True, Democrats loathe Dubya with greater intensity than any Republican standard-bearer in modern political history. Even the diabolical Richard Nixon--who, after all, created the EPA, went to China and imposed price controls to stop corporate gouging--rates higher in liberal eyes. "It's mystifying," writes Brooks.
Let me explain.
First but not foremost, Bush's detractors despise him viscerally, as a man. Where working-class populists see him as a smug, effeminate frat boy who wouldn't recognize a hard day's work if it kicked him in his self-satisfied ass, intellectuals see a simian-faced idiot unqualified to mow his own lawn, much less lead the free world.
Another group, which includes me, is more patronizing than spiteful. I feel sorry for the dude; he looks so pathetic, so out of his depth, out there under the klieg lights, squinting, searching for nouns and verbs, looking like he's been snatched from his bed and beamed in, and is still half asleep, not sure where he is. Each speech looks as if Bush had been beamed from his bed fast asleep. And he's willfully ignorant. On Fox News, Bush admits that he doesn't even read the newspaper: "I glance at the headlines just to kind of [sic] a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read [sic] the news themselves."
All these takes on Bush boil down to the same thing: The guy who holds the launch codes isn't smart enough to know that's he's stupid. And that's scary.
Fear breeds hatred, and Bush's policies create a lot of both.
U.S. citizens like Jose Padilla and Yasser Hamdi disappear into the night, never to be heard from again. A concentration camp rises at Guantánamo. Stasi-like spies tap our phones and read our mail; thanks to the ironically-named Patriot Act, these thugs don't even need a warrant. As individual rights are trampled, corporate profits are sacrosanct. An aggressive, expansionist military invades other nations "preemptively" to eliminate the threat of non-existent weapons, and American troops die to enrich a company that buys off the Vice President.
Time to dust off the F word.
"Whenever people start locking up enemies because of national security without much legal care, you are coming close [to fascism]," warns Robert Paxton, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and author of the upcoming book "Fascism in Action." We're supposed to hate fascists--or has that changed because of 9/11?
Bush bashers hate Bush for his personal hypocrisy--the draft-dodger who went AWOL during Vietnam yet sent other young men to die in Afghanistan (news - web sites) and Iraq (news - web sites), the philandering cocaine addict who dares to call gays immoral--as well as for his attacks on peace and prosperity. But even that doesn't explain why we hate him so much.
Bush is guilty of a single irredeemable act so heinous and anti-American that Nixon's corruption and Reagan's intellectual inferiority pale by comparison. No matter what he does, Democrats and Republicans who love their country more than their party will never forgive him for it.
Bush stole the presidency.
The United States enjoyed two centuries of uninterrupted democracy before George W. Bush came along. The Brits burned the White House, civil war slaughtered millions and depressions brought economic chaos, yet presidential elections always took place on schedule and the winners always took office. Bush ended all that, suing to stop a ballot count that subsequent newspaper recounts proved he had lost.
He had his GOP-run Supreme Court, a federal institution, rule extrajurisdictionally on the disputed election, a matter that under our system of laws falls to the states. Bush's recount guru, James Baker, went on national TV to threaten to use force to install him as president if Gore didn't step aside: "If we keep being put in the position of having to respond to recount after recount after recount of the same ballots, then we just can't sit on our hands, and we will be forced to do what might be in our best personal interest--but not--it would not be in the best interest of our wonderful country."
Bush isn't president, but he plays one on TV. His presence in the White House is an affront to everything that this country stands for. His fake presidency is treasonous; our passive tolerance for it sad testimony to post-9/11 cowardice. As I wrote in December 2000, "George W. Bush is not the President of the United States of America." And millions of Americans agree.
Two months after 9/11, when Bush's job approval rating was soaring at 89 percent, 47 percent of Americans told a Gallup poll that he had not won the presidency legitimately. "The election controversy...could make a comeback if Bush's approval ratings were to fall significantly," predicted Byron York in The National Review.
Two years later, 3 million jobs are gone,
Bush's wars have gone sour,
and just 50 percent of voters approve of his performance.
If York is correct, most Americans now consider Bush to be no more legitimate than Saddam Hussein, who also came to power in a coup d'état.
