Reality on the Ballot
By Robert Parry
September 4, 2004
2004 suddenly is not just about whether John Kerry or George W. Bush
will lead the United States the next four years. It’s not even about
which of the candidates has better policies or is more competent.
This election has become a test of whether reality
still means anything to the American people, whether this country has
moved to essentially a new form of government in which one side is free
to lie about everything while a paid “amen corner” of ideological media
drowns out any serious public debate.
For weeks now, George W. Bush’s campaign has been
testing the limits of how thoroughly one party can lie,
misrepresent and smear without paying any price and indeed while reaping
rewards in the opinion polls. Bush capped off this binge with his acceptance speech at the Republican National
Convention, continuing his pattern of lying about how the war in Iraq
Before a national television audience, Bush
repeated his false account of the run-up to the Iraq War, asserting he
had no choice but to invade because Saddam Hussein refused to disarm or
to comply with United Nations inspection demands. The reality is that
not only did Hussein say publicly – and apparently accurately – that
Iraq no longer possessed stockpiles of banned weapons but he allowed
U.N. inspectors into Iraq in November 2002 and gave them free rein to
examine any site of their choosing.
As the saying goes, you can look it up. U.N. chief
inspector Hans Blix said he was encouraged by the Iraqi cooperation as
his inspectors checked out sites designated as suspicious by Washington
but found nothing. According to Blix, the Bush administration then
forced the U.N. inspectors to leave in mid-March 2003 so the invasion
“Although the inspection organization was now
operating at full strength and Iraq seemed determined to give it prompt
access everywhere, the United States appeared as determined to replace
our inspection force with an invasion army,” Blix wrote in his book,
But that was not what Bush told the American
people. Bush rewrote the historical record to make his invasion seem
more reasonable. Bush said:
“We went to the United Nations Security Council,
which passed a unanimous resolution demanding the dictator disarm, or
face serious consequences. Leaders in the Middle East urged him to
comply. After more than a decade of diplomacy, we gave Saddam Hussein
another chance, a final chance, to meet his responsibilities to the
civilized world. He again refused, and I faced the kind of decision no
president would ask for, but must be prepared to make.”
Even though the people of the world lived through
those events less than a year and a half ago, Bush sees no apparent risk
in fabricating the history. Indeed, he began revising the record within
months of the invasion and has not been challenged by the U.S. press
corps for his dishonesty. In July 2003, for instance, 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, saying: “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.”
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spun the same
historical point in an op-ed article in the New York Times on March 19,
the war’s first anniversary. “In September 2002, President Bush went to
the United Nations, which gave Iraq still another ‘final opportunity’ to
disarm and to prove it had done so,” Rumsfeld wrote, adding that
“Saddam Hussein passed up that final opportunity” and then rejected a
U.S. ultimatum to flee. “Only then, after every peaceful option had been
exhausted, did the president and our coalition partners order the
liberation of Iraq,” Rumsfeld wrote.
Beyond the brazen lying about the U.N. inspections,
Bush and Rumsfeld also ducked two other obvious historical points: that
the U.N. Security Council refused to sanction the invasion (so the
inspectors would have more time to do their work) and that U.S. forces
failed to find any stockpiles of illegal weapons in Iraq. The facts on
the ground would seem to lead to a logical conclusion that Iraq actually
was in compliance with the U.N. resolutions. Hussein’s compliance might
not have come willingly – previous U.N. inspections and U.S. bombing
raids in 1998 apparently destroyed many of the Iraqi weapons – but it
amounted to compliance nonetheless.
Still, what is almost as remarkable as Bush’s
obvious lie is the breathtaking arrogance with which it is delivered.
Bush and his advisers must have concluded that they are free to say
virtually anything – no matter how false or misleading – without fear of
adverse consequences. Certainly, with the built-in echo chamber of Rush
Limbaugh’s talk radio, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Sun Myung Moon’s
Washington Times, Bush has reason for this confidence.
