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W: Inarticulate or Deceptive?

By Sam Parry
May 6, 2001

Maybe George W. Bush’s administration has adopted the adage of Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, "Watch what we do, not what we say."

But if Bush and his inner circle are employing Mitchell's cynical advice, they may have come up with a new twist. Through Bush's first 100-plus days, a combination of about-faces on some issues and Bush's famed imprecision on others has made it nearly impossible to get a fix on what the administration is saying, or in Bush’s case, whether he knows what he’s saying.

The verbal chaos has been so sweeping that while some observers are compiling lists of Bush's gaffes, others have come to suspect that there must be some method behind the fuzzy rhetoric. For instance, as this theory goes, if the administration continually reverses itself on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a confused public might not know whether to organize opposition to the plan – until it's too late.

So, too, with Bush's promise to do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," a comment his aides spent the next 24 hours insisting was not a change in two decades of intentional ambiguity about U.S. military policy toward China and Taiwan. Was this an example of Bush's lazy mind unable to master subtlety or was he consciously sending mixed-up signals to cause consternation within the Chinese leadership?

To those who see a deliberately deceptive strategy behind Bush's mangled syntax, this pattern of saying one thing and doing another can be traced back to last year’s campaign when Bush used the Republican convention in Philadelphia as a showcase for ethnic and racial diversity. On the stump, Bush reinforced that image by posing repeatedly with black children. The message was that he was a new type of Republican: a compassionate conservative who was no threat to black people.

Lost Votes

Yet, in the election, his campaign supporters – including officials working for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – took extraordinary steps to disenfranchise black voters, even purging thousands of African-Americans in Florida who were falsely designated felons. Thousands of more African-Americans were stripped of their voting rights by malfunctioning voting machines that failed to register clear votes for president.

According to a study by USA Today, voters in Florida's majority-black precincts were almost four times as likely to have their presidential election ballots invalidated than voters in overwhelmingly white precincts. [USA Today, April 6-8, 2001] Election Day exit polls showed that blacks in Florida favored Democrat Al Gore by about 9-to-1, meaning that the combination of factors that disenfranchised black voters almost certainly was the difference in the narrow Bush lead in Florida on Election Day.

Then, rather than support Gore's call for a statewide recount that could have reduced the distortion caused by malfunctioning voting machines or later accept a statewide recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, Bush sent his lawyers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bush's lawyers even invoked the equal protection clause of the Constitution to stop the counting of the votes and to ensure Bush's victory.

Through it all, Bush presented himself as a fellow who favored equal treatment for all. On Dec. 13, after Al Gore’s concession speech, Bush spoke to the nation and promised to be a leader for all Americans. "Our nation must rise above a house divided," Bush said. "Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements."

In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, Bush said, "Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity."

Ballot Inaction

Fundamental to any concept of justice, however, would be an electoral system representative of the will of the people, not one that throws out African-American votes at a rate four times that of white precincts. Yet, Bush has not lifted a finger to address this political injustice.

"The Bush White House so far has not made changing the election system a priority," wrote the Washington Post’s David Broder, one of the columnists who earlier had expected Bush to take the lead in healing the nation’s political wounds. "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." [WP, April 21, 2001]

Broder noted that without federal help, states are unlikely to tackle the costly project of replacing antiquated voting systems with modern, less error-prone technologies. In other words, Bush’s inaugural promise "to build a single nation of justice and opportunity" ignores modernizing the crippled voting system that pushed the country to the edge of a constitutional crisis last year.

Bush also has rejected the possibility of congressional representation for residents of the District of Columbia with its large African-American population. Privately, Republicans concede that they oppose these voting rights because the District is "too black, too liberal and too Democratic," though in public, they stress constitutional arguments.

When Washington Post editors asked Bush about D.C. representation in an interview about his first 100 days in office, he responded simply: "I'm against the senators. That's a short answer."

"What about the (House) delegate having full voting rights?"

"I guess it's logical if I'm against the U.S. senators, I'm against the full voting rights," Bush answered. [WP, April 25, 2001]

It also might be logical to conclude that Bush's rhetoric about unity and justice is simply a head fake for his real intentions. Since he appears to have gained the White House only because thousands of African-American votes were thrown out and since his party has the slimmest control over the Senate, he's not likely to encourage the full counting of black votes or favor representation for the District either in 2002 or 2004.

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