February 13, 2004
Paul Waldman, Author of "Fraud: The Strategy Behind The Bush Lies And Why The Media Didn’t Tell You," Talks with BuzzFlash about Why Bush is a Complete and Irredeemable "Fraud."
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Rarely have we found a writer that so cohesively builds the case that Bush is a fraud. And, unlike BuzzFlash, the author of "FRAUD" is restrained and patient as he unfolds his case that the image of George W. Bush is a strategically manufactured artifice.
As the book jacket notes:
Paul Waldman is the past associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and holds a Ph.D. in communications. He is currently the executive editor of The Gadflyer, an Internet magazine about politics.
"Fraud:The Strategy Behind The Bush Lies And Why The Media Didn’t Tell You" is available at http://www.buzzflash.com/premiums/fraud.html.
Here is the BuzzFlash Interview with Paul Waldman.
* * *
BuzzFlash: You have a book called Fraud about the person who’s sitting in the White House. If we accept that the image of Bush that is portrayed to the country through his speeches -- and, as Karl Rove likes to say, through pictorial images of photos and television video -- is a fraud, what is Bush’s motive and the motive of the people behind him to commit the fraud?
Paul Waldman: I think where it comes from is the fact that -- and I say this in the Introduction -- that at some point he had to have sat down and taken a good, long look at who he was and what he wanted to do, and come to the realization that, if he gave it to the American people straight, they wouldn’t buy it. They would not have elected somebody who had accomplished so little and had been given so much. They wouldn’t sign on to this agenda that’s at odds with their own interests.
So if that’s the position you’re in -- you’ve got this agenda, you’ve got a candidate who has really so little to commend himself, other than his name, and has spent his entire life walking on a path laid before him with wealth and influence, and has so little in common with the people that he’s going to be claiming to represent -- then you’ve got to come up with a story. And that story is going to be a false one.
So what do they do? They said we’re going to create this persona that isn’t somebody who went to Andover and Yale and Harvard, whose father was a President and whose grandfather was a Senator, and who, his entire working life, had never had a real job. It’s all been about his Daddy’s friends giving him money to lose.
They created this persona that he’s a regular guy, a Texas cowboy. He bought a ranch just before the campaign started so he could go down there and clear brush. He exaggerates his drawl whenever he can. He does “home to the heartland” tours to show that the place where he comes from, and the people who vote for him come from, is the real America. And if you live on the East coast or the West coast, or you live in a state that votes for Democrats, then you must not be a real American. So that’s part of it -- the creation of this persona, this kind of regular guy who doesn’t, in fact, represent the interests of his class.
Then you have the second problem, which is: What do you do about this agenda? Well, the agenda is not going to change. That we know. So what they did was they created this wonderful thing called “compassionate conservatism.” Now what’s compassionate conservatism? I think the best summation of it is if you go to the Bush campaign website -- Georgewbush.com -- you can see a “Compassion Photo Album.” Now what’s the Compassion Photo Album? It is -- I kid you not -- two dozen pictures of George W. Bush with black people. That’s the compassion photo album. And that pretty much sums up what compassionate conservatism is.
BuzzFlash: You mean photo ops with minorities as the sum total of compassionate conservatism?
Paul Waldman: Exactly. You know, you stick him in a room full of black people and he will hug them ‘til the cows come home. The cameras will click away, and it’ll be wonderful for everybody. There’s an event that took place that I mention in the book where --
BuzzFlash: Excuse me for interrupting you, but it’s somewhat ironic that when he was informed of 9/11, he was in a minority classroom in Florida reading a children’s book.
Paul Waldman: One of the things that’s so shocking, if we can just digress on that for a moment, is that everyone talks about his tremendous performance on 9/11. I don’t think it was that tremendous. He got informed of the second plane – okay, not the first plane – the second plane. He knew that America was under attack, and he stayed in that classroom for 10 more minutes. Ari Fleischer held up a sign that said: “Don’t say anything yet,” and so Bush went on reading this children’s book for 10 more minutes instead of saying, “I’m sorry children. I have to go.” He hung around as if it really wasn’t all that urgent.
And then he kind of bounced around the country, making very awkward statements that didn’t really seem to be very inspiring. It wasn’t until they coulc actually write something for him to say that he began to take on the appearance of a President.
