LOYAL OPPOSITION: Bush Campaign Spins Abortion Waffling

I hate being spinned. But that's an occupational hazard for journalists covering politics. Politicians and their spokespeople will stare straight into your eyes and say what both you and they know is not the truth. ("At this point, we're not worrying about the polls.") Most do it. Even Senator John McCain, that self-proclaimed straight-talker who pledged he would never lie, acknowledged -- after he was out of the race, of course -- that he had been dishonest during the primaries when he equivocated on the Confederate flag issue. What, is most irritating is that spin has come to be accepted as a routine part of politics. At campaign events, reporters will regularly spot a campaign aide and say, "let's get the latest spin." What used to be a derogatory term has become mundane.

Recently, I ran smack into classic spin. I was trying to locate instances when George W. Bush fully explained his opposition to abortion. (The best I could find were statements like his 1994 remark, "Don't like it. I have a personal opinion.") And I came across a 1978 interview with Bush in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal newspaper. At the time, Bush was seeking the Republican congressional nomination in a fiercely-contested primary in west Texas. Having been accused by his opponent of hanging with East Coast liberals, he told Sylvia Teague of the Avalanche-Journal that he believed the Equal Rights Amendment was unnecessary, that he had "done nothing to promote homosexuality," and that he opposed the federal funding of abortion. But Bush had more to say on abortion. According to the newspaper, "Bush said he opposes the pro-life amendment favored by [his opponent] and favors leaving up to a woman and her doctor the abortion question."

This meant that Bush was on the side of abortion-rights advocates -- and in opposition to the anti-abortion movement and the Republican Party, which in 1976 had endorsed a constitutional amendment criminalizing abortion. It also meant that sometime after this campaign -- Bush won the primary but lost the general election -- Bush dramatically changed his position. Flip-flopped. During his successful 1994 campaign for Texas governor, he tried to avoid discussing abortion, but he did say he opposed abortion, except in cases of rape and incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. As a presidential candidate, he has declared himself "pro-life" and supported a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion (with no provision for exceptions).

How, I wondered, would Bush react to this 1978 clipping? Earlier this year, Vice President Al Gore had to endure a firestorm when news accounts revealed that Gore, who depicts himself as a champion of choice, had cast anti-abortion votes and expressed strong anti-abortion sentiments when he was a congressman in the 1970s and 1980s. Had Bush, like Gore, shifted his abortion position in a direction more in line with faithful of his party?

Bush could, as Gore eventually did, maintain that he experienced a change of heart. In fact, Bush has claimed he under went a religious awakening in the mid-1980s. So he possessed an easy way out: a new relationship with Jesus, a new position on abortion. Hard to argue wth that. But some die-hard anti-abortion activists have been wary of Bush, because he has refused to commit to appointing anti-abortion judges and to selecting an anti-abortion running mate. (They have a point. If you believe abortion is murder, then you ought to name judges who will curtail such wrongdoing -- and you damn well ought to be certain your number-two is not a supporter of a murderous practice.) Among these hardliners, news that Bush had once been pro-choice might reignite suspicions. And Bush's campaign had derided Gore for pulling a switch. Could Bush now confess to having done the same?

On the day the story was to go to press, I called the Bush press office at 8:00 a.m, Austin time. I explained to a press aide that I had unearthed this article and needed a reply from the campaign by noon. Someone will get back to you, she told me. Fifteen minutes later, she called and asked me to fax her the Lubbock newspaper article. I did so, and less than a hour later, the Bush campaign telephoned with a response.

"We consider this a misinterpretation," spokesman Dan Bartlett said. "He is prolife. He was always opposed to abortion." You're saying, I remarked, that the reporter got it wrong? "We're saying this is a misinterpretation," he repeated. He also pointed out that the relevant passage had not been a direct quote -- as if that diminished the article's accuracy.

I was disappointed. The campaign had resorted to the oldest dodge: the candidate was misquoted. But note the careful use of the word "misinterpretation." Clearly, someone at Bush HQ had decided this was the best noun to use. After all, it was less confrontational or incendiary than "damn foolish, idiotic mistake" -- which was actually what the campaign was accusing the reporter of committing. And note who was challenging the account. Bartlett did not note that the Bush press office had contacted Bush and that Bush categorically denied having expressed these pro-choice positions in 1978. Bartlett had used the royal "we." In doing so, he had distanced Bush from this reaction. It was not Bush who was calling the reporter incompetent. Instead, "we" were "considering" the 22-year-old newspaper account a "misinterpretation." Given the quickness of the response, I doubted that the press team had checked with the boss, who was then in Kennebunkport, before crafting this line.

I thanked Bartlett -- hell, I'm polite in person -- and hung up. But I felt as if the unspoken portion of our conversation had been: "Hey, we're going to claim this reporter screwed up, and -- ha! -- there's not much you can do about it. We're betting there's no tape recording or transcript of the comments from so long ago. So who can tell what's really the truth? This is our spin -- I mean, story -- and we're sticking with it."

Indeed, there's no absolute physical proof that Sylvia Teague correctly recounted her interview with Bush. But she is now an award-winning investigative journalist at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, and Teague says she is confident her story was accurate. Moreover, she does not recall Bush or his congressional campaign complaining she had misstated his position. (Most campaigns are quite touchy about their press coverage and would scream if a newspaper so thoroughly mangled the views of the candidate.) Mel Tittle, a colleague of Teague from those days who now is managing editor of the Avalanche-Journal, attests to Teague's reliability as a reporter. But the Bush people can continue to say, "we don't think so" and attempt to spin the story to a murky she-said/we-said draw.

Their spin, though, doesn't withstand close scrutiny. In the context of the article, the disputed sentences make sense. Bush was contrasting himself to his Republican primary opponent who was a Reagan conservative. First he noted his own conservative views, then he pointed out how he differed with his foe on abortion. But here's the killer: after saying, in Teague's account, that he believed abortion should be a matter between a woman and her doctor, Bush added, "That does not mean I'm for abortion." This line is the give-away. Why would Bush have to say those words, if he had told Teague he was opposed to abortion, did support a constitutional ban on abortion, and did believe abortion should _not_ be left to a woman and her doctor? Is the Bush presidential campaign maintaining that Teague manufactured this direct quote?

Also, in 1978, Bush's father, who was then eying the White House, was a pro-choice Republican. Bush the Younger's stand, as recorded by the Avalanche-Journal, was close to his father's and consistent with the abortion stance of many Republicans who did not identify with the conservative movement. (Pere Bush would jettison his pro-choice views in 1980 when Ronald Reagan tapped him as his vice presidential nominee. Like father, like son?) And George W.'s mother favored abortion rights -- a quasi-public secret that she did not reveal until the publication of her memoirs in 1994.

Which scenario, then, is more likely? A reporter with a good reputation reported the exact opposite of what a candidate said to her about the legality of abortion and the human life amendment? Or, a politician blurted out what he really thought, then changed his position on a contentious issue to be more in tune with the activists of his party, and then declined to admit the switch? It's a self-answering query.

But such a question doesn't matter to campaign spinners. They need only come up with a not completely implausible position. (No one wants to be laughed out of a room.) If they can turn an uncomfortable set of facts into a debate, they have earned their pay. And the format of mainstream journalism does not usually permit frontline reporters to reach evaluations and forcefully state, "This spin is utter bullshit." The professional spinners, I suspect, know that and realize that spin gets equal time with the truth. That's the aim...and that's the danger.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation, and author of the recently published novel, "Deep Background."

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