Saturday, August 23, 2003

Those awful, mean 'Bush haters'

Newspeak and doublethink, the totalitarian "reality control" devices that Orwell described so thoroughly in 1984, don’t always take the form of the simple messages that are common to it: "War Is Peace," "Ignorance Is Strength."

Its underlying principles, after all, are the interposition of two seemingly contradictory ideas or concepts and asserting that they are identical, thereby nullifying their meanings. This concept can apply to whole reconstructions of reality -- particularly in the rewriting of history that contravenes reality and substantive fact, asserting the opposite of that reality to be true, and offering distorted or utterly false evidence in support and asserting that it is true. The most notorious manifestation of this is Holocaust denial and similar forms of historical revisionism. A fairly clear recent example of this is Ann Coulter's attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Joe McCarthy.

Rich Lowry of The National Review (which, of course, many of us recall was originally a McCarthyite rag closely associated with the John Birch Society) has been proving very adept at this sort of thing lately, which makes him our Newspokesman of the Week for this recent column:
Among the Bush haters

In the 1990s, a few lunatics accused President Clinton of murder and other crimes, leading to the coinage of the phrase "Clinton-hating." Thereafter, anyone who said a discouraging word about Clinton's sex-and-lies scandal, his slipperiness with the truth or his poor performance was tarred as a "Clinton-hater" and considered somehow illegitimate. The charge of Clinton-hating, constantly retailed by the media, became one of the most useful tools of the president's defenders.

Lowry is building on the "Bush haters are worse than Clinton haters" meme that is gaining great popularity among conservatives. Bob Somerby of the incomparable Daily Howler has already ripped a hole in the bow of the meme by demonstrating how Byron York's version of this thesis was built on false data. (Lowry gets dinged for repeating the falsehood.)

I also have to note that Lowry cites the "Bush Body Count" as an example of irrational "Bush hatred," which is probably true enough. But he conveniently neglects to mention that the "Bush Body Count" was directly inspired by (and in fact, at first was a parody of) the infamous "Clinton Body Count" that circulated among the Clinton-hating right for years, and indeed was touted by any number of mainstream conservatives over the years. (More about that in a moment.)

But even more significant is the way Lowry's version of events stands reality on its head. For most of the 1990s, Clinton-hating was an extraordinarily popular cottage industry that enjoyed wide circulation in the mainstream media, particularly on cable TV. And that cottage industry blossomed into the gigantic Republican Wurlitzer that continues to this day to devote the bulk of its energy to attacking liberals. The idea that it was ridiculed or suppressed in any fashion is laughable.

In reality, the people who were ridiculed, and whose views were openly dismissed as unworthy, were the people labeled "Clinton apologists" or "Gore backers." This was particularly the case on political talk shows, both on network and cable TV.

This isn't merely a partisan counter-charge on my part, but is an observation based on substantive experience.

I worked in the Web newsroom on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., from the fall of 1998 though the summer of 2000 as a "writer/producer," which was primarily a production job. I was fairly low on the totem pole -- I was an independent contractor, not an MSNBC employee, and I got shifted around from position to position a great deal, depending on where needs arose. I was a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy who also got stuck on the lovely 10 p.m-6 am shifts quite a bit. Most of my writing work was incidental, or contingent on, my production work -- when there was an earthquake, I'd get, say, the assignment to cobble together a news story on the threat of quakes. The exception came when we'd have some eruption of right-wing violence (e.g., Buford Furrow) and then I was often given a lead role in the reporting. (The stories for which I won the National Press Club Award, "Threat From Within," were purely enterprise work I did mostly on my own time.) In any event, I wasn't one of their prized lead reporters but more of a workaday grunt. It was a great job, to tell the truth.

