Friday, July 04, 2003

Springtime for Mussolini

Per Atrios, who recently posted about neoconservative leader Michael Ledeen's reputed fondness for fascism ...

I dug the following out of Ledeen's archives at National Review. It's a bit of Newspeak/projection in which he accuses the Gore contingent with incipient fascism during the Florida debacle:

Fascism in Florida

Not the admiring tone, especially when it comes to Mussolini:
Worse still, the leftists still don't understand what fascism was all about, because they think that Hitler was the paradigm. Actually, it was Mussolini, who came to power more than a decade before Hitler, and who was widely admired, even in the Western democracies. Mussolini did indeed seize power, first in the streets and then in Rome, but they took to the streets in response to years of violent demonstration by the Left. Many moderate people, first in Italy and then in Germany, welcomed the anti-Leftist mobs because they hoped it would teach the Left that street fighting was no way to conduct the nation's business. Mussolini knew all about this sort of thing, having been a leader of the Socialist Party before the Great War.

Also worth reading, of course, is the piece Atrios links to:

Flirting With Fascism

It contains some important information, if accurate, particularly Ledeen's writings about fascism. His admiration for fascist ideas is fairly self-evident.

However, it's important to consider the source in this case. American Conservative is Pat Buchanan's magazine, and he has proven over the years all too willing to publish distortions and falsehoods. Let's put it this way: Buchanan is not in any position to throw stones at anyone when it comes to admiring fascists.

Interview alert

For anyone interested, I'm scheduled to be interviewed tomorrow morning (Saturday the 5th) on Chuck Mertz's Chicago-based broadcast, "This Is Hell."

We'll be talking about the "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism" essay -- which is in the final stages of completion as we speak. (I hope to have it available in PDF form early next week.)

The scheduled interview time is 10:30 am Central time (which means 8:30 in my time zone -- ack!). I've been fighting a head cold, so I may not be in top form, but I'm hopeful we'll have a lively conversation.

Mertz broadcasts his show from WNUR 89.3 FM. You can pick up the Webcast at WNUR's Web site by clicking on the "live webcast" button.

Just a reminder

Brett Kavanaugh's recent nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals -- one of the most powerful of all the federal courts -- brings to mind this passage from David Brock's Blinded by the Right [p. 280], in which Brock discusses his gathering pariahhood for not having smeared Hillary Clinton:
I reluctantly accepted Laura Ingraham's invitation to watch Bill Clinton's State of the Union address in Jaunary 1997 with her and her friends at her town house in Woodley Park. As I arrived at the hose, which was decked out in an oversized southwestern motif more appropriate for a bachelor's mountain hideaway, the network cameras were coming on. When I saw one of Ken Starr's deputies, Brett Kavanaugh, who was sitting across from me, mouth the word "bitch" when the camera panned to Hillary, I excused myself and sat in the darkened pine-scented dining room alone, smoking. I started again soon after Seduction was published because I didn't know what else to do.

I always thought this was an instructive anecdote because it gave a great deal of insight into the mindset of Starr's team of prosecutors and their conduct.

It also tells us, I think, a great deal about the kind of people President Bush is nominating for the most powerful judicial seats in the country.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Bush the Liar

[Thanks to the Propaganda Remix Project. Buy the book!]

In all the brouhaha over the yet-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction used by the Bush and Blair administrations to justify invading Iraq, much of the discussion so far has revolved around the question of whether or not George W. Bush and his team lied.

Well, I guess we all remember what a big stinking deal it was that Bill Clinton "lied to the American people" -- when he wagged his finger on national TV -- about an obviously political invasion of his private life. To this day, that lie is raised by conservative partisans to justify the whole bizarre spectacle of his impeachment -- though of course it was his alleged falsehoods in court, not those on TV, that were the basis of that travesty.

Does this mean that if George Bush is found to have lied to the American people, he should be impeached? Not necessarily. The truth is that politicians of all stripes either lie or stretch the truth with great regularity. Washington would soon be emptied if lying were outlawed. In reality, there are only two questions about lying that are relevant: For what purpose was the lie told? And what were the consequences of telling the lie?

