July 19, 2002
Mark Crispin Miller
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Mark Crispin Miller is the author of "The Bush Dyslexicon," available as a BuzzFlash.com Premium.
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BUZZFLASH: Let's start with Bush's abdication of responsibility on 9/11, which you discuss at length in your new preface. The new edition of your book deals closely with the disconnection between the actual George Bush -- an incompetent and arrogant man -- and his media image as a stalwart, able leader. Talk about that discrepancy.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Bush's rehabilitation after 9/11 offers us a fine example of the way his propagandists and the mainstream media system tacitly collude to help him get past his mistakes. By any rational standard, his performance was abysmal on that day -- as several top Republicans admitted. Even one of Bush's staffers said as much. But once Bush found his footing, two days later, his propagandists -- much like Stalin's -- started to recast his abject failure as a study in heroic wartime leadership. Karl Rove spread the story that the White House had received a sinister phone message warning that Air Force One was next. The caller allegedly had certain "secret codes." The claim was so preposterous that certain mainstream media outlets said outright that it did not add up. Why would terrorists warn the White House that they were going after Air Force One? And how could they possibly attack it? With a runaway passenger plane?
It was ridiculous, and finally insupportable. The White House itself eventually conceded that it never happened. Nevertheless, the news divisions that had rightly called it quickly backed away from it, while most others -- including The New York Times -- reported Rove's disinformation as a fact. Not that a lot of people out there didn't want to hear the fantasy, which, in that time of terror, was a lot more rousing than the unheroic truth that Bush had simply taken flight -- "trying to get out of harm's way," as he later blurted out. But the audience's momentary neediness is no excuse for journalistic confirmation of a propaganda fiction. In any case, it was that heady mix of White House spin and journalistic irresponsibility that saved the presidential bacon at a crucial time.
Of course, if Clinton had run off like that, they would have been all over him like chicken pox, and he would have been impeached again.
BUZZFLASH: Your book focuses on Bush's public statements, or misstatements. What is it about America in the year 2002 that we can have a man so mediocre as our president? We have somehow concealed his weaknesses with this aura of extraordinary leadership.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: How did it happen? Several reasons.
First of all, our political culture has long since become completely televisualized, which is to say that most of us base our political judgments on mere personal affect as TV conveys it to us. It wasn't always like this. A half-century ago, Ladislas Farago wrote an important study of spycraft and intelligence, called War of Wits. He lays out the characteristics of effective propaganda -- and the first one on his list is a dramatic emphasis on certain persons rather than on larger, subtler causes, trends, and developments. You treat history as a simple story of important individuals. TV works in just this way, with its routine up-close-and-personal; and this may help explain why our political culture is obsessed with "likability." And in the culture of TV it isn't just TV alone. The New York Times' political coverage, both foreign and domestic, now tends to blather on and on about the politicians' image problems, thereby ignoring everything that's really going on -- everything that has political significance.
This over-emphasis on image helped Bush greatly. Although he wasn't "likable" to the majority of voters, he did impress the journalists around him with his personal charm. (Alexandra Pelosi's documentary, "Journeys with George," makes this painfully clear.) Gore, meanwhile, was not "likable" at all -- not on TV, and not among the journalists traveling with him. By contrast, Bush seemed, or could be made to seem, a just-folks kind of guy -- which was exactly the impression that his propagandists wanted for him, to obscure his privilege and elitism. (This is why they didn't mind the chuckling coverage of his gaffes.) So the Busheviks kept talking up his "likability" -- and the reporters ran with it, because they did like Bush, and also because of their fixation on the image of each candidate. Since TV foregrounds image, image often was the only thing the press would talk about --and that helped Bush, whose actual unfitness, and distressing record, got almost no coverage.
