accidentally-on-purpose expunged from the rolls thousands of prospective Democratic voters with no criminal records at all. The second great outrage came when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to hand Bush the White House, a vote from which two of the pro-Bush justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, should have been forced to recuse themselves on the grounds that members of their families had worked for the Bush campaign.
Neither the press nor the Democrats focused on these aspects of the Florida episode, obviously, and the administration has met the same spirit of accommodation on practically every front, no matter how outrageous its demands. When Bush wanted his open-ended mandate for war, Congress obliged. When Dick Cheney intervened to suppress a more ambitious investigation into the events of September 11, no one complained. When Seymour Hersh reported in May that the administration had prepped for war by throwing away the findings of the U.S. intelligence apparatus in favor of the anecdotal testimony of handpicked Iraqi defectors fed to the administration by its stooge Ahmed Chalabi, the mainstream media left it alone. No peep, either, when the White House intervened a few months ago to suppress portions of Congress's eventual 9/11 report, which was finally released late last week after seven months of editing and stonewalling by the administration.
Since the countdown to war began last fall, there has been exactly one prominent and categorical dissenter in the entire U.S. Congress, the 85-year-old West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. "This is no small conflagration we contemplate," he declaimed on the Senate floor one month before the invasion. "This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No. This coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in U.S. foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world.
"This nation is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way at an unfortunate time. The doctrine of preemption-- the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future--is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self defense. It appears to be in contravention of international law and the UN Charter. And it is being tested at a time of worldwide terrorism, making many countries around the globe wonder if they will soon be on our--or some other nation's--hit list. High level administration figures recently refused to take nuclear weapons off of the table when discussing a possible attack against Iraq...
"Frankly, many of the pronouncements made by this administration are outrageous. There is no other word. Yet this chamber is hauntingly silent. On what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq--a population, I might add, of which over 50 percent is under age 15--this chamber is silent. On what is possibly only days before we send thousands of our own citizens to face unimagined horrors of chemical and biological warfare--this chamber is silent. On the eve of what could possibly be a vicious terrorist attack in retaliation for our attack on Iraq, it is business as usual in the United States Senate. We are truly sleepwalking through history."
Ask any pundit why the Bushmen have had their way so easily and you will hear the story of Karl Rove's towering presence. Rove, the man half of Washington calls "Bush's brain," is one of the most formidable party bosses the city has seen since the days of towering Democratic figures like Lyndon Johnson and Jim Farley. He is an absolute master of the mechanics of party politics, a ruthless enforcer of marching orders, and an utterly audacious competitor. It is no exaggeration to say that Rove inspires fear and fealty throughout Republican ranks; his White House is by all accounts the most leakproof of the modern era.
Whether he is the über-media manipulator he's made out to be is less sure. Either way, however, it was not the residue of Rove's genius that put the Bush agenda over the top, but the utter acquiescence of America's most cherished democratic institutions--the opposition party and the free press. Bush and Rove will likely go down in history not as master propagandists but as ruthless operators in the right place at the right time: the first White House of the modern era bold enough to flout "checks and balances" altogether and charge through the bankrupt, tissue-thin lines of the Democratic party and the American news media without incurring serious consequences. When future historians comb through the muck of the Bush era, there is no telling what, if any, documentary evidence they will find (this is a crew schooled in the art of concealing its tracks), but they will surely be dumbfounded by the gap between the Bush administration's public conduct--radical in scope, aggressive in its means, beset by international opposition and by open lies, manipulations, and gaffes--and the paltry, token resistance it engendered in the domestic press and the American political establishment.
