Bush Spins Big Orwellian Lie

Imagine George Orwell on "Hardball." If he could get a word in, he might have an interesting thought or two regarding the debasement of political language -- the further debasement, that is -- that has occurred during the weeks of No Decision 2000:

"Well, Chris, In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness...When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases...one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them....The great enemy of clear language is insincerity....Politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia -- "

"Good point, George. But we don't have time for that. Tell me, do you agree with Howard -- too many camera flashes going off when Gore spoke last night?"

Would Orwell be shocked by how the Bush campaign, the Republicans, and the conservative movement were able to generate via repetition the storyline that Gore was trying to "steal" the election by "changing the rules" to allow for "inaccurate manual recounts"? The Bushies were practicing the Orwellian big-lie technique ("war is peace"), for each of the key elements of their script was demonstrably wrong.

One can only "steal" that which belongs to another. A 500-vote difference in a 6-million vote -- a .008-percent difference -- is not a conclusive win. It is hardly surprising that it should take time to sort out such results. In 1960, a presidential recount in Hawaii required two months. As of this writing, the Washington Senate race -- where Democrat Maria Cantwell edged out incumbent Republican Slade Gorton by 1780 votes (.07 percent) -- was still under way. Sorting is not stealing. And there has been no change in the rules. Gore filed protests and, after that, contests, in accordance with state law. (When the Bush legal team opposed Gore's pre-certification protests in Florida, it argued that he had taken his case to court prematurely and that he should have waited for the contest period that follows the certification of the popular vote. But after the certification, when Gore contested the results, the Bush mouthpieces then claimed Gore was dragging out the matter.) Appearing on an NPR station in Los Angeles, conservative commentator David Frum said that Gore's stay-and-fight stance riled people so much because it symbolized a 40-year trend in which the rules of society have been undermined. (Yep, blame it on the 1960s.) But Frum did not name any rule that Gore had violated. Perhaps it's bad form for Gore to trudge on. Though why does any Republican expect the Democrats to accept such a close-call certification conducted by a Bush campaign official in a state governed by Bush's brother? Florida law permits candidates to challenge election results. In fact, it allows them much latitude in doing so, and Gore, rightly or wrongly, has afforded himself the opportunity presented by _the rules_. Moreover, the Florida state Supreme Court did not rewrite the rules after the fact, as Bush spinners repeatedly charge. It reconciled two conflicting aspects of Florida law -- the statute that calls for election results to be certified within a week and the statute that grants candidates and others the right to request a recount up to six days after an election. Courts routinely engage in this type of activity -- cleaning up after sloppy legislatures. Perhaps the Florida Supreme Court wrote a decision that can be challenged on legal grounds, but still the court did no more than to try to make a convoluted scheme established by Florida statutes workable. It ordered no fundamental change in the state's election process.

As for the supposed unreliability of hand counts -- a point I've written about before -- the conservative drumbeat has only increased in volume. On a Court TV program, one guest (me) noted that experts in the computer science and voting-machine industries concur that the most accurate method of tallying punchcard ballots is manual review. Machines are used to maximize convenience, not accuracy. When the machines' margin of error -- .01 to .1 percent -- surpasses the margin of victory, it is prudent to count the votes the old-fashioned way. In reply, Republican pollster/talking head Kellyanne Fitzpatrick remarked, "Well what about the biases of these experts?" Her response implies that there are no discernible facts in political disputes. But regarding voting machines and hand counts, there is indeed a consensus among non-partisans. Not all information is spin. Yet in the spin-versus-spin national media, too often facts, opinions, and misleading statements get mixed together in the wash.

On another show, I again referred to this industry consensus -- which that day had been reported on the front-page of _The New York Times_ -- and Barbara Olson, a conservative lawyer/pundit who is married to one of Bush's main attorneys, shot back: "Well, David, I wish you had told me [before], because I could have given you probably four or five industry experts....It's a problem with experts. They can battle all day long." Well, if she could name these experts, why didn't she? More importantly, conservatives frequently hail absolutes and attack liberals for being relativists. So why was this conservative declaring all expertise to be relative? The accuracy of hand counts is not an open question -- that is, not among the people who know the subject best. On "Hardball," Terry Jeffrey, the editor of the conservative _Human Events_ asserted, "Gore is not stating the truth when he says these ballots have not been counted. The machine said these ballots had no vote for president." No, the machines did not register a vote for president when certain ballots passed through. It may be that the voters who cast these particular ballots ignored the top-of-the-ticket contest, but the voting-machine experts say the way to know for sure is to review the ballots.

