Inside the Bush White House's Nonstop Propaganda War
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Scott McClellan is having a "Matrix" moment -- the moment when you wake up, with a jolt, from the reassuring fictions of the media dreamworld to the face-slapping reality of unspun fact. Remember that scene in "The Matrix" where Laurence Fishburne parts the veil of illusion -- the computer-generated simulation humanity experiences as everyday reality -- to reveal the movie's post-apocalyptic world for the irradiated slag heap it really is? Like that. "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," he tells Keanu Reeves, a riff on the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard's pronouncement, in his book Simulations, that we live in a "desert of the real" -- an ever-more-virtual reality where firsthand experience and empirical truth are being displaced by media fictions. He offers an example tailor-made for the Bush presidency: "Propaganda and advertising fuse in the same marketing and merchandising of objects and ideologies."
This, in a word, is life inside the Bush administration's Ministry of Truth, as described by McClellan in What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception. In his frag 'em-and-run memoir, the former White House press secretary -- whose Secret Service code name, I kid you not, was "Matrix" -- recounts how he and the rest of Team Dubya got caught up in the "permanent campaign," a nonstop propaganda war whose tactical weapons were "the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth, and spin," and whose goal was to stage-manage the media narrative and thus public opinion.
Now that McClellan has broken free from what he calls the "Washington bubble," he can see the "massive marketing campaign" (his words, my italics) to sell the war in Iraq for the steaming heap of dookie it was: a PR operation characterized by a, er, "lack of candor and honesty," as the author so masterfully understates it, having just told us that the administration dropped the trap on chief economic adviser Larry Lindsey for telling the Wall Street Journal that Bush's war would likely cost between $100 billion and $200 billion -- a fatal misspeak at a moment when "talking about the projected cost of a potential war wasn't part of the script." Neither was talking about "possible unpleasant consequences" (the choice of adjective is sheer virtuosity, like a grace note in a Paganini caprice); "casualties, economic effects, geopolitical risks, diplomatic repercussions," and other buzz-killers might jeopardize what advertisers call the "supportive atmosphere" that puts consumers in that impulse-buying mood -- in this instance, buying the dubious case for war from a president who famously prefers faith to facts, a president who listens to his gut. Unfortunately, the trustworthy gurglings of the Bush gut were indistinguishable, in this case, from the offstage urgings of the neocons Colin Powell derided as "fucking crazies."
What Happened is a dyspeptic mixture of born-again confessional and media culpa; it's The Confessions of St. Augustine , as written by Michael Deaver. Four sentences in, McClellan lets us know that today's homily will take as its text John 8:32: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Our pilgrim spends much of his progress bogged down in that Slough of Despond, Washington, D.C., where even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, like the "fundamentally decent" George W. Bush, can fall prey to the rancorously partisan, win-at-any-cost mindset of the Permanent Campaign Mentality. Narrow is the gate and straight is the way, and lying in wait in the tall grass are the news media, whom McClellan somewhat redundantly insists on calling "complicit enablers." (Personally, I prefer the more precise Enabling Enablers Who Enable Too Much.) The media oversimplify complex issues, batten on scandal, are " too deferential" to power (yet another nail in the coffin of the liberal-media canard, not that it will stay buried), and focus on the horse-race aspects of politics rather than the weighty matters that furrow the American brow, between episodes of "Flavor of Love."
The book ends with some halfhearted bromides, on loan from Billy Graham: "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." The organ swells, sobbingly. "It would be difficult if not impossible to find anyone who has lived in this destructive world of Washington ... who is truly 'without sin.'" All together now: "A-maz-ing grace, how sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me!"
Of course, the Winston Smith of the West Wing knows too well that, in a media age, "shaping the narrative before it shapes you" is how you win hearts and minds and, not incidentally, sell books. Watching him stay relentlessly on message as he makes the talk show rounds, one can't help but wonder: Is the man still spinning? The White House and its flying monkeys in the right-wing blogosphere and over at Fox News think so: They've launched a counterspin offensive, Richard Clarke-ing him as a shameless prevaricator who will do anything to boost his book sales. (It was ranked No. 1 on Amazon.com shortly after its release, although it had slipped to No. 52 as of this writing.)