The media machine was also soft on Bush because of its rightist bias, which is now difficult for any reasonable person to deny. This is partly the result of corporate concentration. By and large, the top dogs at the media's parent companies preferred Bush over Gore -- and, as we now know (although the media quickly dropped the subject), they actually exerted pressure on election night to get their newsfolk to declare the race for Dubya: Fox was the first to do so, with John Ellis, Bush's cousin, manning the network's decision desk, and working in close consultation with Rupert Murdoch; and then NBC followed suit, with Jack Welch himself coming in and nagging Brokaw's boys to second Fox's call. If there is any starker evidence of journalistic interference from on high, I haven't heard about it.
For the most part, though, such intrusive measures were unnecessary. The journalists effectively coerced themselves into supporting Bush, not because they're necessarily right-wing (although a lot of them are further to the right than most Americans). They toed the line, in fact, because they're largely moderates or liberals, and therefore kept on bending over backward to cut Bush a lot of slack. The same thing happened all throughout the Eighties and the Nineties, and of course is happening even as we speak. Such excessive tact toward rightists is a clear result of the long rightist propaganda drive against "the liberal media," which started under Nixon and continues nowadays through Rush, O'Reilly and Ann Coulter, among many other media stars. The drive was a spectacular success, since it has forced the corporate press to pull its punches with the right, while flaying the Democrats and tuning out all voices to their left.
Such factors helped get Bush into the Oval Office -- or close enough for the Supreme Court to crown him. But why did the American people tolerate that? I'm afraid that we now suffer, as a people, from political paralysis. I'm quite struck by how the majority of Venezuelans responded to the coup that almost took out their elected president. Compare that robust mass reaction with the US national response to what the Busheviki did in late 2000. The people here were disenfranchised, and their collective will was flagrantly betrayed by the Supreme Court. It was a major setback for this great democracy, and yet most people merely heaved a sigh and then tuned out -- even though some 53% of the electorate had voted contra Bush.
This passivity was not a simple moral failure on the part of many individual Americans, but a consequence of civic and political collapse. Mass political expression is extremely difficult when there isn't any genuine opposition party. The Democrats have largely knuckled under to the corporations and the right, and this has left the non-rightist bloc of the electorate -- the majority -- without any vehicle for opposition. And because the media system too has abdicated its responsibility to keep the people properly informed, it didn't duly cover the Bush team's crimes, and so a lot of people who would protest if they knew how things really were, remained uneasily silent. When the news makes little, or nothing, of such outrageous doings, every person who objects to them assumes that he or she is all alone, and that's a paralyzing feeling.
And so the media system and the political establishment have both betrayed the people. It's as if they both have left the surface of the earth. They no longer connect with the reality down on the ground, and therefore no longer answer civic needs.
BUZZFLASH: But why is that? Why has that happened with the media? It seems the corporate media, including the New York Times and The Washington Post, have viewed Bush through a prism totally different from the one they used with Clinton. While all they talked about was Clinton's sexuality, on Bush's far more dangerous weaknesses they're largely silent.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: The double standard is mind-boggling. It's so egregious that we could just sit here for another week and keep on coming up with still more excellent examples. On the one hand, the media went to town on Whitewater, which was a petty matter to begin with and turned out to be entirely legal -- just like "Filegate," "Travelgate," "Troopergate," and all the other so-called "scandals" that had actually been fabricated by the right.
On Bush's actual transgressions, on the other hand, the media have kept politely mum: his theft of the election; his team's excessive closeness to Big Oil, the weapons manufacturers and the Saudis; his lax response to the repeated warnings of a terrorist attack; his flight into the Heartland on 9/11; his team's many links to Enron; and his own bald-faced lies about his tight relationship with Kenneth Lay. Only now, finally, has the press begun to press him on his history of shady business dealings, because the economic mess is undeniable -- but even here they pull their punches.
Why is there such a glaring double standard? Above all, because the media system is overly responsive to the right. Why else would Clinton have been bashed like that? He was popular and very telegenic -- unlike Al Gore. And it wasn't based on ideology. Clinton was no leftist, posing no threat to the corporate media or their advertisers. Wall Street was always on his mind, and he was keen on both "free trade" and media deregulation. The primary force behind the media campaign against him was the effort of the right-wing propagandists bent on doing him in. And their work was eased somewhat by another, subtler factor: The "liberal" mandarins of the press -- in particular the Washington Post, and the New York Times -- resented Clinton for having been at once a "nobody" and a sort of prodigy. He came out of nowhere, from a nothing family, and yet he'd been a Rhodes Scholar and all that. If he'd been black, of course, the Grahams and all the rest of them would certainly have tucked him under their collective wing. But his having been a mere white guy from Arkansas piqued all their snobbery and envy.
