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Imperial Bush
A closer look at the Bush record -- from the war in Iraq to the war on the environment

2004 Campaign
Will Americans take the exit ramp off the Bush presidency in November?

Behind Colin Powell's Legend
Colin Powell's sterling reputation in Washington hides his life-long role as water-carrier for conservative ideologues.

The 2000 Campaign
Recounting the controversial presidential campaign

Media Crisis
Is the national media a danger to democracy?

The Clinton Scandals
The story behind President Clinton's impeachment

Nazi Echo
Pinochet & Other Characters

The Dark Side of Rev. Moon
Rev. Sun Myung Moon and American politics

Contra Crack
Contra drug stories uncovered

Lost History
How the American historical record has been tainted by lies and cover-ups

The October Surprise "X-Files"
The 1980 October Surprise scandal exposed

From free trade to the Kosovo crisis

Other Investigative Stories




Campaign 2004's Jedi Mind Tricks

By Sam Parry
September 20, 2004

Perhaps 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 Tricks.

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 Americans.

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's "Protecting Bush-Cheney."]

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's "Bush's 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.

Negative Attacks

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 indecision.

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.

Campaign Control

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 Massachusetts liberal.”

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 sporting events.

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 Iraq War.

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 Iraq.

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 service protections.

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's "Reality 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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