And that's why we hate him.
(Ted Rall is the author of the graphic travelogue "To Afghanistan and Back," an award-winning recounting of his experiences covering the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. It is now available in a revised and updated paperback edition containing new material. Ordering information is available at amazon.com.)
Big Lies, Joe Conason's sharp new analysis of the Republicans' satanic propaganda mill
27 sept 03
I just received a copy of Big Lies, Joe Conason's sharp new analysis of the Republicans' satanic propaganda mill. Although I'm only halfway through it, I recommend it to you with, as it were, extreme prejudice. This book should be right at the top of every rational American's short list of necessary readings. It is a thorough, bracing refutation of the US right's entire mythology
Mankind's most valuable possessions are privacy, solitude, and anonymity.
-- a book that (especially if read before or after Sidney Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars) will arm you well for winning combat with the Big Liars and their semi-multitude of fuming dittoheads.
Although I haven't finished reading it, I recommend this book with perfect confidence, as I have always been enlightened by Joe Conason's brave, lucid works in opposition to the copious baloney of the right. His previous book The Hunting of the President (co-authored with the excellent Gene Lyons), and his frequent journalism. Get a copy for yourself ASAP.
Joe Conason Talks with BuzzFlash.com About His New Book, Republican Hypocrisy and the Sins of the Mainstream Media
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
He’s a media hero all right. Joe Conason is co-author with Gene Lyons of the seminal book on the vast right wing conspiracy that attempted to undo democracy by trying to impeach Clinton. The book, of course, is "The Hunting of the President."Joe, a columnist for Salon and the New York Observer (where he is also editor-at-large), is back with a new book called "Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How it Distorts the Truth." Unlike Ann Coulter’s books that belong in the fiction section, Joe "rips through the ten most damaging lies perpetrated by the right-wing propaganda machine."
In a couple of weeks, BuzzFlash will be offering Joe’s book as a premium, but until then, here’s a preview of what’s to come.
* * *
BUZZFLASH: "Big Lies," subtitled "The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth," is coming out. Let’s start with a global question, Joe. Your book, in essence, uncovers the varied and multitudinous ways that the right wing lies. In reading this, and after doing BuzzFlash for so long, we’re still in a quandary as to why they lie. What is the purpose of their lying? Is it merely the acquisition of power? Is it merely they’re delusional? Do you have any theories about this?
JOE CONASON: Well, I think as with any other human activity, different people tell lies for different reasons. The right wing or the conservative movement, as you know, is big. And so there are people with different motives and attitudes, obviously, within it. As I say at some point in the book, the smarter conservatives, in my view, probably know that a lot of the things they’re saying are not true, which only makes them say them with greater certainty. But there’s another level of conservative spokesperson who probably believes every word of his or her propaganda and are immune to facts, immune to argument.
There’s a very interesting poll I saw in the newspaper recently which shows that a third of the American public believes that weapons of mass destruction have been discovered in Iraq. And one-fifth believes that Iraqi used chemical and biological weapons during the war.
BUZZFLASH: Well, that’s not surprising. We had bush declare that WMDs were found with the "discovery" of two mobile units that were apparently used for hydrogen balloons.
CONASON: Right. I believe that in the White House, someone like Karl Rove puts out stuff that’s false with great political calculation, and he knows that a lot of it isn't true. On the other hand, there are people on the radio like [Chicago radio personality] Mancow, to take one example, who probably can't tell the difference –- isn't bright enough to know the difference between propaganda and facts. So there’s a broad spectrum of people out there promoting these views, promoting this ideology, and promoting a very skewed view of the world. Some of them know that it’s phony, or that some of it’s phony, and
some of them have no idea at all.
BUZZFLASH: Now we have people like Tom DeLay, who at the National Press Club a couple of years ago decried the so-called "moral relativism" of the Clintons and of the Democrats. Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Bill Bennett talked about it -- virtually the entire right wing of the Republican Party have accused the Democrats of "moral relativism," whatever that is.
