Fiction First, Spin Later

Bush values steer clear of facts and conservative tradition

Hans Johnson

In 1917, Sen. Hiram Johnson (R-Ca.) warned a restless nation, The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Johnson saw the risk posed by trigger-happy reporters and presidents mistaking passion for facts while dispatching others to march in enemy crosshairs. He noted that Americans are ready to dig trenches and take casualties for a battle we believe in. Yet our cause is weakened and our sacrifices cheapened if we fight under false pretenses.

Johnson would hardly recognize what his party has turned into, an eerie ship of statecraft setting the country on a perilous course. The crew at its helm would not welcome him on board for fear he would expose their deviation from honest governance. The Bush administration has shown Johnson was right: It unfurls unfounded accusations against critics and uses bold forms of distortion and denial to cover its lies.

All this raises a poignant question Bush is more eager to dodge than the Vietnam draft: Are we better off than we were four years ago?

Of course not. So what are the true values underpinning the administration’s actions that have led us to this decline?

Silence dissent

The Bush team immediately denounces skepticism about its policies as grumpiness or bias, and in this regard, they have made good on their pledge to change the tone in Washington. They treat every inconvenient truth like a nuisance that can be shushed, dispelled or killed with partisan bile.

On at least two occasions this summer, the Bush advance team tossed out the president’s critics — who later would lose their jobs.

During a Bush campaign stop at the West Virginia statehouse, officers carted off a couple in handcuffs. Their offense? We sang the national anthem,” Jeff Rank told the Charleston Gazette. After her arrest, Nicole Rank was fired from her job at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where she assisted with flood repair in the state.

A few weeks later, Glen Hiller of Berkeley Springs, W.V., was escorted out of a high school in the state’s northeastern panhandle. Hiller tried to ask Bush about the progress of the war and weapons he and his administration insisted Iraq possessed. Afterward, Hiller was fired from his job at a Maryland design firm with GOP ties. It’s just bizarre that you disagree with them and it all turns evil,” he told the Associated Press.

Don’t tax, but still spend

The facts on the ground in Iraq have severely challenged the administration’s ability to lie its way out of its limitless policy failures.

The Congressional Budget Office put a $213 billion tag on the invasion and occupation, about four times the level of last year’s rosy projections by Bush. Today the nation’s treasury log reads like a giant ransom note to today’s children, rife with red ink from the record $422 billion deficit they will repay. And the roll call of fewer jobs, lower wages and diminished healthcare coverage revives talk of the misery index.” 

Mistreat Americans

Census figures released in late August showed that more Americans lost health insurance in 2003 — a 13 percent increase in uninsured people since 2000. After dipping throughout the late 1990s, the total reached 16 percent of the whole population last year, or about 44 million adults and children.

That same census data also shows that businesses have taken to throwing out the social contract, expecting full-time work without health benefits.

Meanwhile, seniors are shunning the new prescription coverage ballyhooed by the White House. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program is terrible,” Ruth Tubbs of Connecticut told the Alliance for Retired Americans this summer. Only about 10 percent of the eligible 40 million Medicare recipients have enrolled in the scheme that promised hefty discounts. The Bush plan relied on corporations to back up the cost-reduction pledge. But in late August, one linchpin of the program, Pfizer, cancelled its discount card. The move left more than half a million seniors high and dry,” Robert Hayes of the Medicare Rights Center told the New York Times. It was, he said, a harbinger of trouble ahead.”

One week later, the Bush team hiked Medicare premiums by 17 percent. 

Cut jobs and opportunity

Conservatives have long asserted that the best social program is full-time work. Such rhetoric is particularly callous in today’s job market, which has gone south since Bush came north. Bush has presided over an economy that has shed more than a million jobs overall. Manufacturing has declined by nearly 3 million jobs, only to be replaced by less stable, lower-paying work. In August, one of the rosiest periods on W’s watch, the addition of 144,000 jobs did not match the break-even level of 150,000 needed to keep pace with population growth.

Studies by the Economic Policy Institute, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, show that new jobs tend to pay 25 percent less than the jobs being lost or exported to other countries. They also are much less likely to include health coverage. 

In North Carolina, according to the Raleigh News and Observer, a 5 percent unemployment rate conceals a host of underemployed people. I was four years from paying off the house,” Chuck Harner told the paper, recalling the well-paying job he recently lost at a technology company. In his new part-time job, he makes as much after four weeks as he once did in a day. I’ll never own this place now,” he said.

The number of part-time workers in the Tarheel State has grown by 20 percent in the Bush years, reaching 23 percent of the overall workforce. The downshift hits workers of color particularly hard. 

Put a chicken foot in every pot

Bush’s incessant cheerleading about turning the corner” is painful to watch and impossible to credit. His endorsement of outsourcing as an economic stimulus, coupled with widespread National Guard call-ups, has subjected working Americans to enormous pressure. In both raw and adjusted terms, median household income dropped last year, continuing a slide of 2 percent since Bush took office. The pay gap between women and men widened last year, contrary to the recent trend. Financial neediness increased more than 10 percent since 2001, with one in eight families below the poverty line. Also, more families with small children were poor in 2003, up from 18.5 to 20 percent.

Poverty has risen even as the unemployment rate remains stable. In part, this reflects the shift toward part-time work and speed-ups. MBG Info Services, which tracks shifts in employment, shows total paid hours are 4 percent below January 2001. But productivity continues to post gains, suggesting that faster, more efficient workers aren’t being rewarded.

