consortiumnews.com

Bush & the L-Word

By Nat Parry
March 29, 2004

Over the past four years, one of the most powerful U.S. media taboos has been against calling George W. Bush’s pattern of false statements lies. Among Washington journalists, the l-word is casually applied to people who have gotten in the way of the Bush Dynasty – from Bill Clinton and Al Gore to more recently John Kerry and now Richard Clarke – but almost never to Bush.

Sen. Kerry’s credibility took a thrashing when he remarked that many world leaders say they hope Bush will be defeated. Now, top Republicans are calling former counter-terrorism czar Clarke a liar for his comments about Bush’s handling of the war on terror. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist used the l-word repeatedly in attacking Clarke from the Senate floor, even suggesting that Clarke should be charged with perjury.

In these cases, the major newspapers and the TV networks have added to the impact by giving credence to the liar-liar charges. When Clarke appeared for a full hour on NBC's "Meet the Press" on March 28, host Tim Russert spent nearly the entire time buffeting Clarke with the Republican attacks, demanding responses to each charge, even flashing on the screen a "liar" accusation from conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer. But opposite rules apply to Bush. Calling him a liar remains out of bounds in the mainstream press.

Indeed, when Kerry made another off-hand remark about the Bush team as “the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen,” his comments were reported as a bizarre slander and the media puzzled over why Kerry would say such a ridiculous thing, even acting as if Kerry was talking about all Republicans, not just Bush's inner circle.

Whatever the media’s excuse for this double standard, it has thrown the U.S. political balance out of whack. Bush and his surrogates now know they have virtual carte blanche to smear their critics as liars while knowing that the major media will not permit counter-attacks.

Case Study

A recent example of bending over backwards to avoid connecting Bush and the l-word was the Wall Street Journal’s March 22 lead story about gaps between Bush’s account of his actions on Sept. 11, 2001, and the public record.

The story's headline, “Detailed Picture of U.S. Actions On Sept. 11 Remains Elusive,” didn’t give much of a clue what to expect. While avoiding the l-word or anything close to a synonym, the article told the story of how Bush and his aides made statements at variance with the verifiable record about the events of that tragic day.

The Journal article by Scot J. Paltrow gave six examples of Bush or his top aides offering Sept. 11 accounts – all portraying Bush as a decisive leader – that didn’t square with the factual record. Some of the discrepancies relate to important historical facts; others amount to political spin to help build a heroic myth around George W. Bush as “war president.” The Journal’s examples included:

--Did Bush watch the first plane hit one of the Twin Towers?

Bush’s arrival for a photo op at a second-grade classroom in Sarasota, Fla., on Sept. 11, 2001, coincided with the first news reaching the presidential entourage that a plane had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. On Dec. 4, 2001, Bush told a town-hall meeting in Orlando, Fla., “I was sitting outside the classroom, waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower – the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly myself, and I said, ‘Well, there’s one terrible pilot.’” But, as the Journal reported, there was no footage of the first plane until late that night and the TV in the room where Bush waited was unplugged.

--Did Bush quickly respond when Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispered in Bush’s ear, “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack”?

Card has said “not that many seconds later, the president excused himself from the classroom, and we gathered in the holding room and talked about the situation.” An uncut videotape of the scene, however, shows that Bush – after having been told “America is under attack” – waited in the classroom for at least seven more minutes, as he listened to children read a story about a pet goat and asked the children questions. Card later said Bush’s “instinct was not to frighten the children by rushing out of the room.”

--Who raised the U.S. defense level to Defcon III, the highest state of military threat since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War?

Bush told the town-hall meeting in Orlando that “one of the first acts I did was to put our military on alert.” But the Journal reported that the evidence is that Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the acting head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the decision, as Bush was rushing from the school in Florida to Air Force One and then westward to Louisiana and Nebraska.

--Did Bush activate the government’s emergency response plans as he claimed in his nationally televised speech on the night of Sept. 11?