For anyone who is just coming to America, your book would be a revelation that the moral relativism certainly is as expansive on the right-wing side as one would argue on the Democratic side. How does someone like Tom DeLay, who doesn't talk to his mother, who has lobbyist parties in Las Vegas where he ushered, apparently, his daughter into a whirlpool filled with champagne and lobbyists, doesn't give a damn about the poor -- do these people really believe what they’re saying?
Newt Gingrich, as you point out, started having an affair with a woman 22 years younger than he was during his second marriage, while he was decrying Clinton as a "moral relativist." What are they after when they use that term? Is it power?
What’s their agenda when, as you point out in your book, many of the leading Republicans who make these charges are
engaging in the very behavior they denounce?
CONASON: Well, as far as I can tell, the Republicans, at least on Capitol Hill, are far more immoral, by their own standards, than the Democrats are. I have a list in the book -- I go through members of Congress on the Republican side, and other conservatives, because you mention Gingrich being kind of an outstanding example of people who practice the opposite of what they preach. I would challenge any of them to find me a list that long of Democrats who've done the same thing. They won't
be able to. And the reason is that the Democrats are more tolerant of human frailty in the first place. This is why they found it easier to forgive Clinton his bad behavior in his marriage.
As many people have said since then, someone else’s marriage is their business. It’s for them to figure out how to deal with it.
Democrats -- most Democrats, anyway -- have that attitude towards human sexuality and morality in general, that if you’re not harming someone else, you should pretty much be able to manage your own private affairs. The Republicans are eager to interfere in other people’s private business. And they trumpet their desire to do that, often, it seems to me, in direct proportion to their own -- what they would regard as sinful -- behavior.
I say in the book that this is a species of what psychologists call projection. An excellent example is someone like Newt Gingrich, who put out long lists of words accusing Democrats of perversion and decadence, and who was involved in the most grotesque hypocrisy in terms of his violation of his marriage to his second wife. At the time that Gingrich was denouncing Clinton he wrote a book, which was supposedly a confession of some of his own mistakes –- and which had, I think, something like eight pictures of him with Marianne Gingrich, his then-wife, while he had been carrying on an affair for several years with a woman named Callista Bisek.
Now what’s interesting about that -- aside from Newt’s own pathology -- is that everybody in Washington knew about it. And when I say everybody, I mean everybody, because I knew about Newt’s affair with Callista Bisek dating back to 1995, just after the Republicans had taken over the House. I knew a tabloid TV producer and a reporter at The Nation magazine who also knew about the Gingrich affair, and they were trying to gather evidence to prove it. I tried to investigate it myself for a while.
That kind of story is very difficult to prove, particularly if you don't have an Independent Counsel with 50 FBI agents on it.
But the point is this: Certainly Tom DeLay knew, and I think members of the House Republican Caucus knew, too, because Callista Bisek was a Republican staffer. She worked for one of the House committees. That’s how Newt met her. So everybody knew, and they were willing to sort of countenance this, let this go by. A great moralist like Tom DeLay didn't care that his leader was having this illicit affair right, you know, on the Hill. And so I do think it has to do with power. I think it has a lot to do with their will to achieve power. Where was Bill Bennett? Does anybody believe that Bill Bennett didn't know about Newt Gingrich? I don't. I don't. And if he said he didn't know, he’s a liar. If Bill Bennett said, "I never knew this about Newt until it came out in the Washington Post in 1999," I'm telling you right now he’s lying.
They all knew about that kind of thing. They knew about the rampant adultery in the Republican Caucus in the House, among the so-called revolutionaries of the 1994 class. They knew all about this stuff, and yet that didn't inhibit them in the least from trying to use the morality issue and continuing to use it. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition knew about the sins of his fellow conservatives. They know this stuff. They know exactly what’s going on. And what they do is they pull the wool over the eyes of their unfortunate and deceived brethren out in the red states.
BUZZFLASH: You detail this in a humorous -- yet sort of infuriating -- chapter in your new book, called "Private Lives and Public Lies." It’s almost biblical in its list of transgressions by hypocritical right-wing Republicans.
CONASON: It’s not even complete, you know. I left out a bunch of them.
BUZZFLASH: Certainly to our eyes, we were unaware that the Mr. Peeps of the conservative journalism world, George Will, had his belongings tossed out by his first wife.
