Campaign 2004's Jedi Mind
By Sam Parry
September 20, 2004
the best way to understand Campaign 2004 is to think of the Jedi Mind
Trick from the Star War movies, a wave of the hand and a hypnotically
suggestive phrase make the feeble-minded miss the obvious. “These aren’t
the droids you’re looking for,” Obi-Wan Kenobe tells storm troopers who
are looking for precisely those droids.
In Campaign 2004, it’s as if George W. Bush’s
campaign has mastered the same trick, applying it to much of the
national news media and to many voters: “John Kerry is not the candidate
you’re looking for.”
So, Kerry, the decorated Vietnam War hero who
undertook hazardous missions in the Mekong Delta, is a coward and a
fraud, according to a pro-Bush veterans group and Bush delegates at the
Republican National Convention who taped on band-aids adorned with
purple hearts to mock Kerry’s war wounds.
Meanwhile, the Bush advocates say their man served
honorably in the Texas Air National Guard, waving off evidence to the
contrary. Anyone – who suggests that influential friends of his dad
pulled strings to keep Bush safely stateside, that he skipped a required
physical leading to his suspension from flying or that he then ducked
out on his duty obligations in Alabama – is a liar or someone who’s been
hoaxed. Memos cited by CBS News that appear not to be authentic somehow
negate all the other evidence proving that Bush shirked his duty and got
away with it.
“George W. Bush is not a child of privilege,” the
hypnotic voice says. “He’s a regular guy, just like you and me.”
Tale of Two Conventions
As for the two national party conventions this
summer, Americans are supposed to recall that the Democrats staged an
anti-Bush “hatefest” while the Republicans engaged in a fair and honest
examination of the differences between the two candidates. In reality,
however, the Democrats bent over backwards not to criticize Bush harshly
and often not at all, excising his name from many speech drafts. By
contrast, speakers at the Republican convention laid into Kerry, again
and again, as unfit to serve, while delegates chanted "flip-flop" or
pointed to their purple-heart band-aids.
The Democratic keynote address by Illinois Senate
candidate Barack Obama didn’t even mention Bush’s name, stressing
instead a positive message about America’s traditions and potential to
become an even greater nation. Obama’s feel-good address couldn’t have
been more different from the GOP’s angry keynote address by disaffected
Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, who attacked Kerry by name 16 times, twice
the number of times he mentioned George W. Bush.
Miller accused Kerry of wanting to “outsource” America’s national
security and to “let Paris decide when America needs defending,”
allegations that Kerry has flatly denied. The Georgia senator also
denounced Kerry for votes against some Cold War weapons systems, such as
the B-2 bomber, which were used in attacks inside Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This is the man who wants to be the Commander in Chief of our U.S.
Armed Forces?” Miller asked, his face contorted in contempt. “U.S.
forces armed with what? Spitballs?”
Neither Miller nor the Republicans made any effort to point out that
leading figures in the first Bush administration, including then-Defense
Secretary Dick Cheney, had sought cutbacks in many of the same weapons
systems that were now being cited to impugn Kerry’s fitness.
Still, while many of the Republican punches were below the belt, they
were effective. The Democrats, who shied away from negativity about
Bush, got virtually no poll bounce out of their convention. The
Republicans, who relished their anti-Kerry derision, got a double-digit
bounce, according to some national polls (though less in others). Now,
the memories of those two conventions are being rearranged via Jedi Mind
This extraordinary Republican capability – aided greatly by a large
and committed pro-Republican conservative news media, which ranges from
major Internet sites and Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio shows to the Wall
Street Journal’s editorial page and Fox News – has been a savior to the
Bush campaign. Without this built-in cheering section, Bush might be
forced to run on his record, which is clearly unimpressive to many
Despite Bush's lead in some national preference
polls, majorities of American voters have consistently indicated that
the nation is heading in the wrong direction. One recent Rasmussen poll
shows 56 percent believing the nation's on the wrong track versus 40
percent who say the right track.
These results aren't surprising after almost four
years of the Bush presidency, which has presided over a net job loss,
net declines in salaries relative to inflation, net loss in the number
of Americans with health care coverage, soaring deficits that current
projections suggest will never balance, military campaigns bogged down
in Afghanistan and Iraq with little real progress to report and al-Qaeda
regenerating its forces.