BuzzFlash: What happened then in that classroom is sort of indicative of the real ineptitude and impotency of Bush without his handlers running the show. Here he is, placed in a photo op situation, part of a Karl Rove strategy. And the biggest crisis to hit this country in anyone’s memory -- nearly 3,000 people lost -- and he’s sitting in a classroom basically until he’s told what to do. Hardly the take-charge President, as you say. And then what did he do? He made a brief statement that someone wrote for him, and then he flew west to Louisiana while the country is in dissaray.
Paul Waldman: But it was so important for everyone to feel like we had a commanding leader that reporters in particular were falling all over themselves -- and to this day -- to talk about how wonderful his performance was on that day.
BuzzFlash: Let’s get back to compassionate conservatism. The fraud is, in part, to advance an agenda that the public doesn’t buy, and we see this borne out in polls. He may have a high favorability rating, but at the same time, when people are polled on his individual policies, particularly domestic policies, he loses in a landslide on most of those.
Paul Waldman: Absolutely. And that’s another thing that is largely a myth. You see reporters repeat this all the time -- that Bush is a tremendously popular President. Well, he was tremendously popular right after Sept. 11th, and that has kind of stuck in their minds. If a trained seal had been President on Sept. 11th, he would have gotten 90 percent approval ratings. But the fact is, right now, Bush is not a tremendously popular President. His popularity ratings are sort of in the low- to mid-‘50s, which is okay by historical standards. It’s not fantastic. It’s not terrible.
The Washington Post recently asked, “Who are you going to vote for?” It was Bush: 48; Democrats: 46. So that’s a tie. But this idea that he’s so tremendously popular and everybody just loves him sticks in the public mind because it sticks in reporters’ minds. They’re, to a certain extent, kind of still locked in that post-Sept. 11th feeling that everybody just loves Bush.
There’s an interesting parallel with Ronald Reagan here. There’s an article that was written by a communications scholar named Michael Schudson some years back. He looked at the Gallup polls on popularity ratings, and he wrote this piece called “The Myth of Ronald Reagan’s Popularity.” This is after Reagan had already left office. And what he found was that, again, by historical standards, Reagan was kind of in the middle. He had better ratings than Nixon and Carter, but worse than most other presidents. But Schudson’s explanation was that reporters, to a certain extent, sort of felt like the American people must have been dupes. Reagan’s people were so good at these terrific photo ops, and reporters saw how well they were staged and just figured, well, the American people certainly must be buying it, because look how pretty those pictures are. They must love Reagan, when, in fact, they really didn’t. He was reasonably popular, popular enough to win reelection. But he wasn’t beloved by every American.
And the same kind of thing is happening with Bush. If anything, they’re even more skilled. They put the Reagan team to shame. Nobody can put together a photo op like the Bush administration can. So there’s a similar kind of thing that goes on. They see him land on the aircraft carrier, and reporters all say: Wow, look at that fantastic photo op. People must just be lapping this up. Everybody must love this guy.
You know what? The American people aren’t that dumb. There was a Gallup poll right before the carrier landing happened, and then one right after it. His popularity went down by one point, so it’s not like everybody saw it and said: Wow, he’s such a fantastic wartime leader, we just love him. But that idea has lodged itself in reporters’ minds, and they keep repeating it – that he’s so fantastically popular.
BuzzFlash: You were associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the Annenberg School for Communication. BuzzFlash constantly focuses on the issue of communication, and in many of our interviews we ask people about image and meaning. Going back to what you just said about the carrier landing, people like the infamous Chris Matthews and others analyzed it as though it were a performance and not something that was an extension of policy. In the media today, you have celebrity pundits who can’t divorce themselves from looking at politics as entertainment. And in that sense, they look at Bush’s performance at projecting himself as President, rather than how is his performance as the leader of the American government.
Paul Waldman: I think it goes even beyond the celebrity pundits to prominent reporters in general. Many years ago, I had a conversation with a White House correspondent for a major newspaper, and I asked her about this question of covering the strategy and not covering the policy details. And she said, “Look, I’m not an expert on welfare policy. I’m not an expert on foreign policy. What I’m an expert on is politics, and that’s what I’m going to write about.”
