Unraveling Deceit

Editor's Note: 'Tis the season to complain. Or so it seems for a growing gaggle of authors who have a beef with George W. Bush and his fellow conservatives. Comic-commentator Al Franken and veteran journalist Joe Conason have each landed on the bestsellers list with books that lambaste the right for lying about, well, almost everything, including economics, national security, and liberals. Molly Ivins and co-author Lou Dubose have a new anti-Bush volume coming. AlterNet's book focusing just on Bush's lies about Iraq by Christopher Scheer, Robert Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhrywill be out in a few weeks. And another blast will hit bookstores on September 30: The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers), by David Corn, the Washington editor of The Nation and a Fox News Channel contributor. Since Corn is a regular contributor to Alternet, we asked him to discuss with himself this trend in Bush-bashing books.

Why are all these books coming out now? Is there some vast left-wing conspiracy at work?

Not that I know of. But then that is what you'd expect me to say if such a cabal existed. It seems that several writers were on similar tracks at the same time. I wasn't aware of Franken's book until months after I had signed the contract for mine. What intrigues me is not that Franken, Conason and I each decided to focus on lies, but that about a year ago different publishing houses sensed an opportunity and started signing these books.

What did these houses see?

That the market for political books does not only cover those written for conservatives. They also saw that there was a growing opposition to Bush -- or that if the opposition was not growing in numbers it was growing in intensity. Bush, who campaigned as a "uniter-not-a-divider" (a claim that was indeed a lie -- see the book), has been a divisive president, and he has alienated (that is, pissed off) large number of Americans. And the opposition's mounting anger toward him has been fueled not merely by his policies but by his dependence on dishonest arguments to get his way. It didn't start with Iraq. But the war -- which he justified with unproven, if not outright false, statements about weapons of mass destruction and a supposed operational link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda -- brought his deceptive ways into the spotlight. It made all of us look a bit prophetic. Timing is everything.

What do you mean?

My agent first pitched the idea for this book in spring 2002, and she found no takers. Publishers were not eager at that point to do a Bush-is-a-liar book. But in the fall of 2002, after Bush had initiated his lubricated-with-lies push for war, my agent approached publishers once more, and now several pounced immediately. We had a contract within a week.

Okay, you say Bush lied about the war. That is a harsh charge. Can you give me one undeniable example? And consider this a no-spin zone.

There are several to choose from. At an November 7, 2002, press conference, he said that Saddam Hussein was "a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda." There has been no evidence substantiating that. In fact, former deputy CIA chief Richard Kerr, who has been reviewing the prewar intelligence, has said that US intelligence did not establish a direct operational link between Hussein and al Qaeda.

On February 7, Bush said Iraq was "harboring a terrorist network, headed by a senior al Qaeda terrorist planner." But his own CIA director, George Tenet, while testifying before Congress, reported that the terrorist and network Bush had in mind were "independent" of al Qaeda.

During his State of the Union Speech last January -- when he made his now-infamous remark about Iraq shopping for uranium in Niger -- Bush said that the International Atomic Energy Agency "confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program." He neglected to note that the IAEA reported that it had dismantled this program. This was lying by omission.

In his speech at the UN a year ago, he cited the findings of UN inspectors in asserting that Iraq had "a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, and capable of killing millions." But the UN inspectors had not said such a stockpile existed. They had encountered discrepancies in Iraq's accounting of its weapons and WMDS and found that Iraq could have produced more weapons than the inspectors had uncovered or Iraq had acknowledged. This did not mean, as Bush presented it, that Hussein possessed a "massive stockpile."

How does your book differ from the other "lies" books?

I look at only Bush and his crew. I take their statements and policy explanations on critical issues -- the Iraq war, tax cuts, global warming, homeland security, corporate crime, missile defense, stem cell research, Afghanistan reconstruction, oil drilling in Alaska, education and more -- and truth-test them. My aim was to do this in a straightforward, journalistic manner. Compare Bush assertions to the known facts. I report, you decide. I ignore the media war and the left-right face-offs. For the purposes of this book, I don't care what Ann Coulter says about Democrats (that secretly they are cloning copies of Stalin and raising them to be candidates for local school board elections) or whether Fox skews right. I go straight to the top and zero in on the fellow who is in charge. His lies matter most. In fact, he has relied upon lies to reshape the world -- to turn the United States into an occupying power and to implement tax cuts that will likely saddle the nation with over a trillion dollars in debt. If he's going to get away with this, I figured, then at least the fibs and fabrications he has used to achieve such ends ought to be fully documented.

Do you have a favorite lie?

I do have a list of Bush's top ten lies on the book's website, www.bushlies.com. Did you get that? Bushlies dot --

I got it.

But a favorite lie? That's hard to say. There was the time, during the 2000 campaign, that he told PBS's Jim Lehrer, "it's more likely" that younger workers would "go to Mars than to receive a check from the Social Security system." It is true that, according to official projections, the system would hit a financial crunch in about four decades. But at that point, the estimates say, the system will be able to pay out 70 percent of benefits. In other words, the exact opposite of what Bush said was the truth: younger workers would be more likely to get a check than a ticket to Mars, though that check will be smaller than it should be.

