Bush-Style Politics, Again
By Sam Parry
August 19, 2004
year’s general election campaign is taking on the trademark stamp of
every Bush national campaign since 1988: attack politics that tear down
the Bush opponent while a compliant Washington press corps can’t believe
the Bush family would play dirty.
In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis faced
Republican attacks suggesting he had undergone psychiatric care, favored
dangerous criminals and lacked patriotism. In 1992, the Republicans went
on a search for a “silver bullet” against Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton,
which included searching his passport file and leaking false rumors that
he had tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
In 2000, Sen. John McCain confronted whispers about
his sanity after five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp
and mysterious phone calls about his “black” baby (a child he had
adopted from Bangladesh). Vice President Al Gore saw his words so
twisted that they were used to justify Republican claims that he was
“delusional” and thus unfit to serve as President. [See
Bush-Cheney” and “Al Gore vs. the
Now, it’s Sen. John Kerry’s turn. On one level, the
Bush campaign presents Kerry as confused and inconsistent about his
ability to make decisions on war and other issues. In a parallel
operation, a conservative group of Vietnam veterans accuses Kerry of
lying about his war record as the Bush campaign neither condemns nor
discourages the smears.
This two-pronged strategy again echoes back to 1988
when another “arms-length” group produced the infamous Willie Horton ad
that blamed Dukakis for a furloughed black inmate who had raped a white
woman. At the same time, George H.W. Bush’s campaign stressed similar
themes but kept its fingerprints off the more racially provocative ad.
Though this historical pattern is both obvious and
well-documented, the Washington press corps acts as if every day is a
new day for the Bush family. At best, the voters are confused by the
charges and counter-charges, which leave a residue of doubt and disdain
for whatever politician got in the way of the Bush family political
Bamboozled on Iraq
This pattern also goes beyond political campaigns
explaining, in part, why the national news media found itself so
thoroughly bamboozled on the Iraq War. If there’s one overriding
principle in today’s American politics, it appears to be that the Bushes
always get the benefit of the doubt.
A growing number of major news organizations – now
including the Washington Post – have admitted to an overly credulous
acceptance of George W. Bush’s case for war. Their recurring
explanations often boil down to the fact that challenging the Bushes is
just too career threatening for mainstream journalists to risk.
What would have happened, for instance, if the Post
or some other major newspaper had prominently contested Bush’s pre-war
assertions and Iraqi WMD was found? The reporter, editor and news
organization would have been demonized by the Bush administration and
its allies. There would have been angry recriminations about the news
outlet’s lack of patriotism. Heads would have rolled. Careers would have
By contrast, letting Bush and his administration
off the hook before the Iraq War was a win-win for the Washington press
corps. First, the journalists avoided the hard work of digging deeply
into the administration’s dubious claims. Second, there was no downside
risk. Even the journalists who actively promoted the administration’s
false assertions escaped any serious harm to their careers.
Except for some finger-waving by professional media
critics, there have been few repercussions for those in the Washington
press corps who engaged in the pro-war “groupthink.” So far, no one has
lost a job in a major news organization for accepting Bush’s claims. No
careers have ended in humiliation.
In comments to Post media critic Howard Kurtz for his
internal review of the newspaper’s WMD coverage, senior Post editors
expressed only mild self-criticism for their lack of pre-war skepticism.
Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. even used the occasion to take
another slap at the war critics for presumably lacking in realism.
"People who were opposed to the war from the
beginning and have been critical of the media's coverage in the period
before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have
crusaded against the war," Downie said. "They have the mistaken
impression that somehow if the media's coverage had been different,
there wouldn't have been a war."
Downie’s derisive tone against the Iraq War
skeptics also represents another odd phenomenon existing at the highest
levels of the U.S. news media these days, the continued contempt heaped
on those who were right in questioning the administration’s case for
war. Rather than give these people their due – whether American citizens
or European allies – many U.S. journalists simply dismiss the skeptics
as “ideologues” who approached the war with a closed mind. In this
warped view, those who followed the herd were the free-thinkers and
those that broke away were close-minded.
Also, contrary to Downie’s comment, very few Iraq
War skeptics probably were naïve enough to expect today’s news media to
“have crusaded against the war,” nor did many war opponents think that
Bush could be dissuaded from war. But the skeptics did have a right to
expect that the national news media would perform in a professional
manner, taking a hard look at the administration’s evidence before
thousands of American and Iraqi lives were put at risk.
Other comments by senior Post journalists
also were revealing. "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever
administration is in power," said Karen DeYoung, a former assistant
managing editor who covered the prewar diplomacy. "If the president
stands up and says something, we report what the president said."
