That Man in the White House
From the December 8, 2003 issue: Reading the Bush bashers.
Dec 8, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 13 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
The Lies of George W. Bush
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them
Thieves in High Places
The Bush Hater's Handbook
The Great Unraveling
SOMETIMES without straining I can remember the long-ago 1990s, when a number of people, including many of my friends--well, including me, to tell the truth--succumbed to what some of us came to call "Billy Bob Gasket Disease." That's not really the name we used, by the way. The real name came from a man who is still living in Arkansas and still intermittently in the public eye down there, and there's no point, at this late date, in dragging him into a discussion of an affliction that he, like most of us, has managed to survive.
Gasket Disease was closely linked to Bill Clinton. The man I call Billy Bob Gasket had been involved in Arkansas politics for thirty years or more. He was used to its homegrown scandals and the mostly harmless diversions enjoyed by members of its ruling class. In this spirit, back in the early 1970s, he became an energetic booster of the young Rhodes Scholar who'd come home from Oxford and Yale with the impressive hair and the glimmering eye and the semi-permanent catch in his voice.
Then, along about Clinton's first term as governor, Gasket noticed something. Bill Clinton was different. He was not just another in the long line of amiable cads and genial roués who had grasped power in Arkansas since Reconstruction. The new governor was, Gasket came to believe, the least principled, sleaziest politician he had ever seen at work. That the lack of principle and sleaziness were lacquered over with twinkly charm and vaguely progressive politics made the situation, for Gasket, all the more maddening.
And maddening is the word. As Clinton was returned again and again to office, Gasket was at first disbelieving, then agog, and finally crazed. Why couldn't his fellow Arkansans see the truth? Why couldn't they penetrate the governor's sheath of bogus empathy and concern to see the creature of seething ambition and power hunger and raw cynicism that writhed so self-evidently beneath? Gasket became a hair-puller, a lapel-grabber, a mid-sentence interrupter, a nut. When, in the late 1980s, national reporters began trickling into the state to look over the promising young governor with national ambitions, their search for knowledgeable Clinton watchers led them inevitably to Gasket, and they found a madman.
Clinton became president. Gasket Disease trailed him like a cloud. It laid waste to Republican ranks in Washington and far beyond, to vast stretches of the country at large--by the end, if I read the polls correctly, roughly a third of all Americans had succumbed. Those who caught the disease didn't just dislike Clinton, as, say, they might have disliked Jimmy Carter. The crux of Gasket Disease was not contempt but unendurable frustration. They could not fathom why everyone else didn't grasp his essential, transparent fraudulence: the phoniness of the lower-lip-bite, the moist insincerity of the smile, the vanity in every tilt of the carefully coifed head. As with syphilis, so with Gasket Disease: Some Republicans recovered, others were driven mad.
And now, according to an increasingly common view, George W. Bush has had the same effect on his political enemies that Bill Clinton had on his. He has driven them crazy; the nuthouse lately vacated by the Clinton-haters has suddenly filled with Bush-haters. Gasket Disease, according to this view, alights without regard to party or ideology--and indeed has become a professional hazard and fact of life for anyone who dares take sides in partisan politics.
IS THERE SOMETHING to this trading-places idea? The steam rising from this year's stack of new books on President Bush suggests that there is. It's true that for sheer fantasy, none of these anti-Bush books contains anything to rival such Clinton-era classics as Terry Reed and John Cummings's "Compromised," which asserted that Clinton had been installed as president on the say-so of Ronald Reagan's CIA director William Casey, or Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's "The Secret Life of Bill Clinton," which implicated Clinton in drug-running and even murder. Still, the anti-Bush books I've been reading through are undeniably . . . overdone. Pick one up, turn it over in your hands, and you can hear, if you listen closely, the faint sound of veins popping.
The new crop of Bush-hating books owe a lot to conservatives in other ways, particularly to the political potboilers that have proved so lucrative in recent years: Michael Savage's "Savage Nation," Sean Hannity's "Let Freedom Ring," Ann Coulter's "Slander," Bill O'Reilly's "The No-Spin Zone"--the list of right-wing bestsellers is long and dispiriting. Like them, the anti-Bush products are not books in the traditional sense. They're tracts, pumped up and inflated to a size sufficient to fit in display racks. In appearance they are indistinguishable from diet books or the oeuvre of Dr. Phil. Chatty and personal, skipping lightly from one subject to the next in brief, easily digestible chapters, interrupted now and then by diagrams or cartoons or pithy sayings helpfully printed in bold, they show no sign of having been written for people who read books. They have found their audience.