Bush’s overtime rules have triggered widespread doubt and anger. Bush rammed the regulations through Congress despite opposition by majorities in both chambers, masked this corporate giveaway with a Pollyanna routine. “[T]his is a tremendous benefit to workers and is a big benefit to businesses,” a Labor Department lawyer said. But even neutral observers cried foul. The administration’s numbers are just wrong,” human-resource publisher Jay Whitehead said. He agrees with labor estimates that about 3 million workers lose overtime coverage under the new Bush rules.

Don’t give a hoot, pollute

Bush has perhaps shined most when it comes to misusing land, destroying habitat, and contaminating our air and water. He has ignored the counsel of Republican forbears such as Teddy Roosevelt, who warned against defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things.” 

In his recent book Crimes Against Nature, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., of the Natural Resources Defense Council, writes: George W. Bush will go down in history as America’s worst environmental president. In a ferocious three-year attack, the Bush administration has initiated more than 200 major rollbacks of America’s environmental laws, weakening the protection of our country’s air, water, public lands and wildlife. … I am angry both as a citizen and a father. Three of my sons have asthma, and I watch them struggle to breathe on bad-air days.”

The president hides his damage through masterful propaganda. Under the guidance of Republican pollster Frank Luntz,” writes Kennedy, the Bush White House has actively hidden its anti-environmental program behind deceptive rhetoric, telegenic spokespeople, secrecy and the intimidation of scientists and bureaucrats. After three years, his policies are already bearing fruit, diminishing standards of living for millions of Americans.”

Abstain from sex ed

Bush’s insistence on abstinence-only messages in public programs has hamstrung health educators in bringing life-saving prevention and education work to millions of Americans. And this brazen ignorance of the topic is wildly out-of-step with previous Republican administrations.

General sex education in schools should begin in the third grade, with AIDS-specific materials introduced in middle school or junior high school,” wrote C. Everett Koop, surgeon general during the Reagan administration, it must include information on heterosexual and homosexual relationships.”

For the Bush team, impeding the fight against AIDS stretches beyond America’s borders. There is nothing magical about the way to stop a sexually transmitted killer,” Robyn E. Blumner wrote last October in the St. Petersburg Times. Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 30 million of the world’s 40 million HIV/AIDS sufferers, is suddenly facing a condom shortage. Family planning clinics from Ethiopia to Swaziland have had their American-donated supplies sharply reduced or cut off; and we can thank our president and his religious right politics for this.”

Create homeland insecurity

Bush is starving key programs in homeland security, chopping firefighter funding by a third and community-based law enforcement by 90 percent. The result, in town after town, is understaffing, an increase in the murder rate and less accountability for the crimes.

Writing last year in Washington Monthly, Benjamin Wallace-Wells noted that in Minneapolis, the force was down by 22 percent and crime was up nearly 50 percent in the two years following 9/11. While Richmond, Va., lost 13 percent of its officers and posted double-digit increases in its murder rate in both 2002 and 2003.

Richmond Police Chief Jerry Oliver expressed outrage at Bush’s cuts in COPS, or community-oriented policing service. They don’t appear to grasp what we face,” he said.

Meanwhile, the risk from homegrown terrorism slips into the fog of official denial. In July, U.S. District Judge James Cohn sentenced Army veteran and fundamentalist Stephen John Jordi to five years in a Florida prison after his arrest last November with plans to bomb progressive churches, abortion clinics and gay bars. 

According to Miami reporter Fidel Ortega, Jordi possessed propane tanks, flares, gasoline cans and starter liquids. His goal was a 30- or 40-year terror campaign. But because his plot didn’t cross U.S. borders, Jordi didn’t fit the definition of terrorist under current federal law.

Control women’s bodies

The Bush administration is not content to overturn abortion — here or abroad. It seeks to limit women’s access to birth control and education services. In the United States, Bush used regulatory action to quash the so-called morning-after pill — leading to millions of unwanted pregnancies.

But his faith-based regard for pregnancy overseas is becoming an untold crisis. According to Hillary Fyfe, chair of the Family Life Movement of Zambia, who spoke to the St. Petersburg Times last year, the administration’s push to cut funds for international family planning programs that discuss or provide abortions has left women without a lifeline. When [young women] fall pregnant, they have no place to go. They take a knitting needle and push it down or they go in the bush and dig up a poisonous root and push it down. Half the time they die.”

Tip the scales

Under Bush, the courts have lost their traditional conservative value as an impartial arbiter. In particular, Bush has used court appointments as paybacks to his far-right base and to activate 4 million disaffected fundamentalist voters.

The combination of a federal judiciary closely divided on key questions of policy and philosophy and the extremist positions espoused by Bush nominees can prove explosive. In July, for instance, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reconsider Lofton v. Children and Family Services. Facing a backlog of children needing homes, the plaintiff questioned the constitutionality of Florida’s ban on gay adoptive parents. The law, passed during Anita Bryant’s 1977 Save the Children crusade, deprives thousands of otherwise eligible individuals, many already acting as foster parents, the chance of being long-term caregivers. Instead of accepting the case for review by the whole bench, the court avoided a more thorough look at the case, winking and nodding at one of the rankest forms of discrimination still on the books of any state. The vote was 7-6. Bush recess appointee William Pryor cast the deciding vote.

Four years ago, during a different campaign, songwriter Tracy Chapman released an album titled Telling Stories. Its title track tackles the case of a chronic fabricator: There is fiction in the space between you and reality,” she sings. That lyric takes on new significance this election year.

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Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.
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