That the Washington Post, which still
boasts about its Watergate scandal coverage three decades later, now
considers itself an administration “mouthpiece” may be shocking enough,
but the admission doesn’t tell the whole story. It was certainly not
true during the Clinton administration when the Post aggressively
promoted virtually every Clinton “scandal” story, including the
Whitewater real estate deal and the Travel Office firings that ended up
being much ado about almost nothing.
The truth is that the Post, like much of
the national news media, has been trending neo-conservative for the past
couple of decades. Bush’s case for war was not seriously vetted in large
part because many of the senior editors and news executives agreed with
his neo-conservative policies. Others may have simply feared the career
consequences of challenging Bush, especially if some of his claims
“Administration assertions were on the
front page,” said the Post’s Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks.
“Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24
on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to
war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?”
Post editors also understood that the
newspaper’s publisher Donald Graham was one of the senior executives in
step with the administration’s march to war, as reflected in the Post’s
editorial page. As Kurtz noted, after Secretary of State Colin Powell
presented supposed evidence of Iraq’s WMD stockpiles to the United
Nations in February 2003, a Post editorial declared "it is hard to
imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass
Interestingly, even the U.S. intelligence
community, which historically has been hostile to the news media’s
revelations about CIA wrongdoing, expected the Post and other news
outlets to be far more skeptical, according to Kurtz’s article. A group
of intelligence officers peppered Post national security reporter Dana
Priest with tough questions after a speech. She said they wanted to
know, "Why didn't the Post do a more aggressive job? Why didn't the Post
ask more questions? Why didn't the Post dig harder?" [Washington Post,
August 12, 2004]
The pressing question now, however, is
whether the major news media is already falling back into those
pre-invasion patterns, acting as Bush’s “mouthpiece” much as it did in
the run-up to war. In that sense, the media’s handling of the recent
flap over Kerry’s “consistency” on the Iraq War policy wasn’t
Through August, the news media has let the Bush
campaign set the agenda for this strange debate. Following the Bush
campaign’s lead, the press corps demanded to know if Kerry would
reaffirm that he still would have voted to give Bush the authority to go
to war even knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Kerry’s answer was that he stood by his decision of October 2002 to
grant Bush the war authority with the caveat that Bush would first
exhaust all peaceful means.
The press had a field day. Both the Washington Post
and the New York Times treated Kerry’s response as a kind of campaign
gaffe, in which Bush had succeeded in putting Kerry on the defensive.
The New York Times article, entitled “Bush’s
Mocking Drowns Out Kerry on Iraq Vote,” gave the Bush campaign nearly a
free shot to pound Kerry, including several paragraphs of criticism from
Vice President Dick Cheney. The Times article by David Sanger reported
that Cheney said “Kerry ‘voted for the war’ but turned against it ‘when
it was politically expedient’ and now has his aides ‘saying that his
vote to authorize force wasn’t really a vote to go to war.’”
The ugliness of Cheney’s attack went largely
unchallenged. Only deep in the story did Sanger acknowledge briefly that
“in fact, in interviews since the start of the year, Mr. Kerry has been
relatively consistent in explaining his position.”
But even more remarkable about the handling of
Kerry’s response to Bush’s Iraq War challenge was the news media’s
failure to grasp the more significant admission that was intrinsic to
Bush’s baiting of Kerry.
The Washington press corps acted as if it were
entirely normal that the President of the United States would say that
even if he had known that his primary rationale for going to war –
Iraq’s supposed WMD stockpiles – was false, he still would have ordered
the invasion on the same timetable anyway.
Perhaps the admission was so breathtaking – in a
brain-warping sort of way – that the press corps couldn’t find a
framework for dealing with it as a story. How does one write a lead that
says, “The President says the reason he gave for sending the nation to
war – and causing nearly 1,000 U.S. soldiers to lose their lives –
really didn’t matter to him”?
Using the “what-if” structure that was applied to
Kerry, creative journalists might have asked Bush to explain what
rationale he would have given the American people in March 2003 if he
knew that his WMD claims were bogus then. Or he could be asked if he
would have allowed Colin Powell to make the same false WMD presentation
to the U.N. if Bush knew at the time the evidence was all wrong.
The whole debate was reminiscent of the genre of
“what-if” historical novels, such as what would have happened if the
South had won the battle of Gettysburg. But the U.S. news media only
made John Kerry play the game, not George W. Bush. Indeed, Bush was
allowed to use his own admission that he went to war under a false
rationale to be somehow flipped against Kerry. A press corps that had
truly learned some lessons from its failure to be more critical of
Bush’s rhetorical tricks before the war might have blown the whistle
An Obvious Lie
The news media also has bought into Bush’s excuse
that he never lied about Iraq, only that he was following erroneous
intelligence. But the truth is that Bush repeatedly has lied about Iraq,
such as when he asserted after the war that he had no choice but to
invade because Saddam Hussein had refused to let U.N. inspectors in.
