Dead Parrot SocietyBy PAUL KRUGMAN
few days ago The Washington Post's
Dana Milbank wrote an article explaining that for George W. Bush, "facts
are malleable." Documenting "dubious, if not wrong" statements on a variety
of subjects, from Iraq's military capability to the federal budget, the White
House correspondent declared that Mr. Bush's "rhetoric has taken some flights
Also in the last few days, The Wall Street Journal reported
that "senior officials have referred repeatedly to intelligence . . . that
remains largely unverified." The C.I.A.'s former head of counterterrorism
was blunter: "Basically, cooked information is working its way into high-level
pronouncements." USA Today reports that "pressure has been building on the
intelligence agencies to deliberately slant estimates to fit a political
Reading all these euphemisms, I was reminded of Monty Python's
parrot: he's pushing up the daisies, his metabolic processes are history,
he's joined the choir invisible. That is, he's dead. And the Bush administration
lies a lot.
Let me hasten to say that I don't blame reporters for
not quite putting it that way. Mr. Milbank is a brave man, and is paying
the usual price for his courage: he is now the target of a White House smear
That standard response may help you understand how Mr.
Bush retains a public image as a plain-spoken man, when in fact he is as
slippery and evasive as any politician in memory. Did you notice his recent
declaration that allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power wouldn't mean
backing down on "regime change," because if the Iraqi despot meets U.N. conditions,
"that itself will signal that the regime has changed"?
spate of articles about administration dishonesty mainly reflects the campaign
to sell war with Iraq. But the habit itself goes all the way back to the
2000 campaign, and is manifest on a wide range of issues. High points would
include the plan for partial privatization of Social Security, with its 2-1=4
arithmetic; the claim that a tax cut that delivers 40 percent or more of
its benefits to the richest 1 percent was aimed at the middle class; the
claim that there were 60 lines of stem cells available for research; the
promise to include limits on carbon dioxide in an environmental plan.
More generally, Mr. Bush ran as a moderate, a "uniter, not a divider." The
Economist endorsed him back in 2000 because it saw him as the candidate better
able to transcend partisanship; now the magazine describes him as the "partisan-in-chief."
It's tempting to view all of this merely as a question of character,
but it's more than that. There's method in this administration's mendacity.
For the Bush administration is an extremely elitist clique trying to maintain
a populist facade. Its domestic policies are designed to benefit a very small
number of people — basically those who earn at least $300,000 a year, and
really don't care about either the environment or their less fortunate compatriots.
True, this base is augmented by some powerful special-interest groups, notably
the Christian right and the gun lobby. But while this coalition can raise
vast sums, and can mobilize operatives to stage bourgeois riots when needed,
the policies themselves are inherently unpopular. Hence the need to reshape
those malleable facts.
What remains puzzling is the long-term strategy.
Despite Mr. Bush's control of the bully pulpit, he has had little success
in changing the public's fundamental views. Before Sept. 11 the nation was
growing increasingly dismayed over the administration's hard right turn.
Terrorism brought Mr. Bush immense personal popularity, as the public rallied
around the flag; but the helium has been steadily leaking out of that balloon.
Right now the administration is playing the war card, inventing facts as
necessary, and trying to use the remnants of Mr. Bush's post-Sept. 11 popularity
to gain control of all three branches of government. But then what? There
is, after all, no indication that Mr. Bush ever intends to move to the center.
So the administration's inner circle must think that full control
of the government can be used to lock in a permanent political advantage,
even though the more the public learns about their policies, the less it
likes them. The big question is whether the press, which is beginning to
find its voice, will lose it again in the face of one-party government.
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