Media

The 'Big Lie' on Bush's Nightstand

The idea that the President reads anything at all -- much less scholarly tomes -- shows how much contempt his handlers have for the public.
So this summer, the President is reading Salt: A World History. That is, when he gets done with Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar. Or maybe he's first reading The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. I'm not sure of the order, but I am surprised. Not even I, a bona fide Ph.D. nerd addicted to books with footnotes, read tomes like this on vacation. My 400-page summer books are by Lisa Scottoline.

So am I impressed? Well, not really. Apparently the media was not either; of major papers, only the L.A. Times covered the booklist as straight news. Makes you wonder if the mainstream outlets are catching on, finally, and that they saw the administration's attempt to portray Bush as an intellectual as what it was: a big lie, the deliberate seeding of misinformation.

It's not the first or only "big lie," of course, to come out of this administration. When you google "big lie" you get 500,000 results, and if you refine your search with "Bush" and "Iraq," you get 110,000 results. Nearly a quarter of recent discourse about the "big lie" concerns Bush's Iraq fiasco, and surely a few tens of thousands more also cover Bush administration lies about global warming, private Social Security accounts, the deficit, James "Jeff Gannon" Guckert, Valerie Plame, Terry Schiavo, Intelligent Design, and just about every other issue that has come before it. (And, yes, some of the discourse accuses liberals of using varieties of the "big lie" to attack Bush -- in particular labeling the truthful accusation that Bush has been deceptive as a "big lie" itself!)

The L.A. Times piece, by Warren Vieth, is a pretty good demonstration of how the media swallows administration pap. The book choices are parsed for what they say about the president's interests. Salt was once a fought-over resource, like oil! Alexander II was a "transformational" leader! Interviews with the lucky authors (surely being on the Prez's night table is good for a bump in sales) not only fill in content but reveal that two of the three are rabid Bush opponents. Vieth quotes one praising the White House for objectivity, saying "They don't seem to do any research about the writers when they pick the books," but he fails to underline the obvious: The books are chosen by the White House to imbue Bush's macho reputation with just a tingle of profundity.

The history of the "big lie" is a sordid one, and there's not much consensus about its effect on a culture. The first mention of the term is in Hitler's Mein Kampf (1925), where he both analyzes the technique and complains that those who wish to discredit him have spread lies about his policies. "[I]n the big lie, there is always a certain force of credibility," he wrote. The masses "more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods."

Bush's known big lies -- about a 9/11-Iraq connection, a Saddam Hussein-bin Laden connection, the presence of WMDs, Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium, and on and on -- continue to be referenced by the administration and conveyed to the public by an uncritical media. This fulfills Hitler's prediction, that "Even though the facts ... may be brought clearly to their minds, they [the public] will continue to think that there may be some other explanation." As Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, is reported to have proposed, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually believe it."

Vieth abets the attempted transformation of Bush into an intellectual by failing to mention that Bush's interest in the printed word has been spotty at best:

  • asked the title of his first favorite book, Bush responded, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book published after he graduated from college;
  • asked for the name of a political philosopher with whom he identified, his response, Jesus Christ, showed he wasn't conversant either with political philosophy or the difference between philosophy and religion;
  • when quizzed in the 2000 debates, he was unable to say anything meaningful about a subject (Dean Acheson) on which he said he was reading;
  • Bush himself said in 2003 that he doesn't read newspapers. Even his former speechwriter David Frum called him "uncurious and as a result ill-informed."


Earlier this year, of course, Bush purportedly went on a reading tear, recommending Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy and dropping talking points about it on anyone with a notebook handy. He likewise seemed conversant enough with the work of historian John Lewis Gaddis to discuss it with him in a White House visit. No one ever denied Bush can be a quick study when he has a goal. If he's irritated at his frequent portrayal as a dunce, spinning him as a reader of big books may be part of an administration plan to "up-brain" his image.

The significance remains that the summer reading list is about the most transparent example of the administration using the big lie technique -- that is, playing the public and the media for fools. That the lies haven't been watertight, that holes have quickly appeared, that critics have vented a sea of ink in outrage, doesn't matter. The administration's lies give reason to policy and create enough ambiguity for action. And after action, it's too late for critics and opponents.

Remember what a senior official told Ron Suskind in 2002: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating new realities ... we're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Over and over again, after exposing the big lies of the administration, columnists and pundits have claimed the jig was up (in the war lead-up, and especially before the election). Father Andrew Greeley wrote that Bush's big lie was "coming apart" in September of 2003. The same year, Robert Scheer said, "Bush has pushed the Big Lie approach so far that we are seeing dramatic signs of its cracking." In 2004 Nicholas von Hoffman wrote, "It's not easy to pull off the Big Lie and George Bush has failed."

But the lies live on, not unscathed, but still operative in some quarters. And worse, the lies have permanently changed the course of history. They have induced an alternate reality in which lies and facts occupy the same space.

Thom Hartman, writing last year about the big lies that smeared Kerry's war record, probably had it the most right: "History tells us that, over the short term, the Big Lie usually works. Over the long term, though, the damage it does -- both to those who use it, and to the society on which it is inflicted -- is incalculable."
Kir Slevin is a retired academic who writes about media and politics.
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