AMONG THE MANY TIES that bind them, the authors are unanimous in claiming inspiration from Paul Krugman, a columnist for the New York Times, who, to borrow a term from epidemiology, seems to be Patient Zero in this most recent outbreak of Billy Bob Gasket Disease. You can understand why they revere him so. Unlike most Bush-hating authors--there are volumes out now by a comedian, a media gadfly, a few reporters, a political consultant, a talk-show host--Krugman has a real job, as a salaried economist at Princeton. Ten years ago he started moonlighting, writing charmingly on economic matters for Fortune, Slate, and other general-interest magazines. His well-earned success brought him a regular column on the Times op-ed page. He has recently gathered dozens, though it seems like thousands, of his Times columns and published them under the title "The Great Unraveling."
Every collection of newspaper columns, paced in hiccups of 750 words or less, faces problems of redundancy and continuity. Whether from presumption or laziness, Krugman has made no effort to overcome them. The breathless tone is unrelieved, the repetition dazzling. Right from the start you wonder whether the author, much less a copy editor, has bothered to read the book. On page three, in a new introduction, we learn that "America's radical right now effectively controls the White House, Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media." Seven paragraphs later, on page five, we discover that "America's right-wing movement now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media."
So that must be his thesis--what happens to a country when its right-wingers in effect control the administration, Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media. (Wait--did I say that already?) So that must be his thesis. (Oops!) What happens is mayhem. Krugman sees a country in which free speech is disappearing, the poor are paying more taxes than the rich, and religious superstition is supplanting evolution in grade-school curriculums. That none of these things is actually taking place does not dampen his eagerness to spread the word. "This is hard for journalists to deal with," he writes. "They don't want to sound like crazy conspiracy theorists."
Krugman is quite happy to, however--he may not have a choice--and it is this mixture of insouciance and paranoia that make his columns so unpleasant to read; painful, too, for anyone who took pleasure and profit from his earlier stuff in the 1990s. "Together," he writes, "these columns tell a coherent story." They do. Column by column, we watch a talented fellow jettisoning one gift after another--his humor, his prose style, his mental discipline, his taste--in a rush to alert everyone else to the terrible fantasy that grips him. "The Great Unraveling" should be of interest only to sadists and shrinks.
THE BOOKS by Krugman's acolytes may have broader appeal. Their common thesis is most economically summarized in Jim Hightower's "Thieves in High Places"--not in the text itself, which is rendered unreadable by a tumult of exclamation points and sidebars and graphs, but in the book's index:
And so on, down to "undermining U.S. democracy, 240-43," the book's climax.
The titles of many of the books, too, rely on a single trope, as in Al Franken's self-amused "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." Why "lies"? Why not "power-crazed" or "corrupt" or "hypocritical"? And "stupid"--what happened to "stupid"? Any competent Bush-hater thinks their man personifies these traits, too, of course. Yet the word "lies" and its variants now, in common parlance, signify them all--a shorthand summary of his every despicable instance of despicableness.
The question is why, and the most obvious possibility is that Bush really is a liar: a liar of astounding dimensions, a liar so vast that his lies overwhelm his standing as oligarch, hypocrite, or idiot. Another possibility suggests a reaction to the Clinton years. Of all the accusations leveled against Clinton, the hardest to refute was that he was a liar. Accusing Bush of the same may thus stand as a rebuttal to Clinton's accusers, since Clinton's lies, we were so often told, were about the trivial matter of an illicit liaison, while Bush's lies are about matters of state. (If only Bush had an illicit liaison to lie about!) As James Carville's ghostwriter cleverly puts it in "Had Enough?", "Democrats lied about something we really like: sex. Republicans lie about something they really like: war and money." Calling Bush a liar is a twofer. It at once underscores the gravity of the present president's misconduct, and it condemns the frivolousness of the previous president's accusers.
There is a strategic benefit as well. If Bush is a liar, the public is off the hook. Every political polemicist thinks of himself as a Tribune of the People. Populist is part of the job description--and part of the self-image.