CONASON: That was an old story that Eric Alterman told in his first book, Sound and Fury. It’s an oldie but goodie.
BUZZFLASH: George Will was having an affair with another conservative columnist. And his first wife tossed his belongings out on the lawn of their Maryland home.
CONASON: To the best of our knowledge, that’s correct, yes.
BUZZFLASH: So if we have Tom DeLay denouncing so-called moral relativism, do you believe, in his own mind, that he believes that? Or is this a strategy because it works? I'm always surprised that the Democrats don't understand how discrediting works.
And when you talk to the average person, they believe this stuff. And so if you make the Democrats seem like they’re
adulterers, as Newt did, you make people believe they’re acting out the counter-culture of the ‘60s, and the Clintons epitomize this, and so forth.
CONASON: Well, look, I don't know Tom DeLay personally. So it’s very hard for me to say he’s completely cynical about this. But it’d be hard to think anything else about him when he stands there and he knows what’s happening in his own House caucus. He knows what Newt Gingrich did. He knows what Bob Livingston did.
As I detail in the book, there’s a committee that sprang up in October of 2002 that was headed by [former Idaho Congresswoman] Helen Chenoweth. She was a symbol of Republican hypocrisy a couple of years earlier when her own colorful sexual history was exposed by newspapers in her home state of Idaho. She appears in 2002 fronting a committee that is urging pastors to get people out to vote, so that we can make sure that godly men are in charge of the country, during the Congressional mid-term elections of 2002. And this committee is clearly a front for Tom DeLay. Now could Tom DeLay really do that, unless he was utterly cynical? I mean, how would you select Helen Chenoweth to head a committee like that unless you were a total cynic? Unless you really had no beliefs?
So without knowing DeLay personally, as I said -– well, maybe he’s the most self-delusional person in the world. But he seems very hard-headed and tough on questions of shaking down lobbyists for money and how to run a whip operation in the House. I mean, he’s not a dumb guy and he’s not a sort of soft-minded guy. So you think, oh, well, he can tolerate all this immorality on his own side; it doesn't bother him at all. He will give Helen Chenoweth a job running a committee that’s organizing pastors for morality in the election. That suggests to me a level of profound cynicism -- and that doesn't even get into the more important question of a professing Christian who doesn't care about the poor, as you mentioned before. That gets us into another whole level of very peculiar beliefs among a certain brand of self-proclaimed Christians. But their cynicism is remarkable.
BUZZFLASH: Again, let’s just say you were a newcomer to American politics, and you’re trying to learn about American politics.
You read Joe Conason’s Big Lies, and when you finish the book, you end up with the conclusion that this American political party, the Republican Party, the right wing -- which calls itself conservative, although true conservatives are something else altogether -- that this political party that professes moral superiority and religious virtue is morally bankrupt and depends upon lying to gain power. Is that a fair assessment?
CONASON: Well, as I say in the introduction to the book, I don't want to be perceived as saying that all conservatives or all
Republicans are liars. I use those terms in the book in a somewhat general way to express what their movement is doing. There are certainly honest conservatives and honest Republicans. But when it comes to morality, they have been promoting themselves on the basis of the lie that they are morally superior in some way to their opponents. And that’s just demonstrably false. The other thing I wanted to say in response to what you asked before, is that implicit in your earlier question is the question of why do people believe this.
And the answer is, of course, that our media has done a terribly inadequate job of exposing the hypocrisy. The reason I knew about all this stuff is because most of it’s been reported somewhere. But at the commanding heights of the national media, the pretense of the conservatives to be moral and to be superior in virtue to their opponents is accepted -- it’s not questioned.
And I would venture most Americans have never heard about Newt Gingrich’s affair with Callista Bisek. I would love to see someone do a poll on that to find out whether people know that the Speaker of the House was carrying on an affair with a House employee who was more than 20 years younger than he was, at the time that he was going after Clinton. Because if they had known, I think there would have been a really rather different attitude about all this. I mean, they eventually found out about Henry Hyde, and the attitude of the elite press about the Hyde story, as you recall, was that it was terrible that it had been exposed -- in fact, the White House should try to find out who had done this to poor Henry Hyde, if somebody in the White House was involved, which they were not.