Bush’s lie about the run-up to war also doesn’t
stand alone. His campaign has peddled a string of dubious and bogus
assertions about Kerry’s record, including claims that he voted for
(name-any-number-of) tax increases or that he opposed weapons systems
(without noting that leading Republicans, including former Defense
Secretary Dick Cheney, also had considered them obsolete or excessive).
Even more troubling, Republicans have smeared
Kerry’s war record, including raising unfounded questions about whether
he earned the Bronze Star that he won for heroism and at least one of
his three Purple Hearts. A well-financed front group, called Swift Boat
Veterans for Truth, spearheaded these attacks with assistance from
operatives close to George W. Bush’s campaign.
As these anti-Kerry veterans spun out their story,
much of the national press corps fell into line. CNN competed with Fox
News to promote the dubious claims as serious news.
However, several major newspapers, including the
New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, examined the historical record
and exposed the group’s claims as deceptive and contradictory. Many of
the anti-Kerry veterans were not in position to know what the
circumstances were on Kerry’s boat when he swung it around and rushed
back to pull Jim Rassmann, a Special Forces soldier, out of the water.
Rassmann has said Kerry’s boat was taking small-arms fire, an account
that matches what others on board have said and what the Navy’s
contemporaneous records show.
The smears were particularly ugly because whatever
anyone thinks of Kerry, it was well-known that serving as captain of a
swift boat in the Mekong Delta was one of the most hazardous assignments
in Vietnam. The casualty rate for those junior officers was staggering.
Anyone who captained one of those boats into enemy territory
demonstrated extraordinary bravery, regardless of the details of any
But the conservative news media and mainstream
outlets, such as CNN, let themselves be used to promote the dubious
charges. The impact on Kerry’s reputation has been devastating, sending
him into freefall in national polls.
For his part, George W. Bush refused to
specifically denounce the attacks on Kerry, saying only that all
political advertising from independent groups should be banned. In
effect, Bush equated the dishonest swift boat veterans’ attacks against
Kerry's war record with questions raised by some liberal groups about
how Bush slipped past better-qualified candidates to get a position in
the Texas Air National Guard and then failed to fulfill even those
Sinking to even a lower level, Republicans also
sneered at Kerry’s three Purple Hearts for Vietnam War wounds, implying
that he was a faker. Former Republican Sen. Bob Dole suggested falsely
that Kerry had won two Purple Hearts on the same day and didn’t even
bleed, though Dole later issued a half-hearted apology for his remarks.
As Bush stayed in the background, his
Republican allies continued to hammer home the “theme” of Kerry’s
supposed cowardice, distributing band-aids with purple hearts at the
Republican National Convention. Republican delegates wore these
band-aids on their chins, cheeks and hands as a way to mock Kerry’s
wounds. The band-aids were handed out by Morton Blackwell, who runs a
Virginia training school for Republicans called the Leadership
Blackwell honed some of his own propaganda skills as a special
assistant for public liaison for President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Blackwell participated in “public diplomacy” or “perception management”
operations that were designed to sell the American people on the need to
support hard-line rightist regimes in Central America to crush leftist
In one of those Reagan-Bush propaganda operations, the White House
warned that if leftist rebels gained power in Central America, the
United States would be flooded with “feet people,” hundreds of thousands
of Central American refugees. The effectiveness of this “theme” –
playing on the racial and ethnic fears of white Americans in the
Southwest – had been tested by Reagan’s pollster Richard Wirthlin.
Although the argument was dubious since Central Americans already were
fleeing into the United States to escape the violence inflicted by the
region’s brutal right-wing security forces, Reagan added his voice to
the “feet-people” theme in a White House speech.
Blackwell also understood the value of the emotional
“feet-people”argument. “We may be in a no-lose situation,” he said at
the time. “If the president’s opponents succeed in Congress” in blocking
Reagan’s Central America military funding, “the refugees are coming –
and the public will hold [the Democrats] accountable.”
In some ways, the second ad produced by the
anti-Kerry Swift Boat veterans may be even more troubling than the first
because of what it portends for the future of a meaningful American
democracy. In the second ad, the anti-Kerry veterans cropped Kerry’s
1971 testimony when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee as a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The
selective editing made it appear that Kerry was accusing veterans of
committing atrocities in Vietnam.