The way that ends up manifesting itself is in theater criticism, and the irony is that reporters tend to be very, very cynical. They assume that the motives that candidates and politicians offer are always false, and they always are concealing some sort of vaguely sinister strategic motive. But the irony is that they reward good image-making and they punish bad image-making. So even though they’re cynical, they’re also playing right into the hands of somebody like Karl Rove, because he knows all too well that it’s not a question of whether or not you are going to try to construct some kind of theater. You’re going to be evaluated based on whether it came off well or not.
If you have a good photo op, you’re going to get praised. If you fall off the stage like Bob Dole did, then you’re going to get criticized. Reporters believe when they’re doing this stuff that they’re kind of in the know, and their cynicism is holding politicians to account. But it really isn’t. All it’s doing is insisting that they put on good theater as opposed to bad theater.
BuzzFlash: I recall reading several years ago about people’s recall and news sources. We are such an entertainment-driven society -- news is geared toward ratings and sweeps weeks, and advertising is dependent upon viewership. I think it was after the 2000 election, where people in some sort of focus group were shown negative ads, news reports, and newspaper articles. Two days later, they were asked about the sources. When asked about a negative attack upon a politician, they couldn’t distinguish where it came from. Although the public generally decries negative campaign advertising, the source of news becomes a blur to the American public in general.
Paul Waldman: That’s because we don’t classify information when we receive it, along with its source, necessarily. We get a piece of information, and we store it into our memory. But it can often get disconnected from where we saw it. Campaigns count on that. One of the things that they do sometimes is try to confuse you about what the source is, so they try to make their ads look vaguely news-like.
There have been a couple of cases where people have done that to the extreme. In Bob Torricelli’s last Senate race against Dick Zimmer in New Jersey, Zimmer aired an ad that was a fake sort of newsbreak. “Breaking news: Torricelli under fire for corruption,” or whatever. That was an extreme case of somebody trying to confuse you about where the source was. The mistake they made is that since they aired it over and over and over again, viewers eventually said: Wait a second, I saw this breaking news thing yesterday and the day before. They’re trying to screw with me. And it backfired on them because it was such a blatant attempt to fool people. But they nonetheless adopt a lot of the visual tropes of news, and it is, to a certain extent, in order to help you to kind of forget where you got the information from.
BuzzFlash: Let’s go back to this notion of what makes news nowadays -- the projection of the Bush fraud. Karl Rove was quoted in a New Yorker piece a couple weeks ago saying, very disdainfully toward the media, that only the headline counts, and reporters only want the good headline, because they’re going to be rated on what brings readers or viewers to their publication or television broadcasting. So as long as we supply them with the good headline, that’s all we need to do.
He was being what’s called disarmingly candid because the Bush administration, and Rove’s office in particular, seems masterful. Whenever Bush gets in a corner, whether it was Enron, Ken Lay -- I mean, we can go down the list of maybe a hundred things that have been damaging to them -- Karl Rove comes up with some headline that knocks whatever is negative and revealing about the Bush administration off the front page, and invariably the press goes along with it, except for maybe a few print publications. Certainly television goes with the headline, and then the Democrats don’t continue an offense about the damaging revelation, and it just dies because the White House has released a distracting headline.
Paul Waldman: The critical information ends up far down the story, which means that on TV, which is basically a headline service, it never gets in at all. They’re very good about forging ahead. They never apologize for anything. And the press has been so compliant and kind of beaten down that if you look back over these stories, some of which you just mentioned, it’s incredible how they just disappeared.
Take Harken Energy, where Bush may well have committed insider trading. There’s a lot of money involved. Dumped over $800,000 worth of stock after apparently hearing that his company was engaging in Enron-style accounting, and their stock was about to tank. If it had been Bill Clinton, well, let’s think about the amount of ink that was spilled over Whitewater. Now what was Whitewater about? Even people who spend every day thinking about politics can’t tell you, because it was basically about nothing, and they found nothing. But we spent $70 million investigating it. And Harken just disappears. They ran a couple of stories for a couple of weeks, and then it just went away.
