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The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception

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1. A
Dishonest Candidate

"I have been very candid about my past."

"It's time to restore honor and dignity to the White House." So
declared George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign. In
one of his first ads, an earnest-sounding Bush told television
viewers in Iowa he would "return honor and integrity" to the Oval
Office. His promise to escort these values back to 1600
Pennsylvania Avenue--after you-know-who had done you-know-what in
the Oval Office and then lied about it--was often the emotional
crescendo of Bush's stump speech. With solemnity, Bush told the
crowds that, should he be fortunate enough to win the election, on
the day of his inauguration he would not only lift his hand and
swear to uphold the Constitution, he would swear to uphold the
"honor and the integrity" of the presidency. His supporters ate
this up and cheered wildly.

Bush's professed commitment to honesty was a constant chorus during
the campaign. It was also a false claim. As he barnstormed across
the country, Bush left a wide wake of distortions and

He was no pioneer in this regard. To campaign is to abuse the
truth. Candidates exaggerate their assets, discount their
liabilities, hype their accomplishments, downplay their failures.
They hail their proposals and dismiss the doubts, often fiddling
with the facts to do so. A certain amount of shiftiness is
understandable, perhaps even acceptable. But in seeking the
presidency of the United States, George W. Bush did more than fudge
and finagle. He lied about the basics--about his past, about his
record as governor of Texas, about the programs he was promising,
about his opponents, about the man he was, and about the president
he would be. Not occasionally, but consistently. Which meant he
lied about a central element of his candidacy: that he was a
forthright fellow who would indeed bring integrity to the Oval
Office. His honest-man routine was a campaign-concocted

The many lies he told not only served his immediate interests
(getting elected), they established the foundation for the
deceptions that would come when he reached the White House. The
origins of much of Bush's presidential dissembling can be found in
the 2000 campaign. In that endeavor, Bush and his handlers
fine-tuned a political style that included the frequent deployment
of misleading statements, half-true assertions, or flat-out lies.
Perhaps most importantly, during the campaign, Bush and his
colleagues could see that lying worked, that it was a valuable
tool. It allowed them to present Bush, his past, and his
initiatives in the most favorable, though not entirely truthful,
terms--to deny reality when reality was inconvenient. It got them
out of jams. It won them not scorn but votes. It made the arduous
task of winning the presidency easier. And the campaign, as it
turned out, would be merely a test run for the administration to

"I don't get coached."

Bush began his campaign with a lie. On June 12, 1999, he flew into
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and before several hundred spectators corralled
into a hangar, announced he would be a candidate for the Republican
presidential nomination. For months prior to joining the 2000
parade, Bush had been promoting himself as a
"uniter-not-a-divider." In the hangar, he also presented himself as
a tried-and-true moral leader. "Some people think it is
inappropriate to draw a moral line," he said. "Not me. For our
children to have the lives we want for them. They must learn to say
yes to responsibility, yes to family, yes to honesty." The Texas
governor, who had been reelected to his second term the previous
November, maintained: "I've learned you cannot lead by dividing
people. This country is hungry for a new style of campaign.
Positive. Hopeful. Inclusive." He vowed, "We will prove that
someone who is conservative and compassionate can win without
sacrificing principle. We will show that politics, after a time of
tarnished ideals, can be higher and better. We will give our
country a fresh start after a season of cynicism."

Bush told his supporters and the assembled reporters, "I've learned
to lead." As proof of that, he asserted, "I don't run polls to tell
me what to think." Take that, Bill Clinton. No polls, no negative
politics, no self-serving calculations, no ideological or partisan
harshness, no more cynical spin, no more falsehoods. But it was all

Bush's announcement speech was evidence he would be mounting a
truth-defying campaign. Before he delivered this kickoff speech,
his campaign had held focus groups in South Carolina, Michigan, and
California. At these sessions, according to Roger Simon, the chief
political correspondent of U.S. News & World Report, the Bush
operatives played footage of Bush and asked the people present to
turn a knob one way if they liked what they were seeing and hearing
and another way if they did not. All this led to a
computer-generated graph line superimposed over the film, so Bush
and his crew could determine which lines, words, and methods of
delivery scored well and which ones stank. Political pros call this
people-metering. Using this information, Bush's chief speechwriter,
Michael Gerson, produced 16 draft versions of what would become
Bush's standard campaign stump speech, according to the New York
Times. True, Bush did not pledge not to use this particular device.
But he certainly was eager to create the impression he was an
I-am-what-I-am politician who would deliver, if nothing else,
authenticity. In a later interview, he asserted, "I campaign the
way I campaign. And I don't get coached." But do uncoached
candidates use people-meters? And this was no anomaly. Toward the
end of the campaign, Time would report that Bush was routinely
using focus groups to test key phrases he used on the stump:
"personal accounts," "school choice," "education recession."

