September 25, 2003
David Corn, Author of "The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception" and Washington Editor of "The Nation"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
We could tell you why we think David Corn, a colleague who is Washington Editor of "The Nation," has written the perfect book to complete a seasonal "trifecta" of books on the "Liar-in-Chief," but his publisher hits the nail (or liar) on the head for us:
Joe Conason's "Big Lies," Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," and now David Corn's "The Lies of George W. Bush" -- all available at BuzzFlash.com [LINK]. We will carry future books on how the Bush Cartel has lied to and betrayed America. Just consider these the first three volumes in an encyclopedia set. There's a lot of ground to cover when it comes to prevarication, deception, betrayal and lying in the White House. (And don't forget the new tomes on Bush by Jim Hightower, Molly Ivins and Paul Krugman, which also deal in some ways with the serial lying of the Bush administration and are great reads.)
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BUZZFLASH: Your book is third in a series of books this summer from major authors that have the word "lies" in the titles in relation to George W. Bush. Thereís been Al Franken and Joe Conason, and now you with The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. If all three of you have -- and we believe this -- made very effective arguments that the Bush administration is really based on a pyramid of lies, why isn't that message getting out to the American public?
DAVID CORN: It seems to me that through all the three books the message is starting to get out. The groups like MoveOn.org have mounted advocacy campaigns using this as a premise. It takes a while for ideas and issues to permeate the public media and political culture. I think itís interesting that all three of us ended up at similar points completely independently, and the number of books is an indication that the profiteers in the publishing world all decided that there was a market for this, meaning that there were people willing to think this way and absorb these products.
There are also books out by Molly Ivins and Paul Krugman that are very hard on Bush and the Bush administration. I think we see a general trend going on in which a portion of the public is becoming increasingly skeptical of the Bush administration and even more pointed in their oppositional attitude toward the Bush administration.
I think that the war in Iraq and how it was sold really angered a lot of people and, to be a little pejorative about it, pushed them over the edge. I don't mean that entirely in a bad sense. But people who were irritated, annoyed, upset, and disappointed by the Bush administration became angry because of the lies about Iraq. And those who were already angry became even more angry. I think our books -- which all obviously were in the works before this, interestingly enough -- are one way of getting the message out. They also make that message or those attitudes become even more coherent, because weíre organizing them around the principle that itís not just that Bushís policies are wrong, but that he has been selling them dishonestly, which is really a different matter in many ways.
BUZZFLASH: What is wrong with the mainstream press?
CORN: I go into this at length a bit at the end of my book, and I look at how Bush has gotten away with it so far. I think part of it is because of the attitudes and practices of what we would call the mainstream media. A lot of the material in my book, a lot of the material in Joeís book, a lot of the material in Al Frankenís book, all comes out of the mainstream media.
There in The New York Times and the Washington Post -- and this was true particularly in the run up to the war -- theyíll have a Bush assertion such as Saddam Hussein is dealing with Al-Qaeda. Then, later on in the article, itíll say: "Three intelligence officials who are familiar with the intelligence say thereís no clear evidence of this, and one of the administration officials confirmed this." And the story will say that something that Bush said is apparently not true.
Now the problem with this type of reporting in the mainstream media is that this doesn't become the story itself. The story is what Bush said and the reactions from Democrats and, sometimes, reactions from Republicans. And then there may be this sort of evaluative paragraph or two with people saying, well, that may not be true. The story is not that Bush said this, but he may be wrong. And this happens again and again and again. And so thereís no -- as they say in the intelligence business -- connecting of the dots by these reporters and by their editors about how Bush is routinely misrepresenting facts to advance his own agenda.
This happened with the tax cut fight, too. There is this built-in advantage for the President, in that the mainstream media basically feels that, first and foremost, the way to cover something is to give the President his say. Sometimes after that they will evaluate what he said, and theyíll show that itís not true. But again, thatís low in the story. Itís not in the headline. It rarely makes it onto the network news. And it doesn't feed an over-arching story that the President is lying. We saw that happen with the Gore campaign. You know, they reached a tipping point where "Gore is a liar" became the story, so any tidbit that could be interpreted as part of that story was framed that way.
