During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-Governor Bush liked to tell the story of a hypothetical waitress who would benefit from his tax cut plan. "Under current tax law," he said, "a single waitress supporting two children on an income of $22,000 faces a higher marginal tax rate than a lawyer making $220,000," adding, "Under my plan, she will pay no income tax at all."
This wasn't much of a feat. What Bush failed to mention was that his hypothetical waitress probably already paid no federal income tax.
In August 2001, President Bush announced a new policy on the use of stem cells in federally funded medical research. "More than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist," he told the nation in a televised address, concluding, "We should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines."
Researchers eager to obtain access to these "existing" lines were quickly disappointed, however, when Tommy Thompson, Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services, admitted that only 24 or 25 lines were actually "fully developed." Although 60 lines did exist, it was uncertain whether many of them would ever become available to researchers.
In late 2001, Bush began pointing back to a statement he claimed to have made during the 2000 campaign. As he put it in May 2002, "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."
It was a good story, but there's no evidence that the President ever made such a statement in Chicago or elsewhere. In fact, Vice President Al Gore was the candidate who had listed the exceptions in 1998 (though Bush advisor Lawrence Lindsey said at the time that they would apply to the Texas governor as well). Was this an innocent mistake? The answer is almost certainly no—Bush continued to repeat the "trifecta" story for months after it had been debunked.
Then, in a televised address to the nation in October 2002, Bush declared, "We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy—the United States of America. We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein's regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America."
Each of these statements was true, but Bush's words were carefully constructed to leave a false impression. Without ever stating that there was a direct connection between Iraq, al Qaeda, and September 11, the President artfully linked them together with a series of carefully chosen phrases. After the war, Bush told an interviewer from Polish television that "We found the weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. But he was not reporting the discovery of drums of chemical weapons or artillery shells filled with anthrax. Rather, Bush was referring to a pair of trailers that some analysts thought might have been used to produce biological weapons. While experts debated the purpose of the trailers, the President of the United States was falsely claiming that WMD had been found.
These examples might not be so troubling if the press had consistently called attention to them. But on most issues, with the possible exception of stem cells and the aftermath of the war in Iraq, he got away with little more than a slap on the wrist. Journalists deserve much of the blame for this, but one of the chief reasons these examples received so little attention is that many were based on a partial truth about a complex policy issue; after all, the waitress did end up with no federal income tax, there were 60 "existing" stem cell lines, and Iraq had some fragmentary connections to Al Qaeda . . . sort of.
Bush's record raises a number of questions. Just how often did the President deceive us? How did he do it? And why didn't anyone put a stop to it?
The answers are disturbing. George W. Bush has done serious damage to our political system. His deceptions span nearly all of his major policies, were achieved using some of the most advanced tactics from public relations, and were designed to exploit the failings of the modern media. In the process, Bush has made it even more difficult for citizens to understand and take part in democratic debate.
These deceptions are worthy of close attention for more than the insight they give us into the President himself. He is simply the highest profile carrier of a virus infecting our political system. Its symptoms are misleading public statements, a disregard for the value of honest discussion, and treating policy debates as little more than marketing challenges—a devastating combination for democracy.
Bush's Troubled Relationship with the Truth
Compared to other presidents, Bush's deceptions might seem unremarkable. He has certainly not been caught lying in a scandal comparable to Watergate or Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern. Minor scandals have erupted during Bush's tenure, such as questions about his service in the Air National Guard and his administration's ties to Enron, but his behavior in these matters has been no different than that of previous chief executives. Nor do his statements about the conduct of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq stand out compared to the great war-related deceptions of previous presidents like Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.
George W. Bush's dishonesty is different. Rather than simply lying, he has subtly and systematically attempted to deceive the nation about most of his major policy proposals. On issues ranging from tax cuts to stem cells to the debate over the war in Iraq, he has consistently twisted the truth beyond recognition in order to promote his policies.
Remarkably, he has done so while generally avoiding obviously false statements. Instead, Bush consistently uses well-designed phrases and strategically crafted arguments to distract, deceive, and mislead. The result is that all but the most careful listeners end up believing something completely untrue, while proving the President has lied is usually impossible.
Unlike famous White House dissemblers of the past, Bush almost never explicitly claims that black is white or day is night. Instead, he deceives the public with partial truths and misleading assertions. So rather than saying day is night, George W. Bush will focus on an instance of a solar eclipse or remind Americans that people who work graveyard shifts are asleep. Both might be true, but without the proper context, they're highly misleading. Because Bush's statements are so often constructed in this way, he has walked away from one deceptive claim after another scot-free.
These tactics originate in public relations, a field that has become extremely skilled at promoting a message regardless of its factual accuracy. Previous presidents have also drawn on PR, of course, but Bush has gone far beyond his predecessors, systematically employing these dishonest strategies in nearly every major policy debate. At this point, the difference between corporate marketing and White House communications has largely disappeared.
The Right Definition of Dishonesty
Before assessing Bush's dishonesty, however, we must answer an important question: What counts? One school of thought holds that any politician who contradicts his previous statements—like George H. W. Bush's decision to disavow his "no new taxes" pledge—is a liar. But violating a promise is not lying. This demeans the word and holds our leaders to an unrealistic standard that makes it impossible for them to compromise or adjust to changing circumstances. For instance, once he took office, Bill Clinton abandoned the middle-class tax cut he promised during the 1992 campaign, choosing instead to focus on reducing the federal budget deficit. Does this mean that he wasn't sincere when he first proposed the plan? We can't know for sure. That's not to say politicians should escape scrutiny for breaking a promise, but it's not a good measure of their honesty.
Similarly, some accusations of lying are based on little more than vague political rhetoric, such as George W. Bush's promise during his first year in office that veterans would be a priority for his administration.7 He has since been accused of dishonesty for allegedly not spending enough on health care for veterans. But spending on veterans has increased every year Bush has been in office. Some may suggest that the budget has not gone up quickly enough, but there is no objective definition of a "priority." This sort of disagreement is hardly evidence that a politician's statement was misleading.
Rather than bickering over what counts as a priority or calling every broken pledge a lie, we need a different standard for political dishonesty. A better approach is to judge public officials' words against the known facts. We should focus on what the President and his top aides knew or should have known to be false or misleading at the time they made a public statement. By that standard, George W. Bush has been extraordinarily deceptive about public policy issues.
Setting a New Standard?
The cumulative effect of these tactics is to blur and distort the truth so much that honest discussion is impossible. After all, if we can't agree on whether it's day or night, there's no way to figure out what time it is. By the same token, if we can't agree on whether the Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq by saying Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, it becomes impossible to assess whether those statements were accurate.
That is why, after nearly four years of constant deception on major issues of public policy, the President must be held accountable. If we fail to do so, Bush's approach to political communications threatens to become the new standard for politics in America. From its campaigns for tax cuts to the debate over war with Iraq, this White House has invented a new politics of dishonesty.
This is excerpted from All the President's Spin, by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan. Copyright © 2004 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan and published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy All the President's Spin at Amazon.com. Bryan Keefer will moderate a panel discussion, "Blogs: The Future of Politics?," on Tuesday night, August 10, at Makor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.