McClellan's critics want to make McClellan the issue, a kill-the-messenger strategy not unfamiliar to the man himself, who used it to parry former terrorism czar Richard Clarke's criticisms of the administration's catastrophic bungling of the war on terror.
But if we step outside the tired binary logic of attack pundits and partisan hacks, there's a deeper meaning to this story. Like no administration before it, the Bush administration has mastered what the media critic Walter Lippmann called "the manufacture of consent" -- the use of "psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication," to muster mass support for elite agendas. Staging photo ops whose choreographed drama and camera-ready visuals (Mission Accomplished!) are intended to play to the emotions and overrule objections; reducing complicated geopolitical issues to black-or-white dualisms (Team America: World Police vs. the Axis of Evil!); stonewalling the media, cherry-picking military intelligence, and parroting the same Karl Rove-approved talking points -- the Bush administration represents the apotheosis of government by spin control.
Sure, sure, truth is the first casualty of war, and politics is just war with a smile and a starched collar. But this is the stuff of which doctoral dissertations on Baudrillard are made. The burgeoning genre of Bush administration tell-alls, of which McClellan's is only the latest, paints a portrait of a White House utterly unconcerned with facts yet fervently attentive to public opinion polls. It is a White House whose solution to every unhappy turn of events -- the Iraqi insurgency, Katrina, a moribund economy, concerns about Rumsfeld raised by retired generals -- is to treat it not as a real-world problem requiring a real-world solution but as glitch in the Matrix -- "a perception problem," to be handled with the Message of the Day and the Theme of the Week.
The moral of McClellan's story is deeper than he knows, deeper by far than some Book of Virtues parable about Washington's "culture of deception." The philosophical takeaway here is the historical shift from the Enlightenment worldview, whose commitment to reasoned debate and empirical truth used to be the cornerstone of our little experiment in democracy, to the faith-based worldview of fundamentalism -- not just the Christian fundamentalism of the religious right, but fundamentalisms of every sort. The Iraq War came about, in large part, because of a harmonic convergence of personal passions, political agendas and ideological crusades, all faith-based rather than fact-driven. Bush, McClellan tells us, is a man who "convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment" and who "to this day ... seems unbothered by the disconnect between the chief rationale for war and the driving motivation behind it, and unconcerned about how the case was packaged." Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the other saber-rattling superhawks at the neoconservative Project for the New American Century were on a Mission From God to democratize the Middle East, police the globe as part of the "constabulary duties" of the Last Action Superpower, and, not incidentally, found a star-spangled imperium. And Karl Rove's psyops team, of which McClellan was a part, intuitively embraced the postmodern proposition that media representation is reality -- that the story shapes perception, not the other way round. In the modern age, wrote Walter Lippmann, people are influenced by the mass media "pictures in their heads." As an unnamed Bush aide put it in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind, there are those who still live in "what we call the reality-based community," people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality," and then there are those who understand that "that's not the way the world really works anymore. ... We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
Of course, somewhere outside the Matrix-like reality of media spin, public perception and the White House "bubble," in what we used to call the Real World (isn't that a reality TV show?), there may be collateral damage. About two-thirds of the way through What Happened , McClellan recounts a wrenching scene I just can't get out of my head. He describes one of the few times the shadow of self-doubt flickered across Bush's mind, during one of the president's visits with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In a dimly lit room, a woman and her 7-year-old son sit beside their husband and father, a veteran with a brain injury so severe he was "clearly not aware of his surroundings." President Bush hugs the mother, tells the boy his dad is "a very brave man," and whispers in the shattered soldier's ear, "God bless you." McClellan writes:
"Then [the president] turned and walked toward the door. Looking straight ahead, he moved his right hand to wipe away a tear. In that moment, I could see the doubt in his eyes and the vivid realization of the irrevocable consequences of his decision."
Welcome to the Desert of the Real, guys.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic who teaches in the Department of Journalism at New York University. Dery is at work on Paradise Lust, a book about the culture war, on the Web, between sexual revolutionaries and the morality police.