BUZZFLASH: Letís take that as an example. On BuzzFlash we say senior members of the Bush administration -- including George -- are serial liars. Itís a pathology and itís a daily occurrence. Gore said some things that were accidentally perhaps not entirely accurate -- there was the big thing about whether he flew down with the head of FEMA to Texas or something. These were most minor things, and yet he was caricatured into a liar compared to the Bush campaign, which --
CORN: Which had lies that were bigger and better.
BUZZFLASH: -- and more grandiose and repetitive and conscious. Hannah Arendt, the great philosopher, when talking about Germany and Hitler, called it the banality of evil. Is there sort of a banality of lying? It seems with Bush, there are so many lies you can't keep up with it, so thereís no longer a story.
CORN: I think there was another thing going on, too. In my book, thereís a quote that I think may have first appeared in the Washington Monthly in which Cokie Roberts said the story of the election of 2000 is that Goreís a liar and Bush is not bright enough -- something to that extent. So I do think that reporters created this sort of internal loop, an echo chamber for themselves in which they said: Bush ain't that bright, so, yeah, heís going to get some stuff wrong, and heís not going to have his facts straight. And if he says something thatís not true about Social Security -- well, you know, big deal. But if Gore does it, heís Mr. Brainiac. We expect him to get it all right.
I also think there was a certain attitude that Gore just wasn't as likeable. And I think they took more delight in nailing a not-so-likeable smarty-pants as opposed to this down-home charmer whom you don't worry about because you don't expect that he get things right. These things end up taking a life of their own.
And then Bush became President. [Former Washington Post Editor] Ben Bradley said in his speech in í97 that the hardest thing for a newspaper to do is to call a president a liar. Thereís just this real natural inhibition. Part of it is deference to the position; part of it is not wanting to get on the wrong side of power. Dana Milbank at the Washington Post did a story about Bushís exaggerations in October of 2002, and the administration came out and attacked him and made his life really difficult. The journalists who are closest to the president, in terms of covering him, have to have a sort of modus operandi.
BUZZFLASH: Well, that didn't prevent them from attacking a Gore, who was Vice President when he was running. And that didn't prevent them from attacking Clinton.
CORN: Enough straws on the camelís back, and there is a shift. Teasing out all the various factors that went into the media treatment of Gore is, I think, kind of difficult. There are a lot of different explanations going on, a lot of psychological currents there. With all that being directed at Gore, Bush got a real pass.
If you go back to August 2001, Bush was losing it a bit. He pushed through the tax cut on the basis of lies. But a lot of people saw his presidency as sort of losing steam, and there was a possibility the press was getting a little more forceful. And then 9/11 came. All of a sudden, he was this grand hero, which makes for a better story for the media and for the public. And the press is always less inclined to go against a populist figure, for the obvious reasons.
Bush rode high for awhile. And he did well for most of the run-up through Iraq, even though the media would report -- heís saying this; itís not very true. Heís saying this; itís not really true. You didn't see, as a headline, Bush is misrepresenting the case for war. But Nigergate kind of blew that open a bit. It wasn't quite a tipping point, but it was as close as you can come.
They were running stories in the Post and the Times about things that Bush had said before the war that now turned out to be wrong, which they had actually pointed out were wrong before the war, but they were just juiced up by the whole Nigergate business. And I thought that was kind of good. Bush is very lucky that this all happened right before summer vacation. The vacation intervened, and itís unclear at this point in time whether this episode is over, or if itís going to build up again. Why and how the media covers something is often difficult to figure out because there are so many different parts to the media. For some reason, calling the president a liar or saying that the president is saying something untrue, and making a big point about that, just seems to be a pretty difficult hurdle for most of the mainstream media. And Iíd say that was somewhat true about Clinton as well, prior to the whole Monica business.
BUZZFLASH: Youíve got a whole book compiling his lies. In the Introduction, you say how Bush has mugged --
CORN: The truth. I was being polite.
BUZZFLASH: -- but here we are. He still has a fairly high approval rating, although itís been dropping. Conventional wisdom, such as it is, in the mainstream media, including The New York Times, still poses it as: Itís going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for the Democrats to beat Bush. Whatís going on? Hereís a guy whoís a pathological liar, according to your book, and has --
CORN: Well, I didn't say "pathological." That sort of gets to state of mind, and Iím not quite sure about that, to be honest with you.
BUZZFLASH: Can we call him a serial liar?
CORN: Certainly serial liar. But his state of mind is a whole other issue. Does Bush know that heís lying or not? We can come back to that.