Of course, so far Bush's GOP cohorts and his apologists in the media have bent over backwards to find ways of saying that Bush didn't exactly lie -- he just exaggerated, or told a sort of white lie that had a beneficent purpose as well as a grand result. See, for instance, Fred Kaplan's Slate piece, Was Bush Lying About WMD?:
Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and the other Pentagon officials who made these claims so fiercely probably weren't lying. Clearly, they had formed their conclusions first, then went scrounging for the evidence. Clearly, they stretched the evidence they found right up to, and in some cases beyond, the logical limits. However, it's a fair bet that they genuinely believed that Saddam had these weapons.

This, of course, utterly ignores the possibility (not to mention the likelihood) that these officials, including Bush himself, were willing in fact to make knowingly false assertions (that is, to lie) in support of their predetermined conclusions. One of the foremost of these was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's assertion in September 2002 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction:
"We do know that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons," Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18. "His regime has amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons -- including VX, sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gas."

Later, on March 30, 2003, Rumsfeld told ABC's "This Week" program: "We know where they are."

Claiming to know something when, in fact, you do not know it (even if you believe it dearly) is a lie -- regardless of how you spin it afterward.

Equally egregious in this regard has been President Bush. By any measure the most outrageous falsehood asserted by the president regarding Saddam Hussein's acquisition of WMD came when he claimed, on Sept. 7, 2002, that the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported that Hussein was in the final phases of getting his hands on a nuclear bomb:
"I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic -- the IAEA -- that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need."

As The Likely Story (which has deftly compiled Bush's WMD falsehoods and distortions) observes:
The IAEA did issue a report in 1998, around the time weapons inspectors were denied access to Iraq for the final time, but the report made no such assertion. It declared: "Based on all credible information to date, the IAEA has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material."

By any accounting, it is clear that the Bush team was responsible for a broad range of false assertions that step well beyond the line of being simply a mistake (since when did incompetence become an excuse anyway?) or a product of arrogance.

Did Bush lie about WMDs? Ultimately, it's hard to avoid that conclusion, particularly when it comes to assertions about the extent and nature of their knowledge.

This should not, however, come as any great surprise. Bush, after all, has a well-established (if largely unreported) predilection for lying.

This dates back (on a national scale at least) to 2000, when the Bush team ran a political campaign predicated on spreading falsehoods about his opponents (from McCain to Gore), which worked spectacularly with a compliant press corps, and openly resorting to blatantly false assertions (e.g., the contention that machine vote-counts were more accurate than manual counts) during the struggle in Florida in order to win the presidency.

Bush also lied -- about his military service -- during the run-up to the campaign, and he did it in print. In his ghost-written autobiography, A Charge to Keep, Bush describes his pilot's training in some detail, then concludes:
''I continued flying with my unit for the next several years."

In fact, Bush was suspended from flying 22 months after he completed his training. Bush blew off his commitment to the Texas Air National Guard by failing to take a physical, and thereafter failing to report to his superior officers at his old unit for at least seven months. His flight status was revoked, and he never flew again.

But the most egregious of Bush's falsehoods was his announced (and later enacted) tax-cut plan, which despite Bush's false demurrals amounted to little more than a huge bonus for the nation's wealthiest 1 percent. As Paul Krugman described it in his 2001 book Fuzzy Math:
The Bush tax plan is irresponsible, but America will surely survive it, just as we survived the Reagan tax cut. What is different this time is the utter dishonesty of the sales campaign. At every stage in this debate, Bush and his people have tried to obscure what they were really proposing. They have radically understated the cost of their plan, while overstating the money available to pay that cost. They have pretended that a plan that mainly cuts the taxes of the extremely well-off is basically a middle-class tax cut, and have misrepresented the size of the tax cut that middle-income families will actually receive. And they have falsely sold the plan as an appropriate answer to a short-run economic slowdown, when it is almost perfectly designed not to deal with that sort of problem.

No previous administration has tried to sell its economic plans on such false pretenses. And this from a man who ran for president on a promise to restore honor and integrity to our nation's public life.