BuzzFlash: One of the traits of the Bush administration is the old slogan: If you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. Or, I guess a variation on that is: If you tell a lie five times, it becomes the truth, which seems a hallmark of the Bush administration. Let me ask you about a couple things and just see your reaction in terms of media. When it first came out that Bush had been briefed before he went off to Crawford in August of 2001 that al-Qaeda was planning a massive terrorist attack on the United States, it was derailed. Bush suddenly decided it was time to have a Department of Homeland Security -- I’m pretty sure that’s the story that derailed the August briefing story. The press seems to have no memory that this President was opposed to a Department of Homeland Security. Something comes out that’s damaging to him, and suddenly he comes out championing it.
What I’m getting to is when Condoleezza Rice was asked about the briefing, she said, "But we never thought they would use planes to fly into buildings."
Paul Waldman: The other thing about when she got asked about the briefing was that she said: No, it wasn’t about attacks on the United States. It was about attacks overseas. And that was false.
BuzzFlash: No one challenged her, and it did not become a big scandal -- the way you prevent a hijacking is the same way you prevent a hijacking that results in flying planes into big buildings. It doesn’t matter. You didn’t prevent the hijacking. Her attitude was: Well, we’d kind of been warned about hijackings, but not about flying planes into buildings.
How does that happen? A 5-year-old could knock that excuse down and say: How can you be National Security Advisor if you can’t understand that both would be prevented in the same way?
Paul Waldman: I think the press, ever since the beginning, has bought that line that the Bush administration is comprised of grownups. If nothing else, these people are competent, and they know what they’re doing. And even a huge failure like failing to prevent Sept. 11th has done nothing to damage that view amongst the press. They continue, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, to hold to that view that no matter what you think about their policies, these people really know what they’re doing.
BuzzFlash: Even when they say things that reveal they absolutely don’t know what they’re doing.
Paul Waldman: I think part of it is that they’re so good at sort of forging ahead and not being willing to even grant the premise of criticism, and changing the subject.
BuzzFlash: We had an editorial at one point called “The Banality of Lying,” which noted that they lie so frequently and so brazenly that it’s hard for some people of the press to accuse them of lying because they’re so audacious.
Paul Waldman: That is a strategy. And Bush never apologizes for anything, and it’s been very effective. Even in cases you can find where he’ll repeat the same lie over and over and over again, and there will be somebody pointing that out, he just keeps going because he knows that there’s not going to be a cost. And this actually brings me to a point that I think is really important that a lot of liberals misunderstand. It’s easy to make fun of Bush for not being too smart, and for the way that he trips over his words. But when liberals do that, I think they’re making a big mistake because he wants liberals to make fun of him. It makes liberals look like snobs, and it reiterates this idea that he’s just an ordinary guy, because if he went to Andover and Yale and Harvard, he wouldn’t be a guy who trips over his words.
What the press does in a presidential campaign is they sort of home in on what they think each candidate’s Achilles’ heel is. And they tell the public: This is what you have to know about this guy, and this is the area of potential danger. For Gore, it was the idea he was a liar. And for Bush, it was the idea that he was stupid. And once they decided that Bush was stupid, they gave him permission to lie.
There’s a quote that I cite from Cokie Roberts -- if you want to know what the conventional wisdom among reporters is, you can just listen to what she’s got to say. After the first debate, Gore made some utterly trivial inaccurate statements about the girl who has to stand in her classroom when in fact she had a chair, or he went to the fires in Texas with the director of FEMA when it was actually the deputy director. And Bush told a number of falsehoods that were actually consequential and were meant to deceive people about what he wanted to do. What Cokie Roberts said was that with Bush, “you know he’s just misstating.” And that’s a quote. You know he’s just misstating, as opposed to it playing into a story about him being a serial exaggerator.
That’s what reporters felt. If Bush said something that wasn’t true, oh, well, you know, he’s not too smart, so he must have just made a mistake, so we don’t have to hold him accountable for his lies. And we may not even have to say that what he said was wrong.
And when they realized that this was going on, the Bush team knew that they had struck political gold: He was never going to be held accountable for the things that he said. After the State of the Union last year, when he said that Saddam was looking for uranium in Africa, one White House aide said: Well, the President’s not a fact-checker. And this is always their line. It’s not his fault because he’s George W. Bush. He’s not too smart. He’s doing what he thinks is the right thing. But he doesn’t have to be held accountable for the things that he says.