Yet, while the issues line up against Bush, he
scores high on "likeability," bettering Kerry by margins of between five
and 10 points. Bush does even better on questions about strength and
decisiveness, topping Kerry by more than 10 points. So, the Bush team
has made a strategic choice to avoid specific issues and run on his
image as a tough-talking leader who seems like a regular guy.
Running on personality has the advantage of relying
on subjective judgments rather than empirical evidence. The subjectivity
plays to Bush's media strength because a dedicated conservative press
corps can be expected to cheer him on as the mainstream media mostly
sits on its hands for both candidates.
There's no specific data, for instance, to disprove
that Bush is strong and decisive or to dispute that Kerry is wobbly and
indecisive. There are anecdotes that can be marshaled to buttress either
position, which the conservative media does aggressively to support Bush
and tear down Kerry. That, in turn, creates a momentum that the
mainstream press often follows, repeating the spin points against Kerry
and accepting the positive image of Bush.
A similar pattern existed in Campaign 2000 when
Gore was labeled a liar and Bush was deemed a straight shooter, even
though the evidence often didn't support those images. But once those
campaign story lines were established in 2000, they were almost
impossible to reverse, allowing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to get
away with telling whoppers while Al Gore was lambasted over any
rhetorical imprecision. [See Consortiumnews.com's
This year, Bush has been christened the decisive
one and Kerry the flip-flopper. So even when evidence emerges about
Bush's reckless judgments and sudden reversals – such as the rash White
House order to assault Fallujah in April and the abrupt pullback [see
Bloody Flip-Flop"] – the major U.S. news media turns a blind eye
because the example doesn't fit with the accepted story line. Plus,
there's no dedicated liberal media with the clout to demand a change in
the story line like the potent conservative media could and would if the
shoe were on the other foot.
All the mainstream media seems capable of doing is
discovering that many voters – having heard the repetition of the story
lines for months – have come to repeat them when questioned by
pollsters, which, in turn, further deepens the power of these images.
In Campaign 2004, the Bush team has been seeking
the virtual disqualification of Kerry as a legitimate candidate for the
Presidency by citing example after example of his supposed weakness and
It doesn't seem to matter that many specific
charges are unfair – such as the attacks on Kerry for supporting
military cuts in the early 1990s that were advocated by Defense
Secretary Cheney or Kerry's backing of intelligence restructuring that
also was favored by Porter Goss, Bush's nominee to be CIA director. The
repetition of the charges simply "proves" that Kerry is soft on defense.
The Bush team then contrasts this image of wobbly
Kerry with the image of resolute Bush. The Bush team, for instance,
charges repeatedly that Kerry is a man with eight different positions on
Iraq. Though the number eight seems to be pulled from thin air since no
one has itemized the so-called eight positions, Bush and Cheney have
made the line one of their standard barbs on the stump. By contrast, the
conventional wisdom goes, Bush is the consistent leader who knows where
he’s going and does what he says he'll do.
When discussing Bush's image, the news media rarely
notes the opposite side of the "decisive Bush" coin. While frequently
calling Bush "bold" or "decisive," the press corps almost never
describes him as "rash" or "impulsive." When some liberal advocate, such
as Michael Moore, does cite evidence of Bush's indecision and confusion,
the news media invariably dismisses the criticism as unfair or
dishonest. That occurs even when the evidence is clear, such as Bush's
failure to act on intelligence warnings before Sept. 11, 2001, and his
freezing for seven minutes after being told the nation was under attack.
Instead, Bush gets credit for the photo op standing
atop the World Trade Center rubble a few days later or throwing out a
first pitch at a baseball game. He also gets a near pass on annual
deficits exceeding $400 billion and his failure to build a strong
international coalition to fight the war against terrorism.
The brilliance of the Bush campaign approach is
that it works on many levels at once. First, it defines Kerry as a man
who cannot be trusted to lead the country in a dangerous world. Second,
it diverts attention away from the real campaign issues, such as whether
tangible progress is being made against Islamic terrorists. Third, it
leaves many American voters too confused to make an informed judgment.
An additional benefit for Bush is that the
mainstream news media often blames both candidates equally for the
supposed lack of substance in the campaign. In a typical statement along
these lines, Univision’s news anchor Jorge Ramos told NPR’s Jennifer
Ludden that “The three most important issues for Latinos are jobs,
education, and access to health care... and unfortunately neither
candidate Kerry nor President Bush are addressing the specific problems
of the Hispanic community with these three issues.” [NPR, "All Things
Considered," Sept. 11, 2004]
Some voters may not like what they hear from John
Kerry on these issues, but it's wrong to say that he isn’t addressing
jobs, health care and education. In fact, these issues make up the core
platform of Kerry’s candidacy. He talks about these issues in almost
every speech, almost every day on the campaign trail.