Federal officials, interviewed by the Journal, said the emergency plans were implemented by lower-level officials, not by Bush. FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the so-called “Conplan” was activated without any input from Bush or the White House. A former White House official told the Journal that Bush was not involved until he signed a disaster declaration on Sept. 14.

--Was there a threat against Air Force One?

White House officials insisted at the time that Bush’s decision to flee first to Louisiana and then to Nebraska was driven by a credible terrorist threat against Air Force One. But White House spokesman Dan Bartlett now acknowledges that there was no credible threat, only misunderstood rumors.

--Did Bush delay his return flight to Washington until 4 p.m. because there were still unaccounted for aircraft in the skies?

In explaining Bush’s tardy return to Washington, political adviser Karl Rove said there were still reports about civilian jetliners aloft until 4 p.m. and thus still a threat to Air Force One. But Benjamin Sliney, the top Federal Aviation Administration official responsible for air-traffic control, said the agency informed the White House and the Pentagon at 12:16 p.m. that there were no more hijacked planes in the air and all commercial planes were out of U.S. airspace, the Journal reported.

A Life Pattern

This pattern of big and little distortions about Bush’s actions on Sept. 11 also does not stand in isolation. Bush has often made claims about his personal life, his decision-making and his role in historical events – such as the reasons for invading Iraq – that are patently untrue.

For instance, on three occasions since the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, Bush has justified his decision by telling the American people that Saddam Hussein had refused to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors. In July 2003, only four months after the invasion, Bush said about Hussein, “we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.” [For details, see the White House Web site.]

The reality, of course, was that Iraq had allowed the UN inspectors in and had given them access to any suspected weapons site of their choosing. It was Bush who forced the UN inspectors out to make way for the invasion. But he has since revised the history to make his actions appear more reasonable. In most normal circumstances, Bush's statement would be considered a lie, but the national press corps has chosen not to mention that comment or two similar remarks. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's Terror Hysteria."

Bush stretched the truth again when he used the Sept. 11 catastrophe as part of his excuse for reneging on his promise to run balanced budgets. As he began to amass record federal deficits, Bush claimed that he had given himself an escape hatch during the 2000 campaign.

In speech after speech in the months after Sept. 11, Bush recounted his supposed caveat from the 2000 campaign, that he would keep the budget balanced except in event of war, recession or national emergency. Bush then delivered the punch line: "Little did I realize we'd get the trifecta."

The joking reference to the trifecta – a term for a horseracing bet on the correct order of finish for three horses – always got a laugh from his listeners, although some families of the Sept. 11 victims found the joke tasteless. (Similarly, some families of U.S. war dead in Iraq were disgusted by Bush joking about his failed search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at a March 2004 dinner of Washington journalists, many of whom laughed uproariously at the presidential humor.)

But beyond the question of taste, Bush's trifecta claim about having set criteria for going back into deficit spending appears to have been fabricated. Neither the White House nor independent researchers could locate any such campaign statement by Bush.

Missed Warnings

In 2002, as questions were finally raised about whether the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented, Bush's aides tried to give him some political cover for his failure to follow up on a classified CIA briefing he received on Aug. 6, 2001, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The briefing had described a mounting threat of al-Qaeda attacks inside the United States, but appeared to have little effect on Bush. After the briefing, he went fishing, padded around the ranch and continued with a month-long vacation. There has been no evidence that the startling warning prodded Bush into any new sense of urgency.

But National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has tried to put some heroic shine on the Aug. 6 briefing. On May 12, 2002, Rice said the briefing was a response to Bush's questions about the domestic al-Qaeda threats. In other words, Bush was the prescient president who was alert to the danger and was demanding bureaucratic action.