BUZZFLASH: Weíll stand corrected and not put words in your mouth. But letís call him a serial liar who has the economy in the dumps, the deficit has reached heights itís never reached before, heís losing a war, and our soldiers are dying.
CORN: Nine Democrats are running for the presidency here [Ed. note: This interview was conducted before Gen. Wesley Clark announced his candidacy]. Obviously they all don't think that Bush is unbeatable, or they wouldn't be doing it. I think an unfortunate trend in political journalism is to make hyperventilating judgments in any given point in a campaign cycle. The only thing Iím comfortable predicting about the 2004 election is that between now and then three things are going to happen that are completely unpredictable that will change whatever prediction Iíd make now. Another terrorist attack could have the country rallying around Bush, for example, or it could have the country demanding answers and holding him to account for it. It could really go either way.
Iíve talked to a lot of people on this point, and it sort of breaks down 50-50 what the consensus will be. A year is a very long time in this modern, mixed-up world of ours. If Bush turns things around in Iraq, that will have a big impact. If weíre still there a year from now, losing a couple Americans a day, that will have a big impact. But you can't say. You tell me the reality on the ground in Iraq a year from now, and you tell me where unemployment stands a year from now, and Iíll tell you what Bush is likely to get in terms of the election, regardless of who the Democrat is.
Right now, political journalists are looking at his approval ratings, and theyíre saying these ratings are very high, and theyíre going to be very tough to beat. I think you see a little changing of that tune in the past few weeks. David Broder [of the Washington Post] had a column saying that if Bush doesn't win in 2004, August 6 or August 17 will be the day that things turned bad for him. I forget even what happened that day. But you see them backtracking a bit. Ultimately, what political journalists mostly like is a competitive race. After saying that Bush is unbeatable, theyíre going to start saying Bush is beatable. And theyíre going to start picking a Democrat who looks likely to win. And then theyíll turn on that.
There are a lot of factors here. The money advantage that Bush is going to have, regardless of realities in the economy and foreign policy, is going to be absolutely tremendous. Money can overwhelm the truth in political campaigns. Iím sorry to share that with our readers here. So the fact that Bush is going to have more money than God -- $170 to $200 million -- maybe on a good day, thatís how much God has in His wallet -- thatís going to be a tremendous, tremendous factor in keeping him in office, despite the economic indicators and the body bag count is from Iraq.
I keep telling people the political race is going to take care of itself. The Democrats will fight it out. Theyíll get a nominee, and itíll be a competitive race. There will be a lot of coverage -- good, bad, indifferent -- on Bush regarding the campaign. And I do think that he looks more desperate these days. The speech he gave two or three days ago about Iraq I thought had a tad bit of desperation to it. Weíre speaking the week of the second anniversary of September 11, and outside of that silly docudrama on Showtime, I don't get a big sense that the media is being overly celebratory of our grand leader.
Listen, I may be grasping here for straws. But even though Bush is still there and heís lying every day, itís not all darkness.
BUZZFLASH: Let me ask a kind of a related question. Bush is the symbol. Heís the mouthpiece. So if he espouses or offers the American public untruths about reasons for going to Iraq, as he did before the war was launched -- and not just the 16 words, but many more -- is he really just a mouthpiece?
CORN: I do not think George W. Bush is a puppet. I think he is in charge, particularly so in foreign policy. After 9/11, I think he saw himself as being placed in the office providentially to lead the country at this point in time. He certainly is not a details man, but he does give guidance and leadership to the people working for him. To some degree heís controlled, in the sense that he can only make decisions based on what information he gets. But he is indeed responsible for whom he listens to and what he chooses to listen to.
I get the sense from the few times Iíve met him, and the times Iíve talked to him, and what Iíve read about him elsewhere, that heís not a fellow who second-guesses his instincts and natural inclinations and doesn't really reach out beyond his framing of the world for a reality check. But I do believe that heís there calling the shots.
At the same time, there are agendas being put into place that have been there before George Bush. We have the whole neo-cons, like Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol, and traditional-cons like Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. For years, they wanted war against Iraq -- not to help the Iraqis, that was never part of their manifesto. It was to enhance the strategic positioning and security of America. They thought you ought to take out Saddam Hussein. And with the neo-cons, Iím not even sure itís to help the oil companies. With Cheney and Rumsfeld, it might well be a piece of that as well.