One of my main jobs as a producer was to watch the cable gabfests and news shows on MSNBC and capture video from snippets that could rerun on the Web site; many of these would appear simply as links within the texts of stories, which clicking upon would bring up a media viewer that would then show the clip. I had a TV on my desk, and it was on at all times, giving me a daylong view of what was being said on cable TV. (I should mention that before this stint, I spent a year in the newsroom of MSN Investor, where a TV tuned mostly to CNBC, which ran its share of political talk shows, and MSNBC was on above my desk at all times too.) I also had to be attuned to what was going on with the other talk and news shows as well, so I was sampling not just MSNBC but CNN and Fox quite a bit too.

I was doing this during the long buildup to the impeachment battle and then the long debate about Clinton that followed, as well as much of the 2000 election campaign. It gave me a pretty close view of what was being said and in what proportions.

What was really remarkable was not merely the proportions of Clinton-bashing compared to his defense, but the venom and volume of it. Across the screen would parade a veritable freak show of people whose entire careers, it seemed, were predicated on destroying the Clintons -- not over policy, mind you, but because they were wretched human beings of low character. (The projection, obviously, wasn't occurring just on the screen.)

It was quite a circus: The late and unlamented Barbara Olson, whose eyes would bulge at every prospect of reminding the audience what awful people the Clintons were. Ann Coulter, who would positively quiver with hatred while ruminating wildly about the Clintons' sex lives. Andrew Sullivan, that esteemed expert in psychiatry, who would render his expert opinion that Clinton was a "sociopath." BobBarr. David Horowitz. John Fund. Kate O'Beirne. A whole parade of lesser lights, all of whom had one thing in common: They could be counted on reliably to attack the Clintons relentlessly and without fear of being accused of being "Clinton haters." And their entire rise to national prominence was built on these attacks.

In the meantime, their liberal counterparts were (with a few notable exceptions, particularly Joe Conason and James Carville) incredibly tepid. The vast majority of so-called liberals were careful to distance themselves from the president and often openly denounced him; it was important, above all, to avoid the label "Clinton defender." Most of the "liberals" who would appear on TV ranged from mushy to downright hostile (e.g., Pat Caddell). The worst of these was probably Margaret Carlson, who mostly could be counted on to eventually agree that the Clinton haters had some merit to their spittle.

And it was interesting to see how producers would select liberal guests for their programs; increasingly, it was those non-"Clinton defenders" who would be invited back; but earning the dreaded label conversely seemed to make it less likely they would reappear.

(I remember particularly one of the liberal co-hosts of the old Bay Buchanan CNBC talk show, Equal Time, a bright young woman named Stephanie Miller. She was funny, fast on her feet and generally good with her facts. She had a real talent for skewering conservatives, including Bay. She didn't last long on the show, and I've never seen her resurface except in limited venues like those she lists on her Web page. She had a show on Oxygen titled "I've Got a Secret," but it appears to be off the air now too.)

This pathological double standard -- a clear abrogation of basic journalistic standards of fairness and at least attempted objectivity -- was common throughout the Beltway press corps, but it was especially transparent on cable-TV gabfests. It continued well after Clinton left office -- and indeed is quite apparent today, except that the equation has reversed into a pathological willingness to parrot the White House party line.

One of the more brazen moments that put this double standard on display for everyone to see came during those months following Clinton's departure from office, when the press corps was all in a frenzy over the phony "scandals" regarding the Clintons' gifts -- which, you may recall, later turned out to be pure ephemera.

On Feb 3, 2001, Howard Kurtz was hosting a panel on his CNN talk show, "Reliable Sources," to talk about the scandals. One of his guests was Josh Marshall, one of my favorite journalists, who'd had the audacity to question whether there was any "there" there to these stories (a line of questioning that later turned out to be exactly on the money).

Here's how Kurtz opened things up (after a long intro touting the scandals):
Josh Marshall, you don't know the extent of damage or vandalism by departing Clinton White House aides, and neither do I. So, in writing in Slate Magazine that the press wildly overplayed this story, it kind of sounds like you're acting as a knee-jerk Clinton defender.