Rice's story, however, has since been contradicted. The CIA informed the 9/11 commission in mid-March 2004 that the briefing's author doesn't recall a request from Bush for the report and that the idea of the briefing generated from inside the CIA, not from the Oval Office, according to commission member Richard Ben-Veniste. [Washington Post, March 26, 2004]

Bush's defenders maintain that many of Bush's false statements are either insignificant or result from understandable lapses of memory. However, Bush's critics see a larger and consistent pattern in the big and little lies: all seek to present Bush in a more favorable light and they fit with a disdain for fact that has become a hallmark of Bush's administration.

One explanation might be that Bush and the people around him can’t distinguish fact from fiction. Another is that they simply don’t care, such as when they used dubious intelligence to scare the American public about Iraq's alleged WMD. Bush’s ease with lying also may reflect deeper personal problems: a lack of intellectual discipline, a pattern of deception set during earlier periods of substance abuse, an entrenched sense of privilege, an awareness that his family connections guarantee that he'll never be held accountable.

Yet it is still striking how audaciously Team Bush steps out of its glass house to hurl stones at the credibility of any critic who gets in the way. When former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill questioned Bush’s leadership in Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, the White House portrayed O’Neill as a disgruntled flake who couldn’t be trusted.

Bush v. Clarke

Now, the White House and its allies are going after the credibility of former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke. He asserts in his new book, Against All Enemies, and in testimony before the 9/11 commission that Iraq was a Bush obsession while al-Qaeda was not viewed as an urgent priority during Bush’s first eight months in office.

Though Clarke's comments match with much of the known evidence, senior congressional Republicans appear to be laying the groundwork for destroying Clarke's credibility and possibly indicting him for perjury. Senate Majority Leader Frist went to the Senate floor on March 26 to accuse Clarke of leaving out much of his criticism about Bush in July 2002 when Clarke gave classified testimony to the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Clarke, then a special adviser to the president, said he told the truth in his congressional testimony though he emphasized the positive as a White House representative. He also noted that the testimony occurred before the invasion of Iraq, which solidified Clarke's assessment that Bush was bungling the war on terror.

But in a scathing Senate speech, Frist demanded that Clarke's sworn Capitol Hill testimony be declassified and examined for discrepancies from his testimony to the 9/11 commission. "Loyalty to any administration will be no defense if it is found that he has lied to Congress," said Frist, R-Tenn.

The Republican assault on Clarke came as the White House sensed that the counter-terrorism expert was making a powerful impression on the public and undermining the carefully crafted image of Bush as an infallible leader.

As the war against Clarke has escalated, Bush even pitted his personal credibility against Clarke's by disputing Clarke’s account of meeting Bush in the White House Situation Room on Sept. 12, 2001, a day after the terrorist attacks. Clarke said he was told by Bush to seek a link between the Sept. 11 attacks and Iraq. “See if Saddam did this,” Bush said, according to Clarke. “See if he’s linked in any way.” Clarke said he told Bush that the evidence was clear that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, not Iraq.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan sought to poke a hole in Clarke’s credibility by telling reporters that Bush didn’t recall the conversation and that no records show Bush was in the Situation Room at that time. However, Clarke’s former deputy, Roger Cressey, corroborated that the conversation between Bush and Clarke had occurred. [New York Times, March 23, 2004.]

The White House subsequently acknowledged that the Bush-Clarke meeting in the Situation Room did occur, but the Washington press corps did not cite this reversal as evidence of a Bush lie. The taboo remains in place.

When reporting on Bush's attempts to discredit or destroy whistleblowers, the Washington press corps typically lets Bush, his aides and conservative pundits gang up on one individual in a kind of they-said-he-said dispute, much as Russert did to Clarke on "Meet the Press." There's never any counter-balancing context of Bush’s now long record of distortion and deception. It’s like every day is a new day for Bush’s credibility.

Tip-Toeing

This media pattern goes back to Campaign 2000 when Bush was hailed as a "straight-shooter" despite a lot of evidence to the contrary. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Protecting Bush-Cheney."] After Bush took office, the media's kid-gloves treatment continued despite Bush's growing reputation as a guy who never lets the facts get in the way of a politically advantageous story.