So the attitude of the Washington press has been very protective of people like Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich. They couldn't exactly avoid the Bob Livingston story because he resigned on the floor of the House, so that Larry Flynt wouldn't expose him.
But none of them were too interested in why. And I’ll tell you -- I talked to the investigator who looked into Bob Livingston’s lifestyle at the time, and it was Baroque. I mean, he made Clinton look kind of mundane.
BUZZFLASH: If I recall, Larry Flynt said this wasn't a guy who occasionally had an affair. He was like a serial Romeo, he said.
CONASON: You know, he was terribly afraid of being exposed. He would never have been able to show his face in public again.
Now he’s down there as a lobbyist, and it’s almost as if none of this stuff ever happened to him.
BUZZFLASH: Do the Democrats have any responsibility in not standing up to the technique of discrediting Democrats? It’s almost as though the Democrats plead no contest. And then they’re very loath to denounce the behavior and the peccadilloes of Republicans, because that’s sort of not in their nature, as you pointed out earlier. But that leaves the public to think that there’s one moral party and one immoral party, and the Republicans win in that battle.
CONASON: Well, when you’re up against opponents like DeLay and Rove, your conscience is a real impediment to victory. And you’re right that it’s harder for the Democrats to cite this kind of thing. But I actually think that since they’ve been so much aggressed against by the Republicans on this issue, they could fight back just by saying, "You say this about us. Here are the specifics about you."
On occasion, that has happened. When Gingrich’s lieutenants were smearing Tom Foley, the former Speaker, as allegedly in the closet and gay, which was totally false, Barney Frank, who is gay and a Democrat from Massachusetts, stood up and said, "If this doesn't stop, I’m going to start giving reporters the names of all the closeted gays in the Republican Caucus," of whom there were apparently several. And guess what? It stopped the next day. And I believe that Gingrich actually fired somebody over that, as I recall, just to slam the closet shut again. So you can fight back.
But I actually don't think it’s the job of the Democrats to go out and attack any individual Republican’s morality. I actually think it’s the job of the media to measure whether these kinds of allegations by one political party against another have any validity and how much hypocrisy is involved. That’s the function of a free press. Again and again, the mainstream media, and what I call the commanding heights of broadcast and print media in this country, have failed to do that job.
They have let the Republicans get away with this stuff. They’ve let the Christian Coalition get away with it. The history of the religious right and the conservative movement in this country is rife with the most grotesque hypocrisy in recent years. And they’ve been allowed to basically have it reported only in the most glancing way which permits them to continue to do the same thing. If the truth about them were told as I tell it in the book, and most people knew that, they would never be able to say any of this again.
BUZZFLASH: You point out in the chapter "Private Lives and Public Lies," it’s not just political figures that have these salacious lives while they’re pretending to be virtuous. But it’s also the religious leaders who worked side by side with them.
CONASON: It’s unbelievable. Everybody knows about Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and those guys. But Focus on the Family had a guy who was a top staffer -- they had to kick him out because he was having an affair. There was another guy in the Family Research Council who was the head of their ex-gay ministry, and they find him in a gay bar in Washington. They had to kick him out for awhile. Matt Glavin, who worked for the Southeast Legal Foundation, which crusaded against the gays in the Boy Scouts, he was busted two times in a national park for fondling a ranger. This stuff leaves you almost speechless. When you look at the whole record of it, it’s mind-boggling. And yet they’ll go on. And someone else will take the place of a guy like that and just continue with the same rhetoric because most Americans just don't know how fraudulent this attitude is.
BUZZFLASH: Let me challenge you on the media issue. Let’s just put aside the corporate consolidation of the media for a moment, which is a big thing to put aside.
CONASON: Well, that just makes it worse.
BUZZFLASH: But media in general, regardless of who owns it, the seamless blending between entertainment and news has gotten to a point where we shifted from Bush declaring -- incorrectly, but nonetheless -- mission accomplished, that the war is over in Iraq, to the next day talking about the Peterson killing in California. And we’ve been on that ever since. It’s either war or Laci Peterson.