If the failure of the Democratic Party in responding to the Iraq war and the so-called war on terror has seemed especially glaring, it's only because the issues involved are so momentous that one can scarcely fail to notice the lack of dissent. But it's nothing new. The national Democratic party began retooling itself along more explicitly business-friendly, proto-Republican lines in the shadows of the Carter years, and from the start of the Reagan era onward, it has never put up serious resistance to any major Republican initiative. Neither has it cast an inquisitive eye toward any fermenting Republican scandal, from Iran-Contra to Enron to Saddam's WMDs. Apart from Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who have both called for an investigation into who leaked Valerie Plame's identity to Bob Novak, the Democrats have clucked a bit without really seeking to do anything. Just last week Bill Clinton phoned Larry King to say that all presidents make mistakes and everyone was being too hard on W. The previous Friday, Hillary Clinton had appeared on Bob Costas's HBO talk show saying the same thing. She still believed invading Iraq was the right thing to do, and she was going to reserve her judgment about the other questions surrounding Bush's conduct--until 2008, I'm guessing, unless she can be enticed to join the Democratic ticket next summer.
It's only fitting that the Clintons should come to Bush's rescue. Even during the ostensible interlude of the Clinton years, it was still the Republicans who set the social and fiscal agenda, which the president always embraced with a feigned reluctance. Most famously, he stole their welfare reform proposal and managed to get all the credit for it, which was one reason the right despised him so. A neat political trick, but it made little difference to the country: It was just eight more years of Republican rule in sheep's clothing.
At the moment the Republican party is controlled by a gang of neo-conservatives who want to build American empire by nakedly militarized means, for the express reason that there is currently no one to stop us and we ought to keep it that way. The Democrats are ruled by neoliberals who want to achieve the same imperial goals by gradualism and finesse, through systems of international trade and law dictated by U.S. corporations and the U.S. government. They are not opposed to military interventions, but they are certainly more circumspect about them than the current White House (who isn't?). So the great debate over America's new and precipitous policy of preemptive war was no debate at all. It more closely resembled a fretful lovers' tiff.
Which it was. A few weeks ago the UK magazine New Statesman featured a profile of George Soros, the billionaire currency trader who has become a vocal critic of the Bush crew. "Soros," wrote Neil Clark, "may not, as some have suggested, be a fully paid-up CIA agent." But, he continued, "that his companies and NGOs are closely wrapped up in U.S. expansionism cannot seriously be doubted. So why is he so upset with Bush? The answer is simple. Soros is angry not with Bush's aims--of extending Pax Americana and making the world safe for global capitalists like himself--but with the crass and blundering way Bush is going about it. By making U.S. ambitions so clear, the Bush gang has committed the cardinal sin of giving the game away.
"For years, Soros and his NGOs have gone about their work extending the boundaries of the "free world" so skillfully that hardly anyone noticed. Now a Texan redneck and a gang of overzealous neo-cons have blown it."
Soros is emblematic of the only kind of establishment critic Bush has had here in the U.S.: the ones who wonder if preemptive invasions are the right way to go at the thing. But they have no quarrel with his larger aims. Despite the few lonely cranks who, like Byrd, still call the U.S. Congress home, there is nothing like an anti-imperialist wing in either party or in U.S. media.
For that reason, Bush's putative opponents and watchdogs have had no place to stand, practically or philosophically, so long as what he was doing could be spun as a success on the evening news. If a majority of the people continued to think his war was a success, who was going to be first to call it a failure? But poll numbers and recent invocations of the q-word (quagmire, see: Vietnam) prove that far fewer people now deem the war a success. Bush got the briefest of news-cycle bounces from tracking down Uday and Qusay, but it won't change the situation on the ground in Iraq. The bad news will continue to dribble in. The war is not going well, which means the rules of engagement between the Bushmen, the Democrats, and the media are shifting.
Over half a century has passed since the last time an American president undertook to shift the whole footing of U.S. foreign policy and American empire in quite so radical a manner. When the Truman administration began the military buildup that ushered in the Cold War, it was as untroubled by facts as the Bush administration. Afterward, as Gore Vidal tells it, "[Dean] Acheson wrote, cheerfully, 'If we did make our points clearer than truth, we did not differ from most other educators and could hardly do otherwise.' After all, as he noted, it was the State Department's view that the average American spent no more than 10 minutes a day brooding on foreign policy."
But Bush has it better than Truman in one regard. For purposes of managing public opinion, "the news" now means TV news, where surveys say 75-85 percent of the public gets most of its meager daily allowance of information. There are six major TV news operations in the country now--five, really, since NBC and its Microsoft-branded cable version are two of them. Control what they've got to say and you possess the equivalent of a state-run news agency with all the (rapidly diminishing) cachet of a free press.
