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It seems like just yesterday when the national news media was quick to accuse leading politicians of lying. But George W. Bush has changed that, with journalists now won to the “civility” that Bush vowed to bring to Washington.
Take how The New York Times delicately stepped around the apparent contradictions in Bush’s words at the Quebec free-trade summit. The newspaper noted that Bush promised to proceed with the hemispheric free-trade zone only if it were tied to “a strong commitment to protecting our environment and improving labor standards.”
The Times added, however, that “he chose his words with enormous care, leaving unstated the critical question of whether any future trade accord would require all the countries in the hemisphere to adhere to minimum standards, from the wages they pay, to allowing unions to organize, to controlling the pollutants emitted from factories.”
The newspaper went on to note that “Mr. Bush sowed even more confusion about his meaning” when he said at a press conference that the trade agreement should contain no “codicils to destroy the spirit of free trade. In other words, a free trade agreement focuses on commerce.” [NYT, April 22, 2001]
While it might have sounded like Bush was speaking out of both sides of his mouth, the news media avoided drawing that harsh a conclusion.
The press certainly avoided the word “lying,” a term that it readily attached to Vice President Al Gore for his supposed tendency to exaggerate, even when the media helped along the exaggerations by doctoring Gore’s words, as was done in the Love Canal and other cases.
In this new Bush era of civility, however, the American leader does not lie, mislead or dissemble; he picks his words “with enormous care.”
The W-era news media also averts its eyes from embarrassing ironies, such as when Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien defended the summit of 34 hemispheric leaders with the argument that “we are very legitimate. We were elected, all of us.”
The major news organizations chose not to mention that there were lingering questions about whether one of the leaders was either “very legitimate” or “elected,” in the old-fashioned sense of getting the most votes. Indeed, the leader of the United States had lost the popular vote by more than a half million ballots and was effectively appointed by five political allies on the U.S. Supreme Court.
But there was no smirking in the U.S. news media. The press restraint around Chretien’s comments further helps explain why the Miami Herald and USA Today would go to the lengths they did to construct their recount results from Florida in a way to declare Bush the winner.
If the two newspapers had simply applied a clear-intent-of-the-voter standard statewide, Gore would have won Florida by 299 votes. That result, however, might have diminished respect for the United States in the eyes of foreign leaders. By subtracting Gore’s gains in three-plus Florida counties, the newspapers were able to make Bush the winner and minimize damage to Bush's international reputation.
The media’s new-found civility has extended to domestic politics as well. The press corps did note that Bush reversed himself on a key campaign pledge -- to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere -- but journalists studiously avoided use of the “L” word that they frequently applied to Gore and to President Clinton.
During the campaign, Bush’s carbon-dioxide pledge had allowed the Republican to paint himself as more “green” than his environmental record as governor of Texas would have indicated. The promise probably misled many voters into thinking Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” meant relative moderation on environmental issues.
Yet, after gaining the presidency, Bush jettisoned this carbon-dioxide promise in the name of more energy production.
Most of the press treated the move as a realistic political calculation rather than a sign of conscious deception. There were no “liar, liar” headlines as there were last fall when Gore mistakenly recalled traveling to Texas with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, when he actually had gone with the deputy director.
In the wake of the bitter recount battle in Florida, many in the news media also assumed that Bush would live up to his pledge of being a “uniter” and pull the divided country together. Some commentators expected that Bush would demonstrate bipartisanship and transform himself into the “democracy president” by championing reform of the U.S. electoral system
The thinking was that Bush would particularly address the inequality in voting equipment and standards that gave richer and whiter communities a disproportionate likelihood that their votes would be counted than those from poorer, minority-dominated neighborhoods.
Instead of bipartisanship, however, Bush built an administration that many leading conservatives praised as more conservative than Ronald Reagan’s. Bush also has shown little or no interest in correcting the inequalities in vote counting.
“The Bush White House so far has not made changing the election system a priority,” noted The Washington Post’s David Broder, a columnist who has written favorably about Bush’s expected unifying leadership. “The president’s proposed budget, along with the budget resolutions passed by the House and Senate, set aside no funds for federal aid to improving election equipment or administration.”
House Democrats wrote an April 4 letter urging Bush “to provide essential guidance and leadership on a national problem that simply cannot persist if we are to ensure public confidence in our election system and democracy.” A White House aide responded a week later with a letter of acknowledgment and an assurance of a more detailed response later. [WP, April 21, 2001]
One reason for Bush’s lack of enthusiasm for ballot reform could be his awareness that if not for the confusing ballot design that caused elderly Jews in West Palm Beach to vote for Pat Buchanan and the aging voting machines in predominantly black neighborhoods that led to vastly more rejected ballots than in white areas, Bush would not be president today.
No such ungenerous interpretation of his motives has appeared in the mainstream news media. Yet, Republicans have long advocated what they call “ballot security,” a phrase that many African-Americans interpret as code for discouraging black turnout or undercounting their votes.
Leading up to Election 2000, the administration of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sponsored a program to purge alleged felons from the state’s voting rolls. According to investigations of this project, the purge lists included thousands of voters – many of them African-Americans – who simply had names or Social Security numbers similar to actual felons.
In an interview with The Nation, Jeb Bush's point man on the project, Emmett "Bucky" Mitchell IV, justified the loose standards for purging voters by arguing that the errors balanced out in the long run. “Just as some people might have been removed from the list who shouldn’t have been, some voted who shouldn’t have,” Mitchell said. [The Nation, April 30, 2001]
The White House’s loss of interest in correcting the inequality in American voting standards comes at a time, too, when Bush has started laying the groundwork for his reelection campaign in 2004.
Though Vice President Dick Cheney vowed in March that “the days of the war room and the permanent campaign are over,” Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove has created a strategic planning group that is looking forward to expanding Republican control of the House and Senate in 2002 and reelecting Bush in 2004, The Washington Post reported.
Called the “Strategery Group” after a Saturday Night Live spoof on Bush’s mangling of words, the task force is addressing long-term strategic planning on behalf of Bush’s agenda, including his likely campaign themes in 2004, the newspaper reported. One concern is that new census figures indicate that Bush would lose by 3.5 million votes if minorities vote against him in the same percentages as in 2000. [WP, April 22, 2001]
While the Post reported that “one of the chief goals of the strategic initiative is figuring out how to win the votes of more minorities,” another unstated solution to Bush’s political dilemma would be to continue to depress the votes of African-Americans, Hispanics and other minority groups that tend to favor Democrats.
Nevertheless, the news media resists casting Bush’s motives in the same harsh light that was turned on the Clinton administration and the Gore campaign. A principal reason for this disparity is the absence of anything comparable to the well-funded conservative media that helped set the uncivil political tone of the 1990s.
The conservative media eagerly took up the cudgel against Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. By hammering away at every misstep – real or imagined – the conservative media set the press agenda for Washington.
Mainstream journalists had the choice of joining in or being labeled “Clinton apologists.” Journalists quickly sensed that going along was far safer – and potentially more profitable – for one’s career.
In Washington, there’s no comparable media force to hold Bush accountable in a similar way. Indeed, the conservative media generally defends Bush and his actions, while mainstream reporters are uncomfortable making critical judgments unless those assessments already have broad support within the political/journalistic community.
To date, no major media voice has been willing to go against the grain and describe Bush’s actions in anything but the most gentlemanly terms.
Some might call the change a victory for civility. Others might call it a double standard.
Nevertheless, as Bush completes his first 100 days in office, he seems headed for an extended honeymoon.
Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories in the 1980s for The Associated Press and Newsweek.