I’ve had it with that. When he was running for President, he said that he was going to usher in the responsibility era. Well, it’s time for him to take some responsibility.
BuzzFlash: In September of last year, on a Friday, which is often when the administration releases information that can be damaging or undercut their credibility, a statement is released on behalf of President Bush in which he states that basically there is no indication that Saddam was tied with al-Qaeda.
It was an enormously significant admission on the part of administration that had done everything possible, through a number of psychological linguistic techniques, to get the American public to believe that the majority of the hijackers on Sept. 11th were Iraqi. At one point, 70 percent of Americans thought that. Then Bush suddenly admits there was no connection, and two days later, if I recall, Vice President Cheney appears on television and once again says we have reason to believe that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. So the Vice President, who many say is really the brains behind the operation, along with Karl Rove, says something completely contrary to what the President has said just two days ago, and there’s barely a ripple in the press.
Paul Waldman: And Bush only said it because he got asked the question directly, and it had begun to become controversial because Cheney has been always the one who has said the most outrageous things when it came to Iraq --that Saddam actually has nuclear weapons, that he’s going to be attacking any minute now. What happened was, after one of these statements, Bush actually got asked directly by a reporter: Do you believe that Saddam was involved with Sept. 11th? And he said no, because there was no escaping it when he got asked so directly. But yes, you’re right, and I wrote a piece in the Washington Post about this -- that reporters just don’t know how to say: The President lied. They especially don’t know how to say it if he lies in a clever way.
They didn’t have to say the words “Saddam planned Sept. 11th” in order to plant that idea in the public mind. All they had to do was to keep repeating the words “Saddam” and “Sept. 11th” in the same sentence over and over and over.
BuzzFlash: Which is a technique called mirroring.
Paul Waldman: Yes. And people would make the connection in their own minds because we know that Saddam is a bad guy, and al-Qaeda is bad. And they’re all sort of Middle Eastern, so why wouldn’t there be a connection between them? The other thing that they do was they hyped these meaningless connections. Bush said, I think it was in his State of the Union, or maybe it was the U.N. address -- I can’t remember specifically -- that a senior member of al-Qaeda has received medical treatment in Baghdad. First of all, the guy wasn’t in al-Qaeda. He was in a different terrorist group. But that actually proves absolutely nothing. By that standard, President Bush is in league with al-Qaeda, too, because there have been members of al-Qaeda that have been found in the United States.
BuzzFlash: Not to mention the close Bush family relationship to Saudi Arabia, to the bin Laden family and so forth.
Paul Waldman: They knew that they wouldn’t have to say it explicitly. They could get 70 percent of the people to believe that Saddam was involved in Sept. 11th if they just kept repeating the two ideas and linking them as closely as they could, over and over and over and over again. That inoculates them against the charge of lying, so when they’re accused of making that connection, they can say: We never said it. This is something that you might call Clintonian or Clintonesque.
Paul Waldman: Yes. Going back afterward and saying, well, if you look back at exactly what I said, that’s not what I said. You’ve seen Republicans in recent days make this argument, too. Now that we know that Saddam had no weapons, you’ve heard Republicans say: He never said the threat was imminent. Now how is it that he never said that? Well, the word “imminent” does not seem to have passed his lips. But, of course, he was telling us over and over that if we didn’t attack Iraq, Iraq was going to attack us, and soon. But since the word “imminent” was never heard, you now have Republicans saying: He didn’t say the threat was imminent. But of course he did. That’s what he wanted us to think.
The most appropriate definition of lying is whether you say something that intentionally leads the person who hears you to come to a false conclusion. That’s the kind of lie that Bush is more apt to make, particularly on Iraq, as he did, although there are certainly plenty of things that he said that are literally false. You can rattle off a whole list of those, whether it’s the uranium from Africa, the aluminum tubes, or, the unmanned aerial vehicles that were supposed to be able to spread chemical weapons over the eastern United States.
BuzzFlash: It’s an endless quagmire of lying that was created for the intention of deception. And I guess you’re saying what the Republicans are doing now is what they accuse Clinton of one minor thing having to do with a sexual activity. But they’re distinguishing between technically lying and the intent to deceive. They’re saying those are two different things.
Paul Waldman: Right.