Within months of the invasion, Bush had began
rewriting the war’s history to make his actions seem more defensible,
all in full view of the Washington press corps which turned a blind eye.
On July 14, 2003, speaking to the press from the White House, 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.”
Bush reiterated that war-justifying claim on Jan.
27, 2004, when he said, “We went to the United Nations, of course, and
got an overwhelming resolution -- 1441 -- unanimous resolution, that
said to Saddam, you must disclose and destroy your weapons programs,
which obviously meant the world felt he had such programs. He chose
defiance. It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in.”
These were obvious lies, but Bush wasn’t challenged
on them in any serious way by the mainstream press.
What should be obvious by now is that Bush was
determined to invade Iraq from his first days in office – much as former
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and former counter-terrorism adviser
Richard Clarke have said. All Bush and his top aides were looking for
was an argument that would frighten the American people out of their
senses, which – after the 9/11 attacks – was the notion that Iraq would
give WMD to al-Qaeda.
The key question may not be whether Bush knew
that his WMD claims were wrong, but whether he cared whether they
were right. Perhaps a newly skeptical press corps might ask Bush this
question: If you knew the WMD intelligence was bogus in March 2003,
would you still have used it to justify the invasion?
Bush’s admission this month that he still would
have invaded Iraq, just as he did, even knowing there was no WMD begs
another question: Was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz right when
he told Vanity Fair in May 2003 that the WMD issue was highlighted as
the principal casus belli “for bureaucratic reasons ... because
it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”
A newly skeptical press also might want to ask Bush
what “bureaucratic” reason for invading Iraq would have replaced weapons
of mass destruction if he knew then that no WMD existed.
Another now-obvious point should be that the U.S.
press corps has neither a clue how nor the courage to describe to the
American people the level of deception that has surrounded the Iraq War.
So the press would rather slip back into the safer,
more manageable games that it knows how to play, like the “campaign
tactic” game, which usually goes something like “Bush succeeded in
putting Kerry on the defensive today” or “Kerry failed to prevent the
Bush campaign from ‘defining’ him through a flurry of negative ads this
Kerry on Iraq
It also should be pointed out that whatever one
thinks about Kerry’s vote in October 2002 to grant Bush authority to use
force in Iraq, Kerry has been consistent about his reasoning.
Kerry’s point all along has been that Saddam
Hussein was a threat if he did have WMD and that therefore an
international threat of force might be needed to compel him to accept
meaningful inspections. That position turned out to be accurate. A stern
warning by the U.N. Security Council convinced Iraq to accept the return
Nevertheless, harboring doubts about Bush’s
reliability, Kerry said his yes vote amounted only to conditional
permission to use force. “Let me be clear,” Kerry said in his Senate
floor speech, “the vote I will give to the President is for one reason
and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if
we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons
inspections in joint concert with our allies.”
Kerry also said, “If we do wind up going to war
with Iraq, it is imperative that we do so with others in the
international community, unless there is a showing of a grave, imminent
– and I emphasize ‘imminent’ – threat to this country which requires the
President to respond in a way that protects our immediate national
security needs.” [To
read extended excerpts from his speech, go to
for the full text, search for Kerry’s October 9, 2002, statement on
The irony is that Kerry has continued to say the
same thing, almost word for word, today – holding Saddam Hussein
accountable and preventing him from possessing and/or distributing
weapons of mass destruction to terrorist entities was an important
national security goal. But Kerry set up a series of benchmarks before
he felt war would be justified, including exhausting international
efforts at inspections.
Bush, after giving lip service to a tough regimen
of inspections, then forced the inspectors to leave so the invasion
could proceed. Now, Bush is rewriting that history to say that Saddam
Hussein never let the inspectors in to do their work.
But it is Kerry who is called on the carpet for
deception. Vice President Cheney accused Kerry of being “caught in a
tangled web of all his shifts and changes,” a charge that also has been
reflected in the treatment of the Iraq War issue by some of the most
prestigious newspapers in the United States.
A legitimate complaint against Kerry could be that
he was foolish to think that Bush was ever sincere about reaching a
peaceful solution with Iraq over its alleged WMD. Perhaps Kerry should
have recognized that Bush had made up his mind to invade Iraq and was
just throwing excuses against the wall hoping that one of them would
stick. It’s also possible that Kerry did conclude that Bush was lying
and still voted to give Bush war authority because of the political risk
in opposing Bush.
But whatever one makes of Kerry’s calculations,
there can be no doubt that the bigger problem – and the bigger story –
is the President of the United States can’t be trusted by members of the
U.S. Congress, the American people or the world community.