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Reality on the Ballot

By Robert Parry
September 4, 2004

Election 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 began.

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 could proceed.

“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, Disarming Iraq.

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.

Brazen Lying

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 engagement.

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.

Deniability

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 duties.

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 Institute.

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 insurgencies.

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.”

Selective Editing

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 trick.

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.

Three Decades

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 campaign season.

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.

Devastated

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 appropriately.

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.

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