And it's never been simpler to control what the networks have to say. And, though they matter less, the same can be said of most of the newspapers most of the time. "The press in this country," wrote James Wolcott in the June Vanity Fair, "has never identified less with the underdog and pandered more to the top pedigrees. The arrogance of the Bush administration is mirrored in the arrogance of the elite media, which preens even as it prostrates itself."
Part of the growing worthlessness of TV news derives from economic pressures, the same ones that have turned network entertainment divisions into production lines for reality TV shows, a spoon-fed and mostly spurious programming phenomenon driven mainly by the minuscule cost of these shows versus old-school sitcoms and dramas. In the broadcast news departments and at the cable networks, the age of austerity has meant cutting back on the resources devoted to newsgathering: reporters, foreign bureaus, production personnel. The change has wrought a predictable transformation in the mindset of the working broadcast journalist. As the distinction between informing and entertaining fades to the vanishing point, so does any notion that TV news might exist for purposes beyond pleasing the viewer. Gathering the news has become a matter of getting the best live shots, telling a tidy and gratifying "human" story, making the heroes look like heroes and the correspondents look like models. Critics of behemoth corporate media have always fretted about the top-down pressures on journalists to watch what they say, but it's hard to imagine that most contemporary network journalists have a single thought in their heads that might distress their bosses. (When they do, though, they are hauled straight to the woodshed, as MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield learned after telling a campus lecture audience that TV news did a poor job of covering numerous aspects of the war.)
Money is also one reason why there is no news on the cable news networks during the evening time slots, when the greatest share of viewers tune in. It's far cheaper to lard the schedule with talking heads who earn their keep finding ways to restate what official sources have already said. The format is a great boon to the White House. It serves to do the heavy lifting required of any serious propaganda campaign, which is sheer numbing repetition. More felicitously still, the ranks of prominent opinion-makers on TV, radio, and the internet are dominated by tub-thumping carnival barkers of the right such as Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and the Fox ensemble, who set the agenda for the (also right-wing) chat-show "liberals" chasing their fumes.
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.
One of the larger questions looming at the moment is how far the CIA wants to carry its current info-war against the Bush gang. Now that Congress's heavily redacted and emended 9/11 report is going public, watch the papers for additional disclosures about the White House's handling of pre-9/11 warnings about imminent attacks. Keep a particular eye on Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, the dean of CIA-insider American journalists. It was a Pincus story, published on June 12, that set the ball rolling by reporting that an anonymous official--later revealed as Joseph Wilson--had given the CIA a negative report on Niger uranium. More recently he has written that the Agency also advised Bush before the war that a besieged or deposed Saddam could pose greater risks than he did as leader. If the coming days and weeks bring leaks of a what-they-knew-and-when-they-knew-it nature about the White House and 9/11, it's probably fair to assume that the CIA is not out merely to humiliate Bush but to destroy him. At least we can be sure that the president, never a very industrious student, has learned one thing during his time in the White House: He knows why none of the numerous presidents who hated and feared J. Edgar Hoover ever dared show him up in public.
If the furor over lies keeps up, the president's men will only make it worse on themselves through their secretive, peremptory, capricious ways. A take-no-prisoners policy seems already in effect from the look of things. We see what they have already tried to do to Joseph Wilson, Dick Durbin, and Jeffrey Kofman, but the air of paranoiac retrenchment runs much deeper than that, as I lately learned firsthand. When City Pages contacted the White House for copies of photographs to accompany this story, the flack who fielded the request demanded to know what it was about, and later declined the request. A small thing, but it was the first time in my cumulative 10 years or so at the paper that any agency or office of the federal government has flatly refused to provide public materials on the grounds that it didn't like what we might do with them.
It's been evident for some time that only Bush could beat Bush in 2004, and he is already part of the way there--accent on part. Never forget that the White House still has two formidable assets in the ever-shrinking American public memory and the Democratic presidential field.
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