Karen Hughes: Extreme World Makeover

Have you been worrying about the image of the United States overseas? Have no fear, Karen Hughes is here. George W. Bush is nominating Hughes to be undersecretary of state in charge of public diplomacy. That's the administration official who oversees the government's efforts to sell the United States abroad. No one has been in this position since the summer – which indicates just how much of a priority Bush has assigned to this task. With the United States' standing abroad at a frightening low level – even though Bush's belated response to the tsunami disaster did boost the United States' image in Indonesia – the White House has done little to enhance public diplomacy. That is, if you don't count Condi Rice strutting across Europe in high-heeled, black leather boots. And the nomination of uber-hawk and U.N.-basher John Bolton to be U.N. ambassador hardly sent a signal that Bush is serious about working with other nations (and respecting their desires).

What are Hughes' qualifications for this post? Well, she has been Bush's chief spin doctor since he entered politics. Once a local television reporter, she turned to the dark side. During the 2000 campaign, she actively misled the press about key aspects of Bush's past – most notably, his military service and his drunk-driving conviction. As a White House aide, she used P.R. tactics, not the truth, to push Bush's reckless policies. Now she'll do the same concerning the United States' image abroad. (If she could sell Bush to the American voters, maybe she can sell dirt as food.)

Of course, the problem is U.S. policies, not the administration's P.R. efforts. As a report produced by the Defense Science Board last year notes, "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather they hate our policies [in the Middle East]." The Bushies talk about public diplomacy – when the bother to do so – as a marketing issue. ("Gee, I just don't understand why they don't want to buy our new chalk-tasting cola? We must not be pitching it right.") No, this is about product. True, you can successfully market crap and all sorts of stuff that harm consumers. But it sure helps to be peddling something that people want and that they consider high-quality.

Don't count on Hughes to acknowledge that. For her, P.R. trumps truth. In honor of her pending appointment, I'm posting below two of my favorite instances of Hughes going on a spin-bender. Coincidentally, each comes from my book, The Lies of George W. Bush. Isn't it comforting to know that the person responsible for improving the U.S. image throughout the world is a political hack-loyalist who would say whatever was necessary – no matter how false or ridiculous – to achieve a political aim? Read on:

Soon after [Bush] entered the presidential race, the Associated Press discovered that Bush had not been honest about his military past when he had campaigned unsuccessfully for Congress in 1978. Back then, in an ad in the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, he boasted he had served "in the first U.S. Air Force and the Texas Air National Guard where he piloted the F-102 aircraft." But Bush had done time only in the Guard, not the Air Force. When AP asked Bush's presidential campaign about this, the Bush crew could have taken the opportunity to set the record straight. Instead, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes told AP that the advertisement had been "accurate," considering the time Bush had spent on alert and in training. "As an officer," she maintained, "he was serving on active duty in the Air Force." Bush himself remarked, "I was in the Air Force for over 600 days." Not so, according to a definitive source – the Air Force. The AP reported that "the Air Force says that Air National Guard is always considered a guardsman and not a member of the active-duty Air Force." The 1978 ad had been a distortion, and Bush and Hughes refused to concede that."

Concerning his more wild days, Bush [during the 2000 campaign] adopted a best-defense-is-a-good-offense stance. He branded any questioning of his personal past illegitimate rumor-mongering. He equated being asked about booze-and-drug issues with being targeted by unfair innuendo. "I'm not ready for rumors and gossip," Bush told USA Today. "I'm ready for the truth. Surely people will learn the truth." What insincerity. He was claiming he wanted people to know the truth about him, but he would not answer a whole set of questions about his past.

One concealed truth Bush had not been "ready for" exploded on Nov. 2, 2000, five days before Election Day. A Maine television channel reported that in 1976, Bush, then 30 years old, was arrested in Kennebunkport, Maine, for drunken driving. He had admitted to the arresting officer he had been drinking. He paid a $150 fine and had his driving privileges revoked in Maine. After the story broke, at a campaign press conference (his first in a month), candidate Bush acknowledged the report was accurate, and he said that he had never publicly revealed the DWI conviction out of concern he would set a bad example for his twin girls. In the same press conference, Bush maintained, "I have been very candid about my past." This was obviously not a factual statement, since Bush had neglected to disclose this arrest while supposedly being "very candid about his past."

As the story developed, the issue became not his post-youth crime, but one question: had Bush lied to keep his arrest record a secret? Wayne Slater, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News and a longtime Bush watcher, recalled he had asked Bush in a 1998 interview whether Bush had ever been arrested after 1968. Slater told his media colleagues on the Bush campaign plane that Bush had said no. Slater also remembered that later in that 1998 interview Bush indicated his was about to return to this subject. But as Bush began to say something. Karen Hughes cut in, and Bush said nothing else on the topic.

While Slater was sharing this account, Hughes, several rows away, was presenting her own version to reporters "nervously," according to New York Times correspondent Frank Bruni. This was her line: not only had the governor not said anything false to Slater, he had somehow conveyed an accurate impression that an episode like the 1976 bust had occurred. Hughes, according to UPI, maintained that Bush in the 1998 interview with Slater was "hinting around that something had happened. That's why I stopped the conversation." Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank subsequently wrote that Hughes told the journalists, "I think the implication Wayne was left with was that in fact the governor was acknowledging that he had in fact been arrested." Notice the two "in facts" in one sentence. As Bush quipped, "An accurate impression of an unacknowledged event? It was an awfully weird concept."

This was spin at its most frantic. But that was the Bush camp's story. During a press conference, Hughes said Slater "was clearly left with the impression that the governor – an accurate impression that the governor had been involved in some incident involving alcohol." And she noted that on another occasion, in 1996, Bush was asked directly had he ever been arrested for drinking, and the governor replied, quote, 'I do not have a perfect record as a youth.'" That vague response supposedly was evidence Bush had not outright lied about this arrest. But his 1996 answer had not been responsive. And had he been a "youth" at the age of 30?

Hughes' "explanation" of Bush's exchange with Slater is one of the great examples of political spin. If I were teaching college students about spin, I'd make them study this episode. Hell, it's worth an entire class. Why did the reporters not laugh her into oblivion? How could she get away with this? Here's the kicker: it worked. As Bruni noted after the campaign in a book, he and the Times (that liberal bastion!) played down the DWI charges in the final days of the campaign. And, as we all know, how the Times covers a story often affects how other media will handle it. "Bush and his advisers," Bruni wrote, "didn't end up taking as much heat for [the DWI story] as they perhaps deserved." So Hughes, with the Times' assistance, helped saved Bush's butt at a crucial moment. Can her talents at spin do the same for our entire nation? I'm betting the rest of the world is not as gullible.

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