All the President's Spin : George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth

by Bryan Keefer, Brendan Nyhan, Ben Fritz
ISBN: 0743262514

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A Review of: All the PresidentĘs Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth
by Andrew Allentuck

Lying as a basis for statecraft is a confection of the government of George W. Bush, say the three authors of All the President's Spin. Their screed argues that President Bush and his staff have raised dissimulation to a form of policy rather than just expedience, making the present administration perhaps the most dishonest in American history.
The authors are Ben Fritz, a politically savvy Hollywood reporter who works for the show biz rag, Variety; Bryan Keefer, the assistant managing editor of the campaign desk of the Columbia Journalism Review; and Brendan Nyhan, an investigative reporter. They condemn Bush less for lying than for making it a routine tool of government. "He may not be the most dishonest president ever elected, but the sophistication of his spin about policy issues and the consistency with which he has misled the public has set a new standard," they assert.
It's a tough case to prove. George W. is hardly the first president to defend his office or make policy with lies. In the 20th century, Richard Nixon shook his jowls and denied responsibility for the Watergate break-in. In the 19th century, Abe Lincoln used the Emancipation Proclamation to claim the North would free the slaves unless slave owners would swear allegiance to the Union, in which case they could keep their human chattels. In other words, lying and hypocrisy are nothing new.
The authors' case against Mr. Bush rests mainly on their analysis of his policies respecting tax and the Iraq war. They spice their arguments with observations on how he represents his budgets, how he handles the press, and how his administration has dealt with dissent.
At the time of the book's writing, the members of Bush's spin machine included Karen Hughes, a former reporter turned media czar for the administration; David Frum, Canada's gift to the American right and the author of the "axis of evil" label for countries that seriously bug the administration; and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, the maestro of all that Bush is said to have said.
The berlie the book tackles is the selling of the 2001 tax cut proposal. The authors are hardly the first to notice the irony of the fact that the administration, while promising to create tax breaks for the working poor, actually created breaks that gave 45 per cent of all proposed benefits to the top one per cent of taxpayers.
This is difficult ground, but the authors focus on Bush's rhetoric: "These are the basic ideas that guide my tax policy: lower income taxes for all, with the greatest help for those most in need."
The "most in need" phrase was a buzz word for fellow Republicans for whom tax cuts are like dope for a junkie. But Bush's grand concept was really about cutting big tax dollars for high income filers while presenting the plan as big percentage cuts for the poor. As the authors indicate, a poor person who had paid $100 in tax and got a 50 per cent cut, did better than a high income taxpayer, who saw taxes due fall from $100,000 to $75,000, a 25 per cent cut. But any comparison, outside of percentages, is absurd.
Technically, the Bush tax cuts were accurately represented, admit the authors. Their stiffer objection stems from the way the press, taking handouts from White House flacks, repeated the message that the working poor would get large-scale tax relief. In fact, apart from the book, Vice President Dick Cheney, defending the disproportion in tax cuts, said on behalf of high income taxpayers, "It is our due."
According to the authors, "When the campaign released the details of the first five years of Bush's tax cut proposal in December, 1999, it required reporters to agree not to share its details with independent budget experts before publishing their articles." Did George W. know about this move to obfuscate the truth. Did he condone it? Or was the restriction on outside opinion merely a case of excess zeal by Bush team hacks?
The case for war put forth by the President is the moral heart of this book. The Bush plan to attack Iraq has been reported by major critics as long in planning. All the President's Spin makes a case that Bush & Co. were just a lynch mob, turning ambiguous facts into evidence for the presence of weapons of mass destruction.
The book's case is summed up by the following: "...the White House simply ignored caveats from the intelligence community about the information [about WMD] because it wanted to grab onto something affirmative...."
The investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, has said the same thing, calling the administration's effort to manage intelligence data from Iraq "stovepiping." Hersh shows that the administration took raw, unconfirmed facts from U.S. spies of uncertain loyalty, phone traffic signal analysis that equates an increase in volume with more likely incidents of terror, and then built the wobbly whole into a case for invasion.
The authors believe that Bush and his staff turned molehills of disparate facts into a mountain of a moral case for invasion. "The White House saturated the airwaves with dire warnings about Saddam's weapons programs, his ties to al Queda, and the possibility that Iraq could use those weapons or pass them to terrorists."
But this may have been less a perversion of the facts than a desire to find a cause for a righteous crusade against evil. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, in a remarkable New Yorker story, quoted a Kurdish leader on the matter of the gassing of his people by Saddam's forces: "What they did to us, that was just for practice." One could well imagine that Saddam, the megalomanical madman, would use any weapons he might in time have developed.
Arms inspector David Kay, the head of the Iraq survey group, said that Saddam would have used WMD if he had been able to develop them. Kay spoke of Saddam's efforts to conceal his handiwork, but could not find the smoking gun, to stretch a metaphor. All the President's Spin demonstrates that the administration inverted the Kay report to show that WMD did exist. Subsequently, Kay disavowed the administration's conclusions and resigned.
The U.N. also said they could find no gas or biological weapons, but Bush reiterated the claim that the weapons were there and would be found. Absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence. Bush's assertions were widely accepted.
There is an alternative view that needs to be proffered. As much as one may condemn Mr. Bush for the miscalculated campaign in Iraq, the President may have been motivated by his own conscience and sense of moral and historical imperative. Wasn't it Neville Chamberlain who said "Peace in our Time", refusing to face up to Hitler. This reluctance to act preemptively ultimately resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews, 20 million Russians, and 10 million Europeans.
Even if its invective overreaches at times, All the President's Spin is a triumph of research and scholarship. Those appalled by President Bush will find evidence to confirm their views. Even his supporters, should they read the book, may wonder why-since the truth is on Bush's side-his hacks have worked so hard to sculpt it to their advantage.
Because what motivated Bush to launch the second Iraq war, remains defensible in view of Saddam's willingness both to develop and use WMDs, the book presents, at best, some well supported arguments-not overwhelming evidence of moral wrongdoing. But on tax, the authors have skewered their man as a liar in the service of plutocracy.

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