Marshall, of course, turned out to be exactly right. As he explained:
Not at all. I think when I looked at that, when I looked at that story for the first few days, the charges escalated and escalated, more and more things, destruction of property, trash everywhere. And at a certain point, journalists started asking for some actual proof, some pictures, someone to go on the record and actually say this happened. And over and over again Ari Fleischer said, "Well, it's, yes it's true, but we're going to rise above it" and so forth. And at some point, you say, when are we going to get some proof that this happened.

And then Kurtz turned to Chris Caldwell of the Weekly Standard to deliver the coup de grace:
KURTZ: But, Chris Caldwell, do you buy the notion that journalists deliberately pumped-up the story, not just of the pardon, which I think everyone would agree, the Mark Rich pardon, very legitimate news story. But, of the $190,000 in gifts; other presidents took gifts, not at this kind of level, and the story about the prank/destruction of federal property, just because they can't stand Bill and Hillary Clinton and because they wanted to portray them as kind of low-class Arkansas hicks?

CALDWELL: Well, you know, these preconceptions that journalists have are not without a basis in fact. One of my colleagues likes to say ...

KURTZ: So, you're saying they are low-class hicks ...

CALDWELL: Well, yes, one of my colleagues likes to say, "The Golden Rule is that all rumors about the Clintons are true". But I think ...

KURTZ: That's quite a journalistic standard.

CALDWELL: That's why I'm not going to tell you who said it. OK? But, no, I certainly don't think the gift story was pumped-up, because it fits a normal Clinton pattern. People are very interested to know what actually was the China that she got for this? Why don't we know for a fact that she got it from this Borsheims Store (ph) in Nebraska where she is reported to have received it. It'd be nice to know what they're reporting as a $190,000. One would like some assurance that it wasn't bought wholesale.

[Of course, the Borsheims Store story was completely bogus -- and had already been completely debunked the day before by Eric Boehlert in Salon, who a few days later detailed just how widely this simply false story had circulated.]

Was Caldwell a "Clinton hater?" No. Were the people who practiced the "Clinton is always guilty" ethos "Clinton haters?" No. They merely had "quite a standard of journalism." And that was all we heard of that. Meanwhile, Josh Marshall was a "knee-jerk Clinton defender."

[Oh, and in the meantime, did any of these smear artists -- Kurtz, Caldwell, Fox News, the pack journalists who yelped and howled in pursuit of this non-story -- did any of them ever go back on the air later, after it was clear the stories were false and groundless, and correct their errors? Well, no. After all, being Republican means never having to admit you're a liar.]

Of course, as Somerby continues to detail at the incomparable Howler, this is a pathology that remains fully active in the national press -- it has just shifted its emphasis and targets.

Now it is targeting anyone who questions Bush. According to our friends on the right, these aren't people who have real-world policy differences with the president and believe vehemently he needs to be removed from office. No. They're irrational "Bush haters." They're just like the "Clinton haters," only worse.

What do they hate Bush for? As Rich Lowry puts it in his conclusion:
There is a vocal Bush-hating chorus on the left that resents his narrow victory in Florida, that will never forgive him for invading Iraq and that can't stand his cowboy mannerisms. It spreads anti-Bush poison far and wide -- but don't hold your breath for the Time story about "Bushophobia!" For the media, only the right is capable of "hating."

All right -- let's compare these things to some of the charges that were leveled against President Clinton by various mainstream Clinton-haters during his tenure:

-- Clinton was responsible for the fiasco surrounding the 1992 FBI shootings on Ruby Ridge.

The facts: Clinton was not in office until January 1993. The Ruby Ridge standoff occurred on the watch of his predecessor George H.W. Bush. Clinton was in charge when upper-level FBI officials mishandled the investigation of the matter -- but he was also in charge when those officials were caught and punished.

-- Clinton and his attorney general, Janet Reno, were responsible for the massacre of the Branch Davidians who died at the culmination of the standoff in Waco.