So the media dumped all over him, despite his popularity and centrism. And then they fell all over Bush -- an unpopular extremist who had stolen the election. Go figure.
BUZZFLASH: What I find amazing is the press's failure ever to call Bush or his administration on their patent negligence, or on the foolishness of their excuses. For example, when Condi Rice tried to explain why she and her colleagues had not imagined an attack on the World Trade Center, she said, "Well, we were just aware of the threat of traditional hijackings." So why did 9/11 happen? Those attacks all started out as "traditional hijackings." If the White House was aware of an increased possibility of a "traditional hijacking," why weren't the appropriate precautions taken? Because if they had worked to prevent a "traditional hijacking," they might have prevented 9/11. It's just common sense. But no reporter pressed them on that point.
Another example: Robert Mueller and John Ashcroft say that they did not inform the White House of the Arizona memo or the later Minnesota memo. Those documents make clear that, prior to 9/11, agents in the FBI had advance knowledge of the perpetrators' training and m.o. And yet the FBI Director and Attorney General failed to tell the White House of the memos even after 9/11. So why did no reporters ask exactly when those memos came to the attention of FBI and Justice? Why did no one ask if this was not a serious dereliction of duty not to inform the White House of the existence of these memos? Why did no one ask, "Shouldn't they be reprimanded for deceiving the White House?" And in this grave matter of our national security, the press has been as soft on Bush himself. Mueller admits that, if we had "connected the dots," maybe we could have prevented it -- and no reporter notes that this thing happened on Bush's watch. Those are his agencies. He bears responsibility. And there he was for months, gallivanting around acting like the country bumpkin, or the Ugly American, and the press isn't calling him to account for any of this, as though he's not responsible. And so the press has served as an enabler for a US President who is incompetent.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: It represents the culmination of the press's many failures to ask basic, rational questions all along. The abdication started when Bush ran. He spoke nonsense day after day, contradicting himself, betraying little knowledge of his own policies, and so on, but the press consistently backed off.
That's really why I wrote the book. One major point of the Dyslexicon is to demonstrate that, if you were watching with your eyes open, you couldn't help but see that this guy was not fit to be the president. And yet the networks consistently downplayed or ignored that evidence. So the experience of watching the campaign was quite disorienting. I wrote the book in part to make clear that our first impression was entirely accurate, whereas the media looked the other way. And it didn't stop with the race. It continued through the Florida debacle, when the Republicans kept blurting out all sorts of weak, self-contradictory arguments, and the press would never call them on it. The media -- from Matthews and O'Reilly to the New York Times -- were quick to tell Al Gore to give it up, and only too happy to assure us all that, since there weren't tanks in the streets, the system worked just fine, which was completely false.
And the press was supine from then on. The media ignored Bush/Cheney's close ties to the oil industry and Lockheed Martin, and ignored his plans to privatize and dissolve Social Security as we know it. Paul O'Neill himself revealed that program in the spring, yet only the Financial Times reported it. The press played down the radicalization of the Justice Department, and never noted the huge contradiction between Gov. Bush's "moderate" position on abortion and the president's aggressive anti-choice moves once he was inaugurated. And then they duly hailed his stem cell research speech, as if it were a stroke by Solomon himself. In fact, that speech did not deal with the grave complexities of that tough issue, although he kept on telling us that he was dealing with them. And so it only disappointed the pro-lifers, while largely failing to make things any clearer to the scientists. Still, the media hailed it as a wise and deft performance.
Then, after 9/11, the press became immeasurably more deferential. Even after the first shock wore off, they pulled their punches, as you noted. Only lately have they started landing on him, for economic reasons.