In any event, Bush populates his administration with people with this perspective. And then 9/11 rolls along, and he has his own personal family history regarding Saddam Hussein. And I think he takes the attitude that, heck, Iím the sheriff of this darn town. Iím not going to let any potential threat sit out there or even get close to our town. Iím going to take you out ahead of time. He probably knows well enough to talk that way to the American public, to say: Weíre not so sure about this thing, but Iím not going to take a chance. Weíre going to go to war.
I think after 9/11 he has a psychological imperative to protect the country. Al-Qaedaís very difficult to deal with; the causes of terrorism are a very difficult task. Seeing Saddam Hussein out there -- a figure already demonized in America, and basically rightfully so -- setting him up as a target satisfies Bushís psychological need to be doing something very active and very bold. It obviously has a political component -- look, Iím in charge and we are responding. A move against Saddam is supported by the neo-cons and the geo-strategic cons for all the reasons theyíve wanted to do this for years. So thereís a lot going on here. But at the end of the day, I don't think Bush is being manipulated by these folks. If heís not on the same page for the same reasons, he is there for reasons of his own. He ended up at the same place that Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and the Bill Kristols of the world all wanted him to be.
BUZZFLASH: So you don't subscribe to the theory that really this administration is run behind the scenes by Cheney, and possibly Rumsfeld?
CORN: I don't know. I don't think it has to be. I think thereís enough congruence of interests. One interesting thing is, if Bob Woodward can be believed -- and most of what he has in Bush at War I assume is indeed accurate, though thereís stuff thatís probably not in there and I think the framing is far too celebratory -- immediately after 9/11, the next day Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld are saying: Letís hit Iraq now. Letís do it now. Wolfowitz even argues that going after Iraq will be easier than going after the Taliban. And what does Bush do? Bush says no. This is kind of illuminating. He says he believes Saddam is behind 9/11, but thereís no evidence yet. Heís not eager to go up against Iraq, even though at that point in time a lot of his advisors are.
So the picture thatís been drawn is that Bush is indeed a practicing CEO with a very, very, very strong board of directors. They make their cases, and usually these guys agree more times than not. But occasionally they don't . And Bush gets to make the call at the end of the day. I don't think he is deferential to Rumsfeld and Cheney. I do think he has this sense of mission. And guys and gals with senses of mission are not the type of people who will be treated as puppets. Now people can always be manipulated by clever folks, but thatís another matter. I do think Bush is leading the charge.
BUZZFLASH: You document all the lying and the serial lying of this administration. Why do they need to lie if they believe that their agenda is supported by the American people?
CORN: Well, thatís just it. I don't think they believe their agenda was supported by the American people. These guys obviously believe that what theyíre doing is right and good. Thatís true of everybody, even psychopaths. But I think we have a we-know-best attitude here, which is: We know whatís best for America. We know whatís best for American security. We know whatís best for American interests. And we know how to define American interests best. But if we were to sort of lay this out for the American public, weíre not sure they would buy it. To say we have to go to war against Saddam Hussein, even though heís not connected to 9/11 or thereís no evidence, and even though weíre not sure there are weapons of mass destruction -- there may be, but weíre not positive of it -- is something that I think the American public would have said, "Ha. Come back to me when you know something."
So the lies and the deceptions are there because they have a political gut instinct that this stuff wouldn't fly unless they presented to America the case that there was an imminent threat. And to do that, they had to play loose with the facts.
BUZZFLASH: Letís look at one issue where thereís been quite a high volume of lies, to say the least: the economy. Do you think -- and I know this is speculative and goes back to state of mind -- but do you think George Bush honestly believes that the tax cuts and the burgeoning deficit will lead to an improved economy?
CORN: Thatís a great question. And itís a hard question to answer. I address this in a bigger fashion in my book. Does Bush believe what he says? Certainly Ronald Reagan believed what he said about the economy and other things that were wrong. And George Bush may well believe this stuff. The thing is, if you believe, you always can find evidence, because he talks about how his tax cuts are the economic solution. Well, you say, wait a second. You passed your tax cuts, and weíre still down three million jobs -- lost 93,000 jobs in August. And we have this tremendous deficit. How can you say things are better? Well, he says, they'd be worse if we hadn't done this.
You can't prove thatís wrong. You can really build a self-reinforcing reality in which, gosh, yes, the deficit would be worse and the economy worse -- so glad we took these steps. He may really believe this simplistic view that when the economyís going bad, the answer is tax cuts. He may believe in trickle-down -- that the people who pay the most taxes are the wealthy, so they should get the most tax cuts, and that will get the economy going.