The Washington Post gingerly approached this question of Bush's dishonesty in fall 2002, couching the issue in euphemisms and rationalizations. The Post story was entitled "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable," with a subhead reading "Presidential Tradition of Embroidering Key Assertions Continues," as if Bush was carrying forward some historic mission.

In contrast to tip-toeing around the l-word for Bush, the major news media stomped all over the credibility of Al Gore in 2000 and is starting to do the same to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. A case in point was Kerry's off-hand remark on March 8 that he had spoken with “more leaders” who hoped he would defeat Bush. Initially, a pool reporter disseminated a misquote of the comment, which reported Kerry saying “foreign leaders.”

Using the original misquote, the Republican attack machine quickly began churning out suggestions that Kerry might be less than a red-blooded American. “Kerry’s imaginary friends have British and French accents,” said Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie on March 11, quickly setting out the themes that Kerry is both delusional and suspect for hanging out with foreigners.

But the story didn’t switch into high gear until the right-wing Washington Times, controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, blared the results of its investigation of Kerry’s remarks across the front page of its March 12 issue. Though it's been well known for more than a year that many foreign leaders are troubled by Bush's unilateral foreign policy, the Washington Times acted like Kerry's claim was so strange that it merited some major sleuthing.

The article asserted that Kerry “cannot back up foreign ‘endorsements,’” in part because he declined to identify the leaders whom he had spoken with in confidence about Bush. Kerry had “made no official foreign trips since the start of last year,” the newspaper wrote. Plus, “an extensive review of Mr. Kerry’s travel schedule domestically revealed only one opportunity for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to meet with foreign leaders here,” the Washington Times wrote.

The point was obvious: Kerry is a liar. The possibility that Kerry might have talked to anyone by phone or some other means of communication apparently was not contemplated by Rev. Moon’s newspaper, which saw the furor as a way to advance a Bush campaign theme about Kerry's supposed unreliability.

“Mr. Kerry has made other claims during the campaign and then refused to back them up,” the Washington Times wrote. Then came the ridicule: “Republicans have begun calling Mr. Kerry the ‘international man of mystery,’ and said his statements go even beyond those of former Vice President Al Gore, who was besieged by stories that he lied or exaggerated throughout the 2000 presidential campaign.”

Soon, Bush was personally suggesting that Kerry was a liar. “If you’re going to make an accusation in the course of a campaign, you’ve got to back it up,” Bush said. Vice President Dick Cheney added even uglier implications that Kerry may have engaged in acts close to treason. “We have a right to know what he is saying to them that makes them so supportive of his candidacy,” Cheney said.

Rev. Moon’s Washington Times also kept stirring the pot. On March 16, it quoted Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., as saying “I think there’s a real question as to whether or not the claim was a fabrication.”

That same day, again implying that Kerry perhaps suffers from mental illness, Bush’s campaign chief Ken Mehlman accused the senator of living in a “parallel universe.” Mehlman then made a preemptive strike to protect Bush from any Kerry counter-attack against Bush's lies. Mehlman said Kerry already had shown a “willingness to try to project onto the president what are his own weaknesses.” [Washington Post, March 17, 2004]

True Comment

The Republican allegations about Kerry’s supposed lie that world leaders favored Bush's defeat dominated the TV pundit shows for a week. But the larger absurdity of the controversy was that Kerry’s comment about many leaders privately wishing for Bush’s defeat was certainly true.

Many leaders around the world are alarmed at what they consider Bush’s reckless leadership, and they fear what another four years would mean. Though many leaders obviously do not want their countries to suffer from the vindictiveness of the Bush administration, others have spoken with surprising candor.