Importantly, a key component to Bush's campaign (and later) promises was his absolute vow not to use the Social Security surplus for anything other than paying down the national debt. As Krugman later pointed out in an August 2001 New York Times column, Truth And Lies:
But the important point for now involves honor and credibility. Mr. Bush promised not to dip into the Social Security surplus; he has broken that promise. Critics told you that would happen; they have been completely vindicated. Mr. Bush told you it wouldn't; he lied.

Bush continued to lie, rather openly and brazenly, about his mismanagement of the economy, even resorting to hiding behind the tragedy of Sept. 11 as an excuse for his own misfeasance.

Remember the "trifecta" story?

For the better part of six months, Bush regaled audiences, private and public, with several slightly differing versions of the following anecdote:
"You know, when I was running for President, in Chicago, somebody said, would you ever have deficit spending? I said, only if we were at war, or only if we had a recession, or only if we had a national emergency. Never did I dream we’d get the trifecta."

Bush told the joke on the record at least 14 times. It originated, evidently, as an anecdote he told to business leaders Oct. 3, 2001, when he explained his three-part reasoning for going into deficit spending -- but evidently did not yet suggest that he had "hit the trifecta."

That came later. He appears to have added the "trifecta" joke for the first time before a group of visiting Republicans at the White House on Nov. 9, 2001. He pulled it out again for a huddle with congressional GOP leaders on Feb. 1, 2002. After that, Bush apparently decided to make it part of his stump speech, beginning with a GOP luncheon on Feb. 27. The tellings of the joke then occurred regularly, largely at GOP fund-raising functions.

For awhile, it appeared that Bush had dropped it from his stump speech, possibly in response to the controversy that erupted in mid-May over his administration’s alleged pre-knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks (the last previous appearance of the joke was May 10). But after a month-long hiatus, he pulled it out again for a pork farmers’ gathering in Iowa on June 7, and began wielding it with glee again for another week or so. The last appearance of the joke was June 14, 2001, at a reception for Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election campaign in Houston.

The real problem with the joke, and the story on which Bush based it, is that it is a complete falsehood.

Bush never told an audience in Chicago that he could foresee three conditions under which deficit spending might be necessary. In fact, he never stated any conditions at all that might lead to deficit spending.

Throughout the campaign, Bush had been insistent that budget surpluses would be continuing, and never does he appear to have told any public audience at any time that deficit spending might become necessary. Indeed, the only times that Bush ever seems to have brought up the subject of deficit spending were those when he accused Al Gore of planning to lapse back into the practice.

Moreover, the story is fundamentally false as a purely chronological matter: Bush was already facing the certainty of deficit spending at the end of the summer of 2001, well before the attacks of Sept. 11. The surplus built up during the Clinton years -- some $4 trillion worth -- vanished over the spring and summer that year, and budget experts sounded the alarm about looming deficits then. The Congressional Budget Office warned Bush on Aug. 29 that Social Security funds would be needed to balance the books, forcing him to abandon a campaign promise not to use the retirement fund for other government spending.

Indeed, that is just what Bush proceeded to do in his actual budget, presented in January. According to the CBO, Bush’s budget plan would drain every dollar of the $527 billion surplus from the Social Security Trust Fund for the next two fiscal years even while creating a deficit. It would continue to raid the fund for varying amounts each year through 2012. Even with the fund’s help, the federal budget is expected to be in deficits through at least 2005.

Most serious economists peg the source of these nagging deficits on Bush’s tax-cut plan, the deepest portions of which have yet to kick in. The administration sternly denies this, with Bush offering a familiar defense: "This nation might have to run deficits in time of war, in times of a national emergency or in times of recession, and we’re still in all three," he told reporters in January. "It makes sense to spend money necessary to win the war."

Yet it’s clear that while Sept. 11 may have deepened and broadened the budget-deficit problem, the administration was faced with chronic budget deficits no matter what -- largely because of the Bush tax breaks. As Krugman put it in his Feb. 2, 2002, column on Bush’s budget:
The events of Sept. 11 shocked and horrified the nation; they also presented the Bush administration with a golden opportunity to bury its previous misdeeds. Has more than $4 trillion of projected surplus suddenly evaporated into thin air? Pay no attention to the tax cut: it’s all because of the war on terrorism.