The facts: Though the standoff was planned before Clinton took office, he had been in charge for about a month when the initial assault occurred Feb. 28, 1993 (Reno did not take office as AG until March 11); and were certainly responsible for giving the go-ahead for the assault that produced such horrendous results occurred on April 19. Subsequent investigation of the matter revealed clearly that the fire that swept the Waco compound was indisputably set by the Davidians, almost certainly ordered by leader David Koresh. It was clear that the brute-force-assault plan was a disaster, largely because it had failed to anticipate the intended mass suicide it would spark. However, there was no evidence (despite various doctored videotapes popular among the militia/Patriot right that purported to show otherwise) that federal officials were responsible for setting the fire.

-- Clinton was the nominal leader of the "New World Order," a government conspiracy to subsume American sovereignty under the United Nations and destroy our freedoms.

The facts: This conspiracy theory was the raison d'etre of the Patriot movement, and like most of the material that circulated in that movement, it was entirely fraudulent, drawing in many respects on well-worn anti-Semitic theories about secret cadres of "international bankers" who conspired to rule the world. Nonetheless, it was peddled throughout the mainstream by a broad range of conservative Republicans, including Rep. Bob Barr, Rep. Helen Chenoweth, Sen. Robert Smith and Sen. Jesse Helms. All of these figures, it should be noted, were also prominent Clinton-bashers.

-- Clinton was responsible for a long string of deaths of people who had the misfortune to cross his path.

The facts: Probably everyone with an Internet account in the mid- to late 1990s received, at one time or another, a version of the "Clinton Body Count." And of course, there remain even today a panoply of Web site devoted to circulating this tale. And any number of conservative columnists and TV pundits made passing references to it, lending it further credence. But the "Body Count" has been thoroughly debunked as a fraud many times; the best remains this assessment from Clinton Body Count.

-- Clinton was a rapist.

The facts: This accusation was raised in 1999, after the impeachment fiasco, by an account of a woman named Juanita Broaddrick who said she had been sexually assaulted by Clinton in 1978. She told her account for a writer on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page (after NBC News, which originally interviewed her, sat on the story -- for good reason). The charges gradually evaporated as it became clear that Broaddrick (who had previously filed an affidavit denying any sexual contact with Clinton) was not a reliable witness, and may have had a profit motive for changing her story. The facts of their encounter have never been definitively established, but there is no sound evidence to suggest that any encounter he may have had with Broaddrick was not entirely consensual.

These, of course, are a mere sampling of the afactual rhetorical turds that were flung by the mainstream Clinton-hating right over the years: Clinton's love child. The airport haircut. The Mena drug ring. The White House travel office. Vince Foster's murder. The 'scandalous' pardons. The vandalization of the White House.

All of these things have two things in common: 1) They are flatly untrue, unsupported by facts and evidence, and mostly the products of hysterical hatred. 2) Their purpose is not the least policy-oriented, but dedicated entirely to denigrating Clinton's character and cast him in the most degraded light.

Now, let's return to Lowry's concluding paragraph, in which he delineates three chief attributes of "Bush haters". One of these, that they cannot stand his "cowboy mannerisms," is so thin as to be nonsensical -- while many people have remarked on his anti-intellectualism paired with his frequent abuse of the English language, these have little to do with his "cowboy" stylings or manner. Being from the West myself, this has never been a part of what Bush has done to rub me wrong, other than that I've been well trained in spotting phony cowboys, and Bush is transparently one. Nor have I seen anyone, on the blogosphere or elsewhere, much discussing Bush's cowboy ways. (I have seen a lot of references to smirking chimps and AWOL fliers, but Lowry seems not to have noticed those.)

Lowry's two other attributes, however, appear commonly in descriptions of "Bush haters":

-- They despise him for having "won" in Florida.

-- They cannot forgive him for invading Iraq.