“They personally raped, cut off ears, cut off
heads,” the clip of Kerry’s testimony says as one of the anti-Kerry
veterans intones, “The accusations that John Kerry made against the
veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.”
But what Kerry actually was doing was recounting
testimony given by Vietnam veterans at a conference where some had
confessed to committing atrocities. Instead of accusing these veterans
of committing these acts, Kerry was simply relaying their testimony to
the senators. Anyone listening to this ad, however, would have a
completely false impression of what Kerry meant. The ad is a very dirty
Beyond the deception, there’s also the fact that
atrocities were committed in Vietnam. Massacres, torture, rapes
and mutilations occurred on all sides. But it now appears that even a
young man, who serves in combat and returns to the United States, can’t
describe the brutal reality of war without disqualifying himself for the
Presidency. Only patriotic platitudes are acceptable.
By ripping Kerry's quotes out of context and
effectively doctoring his meaning, the Republican attack machine has
demonstrated that it can destroy the reputation of anyone who dares
engage the American people in anything like a meaningful debate. In
contrast, the machine's favored candidate can act as irresponsibly as he
wishes and have his behavior protected.
The Republicans have been constructing this attack
machine for three decades. Initially, it was a defensive reaction to
Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal. The goal was to
build a network of conservative media, think tanks and attack groups to
protect a future Republican from another Watergate debacle.
But the senior George Bush was among the first to
recognize that this machinery could be used offensively as well as
defensively. This new capability was unveiled in a national political
campaign in 1988 when Bush used it to take apart Democratic
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Aided by the emerging conservative
news media, especially Moon’s Washington Times, the Republicans
questioned Dukakis’s sanity and his patriotism.
For his part, George H.W. Bush implied that Dukakis
was un-American for belonging to the American Civil Liberties Union and
for vetoing a Massachusetts bill that would have compelled public school
students to pledge the flag every day. In a foreshadowing of the Swift
Boat attacks on Kerry, an “independent” pro-Bush group aired a racially
provocative ad about a convicted black murderer, Willie Horton, who
raped a white woman while on a Massachusetts prison furlough.
Since 1988, this conservative media machine has
continued to grow exponentially, creating a kind of gravitational pull
that has caused the mainstream news media to drift to the Right, partly
so journalists can protect themselves from accusation of being
“liberal.” This combination of factors has left the Democrats nearly
defenseless when the Republicans unleash a propaganda barrage during a
At least until recently, the Democrats and liberals
failed to invest any significant sums in a similar attack apparatus.
Now, they are finding that their belated recognition of the danger is
too little, too late.
The smears against John Kerry’s patriotism, honesty
and courage have inflicted severe – possibly irreversible – damage on
his candidacy for president. According to some polls, Bush has opened up
a double-digit lead. The national news media can be expected to fill up
the next several weeks with commentary about how brilliantly Bush
succeeded in “defining” Kerry and how Kerry failed to respond
The larger danger, however, is that the United
States may not have another meaningful national election for the
foreseeable future. The Bush family and the Republican attack machine
may have gained the power to effectively pick new presidents. Whoever
stands in their way will be destroyed. That can happen to Republicans in
the primaries, as Sen. John McCain learned in 2000, but it will
certainly occur to the Democrats in the general election.
For their part, the Democrats can be expected to go
through the quadrennial process of looking for a “perfect” candidate who
will be impervious to the Republican smears. But there is no such
candidate. There also may be no practical way for a majority of the
American people to see through the cleverly designed attacks as they are
amplified through the conservative echo chamber, turning the target into
a national laughingstock, as Al Gore learned in 2000.
If that is indeed the case – and if these tactics
succeed in politically destroying John Kerry this fall – the United
States can be said to have succumbed to a new form of government that
will be democratic in name only, with elections transformed into largely
ceremonial affairs for affirming the Republican choice without
meaningful consultation with the American people about the best policies
to pursue. The nation is already dangerously far down that road.
Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s, has
just completed a book entitled, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the
Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.