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Lily Gilder or Liar? Pundits too quick to give Bush benefit of doubt
July 1, 2003
By Dennis Hans

Here’s 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 president.

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 interpretation.)

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 intelligence.

• 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.

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