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Bush Is Racking Up “Frequent Liar Miles”
January 18, 2003
By Dennis Hans

Lyndon Johnson is remembered for lying about Vietnam, Richard Nixon for lying about Watergate, Bill Clinton for lying about adultery. George W. Bush is known as a “straight shooter.”

What’s wrong with that picture? Bush has, after all, racked up more “frequent liar miles” than any other politician in recent memory.

Not familiar with “frequent liar miles”? I coined the expression to pay tribute to the staying power of Bush’s lies. After all, a lie is of no use to the teller if it is promptly branded a lie and the teller a liar. Not only does he not benefit from the lie, his now-tarnished image makes it more difficult to get anyone to believe subsequent lies.

Call it the Saddam Syndrome: A guy gets caught in a few lies and before you know it nothing he says is taken at face value. All the good will is gone, as if Saddam never shook hands with Donald Rumsfeld or made common cause with Ronald Reagan against evil Iran. These days, reporters shout “Show me the weapons!” and pundits deride him as Mr. Cheat and Retreat. Our news media — without the imprimatur of a formal U.N. resolution — have even erected a “no lie” zone over Iraq and shoot down Hussein’s howlers before they can infect international audiences.

In stunning contrast, Bush’s lies are broadcast as truth. They originate at the White House and are transmitted to network amplification centers in New York and Washington, at which point the lie leaves the president’s control. He then must rely on men named Brokaw, Jennings, Rather and Lehrer to treat the presidential lie with respect and deliver it to every nook and cranny in America via “the people’s airwaves.” The longer and farther the lie flies, the more “frequent liar miles” the president accumulates.

The strategy of “lie and rely” entails considerable risks. What if the media Bush is relying on to disseminate his lies chooses instead to shoot them down? A president is doomed if his every pronouncement is greeted with groans and guffaws. That’s why it’s wise to lie only when the truth won’t suffice AND the stakes are high — to win an election, to avoid the taint of scandal-plagued cronies, to sell a war the public is disinclined to buy.

Throughout Campaign 2000, candidate Bush test-piloted “lie and rely.” He lied to a Dallas Morning News reporter to keep hidden a drunk-driving conviction. He lied repeatedly to the national media about his own and Al Gore’s economic plans. Did so in speeches and again in the debates.

The lies traveled far and wide. Amazingly, they remained airborne even after repeated puncturing by New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. From that experience, Bush learned an invaluable lesson: So long as the airwaves remain loyal, “lie and rely” can override isolated, ink-based exposure.

As president, a confident Bush lied after the Enron scandal erupted about how long and how well he knew the man he now referred to as “Mr. Lay” — though it was “Kenny Boy” back in the day. A quick study, Bush showed he had mastered what I call the “fact-based lie”(speaking words that are technically true, knowing full well they paint a false or misleading picture) when he said he had known of Lay in 1994 as someone who supported Ann Richards, his opponent for the Texas governorship. Lay and his wife did indeed give money to Richards’ campaign — and three times as much to Bush’s.

Fact-based lies, long the domain of weasels, are particularly risky for a president who presents himself as the antithesis of weaseldom. If caught, he can’t reply, “Technically speaking, I didn’t lie.” The ridicule would be relentless. That Bush would resort to fact-based lying suggests unlimited confidence — both in himself and the giants of journalism, who he is counting on to play or be dumb.

Bush and his foreign-policy team have told a string of traditional and fact-based lies about Iraq’s links to al Qaeda and 9-11, as well as the magnitude and imminence of the threat Saddam poses to the United States. Those lies have helped the president gain far greater support from the public and Congress for his aggressive stance than he would have garnered with a plain-spoken, straight-shooting approach.

Again, we find that “lie and rely” has easily overcome sporadic, ink-based attacks. In October, for example, Washington Post reporter Dana Millbank detailed several jaw-dropping lies about Iraq and other matters, which he described euphemistically as presidential “flights of fancy.” But the airwaves held firm, and Millbank himself got back on the team when he guested January 12 on CNN’s Late Edition (click here for the transcript: http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0301/12/le.00.html) to discuss The Right Man, a book about Bush by his former speech writer, David Frum.

A controversial passage was displayed on the screen and read aloud by host Wolf Blitzer (who missed the irony that the controversy revolved around those parts of the passage that appear to be true, rather than the one assertion that is patently false):

“George W. Bush is a very unusual person — a good man who is not a weak man. He has many faults. He is impatient and quick to anger, sometimes glib, even dogmatic, often uncurious and, as a result, ill-informed, more conventional in his thinking than a leader probably should be. But outweighing the faults are his virtues: decency, honesty, rectitude, courage and tenacity.”

Yep, Frum wrote “honesty.” Millbank, who knew better, didn’t bat an eye or squeak a peep. Nor did the presumably clueless Blitzer.

When journalists are this deferential and reverential, there’s no limit to the frequent liar miles Bush can accumulate.

 
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.

 

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