Gilder or Liar? Pundits too quick to give Bush benefit of
By Dennis Hans
the problem with all the euphemisms mainstream commentators
use in their strenuous efforts not to brand President George
W. Bush a liar: He’s not entitled to a single one.
That’s because he sold himself to the public and the news
media throughout Campaign 2000 as the ultimate plain-spoken
straight shooter. No tricky wordplay, no distortions, no half-truths.
We’d get nothing but the unvarnished truth if we elected him
Listen to one of Bush’s admirers, centrist columnist Richard
Cohen, in a fan letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell
published in the Feb. 13 Washington Post:
“Sir, in his kiss-and-not-tell book, David Frum, the former
White House speechwriter, tells us about George W. Bush’s
insistence on honesty — on refraining from even politically
acceptable exaggeration. I accept what he has to say. Yet
it’s apparent that when it comes to making the case for war
with Iraq, both Bush and his aides have tickled the facts
so that everything proves their case.” (link)
Can you be a fact tickler and still retain your reputation
for exaggeration-free “honesty”? Cohen seems to say yes, given
his continued acceptance of Frum’s characterization of Bush.
The New York Times’ Bill Keller, another centrist columnist,
opts for a floral euphemism: “What the Bush administration
did was gild the lily — disseminating information that ranged
from selective to preposterous.” (link)
Keller’s moderately liberal colleague, Nicholas Kristof,
sees an innocent two-step process at work: “I don't believe
that the president deliberately lied to the public in an attempt
to scare Americans into supporting his war. But it does look
as if ideologues in the administration deceived themselves
about Iraq's nuclear programs — and then deceived the American
public as well.” (link)
Turning to the Sunday morning teletubbies, politically self-neutered
George Stephanopoulos of ABC gingerly suggested a few weeks
ago that maybe the case against Iraq was “overstated.” Over
on Fox, Mara Liasson, a middle-of-the-road NPR reporter who
Fox falsely presents as a liberal, explained that the administration
might well have taken the “nuance” out of the intelligence.
But, she insisted, that is not the same thing as “lying.”
In the interest of getting these proud pundits to reconsider
their disdain for the L-word, let us conduct a little experiment.
Let us level damning accusations against THEM, using some
of the argumentation techniques Bush used against Iraq.
(Before the war began, I catalogued and dissected many of
those methods, which I branded “techniques of deceit,” in
the essays “Lying
Us Into War” and “The
Disinformation Age”. Among the techniques are: stating
as fact unproven and even disproven allegations; stating as
fact far-fetched claims by defectors with track records as
liars; stripping away the context that would show the purported
grave threat to be non-existent; and pretending that the most
frightening interpretation is the only possible one, even
though many of your own experts tout an entirely innocent
Each of the following make-believe accusations against a
pundit includes a declaration on national TV. The context
for the viewer is that I am perceived and presented as a plain-spoken
straight shooter with access to accurate, up-to-the-minute
• While visiting the Times, I learn from a trusted source
(not Jayson Blair) that Keller has a serious addiction, but
my source isn’t sure if it’s to nicotine or heroin. I then
go on TV and announce, “New York Times columnist Bill Keller
is a heroin addict.”
• Jayson Blair tells me that Kristof owns a fleet of mobile
methamphetamine labs in Montana, and I duly inform the world
that this is a fact. What I don’t reveal is the identity of
my source or the fact that I know him to be a fabulous fabricator.
• My wallet turns up missing, and I am absolutely convinced
that either (1) I misplaced it, or (2) Mara Liasson stole
it. The next day on Fox and NPR I declare in no uncertain
terms, “Mara Liasson stole my wallet” — and continue to do
so even after I find it in my plaid golf slacks.
• I tell Barbara Walters in a primetime interview that “George
Stephanopoulos harbored a mob hitman” — but not that the hitman
merely slept in some bushes in a remote corner of Stephanopoulos’s
sprawling estate controlled by anti-Stephanopoulos squatters.
• I’m guesting on the PBS NewsHour, and Jim Lehrer asks me
why I look so shaken. I tell him, “Not more than one hour
ago, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post threatened me with
a knife.” I say it with deadly seriousness, but leave out
these possibly relevant facts: it was a plastic knife; Cohen
was 20 feet away; we were at a karaoke bar and he was singing
“Mack the Knife”; he may have pointed the knife at someone
else rather than me or perhaps was merely acting out the lyrics
to enhance his performance. As the NewsHour draws to a close,
Gwen Ifill announces that Cohen has been arrested and taken
in for questioning.
So would these be examples of gilding the lily, tickling
the facts, removing the nuance, overstatement and/or self-deception?
Or would the besmirched pundits reach for a stronger term?
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in
mass communications and American foreign policy at the University
of South Florida-St. Petersburg. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.ed.