Both of these, of course, are incomplete descriptions, but let's examine them:

-- What "Bush haters" despise Bush for having done was having stolen the election through hardball tactics and the collusion of a partisan Supreme Court. Most of these Bush haters believe, with perfectly good cause, that Gore actually won the Florida vote. This is because a hand recount of all legally cast ballots in Florida, conducted by a consortium of news organizations, did in fact show him to be the winner; moreover, the Palm Beach butterfly ballots are estimated to have cost Gore at least another 20,000 votes; all in all, it is clear that the will of the majority of voters in Florida on election was to elect Gore. Moreover, it was the will of the majority of the American people that Gore be president; he won the popular vote by over half a million ballots.

Thus Bush's installment in the White House represented, for the first time in over a hundred years and only the second time in history, that a president came to office against the express will of a majority of the nation's voters. Nor is it even clear that he properly won the Electoral College vote; the Florida hand recount clearly suggests otherwise. Many, many people consider this theft of the election one of the most egregious assaults on basic democratic principles in the nation's history -- and again, with reasonable cause.

-- "Bush haters" opposed the war in Iraq because they did not believe the threat presented by Saddam Hussein warranted the all-out invasion of a sovereign nation -- something America had never done on its own before. They did not believe the evidence the president and his minions presented was either substantive or credible. And guess what? They were right.

Now the "Bush haters" are angry because it has become increasingly transparent that the administration misled the public into supporting a war that was both unnecessary and which has now exposed us to greater threats from increased terrorism, not to mention that which faces our sitting-duck soldiers in Iraq.

Lowry's list is rather short, though, so let me add a few other common beliefs among "Bush haters":

-- He is a walking disaster area for environmental policy.

-- He is a menace to our civil liberties.

-- He has harmed, not enhanced, our national security.

-- He has turned a historic surplus into a historic deficit and turned the most vibrant economy in history into one of the worst since the Depression.

-- He has numerous dalliances with unsavory corporate crooks who have managed to wreck whole corporations with irresponsible behavior and emerge scot-free.

-- He has tried to hide behind the events of Sept. 11 to excuse his poor economic performance (see the notorious "trifecta" joke) and has openly exploited the war to boost his chances of re-election (see the USS Lincoln landing).

None of these beliefs, whether on Lowry's list or mine, are founded in half-baked conspiracy theories. They are based in reported facts that are not in dispute. The only contention is in the interpretation of those facts. Moreover, every one of these beliefs revolves around policy and civic institutions -- they are not personal attacks aimed at impugning Bush's character. (There is only one common trait among Bush-haters that meets this description -- namely, their fondness for "Bushisms" and other ways of depicting him as stupid. It is a short-sighted and shallow view, but not particularly hateful, nor in the least delusional.)

Contrast this, then, with the accusations inveighed by Clinton-haters -- all of which were utterly without foundation and predicated on vicious smears and wild accusations, and all of which were about the Clintons' personal characters, not about their policies or their abilities at conducting it.

Like the Clinton-haters, "Bush haters" think his presidency is illegitimate. The difference, however, is that the "Bush haters" have rational grounds for claiming that. Clinton-haters argued that Clinton was "illegitimate" because he only won a plurality of the popular vote; however, after 2000, they stopped arguing that point. Funny, that.

What may surprise these conservatives -- as well as the DLC types like Al From who preach a nice, spineless brand of Democratic activism -- is that "Bush haters" don't really hate Bush. Oh, some do. But most are simply very angry at the fact that he holds the office, and are determined to see him removed.

They don't necessarily think Bush is despicable. They believe he is incompetent.

They don't think Bush is a Nazi or a 'New World Order' conspirator. But they do believe he is manifestly unfit for office.

In 2004, guys like Rich Lowry will learn the meaning of that difference -- and why it matters to millions of middle-of-the-road, perfectly centrist "Bush haters."

Because reality has a nasty habit of biting back at the people who think they can control it.

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