Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Slate Veteran Columnists For Truth

Veteran Slate columnist Fred Kaplan is touching on the theme that repetition substitutes for, and often betrays, the truth, especially in the context of a political movement or campaign. It is a theme that I have been running with over the past couple of weeks, and Kaplan offers one more piece of insight to the emerging narrative.

Kaplan's focus is on the campaign of George W. Bush, and in particular the many allegations being leveled against Kerry by the many speakers at the Republican National Convention. Kaplan first delves into the truth behind an assertion uttered by Zell Miller, which has been repeated by other campaign officials and for around which a Bush campaign television ad centered.

The main falsehood, we have gone over before (click here for the details), but it keeps getting repeated, so here we go again: It is the claim that John Kerry, during his 20 years in the Senate, voted to kill the M-1 tank, the Apache helicopter; the F-14, F-16, and F-18 jet fighters; and just about every other weapon system that has kept our nation free and strong.

Here, one more time, is the truth of the matter: Kerry did not vote to kill these weapons, in part because none of these weapons ever came up for a vote, either on the Senate floor or in any of Kerry's committees.

This myth took hold last February in a press release put out by the RNC. Those who bothered to look up the fine-print footnotes discovered that they referred to votes on two defense appropriations bills, one in 1990, the other in 1995. Kerry voted against both bills, as did 15 other senators, including five Republicans. The RNC took those bills, cherry-picked some of the weapons systems contained therein, and implied that Kerry voted against those weapons. By the same logic, they could have claimed that Kerry voted to disband the entire U.S. armed forces; but that would have raised suspicions and thus compelled more reporters to read the document more closely. [emphasis added]
In fact it was this type of manipulation of the voting record that prompted Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to come to the defense of Kerry stating that Kerry was strong on defense and that if you picked through the individual components of such omnibus bills, you could unfairly paint a candidate in any color. Of course McCain knows first hand, having suffered the ignominious assault on his Senate voting record, that he of all people (he spent over five years in a Vietnamese POW camp) had voted against Veteran's benefits, as promoted by the Bush team in the infamous dirty campaign in the 2000 South Carolina primary (that was actually the least egregious tactic employed by Bush in that primary, but that is the subject of another post).

No matter Senator McCain, repeat it enough and it is true. To quote Tariq Ramadan, "There is no need to check because 'it is obvious'; after all, 'we have heard it many times' and 'it is being said everywhere.'"

But this particular facet of the lying game is particularly disingenuous. Not only is the Bush campaign deliberately distorting Kerry's voting record, they are doing so from within an enormous glass mansion nestled in the picturesque Wyoming countryside. As Kaplan points out:

What makes this dishonesty not merely a lie, but a damned lie, is that back when Kerry cast these votes, Dick Cheney - who was the secretary of defense for George W. Bush's father - was truly slashing the military budget. Here was Secretary Cheney, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 31, 1992:

Overall, since I've been Secretary, we will have taken the five-year defense program down by well over $300 billion. That's the peace dividend...And now we're adding to that another $50 billion...of so-called peace dividend.
Cheney then lit into the Democratic-controlled Congress for not cutting weapons systems enough:

Congress has let me cancel a few programs. But you've squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse-traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don't fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements...You've directed me to buy more M1s, F14s, and F16s - all great systems...but we have enough of them.
In other words, it's not just that Cheney and those around him are lying; it's not even just that they know they're lying; it's that they know - or at least Cheney knows - that the same lie could be said about him. That's what makes it a damned lie.
Kaplan then moves on to this bit of Zell Millerian rhetorical curiosity, "Nothing makes me madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators." A charge that Miller left solely at the feet of the Democratic opposition. As Kaplan points out though, it was Bush himself, during his most recent press affair, who called it an occupation and said he didn't blame Iraqis for being upset, that he wouldn't want to be "occupied" either. Doesn't George W. Bush support our troops? Maybe not in the Zelliverse.

Kaplan then turned his attention to several of the themes designed to prop up Bush's bona fides as a tough and unwavering straight-shooter, who stays the course in the realm of foreign policy.

"President Bush does not deal in empty threats and halfway measures," Cheney said. What is an empty threat if not the warnings Bush gave the North Koreans to stop building a nuclear arsenal? What is a halfway measure if not Bush's decision to topple the Taliban yet leave Afghanistan to the warlords and the poppy farmers; to bust up al-Qaida's training camps yet fail to capture Osama Bin Laden (whose name has virtually gone unmentioned at this convention); to topple the Iraqi regime yet plan nothing for the aftermath?
Nevertheless, conventional wisdom would have it that Bush is tough on terrorism, and Kerry may lack the resolve to carry out the war against the spread of radical Islamist jihad. This despite the fact that most Americans now see the centerpiece of Bush's foreign policy, the invasion of Iraq, as a mistake and a decision that has made us less safe. The beauty is, when you rely on repetition to create a generally accepted principle, trivial things like the facts and logical correlation are powerless against the juggernaut of echoes.

In order to further highlight the contrast in approaches between Kerry and Bush, Cheney brings out the scurrilous use of the "sensitive" war on terror quote that has been twisted out of context to make Kerry look weak and naive. As I have pointed out
here, not only is the quote taken out of context, but everyone from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Franks and Meyers have extolled the virtues of being sensitive when applying military power. But the so called liberal media is not regurgitating that meme with rhythmic drum beat.

Rounding out the narrative, Cheney places Bush's toughness, and the GOP's strength, in historical context, relying on the latest installment of the repeat-a-myth-till-it's-true rendition of "the Democrats are weak on defense":

Later in the speech, Cheney made this comment: "Four years ago, some said the world had grown calm, and many assumed that the United States was invulnerable to danger. That thought might have been comforting; it was also false."

Who are these people who thought this? The implication is that it was the Democrats who preceded Bush and Cheney. But it was Bill Clinton's administration that stopped the millennium attack on LAX. It was Clinton's national security adviser who told Condoleezza Rice, during the transition period, that she'd be spending more time on al-Qaida that on any other issue. It was Rice who didn't call the first Cabinet meeting on al-Qaida until just days before Sept. 11. It was Bush's attorney general who told a Justice Department assistant that he didn't want to hear anything more about counterterrorism. It was Bush who spent 40 percent of his time out of town in his first eight months of office, while his CIA director and National Security Council terrorism specialists ran around with their "hair on fire," trying to get higher-ups to heed their warnings of an imminent attack.
Kaplan proceeds to take apart the various other baseless attacks, regarding Kerry's subservience to the United Nations, Kerry's refusal to ever use preemptive force, Kerry's statements from 1971, etc. Unfortunately for Kaplan, the country, and the rest of the world, debunking myths and uncovering truths is a process that requires engaged thought and investigation, whereas ready made mythologies made ripe by relentless repetition provide an easy way out to rigors of critical analysis. What's more, conventional wisdom is so compelling because...well everyone knows it's true.

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