Pretending to be a straight-shooter who eschewed the cynical
mechanics of modern-day politics was but a small contradiction of
the image Bush offered his followers in that Iowa hangar. Over the
next 18 months, he would engage in business as usual--nasty ads,
pandering, expedience-driven position-shifting, cover-ups, and
assorted spinning. He would not deliver a "fresh start." Rather, he
would embrace--though not in public--most of what he decried about
politics. All this would be done to mount a false advertising
campaign about a product he knew well: George W. Bush.

"I've got a record not of rhetoric, but a record of results."

As soon as Bush crashed the race--which already had a crowded
field--he was the lead cowboy. He had the name, the money, the
endorsements, the organization. And he had a clever slogan: he was
the "compassionate conservative." The most dangerous threat Bush
faced was himself--that is, his reputation as a less-than-serious,
smirkful, syntax-challenged fellow who would rarely be mistaken for
an intellectual heavyweight. And in the opening months of his
campaign, he had a knack for providing the skeptics evidence. He
called the Greeks "Grecians." He could not identify the leaders of
Pakistan, India, and Chechnya. Asked which rendition of the Ten
Commandments he preferred--Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish--he
replied, "the standard one," suggesting he had no clue each
religion recognizes different versions.

With his not-yet-presidential manner and his miscues on global
matters, Bush faced the charge (from Democrats and some
Republicans) that he did not possess sufficient candlepower for the
job. But for the doubters, he had a stock response, which he would
repeat throughout the campaign: look at my record. Bush was arguing
that his stint as governor of the nation's second-largest
state--with an economy larger than that of all but ten nations in
the world--trumped his lack of foreign policy experience, his odd
speech patterns, and his missing gravitas. His accomplishments in
Texas were his credentials and showed he was both a fiscal
conservative and a "compassionate" conservative. As he said at a
Republican debate in Iowa, "I've got a record not of rhetoric, but
a record of results. In my state, I led our state to the two
biggest tax cuts in the state's history. Our test scores for our
students are up." He also claimed Texas air had gotten cleaner on
his watch, that he had passed a patients' bill of rights, that he
had expanded a children's health insurance program. This was quite
an impressive run-down--but it was counterfeit.

Being a champion of tax cuts--past and future--was one of Bush's
key selling points. At one debate he called himself "a tax-cutting
person." He bragged about those "two largest tax cuts" he achieved
in Texas, and he boasted in a campaign ad, "we still have no
personal income tax." Lowering taxes was Exhibit Number 1 in his
claim he had been a successful governor.

But this declaration was part Texas tall-tale, and part muddy
water. He had not had to do anything to keep Texas from adopting a
personal income tax. An amendment to the state
constitution--proposed and approved by a Democratic-controlled
legislature before Bush took office--prohibited the imposition of
an income tax without a voter referendum. Bush was assuming credit
for a policy established before he had arrived in Austin.

As for those two big tax cuts, the true results were not much to
boast about. Taxes were lowered for some, but much of the enacted
tax cuts ended up being largely offset by other tax hikes made
necessary by the cuts Bush was hailing. As he campaigned, Bush
glossed over the real story of the Texas tax cuts and even
mischaracterized the changes he had actually sought.

In 1997, Bush had proposed a major tax overhaul that would lower
school property taxes but that would also raise the sales tax and
impose a new business activity tax. The plan was a direct violation
of a promise he had made in 1994, when he first ran for governor.
That year, he pledged never to endorse raising the sales tax or
creating a business tax. With his 1997 proposal, Bush did both.
When grilled about this broken promise during the 2000 campaign on
ABC News' This Week, Bush did not say, as might have been
appropriate, that circumstances had changed between 1994 and 1997
and that he had been forced to reevaluate his position. Instead, he
responded in an all-too-revealing fashion. He devalued his promise
by remarking, "There are pledges all the time." Did that mean Bush
believed it was okay to make pledges to get elected and not stand
by them?