Investors worldwide are now fleeing the US market like the plague, because of just the sort of corporate criminality that made Bush rich, and which he will not handle forcefully. Even now, however, they cut him a world of slack -- allowing him to claim he was exonerated by the SEC, when he demonstrably was not. And his team's gross infringements on our civil liberties have gone largely, and very tactfully, unmentioned. The Rev. Moon's Washington Times was the only US daily that reported the STASI-like TIPS program, for example.
BUZZFLASH: The press has been complicit with the Bush administration. For months, the White House has been clearly terrorizing the American people for political purposes, and yet there's scarcely any protest in the nation's editorials. On top of that, whenever Cheney comes out of his cave and barks, the Democrats run back into their corners. The citizens of this democracy have been subjected to a propaganda campaign of essentially politically-motivated terror alerts, to save the hide of a President who evidently knew that something might take place, and yet did nothing to prevent it. Where are we at this point if that can happen; if the White House can have such contempt for the American people, and the press lets them get away with it?
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, the question answers itself, doesn't it? We're in big trouble. I would only add that there's a similar contempt for the people among many members of the press -- not all of them. Their loyalties finally lie with their parent companies. They don't bite the hand that feeds them.
For whatever reasons, they were always quick to lambaste Clinton over trivial things, where nothing was at stake. In this case, everything's at stake. The dangers are enormous. The culpability is glaring. And yet the press won't comment on it; they won't notice it, they won't point it out. I think it has something to do with the tremendous eventual success of the right wing propaganda drive against the so-called liberal media. That really stuck. And so they won't hit Bush for anything except his obviously lousy handling of this market crisis. You can doze off in the cockpit, terrorize the people, shred the Bill of Rights, and it's all fine, but if you screw around with people's money you're in trouble.
The propaganda drive against "the liberal media" has worked all too well. Because of it, many in the media will quickly jump all over any Democrats, liberal or conservative, while keeping mum about the right -- even when the evidence against the right is mountainous. The effect is mind-boggling, and all the more so since the most aggressive slanderers themselves, like Ann Coulter, consistently accuse "the left" of following that same double standard.
That sort of accusation is a very effective, and disorienting, propaganda tactic. It's also symptomatic of a paranoid world-view. The press does nothing to disable it, which it would do by giving us the truth.
BUZZFLASH: Can you explain the role of television in all this? How has TV permitted Bush to sell this image of always doing the right thing for the country, when he's really just been stumbling around in the dark?
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Without TV, there would be no Bush presidency. TV has made Bush possible by taking him at his own estimation -- and by "TV" I mean not the medium per se, but the news divisions' personnel. They never challenged him. They have never reported on those serious matters that, once revealed, might well have dissuaded a lot of his own supporters from voting for him. Whether they were personal things like his draft record or his business dealings, or political factors like his close ties to the oil industry and the far right, the tele-journalists were blind, deaf and dumb. (The print press did a better job, but it too was behind the curve, with a few notable exceptions.) By giving us this airbrushed version of the candidate, the media system passively colluded with the White House propaganda strategy. It's understandable, in this day and age. But it's also unforgivable. The press failed badly in its constitutional mission of keeping all of us informed about important matters, and it's especially remarkable that they continue to do so, now that Bush's grand incompetence has come to light.
BUZZFLASH: We saw this sort of thing start in the Reagan era, when television was used masterfully to project deceptive images of who he was. The Reagan presidency was all about TV, about acting the role of president on TV.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: It was, and the Bush team closely follows the Reagan playbook. They pick their backdrops very carefully, and try to put across a daily "theme," such as "Corporate Responsibility," or whatever. And like the Reagan team, the Bush team has a candidate who is not capable of improvising very intelligently. In fact, Bush is far more ignorant than Reagan, and Reagan was no genius. Bush has all of Reagan's weaknesses, although he's decades younger than the Gipper. On the other hand, Bush has plenty of the older man's political acumen. Both of them have, or had, sharp instincts in that way, and have also known enough to acquiesce in what their handlers have advised. Mike Deaver -- "the Vicar of Visuals" -- was a real master-manipulator via TV. He was an expert at obviating the unpleasant facts of Reagan's record by coming up with various heartwarming images. Karl Rove is Bush's Michael Deaver, squared, with a big dose of Murray Chotiner and Richard Nixon added in. Bush trusts Rove and, I think, shares some of his political acuteness. Such collaboration has become especially effective, because the general standards of accountability and reason have declined precipitously over the last twenty years or so. I mean, the press was pretty passive and inadequate in its handling of Iran-Contra. But even that work was exemplary by contrast with the rotten job the media's doing now.