BuzzFlash: So maybe there was intent to deceive, although they’re not really acknowledging that. But they’re kind of saying Bush didn’t technically lie.
Paul Waldman: The intent to deceive is what’s important.
BuzzFlash: Well, to us, an intent to deceive is a lie, whether or not the wording was phrased in a way that you could say that he absolutely said that, and it was a lie. But you could put A and B together and it becomes a lie. Clearly the entire pre-Iraq campaign -- even Powell now acknowledges he lied, and no one seems to care. Powell now says they didn’t really have firm evidence. They seem to be inoculating themselves by stipulating to the facts, but saying it wasn’t intentional lying.
Paul Waldman: Right. And the thing is, if you actually go back and look at what they said, they’re now saying: Well, we just didn’t really know; the evidence was sketchy, and so we were just laying it out there. But the important point is that when they presented that evidence, much of which was false, they didn’t tell us that it was vague and ambiguous. Bush gave us in his State of the Union speech one year ago with specific numbers on tons of biological weapons that they were supposed to have had, and numbers of missiles, and in Powell’s speech to the U.N. It was truly amazing, if you hear that speech to the U.N., all across the country, people said, well, that’s it. Case closed. The case has been made, because Colin Powell, who everyone respects so much, because he’s the moderate, he’s the honest one – he laid it out and that’s it.
We talked about those aluminum tubes. This was something that was extremely controversial within the Administration. Why? Because every expert who knew about enriching uranium said these things are useless for enriching uranium. They’re for conventional rockets, and the Iraqis happen to be telling the truth on this one. And that was the conclusion of everyone who knew what they were talking about.
Now they had some intelligence analysts who didn’t know much about enriching uranium who said they could take the tubes, and maybe they could hollow them out and do this long involved process where maybe they could use them for enriching uranium. And that was what ended up carrying the day. But when Powell got to the U.N., what did he say? He said that the consensus of most experts who have looked at it said that these can be used for enriching uranium. And Condoleezza Rice said they can only be used for enriching uranium. And they were lying. That was not the consensus of most of the analysts. They were almost useless for enriching uranium.
They presented all these things as though they were certainties -- that there was really no ambiguity about it. And now, when it turns out that all these things were false, they’re saying: Well, we weren’t really sure. We were just putting it out there saying maybe it was a possibility. But that's not the way they presented it to us at the time.
BuzzFlash: You write an exquisitely detailed book, very cogent, noting that we basically have a fraud in the White House: a man who pretends that he is something that he isn't, a great pretender. What we have is Bush branded as something he’s not. And it’s kind of like trying to sell someone a product when they don’t really need it and persuading them that it’s going to make their life better. But if someone tries to sell you a peanut butter sandwich, and you taste it and realize it’s turkey, you can send it back. But within the White House --
Paul Waldman: They’ll make you pay and convince you the turkey is what you wanted all along.
BuzzFlash: And persuade you of that. Basically they’ve created a brand identity for Bush, and they keep pushing that based on advertising principles and so forth. At what point do you expose that you’re being told you’re getting prime rib but really you’re getting horsemeat? They’re pretty good at selling horsemeat as though it were sirloin steak.
Paul Waldman: They are. And they wouldn’t be able to do it without the cooperation of the news media.
BuzzFlash: When you say “cooperation,” let me ask you something about the dynamics of the media. We talk a lot on BuzzFlash about the corporate-owned media, but let’s not get into that, because that’s a whole other issue. Let’s talk a little bit about the news cycle at this point in time, and what cable television has done and the nature of the 24-hour headline news cycle.
The Bush administration, and Karl Rove in particular, seem to be brilliant at surfing the headlines -- whenever they’re in a crisis, they jump on a new wave, and people forget about the last wave. How are they aided by information technology? We’re surrounded by information. If you work out at the gym, there’s six television sets. You’ve got CNN. You’ve got the Internet. Newsprint seems as slow as molasses now. Do we have so much information we can no longer determine what’s important?
Paul Waldman: I think most of us don’t use all that information. Most people get their news from the top-level stuff -- their hometown newspaper and the national network news shows. Every argument is out there somewhere. But Bush doesn’t care if there’s a stinging piece in The Nation that really gets to the heart of and lays out the facts about something bad that they’ve done. He doesn’t care, because he knows that so few people are going to see it. So they can ride those waves.