I think you have two ways of looking at this situation work. You can look at it either that Bush believes what he's saying is true, or you can look at it that he doesn't believe what heís saying is true. And if youíre looking at it that way, then the question is: Why is he doing it? Why does he want these policies? Is it just to help his rich friends? Is that what heís in this game for? Heíll assume the political risk of harming the economy so he and his family and his friends will get some more money?
As a millionaire in a family of millions, is that why he wants to be president? Is that what he wants to use the presidency for? Is that what he wants to be remembered for? I tend to think that his motivations have to be different ones than that. He wants to be remembered as a great president. He wants to solve problems. In some ways, it may well be easier for those of us on the other side to look at him and say he actually does believe this stuff. Maybe thatís more frightening. But I think there may be more logic to that interpretation.
BUZZFLASH: The Bush administration ran on this platform that they were going to restore quote-unquote honor and dignity to the White House. If one regards lying as outside the framework of honor and dignity, the Bush administration has failed. Why should it matter to us? Letís just say youíre a person who more or less agrees with Bushís policies, and letís say I was a person who agreed more or less with Clintonís policies. Does the volume of lies matter?
CORN: I think it does. My political leanings were closer to Clinton than Bush as well. I had a lot of differences with Clinton. But I also resented the lying that I believed Clinton engaged in, and Iím not talking so much about Monica. Iím talking about lying about doing nothing in Rwanda.
Honesty in public office is really a bedrock issue. If you don't have that, then you can't have an honest debate -- and a democracy can't function without honest debate.
Itís like if you want to have a debate over Star Wars and missile defense -- we can have one if Bush and Rumsfeld come out and say: Listen, this thing doesn't work yet, but we think we need to spend $10 billion on it. We know this is not the most pressing of threats, but we think it could become a threat. We want to go ahead and do this. Then the public can weigh the threat thatís presented, the other priorities that are needed for national security, and the other uses for the money, and come to an informed conclusion.
But instead, they come out and say: We will deploy a working system in the year 2004. The Pentagon itself says that thatís not going to happen -- this systemís not operational -- and the GAO says the testing regimen is not even effective. So they poison the debate by calling it "a working system." Thus, the public can't make a true decision. Because if the argument in the debate is do you have a working system or a non-working system, thatís a much different set of factors.
Honesty should matter. There are cases to be made for the U.S. joining with other nations to overthrow tyrants who repress their populations and commit torture and have urges for weapons of mass destruction, even if they don't have actual weapons. But there were the neo-cons and others who said weapons of mass destruction are not the issue here. For us, the issue is trying to create freedom and liberty and non-repression in Iraq. And maybe they were actually sincere in feeling that way -- I think some used it as a cover story, but some might have been sincere. But they should still be offended that Bush didn't tell the truth.
Yet we live in such a partisan, political environment. Those of us who pay attention to politics, which is still a very small minority of Americans, know that itís hard for anyone that feels that theyíre on one side or the other to criticize their own side. For someone who works for a progressive magazine who tends to vote Democrat, to say, yeah, I do think Bill Clintonís a liar, and thatís a bad thing is not such a bad thing. Now I don't think he should be impeached for lying about sex, but I do think he should be censured. And I think the public is right to be upset. And he should damn well apologize. But I think the lies about other matters that he told are more important. That should be part of the public discourse, and people should stand up and say: We want honesty on my side 100 percent. But you just don't get much of that. Itís a bipolar political world and the stakes are so high.
Iíve had a lot of people -- left of center people -- if I ever wrote something critical about the Clinton thing tell me: Don't you understand? Youíre only helping the Right. Things should not be done to help the Right. We shouldn't give them any ammunition. I understand that perspective, but again, thatís not what I signed up for.
Iím not a Democratic strategist. I am an independent journalist. My views are known. I believe that if you tell the truth, the things that I want to see happen in the world are more likely to happen. Having a commitment to -- better yet, having a reputation for -- telling the truth so you can't be attacked by books such as mine can only help your side politically. Democrats have a hard time gaining traction or making points about political contributions because while they favor campaign reform generally more than Republicans, and they take less money from special interests, they still take a lot. So theyíre tainted. I do think injecting honesty into these harsh partisan debates is awfully difficult.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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