As in Campaign 2000, the Bush team has displayed
near total control over the lens used by the national media to frame the
campaign. In the back of every pundit’s head, whether liberal or
conservative, is that Jedi Mind Trick phrase “Kerry is a flip-flopping
Like the feeble-minded creatures in the Star Wars
movies, many in the press follow this theme in every question asked of
Kerry, in every report about him, in every analysis on Kerry’s bid for
the presidency. This theme is always just under the surface, and even
sportscasters are getting into the act of using the flip-flop line in
When NBC's Washington bureau chief Tim Russert
questioned Madeleine Albright and James Carville, Russert repeatedly
demanded answers about Kerry’s supposedly confusing positions on the
After a couple of questions, Carville shot back,
asking why the press doesn’t spend equal time asking Bush these
questions, why has the press let the sitting president off the hook for
not having a plan to win the peace in Iraq? Russert didn’t answer, but
continued to press for a response about Kerry’s position, attempting to
drive home the point that Kerry has been all over the map. [CNBC's "The
Tim Russert Show," Sept. 11, 2004]
Russert repeated this performance a day later on
"Meet the Press" with Albright. Russert opened by asking Albright to
explain Kerry’s statement from Aug. 9 when Kerry said that knowing what
he knows now, he still would have voted to authorize the president to
use force if necessary. Kerry’s answer, while disappointing to many
anti-war activists, actually showed his consistency in his position on
Yet, Russert followed the lead so often taken by
the national press to use those words to argue that Kerry’s consistency
actually shows inconsistency. According to this thinking, if you vote
one way and stand by that vote nearly two years later, that's a
flip-flop, apparently because "flip-flopper" is the default media story
line for John Kerry.
What pundits like Russert seem unable to grasp is
that Kerry’s views on Iraq both in October of 2002 and today have
remained the same: holding Saddam Hussein accountable was an important
goal, but that the way Bush pursued the war in Iraq has left America
exposed and vulnerable.
Russert went on to question Albright about Kerry’s
position on the funding of the war. Russert played a clip of Kerry
recently blaming the Bush administration for wrong choices that have
resulted in America spending $200 billion in Iraq. Then, Russert played
a clip from last August in which Kerry said America needs to spend
whatever amount is necessary to succeed in Iraq.
To Russert, these two positions were somehow
contradictory. But it’s really not that hard to understand. Kerry’s
position is that the United States needs to spend what is necessary to
succeed, but should minimize that amount by recruiting other nations to
contribute more. How hard is that? Yet, Russert seemed totally confused.
Even when it comes to the $87 billion supplemental
war appropriations bill that Kerry voted for before voting against it,
Bush’s attacks are disingenuous. The fact is that Bush threatened to
veto that same bill if it had come to Bush’s desk with an amendment
supported by Kerry to pay for part of the bill designated for Iraqi
reconstruction by raising taxes on the richest one percent of U.S.
taxpayers by $5,000.
The $87 billion bill, which Bush threatened to
veto, is now used to accuse Kerry of not supporting the troops even
though the dispute was only over how to pay for the Iraq reconstruction,
through a surcharge or by adding it to the federal debt.
The pattern is similar to the political tactic that
Bush used in the 2002 elections over the Homeland Security bill. Bush
initially opposed the legislation, but weeks before the mid-term
elections, he flip-flopped to support it. He then accused the Democrats
of lacking commitment toward the security of the American people because
they differed with him over whether to deny federal employees civil
While Bush reaps the political harvest from these
tactics, he gets a pass from most Washington
pundits over his own contradictions about the war against terrorism and
the war in Iraq. For instance, Bush has claimed repeatedly that
he gave Saddam Hussein one last chance to avoid war in 2003, but that
Hussein refused to let the weapons inspectors back into Iraq.
The fact is that Hussein did let the inspectors
back in and gave them full access to any suspected weapons site. It was
Bush who forced the weapons inspectors to leave in March 2003, before he
launched the U.S.-led invasion. Bush's rewriting of the history,
however, has provoked no outcry from the national news media, not even
tough questioning of Bush's surrogates about this obvious lie. [See
on the Ballot."]
Unfortunately, there appear to be too many
feeble-minded reporters in the national press corps who just can't
resist the Jedi Mind Trick.
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