I think that too many reporters see themselves implicitly as kind of stenographers to power. And since the Bush White House is driving the agenda, if the Bush White House says, We’re going to change the subject now, and we’re not going to talk about this criticism -- reporters just go along because they’re at the White House, and the Bush people are setting the agenda. For them to stand up and say: Hold on a second -- we need to talk about weapons of mass destruction; you were saying that all along, but now, all of a sudden, you changed the subject and now it’s about how Iraq was a humanitarian mission. For them to do that requires a little bit of courage, and courage is in short supply in the Washington press corps these days. They know that if they speak out too loudly, they’re going to get blacklisted by the White House. They also know that they are going to be deluged with accusations of liberal bias. That cry is a strategy the Republicans employ to get reporters not to report honestly.
So they just keep going - well, we’ll just write about today’s photo op. And it’s that kind of combination of intimidation and fear that leads them to just go along. I think that they are very successful at defining some things as out of bounds. For instance, I saw an article in the L.A. Times the other day about a Wesley Clark event where somebody asked a question about George Bush being a deserter. And Clark actually answered it, and said something sort of vague and noncommittal about whether he thought that Bush was a deserter. But the incredible thing was that the story didn’t explain what the guy was talking about -- about Bush not showing up for a year’s worth of his National Guard duty.
Now I know that the reporter who was reporting on that story knows what the story is. But the fact that he would not even explain it and instead leave it absolutely impenetrable to almost any reader -- that, to me, is a frightening indication of how their reporters sort of see that there are some kinds of criticism -- well, we’re just not going to talk about that. That’s out of bounds to discuss the fact that Bush didn’t show up and fulfill his National Guard duty.
That’s the kind of thing that I find really frightening -- the fact that they’re beaten down on a day-to-day basis, and just go along with the White House line. It’s tragic and it’s a betrayal of their obligations to the citizenry. But it’s not too surprising.
BuzzFlash: This administration sells itself as an administration of integrity, but it’s perhaps the most dishonest administration in recent memory. It says it’s Godly, but in the Iraq war, almost every denomination, including the President’s own, and the Catholic Church, opposed the Iraq war. Yet the President said God directed him to do this. It’s kind of Orwellian. When you look at its actions vs. his words, it’s almost invariably the opposite of what it says.
Going back to your academic background in communications and journalism -- and James Moore talks about this in Bush’s Brain a bit -- Karl Rove understands that Bush’s role is to create a story, create a brand identity. And everything Bush does is part of elaborating on that story. You talk about it in your book. You said they had to make him into the cowboy. And God knows the only time he ever cuts any brush on his Crawford ranch is during a photo op. Democrats seem to focus on issues -- with the primaries now, we’re seeing them attacking each other on issues. The Bush Republican Party focuses on telling a story about Bush -- the man of integrity, the man of God, the man of homespun, cowboy values who’d rather be back on his ranch. And that story seems to go a long way with a large segment of the American public.
Paul Waldman: Republicans are better at it than Democrats because they have to be. If everybody just said: Okay, who’s looking out for me? -- in Bill O’Reilly’s words -- and voted accordingly, well, Republicans would only have 1 percent of the votes, because that’s who they’re looking out for. So they have to be much more sophisticated at it, and they have to work a lot harder at controlling the language. They have to work a lot harder at telling those stories, right? This is something that you see in election after election -- the Republicans tend to talk about values, and Democrats tend to talk about programs. Democrats often get lost in the details. Now the details are all things that will reflect well on them. But it’s much harder to get people to understand a whole long list of programs than it is to get them to understand a story.
Republicans are very good at telling these stories. And they’ve constructed a very pleasing and easy-to-understand story about George W. Bush -- that he was sort of the wayward son. Then he found God. He became a serious person. He ran for President. He’s a man of upstanding moral values. And then Sept. 11th happened, and he rose to the challenge, and he‘s the savior of us all. And that’s why, to put it bluntly, I’m sure Karl Rove gets down on his knees and thanks God for Sept. 11th every day because any time they’re in trouble, what do they do? They announce a new threat, and they say this is all about terrorism. And if you ask George W. Bush what time he is, he’ll say: In the wake of Sept. 11th, it’s 3:15. So it’s a powerful story and it activates people’s fear and anger, and all those emotions that we all felt on Sept. 11th. And they’re going to keep activating them as long as they can because they know that it works.