The newly elected Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has called Bush’s Iraq War a “disaster,” has vowed to withdraw Spanish forces from Iraq unless the operation is put under United Nations control, and has said he would favor new U.S. leadership. Honduras and the Netherlands have also expressed growing concern about their roles in the military coalition occupying Iraq.

Even before the war, world leaders were speaking out forcefully against Bush’s invasion plans. Former South African president Nelson Mandela tried and failed to get Bush on the phone, before settling on a call to Bush’s father to voice his displeasure. Mandela was quoted as saying the younger George Bush was “introducing chaos into international affairs.”

Other world leaders have criticized other aspects of Bush’s foreign and security policies, including his opposition to the Kyoto global warming treaty, the prisoner camps in Guantanamo Bay, and human rights abuses associated with the war on terror.

Some critics have paid for their outspokenness with their jobs as the Bush administration demonstrated the spitefulness that would explain why many leaders would want comments kept confidential.

Mary C. Robinson, former president of Ireland and widely respected human rights champion, was one such victim. As the UN Human Rights Commissioner, she was an early critic of the prosecution of the war on terror and raised concerns about civilian casualties from the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan.

But her independence rubbed Washington the wrong way. The Bush administration lobbied hard against her reappointment, and was successful in forcing her out of the UN. Officially, she was retiring on her own accord. [http://www.inthesetimes.com/issue/26/14/feature1.shtml]

The Bush administration also forced out Robert Watson, the chairman of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]. Under his leadership, the panel had reached a consensus that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, contributed to global warming.

But this science stood in opposition to the Bush administration's claims that there is no conclusive evidence linking human activities to climate change. The science is also opposed by oil companies such as ExxonMobil. The oil giant sent a memo to the White House asking the administration, "Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the U.S.?" [http://www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org/commentary/2002/0204un_body.html]

On April 19, 2002, ExxonMobil got its wish. The administration succeeded in replacing Watson with Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian economist. Commenting on his removal, Watson said, "U.S. support was, of course, an important factor. They [the IPCC] came under a lot of pressure from ExxonMobil who asked the White House to try and remove me." [Independent, April 20, 2002]

Keeping Quiet

With that kind of track record, it should not be a surprise if world leaders decide to keep their opinions quiet about Election 2004. But considering how unpopular Bush is in many countries, foreign leaders also are in a tricky position when allying with the United States. Whatever some of these world leaders may have told Kerry, there is abundant evidence that most of the world’s people would like to see Bush gone.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators have turned out to protest Bush's presence whenever he visits a foreign capital, a sign of public disdain that is reinforced by recent opinion polls that reveal widespread disapproval of U.S. policies and of Bush’s leadership.

In a major new public opinion poll of nine countries by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, large majorities of each country surveyed (except for the United States) said Washington pays little or no attention to their countries’ interests. At least two-thirds in each of those countries (with the exception of Great Britain) expressed a desire for the European Union to become as powerful as the United States, as a means to check American power. In the seven countries that were surveyed that did not take part in the Iraq war, disapproval of the war hovered at around 85 percent.

In today’s interdependent world, international leaders are left trying to balance an alliance with the United States, which is vital for trade and long-term national interests, and their electorates who object to Bush’s foreign policies. Obviously, it would be much more convenient for these leaders to have a U.S. president that is not disliked as much as George W. Bush is.

As the voters showed in Spain in March – and earlier in Germany and South Korea – criticizing Bush's policies and calling for a more independent course can be a winning political strategy.

A key question in this fall's U.S. election, however, will be whether Bush can maintain his image as a "straight-shooter" by destroying the credibility of those who question his leadership and honesty. The ferocity of the Bush assaults on former Treasury Secretary O'Neill and now former counter-terrorism chief Clarke reveals how important Bush and his political advisers see the threat from these whistleblowers.

Central to Bush's success in his new war against his ex-assistants will be whether the major news media will continue its obsequious behaviour. Bush's strategy can only work if he and his surrogates are allowed to throw around the l-word without fear that it might finally be tossed back at them.

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