The problem for polemicists in attacking a relatively popular president is that the People are implicated as well: Maybe they like him because they're as depraved as he is. Which is unthinkable. (For if the People are evil, what of their Tribune?) Conservatives struggled with this difficulty in the 1990s, when Clinton, despite their well-orchestrated abuse, maintained his popularity through both his terms. "Where's the outrage?" wondered poor Bob Dole, swinging his lamp into musty corners as he wandered the country in 1996. In the deeps of the Lewinsky scandal, William J. Bennett published a book around the same question, "The Death of Outrage." From Where's the Outrage? it is a short hop to What in God's name is wrong with you people? If, on the other hand, the People are being lied to relentlessly, then they don't really know what's going on, and they can't be blamed. They may be chumps, but they're not evil.
In "Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America," by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, we meet several of these misled Americans--and they're just as colorful and earthy and pathetic as a populist could hope for. No one does populism as ruthlessly as Ivins, a graduate of Smith College and a former reporter for the New York Times, who holds a graduate degree from Columbia. Her political opinions are as reliably left-wing as this pedigree suggests, but she prefers to present herself as one of them spunky Texas gals what's jes full o' sass--the love child of Noam Chomsky and Minnie Pearl. She uses the word "shit" a lot. Her newspaper columns, a slapdash mix of ideological platitudes and mild jocosities, made her famous a few years ago when they were collected in a huge bestseller with the unintentionally funny title, "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" (She can and does!) Incredibly, she has not won a Pulitzer Prize.
"Bushwhacked" is the best of the Bush-hating books. There is a sameness to the others, from their avenues of attack to their taste in jokes; at least four of them, by my count, reach for the line "It's deja voodoo all over again" to describe the administration's economic policies; the unimaginative Joe Conason, author of "Big Lies," was even desperate enough to use it as a chapter title. (And it wasn't funny the first time.) All rely heavily on the same statistics cribbed from Krugman columns and from precooked studies got out by think tanks such as Citizens for Tax Justice and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Bushwhacked" sets itself apart by glossing over the dreary technicalities in favor of original reporting, presumably by Dubose, about all those colorful victims caught in the Bush nightmare.
"This country is not working for most of the people in it," Ivins and Dubose write, which will be news to most of the people in it. It is certainly not working for any of the people in this book. We meet a high-school student with money problems, an environmental activist who's angry, and a single mother with a ghastly job skinning catfish on an assembly line. Their portraits are engaging and sometimes poignant--the stuff of real journalism--until you realize how cheaply Ivins is using these unhappy people as stage props in her larger argument. Their stories are necessary because the argument is so weak. It turns out that no set of facts could ever contradict the anti-Bush thesis; for that matter, any set of facts could be adduced in its support. Bush-hatred, as the philosophers say, is unfalsifiable.
GEORGE BUSH'S CAREER, like that of most politicians, traces a zigzag, as he first tacks right, then left, then back to the middle, in his endless quest to be loved for as long as possible by as large a group of voters as he can reasonably seduce. A critic might see this as cynicism, but a Bush-hater can't grant even that much. Did Bush--to take one example--sign an extension of unemployment benefits to those without work earlier this year, over the objections of doctrinaire conservatives? Well, yeah. And a pretty big one it was, too. But it is only a minor inconvenience for the authors: "So Dubya [that's George W. Bush] did better than his old man [that's George H.W. Bush] and signed a bill that got some help to some workers. But two million jobs had disappeared since he took office two years earlier."
And Bush's "education reform," the cloyingly titled "No Child Left Behind Act," caressed and nurtured in the ample bosom of Ted Kennedy, reviled by right-wingers and libertarians? It greatly expanded the federal government's role in the nation's public schools, after all, and vastly increased their funding, with special attention given to poor schools, which were asked in return only to test their students more frequently. You would think the haters would be happy.
Yet Ivins and Dubose have discovered that the bill is really designed to be a windfall for big business interests--specifically, companies that publish those standardized tests that schools will be required to use. "Follow the money," they write, inevitably. This larcenous scheme, as described here, is breathtakingly ingenious, slightly confusing, and not terribly efficient, especially if the point was merely to enrich more of Bush's rich friends. (That's what the tax cut was for!) "The idea is to set up strategic partnerships that involve market penetration in schools," write Ivins and Dubose. "Education is all about business."