On the 2000 campaign trail, Bush was deceptive about the nature of
his 1997 tax plan. He neglected to mention his attempt to boost a
sales tax hike and to implement a new business tax. Nor did he note
his package had not been accepted. He had been unable to persuade
the legislature to greenlight his entire set of tax cuts and tax
hikes. Instead, the lawmakers passed a $1 billion reduction in
school property taxes. And these tax cuts turned out to be a sham.
After they kicked in, school districts across the state raised
local tax rates to compensate for the loss of revenue. A 1999
Dallas Morning News analysis of the state's 1,036 school districts
found that "many [taxpayers] are still paying as much as they did
in 1997, or more." Republican Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry told
the newspaper, "The tax cut didn't stand the test of time as well
as many of us would have liked for it to." He called the cuts
"rather illusory." In 2003 a report released by the House Research
Organization of the Republican-controlled Texas House of
Representatives noted, "In 1997, then Gov. George W. Bush sought to
revamp state taxes. . . . That effort was unsuccessful, and many of
the concerns cited at that time remain unresolved."

The story was also more complicated with the 1999 tax cuts Bush
also touted during his presidential bid. That year Bush sought $2
billion in property tax cuts. The legislature adopted a $1.3
billion reduction. But it was not relief for everyone. Much of the
reduction was targeted to districts burdened by fast growth or
construction-related debt. State Representative Paul Sadler, the
Democratic chairman of the Texas House education committee, told
the Austin American-Statesman, "If your district doesn't fall into
one of these categories, you're not going to get as much benefit."
According to the Texas Education Agency, property taxes dropped in
only 36.5 percent of the districts; they stayed flat or went up in
63.5 percent. "As Bush sells the country on his tax-cutting
prowess," Dave McNeely of the American-Statesman observed in 1999,
"school districts back in Texas are raising local taxes

Sure, Bush had tried to slash some taxes (while trying to raise
others), but the outcome had been unimpressive. And he was the guy
claiming to be presidential material not on the basis of effort
made but on results achieved. His efforts had not panned out.
Perhaps more importantly than that, Bush's accounting of these
episodes--taking credit for tax cuts that benefited a few and that
created burdens for others--demonstrated he was not to be trusted
when it came to talking about the all-important topic of

On the stump, Bush claimed that his stint in Texas proved he was
also a guy who knew how to downsize Big Government. A Bush ad said
he had "reduced the growth of state government to the lowest in 40
years." But according to the Dallas Morning News, Associated Press,
and the Washington Post, during Bush's time in office, the state
budget jumped from about $73 billion to $98.1 billion--a 34 percent
leap that was hardly modest, and larger than the federal
government's 21 percent growth rate.

As Bush misrepresented recent history to bolster his standing as a
fiscal conservative, he did the same to demonstrate he was a
"compassionate conservative" who had accomplished much in
healthcare. The Bush campaign's website portrayed him as having
"led the nation in adopting a strong Patients' Bill of Rights."
That was not the case. In 1995, Bush vetoed a patient protection
act, which if passed would have made his state a leader in HMO
reform. Two years later, Bush seriously considered vetoing a
similar measure that included a provision allowing patients to sue
HMOs for malpractice. Only after it became clear the Texas
legislature would override his veto did Bush permit the bill to
become law, and he did so without placing his signature on it. He
had not led, he had not even signed the measure. He had been
pushed. In fact, during the debate on the bill, according to Salon,
State Senator David Sibley, a Republican and an oral surgeon
sponsoring the legislation, had griped about the "governor's
office," saying, "I can't make 'em happy no matter what I do unless
I completely gut the bill."

To prove Bush cared about kids and their health needs, his
presidential campaign maintained he had "signed legislation to
create the Children's Health Insurance Program." And in an
interview with CNN, Bush said, "We're spreading CHIPs, the CHIPs
program out all across the state of Texas. We just passed the
legislation necessary to do so." We? During Bush's tenure as
governor, Texas had the highest number of uninsured children per
capita in the nation, according to the Houston Chronicle. When the
Texas legislature considered providing medical coverage to many of
these kids in 1999, the Democratic-controlled House wanted the
program to be available to children in families earning up to 200
percent of the poverty level (about $33,000 for a family of four).
But Bush fought to limit eligibility to children from homes with
incomes below $25,000. His lower cap would have prevented about
220,000 of the 500,000 uninsured children who were potentially
eligible from qualifying for CHIP coverage. (At that time, Bush's
number-one legislative priority was emergency legislation to
provide a $45 million tax break to the oil-and-gas industry.)
Eventually, the Democrats beat Bush on this front, and the 200
percent cutoff prevailed.

Excerpted from THE LIES OF GEORGE W. BUSH: Mastering the
Politics of Deception © Copyright 2003 by David Corn.
Reprinted with permission by Crown, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved.


The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception
by by David Corn