Nevertheless, as Ronald Reagan once slipped, "facts are stupid things." And one should never let facts get in the way of a good tale. In the Republican storyline, Bush and the GOPers are the victims of an orchestrated attempt at electoral larceny perpetuated by do-anything, tightly-organized Democrats. Yet Gore -- for better or worse -- told his squad not to use inflammatory rhetoric (such as the phrase "stealing the election"), and he ordered Jesse Jackson and his labor allies in Florida to cease the protests. Moreover, some Democrats did break ranks with Gore and called on him to admit defeat.

Meanwhile, there was no dithering or bickering on the fired-up Bush side -- which was not at all reluctant to use intemperate language. The Bush campaign recruited the supposedly reasonable-wing of the GOP -- high-profile moderates, including New York Governor George Pataki and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman -- to issue shrill allegations of election-theft. Away from the TV cameras, the pitbulls were at work; Delay was letting the dogs out, organizing 200 or so congressional staffers for duty in Florida, which included participation in the Miami-Dade mob-in. Republican legislators in Florida moved to short-circuit Gore's court actions by appointing pro-Bush electors. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson dispatched their lawyers to the Sunshine State to provide legal assistance. "We must work fast before Al Gore steals the election," Falwell huffed in an email fundraiser. (Jerry Falwell Jr, an attorney, was sent to Seminole County to oppose a local Democrat's lawsuit that aimed to throw out 15,000 absentee ballots.) And Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch, which has filed dozens of anti-Clinton lawsuits, rushed to Palm Beach and demanded and gained the opportunity to inspect the ballots. Clearly, the right was channeling its Clinton shock -- shock that the man was ever elected and shock that he survived the Monica scandal and impeachment -- into this crusade of revenge, and the Republican unity was underwritten by the aching desire of the out-party to get back in.

Yet even as all this activity proceeded -- which was not paralleled by the Democrats and their friends -- conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, claimed they were up against a band of Democratic extremists who would stop at nothing to swipe the election for Gore. Rightwing radio host Dennis Prager, writing in _The Wall Street Journal_ called the Gore legal challenge part of the Democrats' "ongoing takeover of America." Addressing this enemy, he wrote, "You finally made a big mistake. You probably never thought you would live to see middle America and mainstream Republicans galvanized to resist your ongoing takeover of America. But like other power-hungry groups in history, you didn't know when to hold back. Your party and its standard bearer, Al Gore, have attempted to thwart an election....And finally we have begun to resist."

Gore was thwarting an election decided by 537 votes by using the provisions of state law? Only those suffering from post-impeachment stress disorder could view Gore and the Democrats as Machiavellian masters of political warfare. Indeed, Gore has pushed his own spin. Who believes the Gore clan's line that it only wants to count votes to make sure all voters are enfranchised? Gore and his crew will be delighted if the absentee ballots in Seminole County -- which favored Bush -- are tossed out. Gore and the Democrats did not mobilize its constituencies and whatever infrastructure exists left of center. Instead, he relied on the lawyers. Nor did Democrats on Capital Hill discuss objecting to Florida's slate of elections. Under federal law, in early January, Congress has to certify the tally of the electoral college. Come the new year, the Senate will likely be controlled by Democrats, since Gore, until inauguration day, will be in the position to break a 50-50 split. The Senate alone cannot block a set of electors; both the House and the Senate must pass objections in order to knock out a state's slate. But the Senate Dems, to register disgust with what they consider to be the GOP's theft of the election, could pass an objection and render Bush's path to the presidency a bit more ugly. After all, Republican House whip Tom Delay commissioned a memorandum to examine means by which the congressional GOPers could derail or interfere with a Gore victory, and Republican House majority leader Dick Armey suggested that Republicans should boycott any Gore inauguration. But the Democrats usually don't play this sort of game.

In political street-fighting, Gore and the Democrats have placed second. And they have done a poor job of countering the Republican we-was-robbed spin. They should recall the words of Orwell: "That 'the truth is great and will prevail' is a prayer rather than an axiom."

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