It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: If Bush had refused to sign the education bill, he would have proved himself an uncaring hypocrite, by the standards of Ivins and Dubose. Because he did sign it, however, he has proved himself an oligarch. Bush-hatred adapts itself to any circumstance, fits any set of facts. "The term compassionate conservative is a bitter joke," they write. "Anybody who tells you different is lying for money."
SO WE ARE BACK TO LIES--the engine of the Bush dreadnought. Yet what's a lie? It's a straightforward question, and a crucial one for the Bush-haters, but they're confused about the answer. In "The Bush Hater's Handbook," Jack Huberman tries to get to the heart of the matter. "Two lies stand out as the Bush administration's most basic, founding lies, if you will. The first is summed up by the political formula, 'Run center, govern right.'" He goes on: "The Bushies' second basic lie: their pretense that the closest election in history . . . somehow amounted to a mandate for a radical shift to the right."
There are some obvious problems here. For one thing, the lies singled out by Huberman aren't lies, at least as the word is conventionally defined, and it's not at all clear that "Run center, govern right" can be called a "political formula," much less a lie, and it's even less clear that the Bushies ever mounted a pretense that the election was a right-wing mandate, which doesn't seem to be the kind of thing they would make a public pretense about in any case; also, even assuming these two "founding lies" are lies, they're the same lie. Which means there's only one founding lie. Plus, it's not a lie.
Jack Huberman doesn't get us very far. Yet his confusion on the subject of Bush's lies isn't much more severe than that of the other Bush-haters. As author of a book with the title "The Lies of George W. Bush," David Corn should have thought the thing through. There is some evidence he tried. With an admirable, undergraduate earnestness, Corn devotes his preface to a meditation on what constitutes a lie, offering dutiful paraphrases of Machiavelli, Plato, and the inevitable Sissela Bok, author of "Lying." His own book has "an incendiary title," Corn acknowledges, "with an incendiary theme," and sure enough he begins it with two incendiary sentences: "George W. Bush is a liar. He has lied large and small."
This is an arresting opening, in my opinion--a quick strike, building immediate momentum. But then he tries to illuminate Bush's lies by placing them in a historical context: "Most presidents lie." They do? Indeed, "there are many varieties of presidential lies," and fffffffft, the air is leaking from the balloon already.
Corn's partial list of presidential prevaricators doesn't help him regain the momentum. William Henry Harrison said he'd been born in a log cabin. "Not true at all," Corn says. Supporters of President Lincoln told voters he was a country lawyer; in fact, Corn writes, Lincoln was a rich railroad lawyer. Franklin Roosevelt fudged the facts in his effort to lead the United States into World War II. In a speech delivered after dropping the Bomb, Harry Truman called Hiroshima a military base, which was only partially true (apparently there was a big city surrounding it). Bill Clinton "promised an initiative on race relations and never produced one." As a candidate, the first president Bush said: "Read my lips: no new taxes," and then, two years later--well, you know the ugly truth.
DAVID CORN doesn't need any advice from me, but really, this is not the way to stoke an incendiary theme. If presidents have been liars from George Washington to Chester A. Arthur to Bill Clinton, then Corn's title and his opening two sentences, in retrospect, aren't nearly as shocking as they were apparently meant to be, and this in turn raises the fatal suspicion that maybe George W. Bush isn't so bad as the title suggests, either. Corn's definition of "lie" is pretty elastic, after all. Before he finishes his introduction he's expanded the word to include a broken campaign promise, an oversight, an incomplete admission, and a misrepresentation made by one group of people on another person's behalf.
But wait. His cogitations continue. And suddenly we learn: "Comparisons to previous administrations, though, are unimportant." They are? Here a reader can get really confused. The historical context doesn't matter? That can't be right. How come? "Bush is the president the nation has now--at a point when honesty in government is needed as much, if not more, than ever." But surely this is just cant. Undermining government with lies is always wrong, isn't it, whether in George Bush's time or William Henry Harrison's? This is so hard to understand!
The form that Corn's confusion takes is important, because it is so widely shared by the Bush-hating books. Through them all runs a chasm separating the language used, which is sustained at the highest pitch, from the events being described, which are often mundane. The technique is usually called hype, and it's an essential feature of politics nowadays, thanks to the influence of television in all its absurdity, but on the page, between book covers, it's harder to shrug off. Corn's particular method, in the body of his book, is to print a Bush lie in bold type, and then to try manfully to expose its falsity in several hundred words.