BUZZFLASH: The Bush Dyslexicon was published last year, and now you have a new post-September 11th expanded edition. What does a reader find in the new paperback?
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: There's some seventy pages of new material in this edition, which takes the reader through the President's entire first year. Of course, I pay particular attention to 9/11, offering a detailed analysis of how and why George W. Bush was deified after the attacks.
But the book also includes a lot on Bush's bogus "tax rebate," his stem cell research speech, and about his parochialism, both on the world stage and as a Texan who quite openly resents the coastal states. And there's some good material about his prickliness, stuff that's kept out of the mainstream press, because it contradicts his careful posture as a good 'ol boy.
The new material reconfirms the basic arguments in the original edition -- that Bush is, in fact, articulate (and, when he talks about his land in Crawford, almost eloquent) -- when speaking from the heart, but ludicrously incoherent when trying to fake compassion or idealism. This is someone who performs well when speaking as a punisher. He has mean instincts and is, therefore, able to speak cruelly without any syntactic or grammatical problems. The crack he made very recently about a reporter's speaking French to Jacques Chirac was noteworthy not only for its nastiness, but also for its rare coherence. There was nothing Quayle-like about that statement, because it came from the heart. When it comes to a kind of hardhearted teasing, Bush has no trouble with his tongue.
BUZZFLASH: For those who haven't read it, your book sort of deciphers the Bush dyslexicon.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: My original intention was to compile an amusing collection of Bush's gaffes. That's what I decided to do shortly after December 12, 2000, out of sheer depression over what had happened with the Supreme Court. But as I began to read through the record very carefully, I realized that the situation was far more complex than such an approach would have helped us to understand.
And more importantly, I also realized that Bush's real problem -- and ours -- is not that he is sometimes ungrammatical, or that he's thick. Bush is not stupid. He's woefully ignorant and proud of it, and seemingly incapable of any higher reasoning, but politically he is acute. At a certain kind of cynical politicking he may even be a genius. Bill Clinton described Bush pretty accurately a few months after Bush's installation in the Oval Office. He said that Bush has very sharp political instincts and is certainly not stupid. He hit the nail right on the head.
So what I wanted to do was demonstrate that Bushspeak is a complex thing, well worth close analysis for several reasons. First of all, Bush often betrays himself in ways that help us understand where he's really coming from. Whenever he tries to sound the note of altruism or idealism or compassion, he runs the risk of blowing it, often in a very comic way.
Last year my favorite example was his claim that he knows "how hard it is for you to put food on your family." That one got a lot of laughs, and understandably, because it's such a goofy slip. But the important point is that it wasn't merely funny. It was also telling, because it perfectly exemplified the sort of sympathetic statement -- sympathetic toward the have-nots -- that Bush has special trouble making. He certainly does not know how hard it is for such folks to put food on their family table -- and he obviously doesn't care. He's actually a very bad liar when it comes to moments like those.
In the new edition there are lots of new examples, many from the "war on terrorism" My favorite is this one: "We're freeing women and children from incredible impression!" But when Bush does care, he speaks about as well as any other politician. And, after 9/11 as before, he's most sincere when talking tough, saying no, or otherwise speaking cruelly. "We're not into nation-building. We're focused on justice. And we're going to get justice." It may be simple-minded and shortsighted, but the English is impeccable. And let me also add that I found, in going through his first year's statements, that when he speaks about his property in Crawford, he often lapses into something close to poetry, and entirely without a script. His land has that effect on him -- as baseball does, and capital punishment, and war, and politics.