That, after all, was the whole purpose of the "trifecta" joke: By essentially blaming the deficit on Sept. 11 and its aftermath, it gives Bush a serendipitous excuse. Thus it lets Bush escape any serious questions about either his failure to balance the budget or, particularly, his campaign pledge to use the Social Security Trust Fund to pay down the national debt.

Without Sept. 11, Bush almost certainly would have faced a barrage of criticism for bringing back the bad old days of deficit spending -- and for breaking a well-known campaign vow to boot. The national tragedy gave him unparalleled political cover for his administration’s failures -- and Bush, to no one's surprise, displayed no hesitation whatsoever about using it. Not only that, it became his favorite joke.

When reporters have sought the original remarks, the White House press office has been unable to come up with any evidence that Bush ever made the remarks that he claims. Jonathan Chait first pointed this out in the New Republic, and ABC News' The Note likewise came up empty in its search for any Bush speeches or remarks that indicated a willingness to resume budget deficits, concluding: "[W]e have never been able to find, even with the help of reporters who covered the campaign every day, and from Mr. Bush’s own advisers, any reference to the president saying this even ONCE.”

Other journalists have gone looking too, which has made for some uncomfortable moments for the administration’s defenders. Tim Russert, on a late-June 2001 Meet the Press, tried to confront OMB chief Mitch Daniels about it:
Russert: Now, we have checked everywhere and we’ve even called the White House as to when the president said that when he was campaigning in Chicago, and it didn’t happen. The closest he came was he was asked, "Would you give up part of your tax cut in order to ensure a balanced budget?" And he said, "No." But no one ever talked about a war, a recession and an emergency, the trifecta. … [It] was not talked about in the campaign by the president, and the White House keeps saying, "Oh, yes, he made that caveat." No one can find it.

Daniels demurred, declaring, "I’m not the White House librarian," but added that he was certain Bush had often stated those preconditions: "I do know that I’ve heard the president say it privately and publicly, over and over, for a long time, as have scholars and theorists and supporters of balanced budgets …" If that is so, the record has not yet sustained this claim.

It was about this same time, just as the press' interest in Bush's prevarication was rising (I wrote a piece for that ran on June 28) that Bush, according to the Chicago Tribune's Jeff Zeleny [July 14], was told by "senior advisers" [read: Karl Rove] to drop the joke:
So in recent days, some senior advisers have asked Bush to eliminate the Chicago line from the stump speech. They hope the move will quash the talk among Washington critics that Bush may be telling tall tales. One White House adviser said privately that the administration wants the label of exaggerated storyteller to remain precisely where it was in the last campaign — with Gore.

There is no small irony in this, since Al Gore, in fact, had told reporters during the campaign that he might consider deficit spending under those three conditions. [See Dana Milbank's July 2, 2002, report, "A Sound Bite So Good, the President Wishes He Had Said It," buried on Page A13.] Bush had in effect lifted the line from Gore, and then lied about it. Yet according to this same press corps, it was Al Gore, not George Bush, who had a "problem with the truth."

Bush has told other blatant falsehoods to cover up not only his incompetence, but his potential implications in political and financial scandal, particularly his behavior related to the collapse of Enron. The largely defunct energy company, of course, was one of Bush's chief supporters (it lent the Bush campaign the use of its private jets during the Florida recount effort, as well as donating a tidy sum of $300,000 to the Bush inauguration fund) and its CEO, Kenneth Lay, was a Bush "Pioneer" (an elite class of fundraiser) who actually slept in the Lincoln Bedroom during the White House tenure of Bush's father.

But on Jan. 10, 2002, all that was forgotten as Enron collapsed in flames. Bush told reporters:
Well, first of all, Ken Lay is a supporter. And I got to know Ken Lay when he was the head of the -- what they call the Governor's Business Council in Texas. He was a supporter of Ann Richards in my run in 1994. And she had named him the head of the Governor's Business Council. And I decided to leave him in place, just for the sake of continuity. And that's when I first got to know Ken, and worked with Ken, and he supported my candidacy.

In fact, Lay supported Bush over Richards, giving Bush some $30,000, though Richards did collect $19,500 from Enron sources in that 1994 race. Lay told PBS's "Frontline" in a March 27, 2001 interview that he had in fact supported Bush.