BuzzFlash: They have their nominating convention focused around September 11th.
Paul Waldman: Exactly. They have never hesitated for an instant to milk every ounce of political gain they could out of it. I think you’re right on the Democrats because there’s this feeling among Democrats, often a sort of frustration. They say we’re the party that stands for the ordinary people. And there are a lot more ordinary people than there are millionaires. So how come we don’t win every election by 90 percent? It’s because Republicans are better at telling these stories, and they’re better at simplifying things because they have to be.
BuzzFlash: And they’re better at conveying that story for the media, and taking advantage of the headline cycle. It seems the Democrats don’t quite understand how to tell that story through the media, and how to connect emotionally with people.
Paul Waldman: I know some who do it. But the thing is that the Republicans are much better organized when it comes to these kinds of questions.
BuzzFlash: They’re much more disciplined.
Paul Waldman: If you surf around cable news, what you see is that they’re all talking using the same language. They’re all making the same arguments. And the Democrats are all over the map. They just haven’t gotten their act together. I must say that George W. Bush has a way of concentrating Democrats’ minds. And I think BuzzFlash is a part of this. The Democrats are tired of getting the shit kicked out of them. And they are starting to stand up and say enough is enough --- we’re going to fight back. Part of that is getting organized, and you do see that beginning to happen. We’ll see over this election and the ensuing years and decades whether the movement that we’re seeing the beginnings of right now really takes hold. But that will remain to be seen.
BuzzFlash: The goal of brand identity is to sell a product that’s predictable. So if you buy Kraft Cream Cheese in Philadelphia or you buy Kraft Cream Cheese in Los Angeles, that Kraft Cream Cheese tastes exactly the same. The Republicans, who are much more into advertising and business, tend to see politics as the selling of a product. There’s a Bush brand, and they’re consistent and they respect hierarchy. If this is the way we’re supposed to sell Kraft Cream Cheese, this is the way we’re going to sell Bush. We all stick to the consistent message points. Democrats and independents, by their very nature, value diversity. And so it’s a little harder to come out with a branded image because the very nature of diversity goes against the very concept of what makes branding successful.
Paul Waldman: Yes, but you know what? If you actually get deep into the Republicans, you find a lot of diversity there, too. And you find a lot of competing interests. The Libertarians are different from the conservative Christians, who are different from the corporatists. But they understand and appreciate power in a way liberals don’t. I think part of what it means to be a liberal is to have an outsider mindset. The liberal heroes are people who were pushing from outside the system -- people like Martin Luther King, the women’s suffrage movement, the environmental movement. These are all cases where people from outside the system pushed the system for change. Republicans understand that you make the greatest strides towards your agenda when you have power. Let’s not say Democrats, but liberals are not completely comfortable with the idea of power. When power’s on the line, Republicans say: We’re going to put aside our parochial interests, and we’re all going to get behind this guy, because even if he’s not 100 percent of what we want, when he’s in office, we’re going to be getting what we want. Right now, there are thousands of committed conservatives who are working every single day to undermine the values that liberals and progressives hold dear. If you want to see our agenda advanced, we have to get hold of institutional power. You can’t do it without it. Pushing from outside is necessary at times. It’s necessary at almost all times. But you also can’t do almost anything without somebody in the position of authority to make something happen. And that’s what Republicans understand.
There was a point -- I think it was the NAACP Convention -- where a couple of candidates, including Gephardt and Lieberman, didn’t come. And Kweisi Mfume subjected them to this public humiliation afterward, where they had to go and grovel before him. And James Carville said something very interesting afterwards. He said, the NRA doesn’t demand that George W. Bush come to their convention and hold a rifle over his head, because they just know that when he gets into office, he’s going to do what they want.
They're not interested in the symbolic stuff. They're going to work for his election anyway, even if he doesn't do that symbolic stuff. And liberals get too caught up in that symbolic stuff, and they're not comfortable enough with the idea that what you need in order to advance your agenda is power. Republicans have no hesitation to seek power. That's the difference.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original