A few examples will give you an idea. "I don't get coached," Bush once said. But Corn, through his own reporting and that of others, has discovered that Bush operatives use focus groups to test some of their rhetorical formulations.
THERE'S MORE. Bush, describing Texas in 2000: "We still have no personal income tax." Corn: "An amendment to the state constitution--proposed and approved by a Democrat-controlled legislature before Bush took office--prohibited the imposition of an income tax without a voter referendum. Bush was assuming credit for a policy established before he had arrived."
Bush: "It's time to listen to each other." Corn: "Bush's call for a wide-open and respectful debate with plenty of listening was hokum."
Bush, a month after the September 11 attacks: "[We are] taking every possible step to protect our country from danger." Corn: "Plenty of steps were not taken."
Bush: "My [energy] plan helps people in the short term and long term." Corn: "Most of the plan's proposals, if implemented, would not affect energy markets for years."
Uncle! "This book does not document every single lie," Corn writes. The head swims at the thought of the ones that didn't make the cut.
Sometimes, like the old Washington Generals, the Bush-haters score despite themselves. Bush's failure, in the 2000 campaign, to disclose his drunk driving arrest in 1976, as Franken and others point out, was a breach of faith with supporters who had relied on his good word (and it may have cost him a victory in the popular vote). He has never plausibly answered reasonable questions about his service in the Air National Guard, questions explored at encyclopedic length by Corn and Conason. And the means by which Bush made his personal fortune--mau-mauing the local government of Arlington, Texas, into subsidizing his sports team with taxpayer money, thus quadrupling its value and his profit when it was sold--is a particularly tawdry instance of corporate socialism.
All true, yet all relatively trivial. I myself (if you'll excuse a personal note) have no special affection for George W. Bush, though I voted for him, and I am open to the idea that he is an unusually accomplished liar, though it strikes me as unlikely. Having read through the books of his political enemies, however, and having seen them discharge their heaviest artillery, I am even more open to the idea that he is the recipient of larger amounts of unearned abuse than any president since Abraham Lincoln, with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt. Both of whom were liars, as we've seen.
WHY DO THEY HATE HIM SO? The experience of Billy Bob Gasket is illuminating. Conservatives afflicted with Gasket Disease were called Clinton-haters because their dislike for the president struck other people as out of proportion--a personal reaction inexplicable by the plain facts. It seemed not only beyond reason, but beyond politics. Clinton was the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland: overseer, among much else, of the 1996 welfare reform, the only significant reversal of the welfare state since its inception. It is unlikely, for the foreseeable future, that American conservatives will have another Democratic president so hospitable to their interests.
In the same way--and always excepting foreign policy, which was utterly transformed by the September 11 attacks and which, in any case, is not the preoccupation of most Bush-hating books--Bush's performance as a policymaker leaves little for his political opposites to complain about, and much to please them: steady increases in the nonmilitary budgets across the government, for the arts and humanities, for disease research, and now, most spectacularly, for government-run health care. Not only does Bush show no appetite to restrain the welfare state, he's been happy to enlarge it in ways that Clinton himself, hindered after 1994 by a hostile Congress, didn't dare.
To explain today's politics it is tempting to cite the old and excellent joke about feuds among college professors: The fights are so furious because the stakes are so low. The slow and stable advance of the federal government is unlikely to be undone by a president of either party, and the frenetic activities of political enthusiasts will redirect it in only the most marginal ways. Yet the joke doesn't really explain Gasket Disease. Bush-haters hate Bush for the least articulable reasons, the visceral kind that never quite rises to the level of rationality. They're often at a loss even to explain who it is they hate--the Yalie plutocrat or the hill-country Bible-thumper? The failed businessman or the cunning Babbitt? The calculating liar or the master of malaprops, the wimp or the caveman, the evil genius or the boob?
THE BUSH-HATERS know they must scramble for more high-minded reasons to explain themselves, and this year's stack of new books is the unpersuasive product of their efforts. Taken together the books make plain, if only inadvertently, that the cause of our most recent outbreak of Gasket Disease is something much deeper than policy, much deeper even than politics, plunging down and down into the mysteries of cultural identity in fractured America. At the end of "Bushwhacked," Molly Ivins speaks for all Bush-haters when, with typical artlessness, she sums up our present state of affairs: "There is something creepy about what is happening here." But they can't quite put their finger on what it is.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.