Moreover, the entire thrust of Bush's remarks obfuscated the closeness of his campaign with Enron, as well as the extent of his personal closeness with Lay, which is reported to have been substantial and long-term.

The press again conveniently ignored this prevarication, and more importantly, shrugged off the Enron fiasco as a "business scandal." Bush's pledges to reform corporate behavior and the accounting industry have become so much forgotten ephemera. (Meanwhile, one wonders why Martha Stewart is being prosecuted by the Ashcroft Justice Department over $43,000, while Lay continues to enjoy his retirement unmolested by such concerns.)

However, the nation's continuing economic doldrums are not so easily shrugged off, and continue to be the chief source of Bush's vulnerability. Not surprisingly, then, Bush continues to prevaricate to cover up for his mishandling of the economy.

On his final radio address of the year last December, Bush opened by saying:
In 2002, our economy was still recovering from the attacks of September the 11th, 2001, and it was pulling out of a recession that began before I took office.

Oh really? If the recession began before Bush took office, then why did he submit a budget to Congress in August 2001 that presumed a rosy economic outlook and continuing budgetary surpluses?

In fact, there is no evidence that there was a recession in effect when Bush took office. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research -- the national arbiter of all things economic -- the economy peaked and started shrinking shortly after Bush took office:
The determination of a peak date in March is thus a determination that the expansion that began in March 1991 ended in March 2001 and a recession began in March.

Unsurprisingly, Bush continues to try to blame the recession on his predecessor. As Dana Milbank reported this week, he has made the claim into a trifecta-like talking point in his stump speech:
"Two-and-a-half years ago, we inherited an economy in recession."

(Milbank also catches Bush in a couple of other fibs.)

The long and short of it is that Bush not only is a liar, he is both a prodigious and a brazen one. He is so skilled at it, indeed, that his supposed honesty and integrity is often cited as one of his endearing traits by his many acolytes, even in the face of repeated evidence to the contrary.

Saying that Bush is a liar doesn't always mean that he has traded in outright falsehood. Distorted characterizations and mangled "facts" are every bit as misleading, and ultimately every bit as dishonest, particularly when it comes to dealing with the public. As it happens, Bush's record is rife with both.

This has been especially the case with the mystery of the missing weapons of destruction. The depth and breadth of the false pretenses under which Bush led the nation not only to war, but to invade a sovereign nation that had not attacked us, are immanently apparent in any serious examination of the record. But rather than recognize the outrage that has been perpetrated in the name of American security, Bush's many apologists continue to rationalize away reality.

Still, for those who have been observing Bush's behavior and rhetoric over the years, the fact of his mendaciousness really is not a surprise. His father, like most politicians, was a skilled liar (remember "I was out of the loop"?), and W. learned most of his political chops at the feet of Lee Atwater, the famed Republican attack dog whose ruthlessness is still legend in political circles.

In reality, the act of lying itself -- Bill Clinton's example notwithstanding -- is probably not enough to invoke a serious effort to impeach a president. What matters the most is the nature of the deception: what the lie is about, and what damage it wreaks.

I'll let others wrangle over how important a lie (about a blow job!) in a minor civil action actually was. But lying about the reasons to take the nation to war -- and in the process cost hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people their lives -- is in another category altogether. As John Judis and Spencer Ackerman put it in their superb New Republic report on the WMD issue, "The First Casualty":
Three months after the invasion, the United States may yet discover the chemical and biological weapons that various governments and the United Nations have long believed Iraq possessed. But it is unlikely to find, as the Bush administration had repeatedly predicted, a reconstituted nuclear weapons program or evidence of joint exercises with Al Qaeda--the two most compelling security arguments for war. Whatever is found, what matters as far as American democracy is concerned is whether the administration gave Americans an honest and accurate account of what it knew. The evidence to date is that it did not, and the cost to U.S. democracy could be felt for years to come.

Who really cares, in the end, if Bush is a liar? What matters most is this: Did America invade another nation, which it now occupies, under false pretenses? If so, what kind of nation has George W. Bush made us into?