President George W. Bush is not a straight shooter. He merely plays one on TV.
The president presents himself as a stand-up guy who speaks the unvarnished truth in plain, simple language. His admirers contrast this straightforward approach with former President Bill Clinton, who on occasion — particularly on matters of sex and infidelity — used words not to inform but to mislead.
Yet Bush’s pronouncements on Iraq, including his October 7 national address, have been replete with verbal trickery that would make Slick Willie blush. Bush repeatedly uses language to create impressions — about Saddam Hussein’s link to al-Qaida, to 9/11 and to Islamic fundamentalism in general, about the extent and imminence of the threat he poses to Americans — he knows are false.
Bush knew that only a tiny percentage of October 7 viewers would have the expertise to counter his deceptions, and that very few of them would be watching with those Americans inclined to take the president at his word. He knew that the informed skeptics would not be conducting a parsing session for the true believers immediately after the speech, laying bare every distortion, exaggeration and misleading analogy. He knew he would pay no penalty for deceiving viewers but would instead reap a rich public-opinion reward.
The process of building popular support goes like this:
The president and his top advisors issue, over several weeks, a steady stream of half-truths and lies, knowing that these will be reported as straight “news” by the media’s WMC. That’s “Wusses of Mass Credulity,” who you may know as Brokaw, Rather, Jennings, Koppel, Lehrer, Hume, Chung, Zahn, Blitzer, Dobbs, Van Susteren, Williams, Rose and O’Reilly. (Granted, some wusses are tigers when the topic is Gary Condit or Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, but when it comes to challenging a popular president’s justifications for going to war, they’re pussycats.) Most of the public will then follow the WMC lead in taking Bush administration assertions at face value. And why shouldn’t we? After all, we’ve been told for ages that the news media lean left and have an adversarial relationship with the government. Thus, they would seem predisposed to expose serial distorters, publicly brand them as untrustworthy, and place their subsequent pronouncements in the context of a pattern of deceit. That is, present the pronouncements not as “news” but as dubious assertions by dubious characters. Since that hasn’t happened, who can blame busy citizens for presuming that the Saddam threat the Bush team paints is accurate?
In the days (Oct. 2-6) preceding the president’s speech, but following a prolonged drumbeat from the administration, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press polled a representative cross-section of Americans. It found (as paraphrased by the Reuters newswire) that “66 percent believed [Saddam] was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.”
Yes, two-thirds of Americans believe a horrible thing about Saddam that the CIA and FBI would swear on a stack of Bibles is false. No one in the administration who’s not clinically insane believes Saddam was involved in 9-11, but that hasn’t prevented Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and others from repeatedly suggesting otherwise, often selecting their words with care so they can convince themselves that, technically speaking, their statements aren’t outright lies. It’s not a matter of what their definition of “is” is, but their definition of “reports” and “credible.”
Reacting to Bush’s speech, liberal Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold said it was "a shoddy piecing together of flimsy evidence that contradicted the intelligence briefings we’ve been getting." Conservative Vincent Cannistraro, who once headed counter-intelligence at the CIA, observed that “cooked information is working its way into high-level pronouncements and there's a lot of unhappiness about it in intelligence, especially among analysts at the CIA.”
British reporter Julian Borger, to whom Cannistraro spoke, reported in the October 8 Guardian that “President Bush's case against Saddam Hussein, outlined in a televised address to the nation on Monday night, relied on a slanted and sometimes entirely false reading of the available U.S. intelligence, government officials and analysts claimed yesterday.”
There’s a word for what Feingold, Cannistraro and Borger describe: cheating. Bush, fearing he might not get his way with Congress and the public if he played fair, opted to cheat.
An underlying premise of democracy is “informed consent” of the governed; “disinformed consent” doesn’t quite measure up. Bush treats Americans not as citizens entitled to the unvarnished truth but as marks for his latest con. He’s become our Grifter-in-Chief.
Perhaps Bush has internalized the ethics of the one business where he found success — Major League Baseball. The mentality that permeates our national pastime is “It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.” One of the greatest cheaters, spitballer Gaylord Perry, is in the Hall of Fame. Renowned manager Billy Martin had his Oakland A’s pitching coach teach all of his starters how to doctor the ball. Hitters violate the rules by corking their bats and injecting steroids in their butts.
Although a majority of players don’t cheat, they’re more than happy to protect those teammates who do. After all, figure the non-cheaters, our cheating teammates increase our chances of winning with their cheating, and winning is what the game is all about.
Cheating is so deeply ingrained that when the New York Times devoted a front-page story (April 11, 1999) to Cleveland Indian players cheating to protect a teammate who had been caught cheating, the reporter ignored ethical questions to focus on the Mission Impossible-style operation to steal from the umpires’ office the incriminating corked bat.
The same mentality that permeated the Indians’ dugout permeates the Bush administration: Cheating is good because it helps us win, so let’s cheat!
Bush reportedly chose Cincinnati for his speech because his advisers wanted him to deliver it to a live audience in America’s heartland. But in the heartland, most parents don’t subscribe to the notion that “It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.” Instead, they teach their childen to play by the rules and play fair. They teach their children that cheating is wrong, whether you get caught or not.
It’s the child who doesn’t learn that lesson who we most have to worry about. In adulthood, he might cheat in the corporate world or even in politics.
Play fair, Mr. President. Quit subverting the democratic process with deceptive rhetoric that tricks Americans into backing policies we otherwise might not support. Don’t make us stand outside the White House gates for the next two years chanting “Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater.”
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada) and online at TomPaine.com, Slate and The Black World Today (tbwt.com), among other outlets. He has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.