And there was Bush's shifty claim that his first round of tax cuts would wipe out income taxes for a single-mom waitress making $22,000 and help her reach the middle class. When the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche analyzed Bush's plan, it found that it would do no such thing, for at that level of income she already owed no income taxes.

There was also the time the EPA compiled a climate report for the UN and noted that the United States would experience dramatic environmental changes due to global warming: heat waves, water shortages, pest outbreaks, loss of wetlands and coastland. Bush dismissed the 268-page report, remarking, "I read the report put out by the bureaucracy." Days later, though, press secretary Ari Fleischer admitted Bush had not read the report. (What a surprise.)

Just the other day -- and I couldn't get this into the book -- Bush visited elementary schools to promote his education policies and claimed that his proposed 2004 education budget "boosts" spending for elementary and secondary education. According to Education Department figures, he actually is requesting nearly a billion-dollar cut.

See? You got me started. But one of my favorites came when Bush on August 9, 2001, delivered a primetime speech to announce his decision on the federal funding of stem cells research. He had a problem. Social conservatives were opposed to this research because stem cells are extracted from five-day-old embryos in a process that destroys the embryos. (Usually these are leftover embryos created in fertility clinics and are no longer needed by the couples for whom they were produced.) But prominent Republicans and patients advocacy groups favored federal funding of stem cell research because scientists believed this research could lead to treatments or cures for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other terrible diseases. So what did Bush do? He decided it was okay to give federal funding to research using only stem cell lines that already existed, not new lines. He said there were 60 lines available and that this was enough to guarantee robust research. One problem: there were about 10 lines -- far from enough for an effective research program.

Maybe he didn't know. Would that be a lie?

Perhaps. But once he made his speech, numerous experts pointed out that he had the number wrong. What did his administration do in response? It clung to the 60-lines count, because to admit the truth would have meant that Bush would have to revisit a tough political question. In the meantime, medical research suffered. Bush might have made an honest mistake when he first claimed there were 60 lines. But he turned that assertion into a lie by allowing it to stand when overwhelming evidence showed he had greatly inflated the number.

Are you being unfair in using the term lie?

No. But I will grant you that sometimes it is more appropriate to call these things "fibs," "fabrications," "embellishments," "misrepresentations," or "untruths." Often he misleads more than lies. But what's a lie? Sissela Bok, the author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, defines it as "an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement." Intentionally? That may get Bush off the hook if he truly believes his own spin. But because presidential lies matter more than most -- they can lead to war, decide elections, break or make vital policy decisions -- I would propose a slightly different standard for a White House occupant.

If a president issues a statement, he or she has an obligation to ensure the remark is truthful. It is not enough for a president to believe what he is saying is true; he should know it to be true -- within reasonable standards. And too many times Bush has made statements that are false and that happen to serve his political or policy purposes. Those are lies.

So it's clear there is a publishing trend here. Is there also a political one?

The Bush-is-liar bandwagon is getting crowded. MoveOn.org has adopted as part of its mission the task of persuading Americans that Bush is not to be trusted, particularly on matters of war and peace. It has launched a Web site, www.misleader.org, which posts "misleading or untrue" statements made by Bush. (My site, www.bushlies.com, is also posting new Bush untruths that have happened since the book went to press.) Billionaire/philanthropist/activist George Soros recently took out newspaper ads accusing Bush of lying to the public about Iraq, and he started a Web site, www.wedeservethetruth.com.

Can Bush-is-a-liar work as political ammunition for the Democrats?

This past spring -- before Bush got into trouble for his prewar assertions -- the Democrats did try to make his dishonesty a political issue by promoting a catchphrase, he says one thing and does another. But it didn't catch on. Maybe that was because it seemed a tad desperate, coming from a political party that did not have a clear and compelling overarching message.

But Howard Dean has obviously scored (at least with Democrats) by challenging Bush on Iraq and by accusing the president of misleading the public. I think that the public at large is not likely to be moved solely by the argument that Bush is a liar. It will react more to what happens in Iraq and with the US economy. If US soldiers continue to die in the Iraqmire and there is not dramatic progress in terms of reconstructing and democratizing Iraq, if the US economy continues to hemorrhage jobs and Bush's supersized, tilted-to-the-rich tax cuts don't cause a noticeable boost, then the public may well question Bush's policies and leadership. And potential voters might then be more receptive to the charge that he misled us into these messes.
Bush's problem is that each of the foundations for the two major endeavors of his presidency -- Iraq and tax cuts -- were built with lies. Consequently, they will not be able to withstand too strong a wind. Unless, of course, we invade Syria (the neocon target of the week) or North Korea. Then those old lies might not get much attention.

Do you have anything good to say about Bush?

The title does say he's "mastering" a certain kind of politics.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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