So I wanted to demonstrate that weird split in his unscripted speech, between his flights of gibberish and his moments of lucidity. And, again, I also wanted to make clear that there was and is a radical disjunction between the Bush we see and hear with our own eyes and ears, and the Bush that's represented to us jointly by his propagandists and the TV news machine. So while television, as a medium, is merciless in its exposure of the man himself with all flagrant limitations and frank nastiness, TV as a commercial system keeps on playing those revelations down. It's confusing, disorienting. And so I wrote The Bush Dyslexicon in part to reconfirm that we did really see and hear the character whom television all along made clear to us; and to point out that the image of him that's been sold to us by the media bears no relation either to the man himself or to the interests that he's fronting for.
The book, then, isn't just about this Bush, but about the media system that enables him. In other words, "dyslexicon" does not refer so much to Bush's own dyslexia, which he may or may not suffer from. Rather, I use dyslexia as a metaphor for a condition that, I think, afflicts our entire system at this moment. Just as a dyslexic person has a hard time translating written symbols into sounds, so is our media system -- the brain of the US body politic -- somehow unable, or unwilling, to perceive the writing on the wall. They cannot, will not look unflinchingly at who he is or what he's doing, and so they can't or won't report on what is really going on. That abdication has allowed the whole apparatus to get away with murder. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ari Fleischer, Condoleezza Rice, Bush himself and all the rest of them keep saying things that are preposterous on the face of it. Their statements are not merely false but often utterly irrational. They don't add up. And yet the people in the press don't hear them, or misreport them, or make excuses for them.
BUZZFLASH: They accept lines from this administration that they never would accept from their own children.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Right. Exactly. And they would never have let Clinton get away with it, although he, for all his famous hairsplitting, would never have been capable of such bald nonsense as we hear day after day from this gang. The difference is instructive.
At one point in the new edition I compare this president's whopper about "Kenny Boy" Lay -- that Lay had backed Ann Richards -- with Clinton's whopper about Monica -- "I did not have sex with that woman." I reproduce both lies in context, and then point out the crucial difference in the ways that they were made to resonate. In the first month after the exposure of the Clinton lie, the networks replayed the tape of that lie 43 times. In the month after Bush's lie about Ken Lay, which was exposed at once, the networks showed that piece of tape just seven times.
I think that says it all. The lie about Monica was trivial. It affected no one. It was unimportant. It was a private matter, period. The lie about Ken Lay pertained to a momentous issue. It had to do with the thousands of Enron employees who had lost their pensions. It had to do with the systematic fleecing of a multitude of shareholders. It had to do with corporate chicanery on a gigantic scale, and, as we would soon find out, it was by no means an anomaly, but just one symptom of a corporate epidemic. And it had to do with the corruption of Bush/Cheney's major backers, and with the ruinous consequences of the sort of radical deregulation that Bush/Cheney were installed to force on all the rest of us.
Yet, Bush's lie was underplayed and soon forgotten by the corporate press. Even since the revelation of this president's grave economic maladroitness, his big bald lie about Ken Lay has been kept deep inside the memory hole. So, The Bush Dyslexicon is for people who are interested in telling the truth from the lies in all of this. As such, it's also a reminder that we can actually glean grains of truth from watching television, and I mean really watching it. From television we have learned a lot about this president -- learned it not because of TV's news teams, but despite them. Watching Bush attempting to perform, and studying his gaffes, we can learn more by far than we could ever get from TV's tele-journalists and pundits, or, for that matter, from the print press, by and large.
It's not a happy situation. Those professionals have a civic obligation, protected by the Bill of Rights, to keep us all informed. And here we are, struggling to find scraps of truth by spending hours on-line with foreign dailies, and by decoding Bush's body language, rather in the way that people in Beijing or Riyadh try to figure out what's really going on by sifting through the latest rumors, or by reading in between the lines of the official press. My book is for anyone -- left, right or apolitical -- who is concerned about this problem.
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Get your copy of Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon today!
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