Are the Republicans more in tune with the media than the Democrats? Democrats think, "We’ll run on ideas." Republicans think, "We’ll run by making our opponents into scandals." Are they more in tune with the media’s focus on entertainment and sensationalism than news and content?
CONASON: I have to tell you I think that the televised media, particularly on cable TV, are very much skewed in favor of conservatives, so that even if the Democrats were out there screaming about the immorality of the Republicans, they really wouldn't get time on cable.
Fox News is just not going to talk about what Newt Gingrich did. Newt Gingrich works for Fox News.
Matt Drudge is not going to talk about that.
Brit Hume and these guys are not gonna talk about that. And to a great degree, their competitors imitate them.
CNN is really not going to explore the immorality of the conservatives who are making charges about morality all the time.
And in the mainstream sort of newspaper press, mostly they won't deal with it. The New York Times doesn't want to write it and doesn't want to run a piece about Newt Gingrich’s affairs. Now the Washington Post will do one article on it in the course of seven or eight years. It’ll be on the cover of the Style section and they’ll sort of get into it. And it’ll allow Newt, on challenge, to say, well, I never perjured myself.
And that’s the issue.
They will run hundreds and hundreds of articles about Clinton of all kinds. The Democrats are at a great disadvantage, even if they were more inclined to go after this kind of thing, which most of them are not. But again, I strongly feel that it’s not up to the Democratic politicians to do this -- to ask elected officials to focus on the immorality of their opponents is really a bad thing to have to ask them to do. It’s not good for democracy. It would be much better if the press tested these propositions by the Republicans against reality, and informed the public that this is just nonsense.
BUZZFLASH: But The New York Times and the Washington Post, the so-called liberal papers in America, focused on
quote-unquote Clinton’s scandals, particularly The New York Times with Whitewater, and then the Washington Post with Susan Schmidt sort of being the lead into the mainstream media for Ken Starr.
CONASON: I don't think the Washington Post is a liberal paper.
BUZZFLASH: At what point do you think it shifted from being a liberal paper?
CONASON: Well, I think it took place over a number of years. Sometime after the departure of Ben Bradley, it really accelerated towards the center right.
BUZZFLASH: And what about The New York Times when it pursued the Whitewater scandal?
CONASON: I don't know. We’ve been over and over that. That’s a very peculiar set of circumstances. They got committed to the story when they first started covering it. And it turned out that Howell Raines apparently didn't like Bill Clinton very much and thought he was morally deficient, I guess. And they became very committed to that story and got into a competition with the Washington Post actually that echoed their competition during Watergate.
I think the editors came to believe -- probably because they were so ignorant about what the evidence really showed -- that this was going to be the next Watergate, some terrible dishonesty on the part of the Clintons. And even now, when that has been thoroughly and completely debunked, and when many of them realize that they were hoodwinked by the right, they still don't want to really admit that because they’re too proud and pompous to confess that kind of gross error.
BUZZFLASH: OK, let us challenge you a little. You mentioned that it’s the responsibility of the press to bring up many of the issues about the hypocrisy and lies that you very thoroughly explore in Big Lies. And the big type on the cover of your book says it all. But you end your introduction by saying, "Unfortunately I don't think there’s much chance of that happy outcome until liberals learn to hit back hard. The classic American hero is the underdog who wins respect by fighting back against a bully. Sometimes the bully just limps away to nurse his wounds.
Sometimes the bully wises up and mends his ways.
Occasionally, the underdog and the bully become best friends. But the underdog who dares to fight back is always better off." Now clearly BuzzFlash has reflected that philosophy, but the Democratic leadership in Congress has, when confronted by the bully, whimpered and retreated back to the corner. So you are espousing here that the Democrats take responsibility for fighting back. And clearly as the co-author of "Hunting of the President," you’re well aware of what it took to beat off the right-wing attempt to unseat a democratically elected president through entrapment and sexual accusations. So what do you think should happen with the Democratic Party at this point?
CONASON: When I wrote that in the introduction, I guess that I was probably thinking mostly about the accusations involving patriotism, or the lack of patriotism, among Democrats and liberals. There’s an episode that I talk about in the book where, on several occasions, Republican leaders and Republican front organizations were questioning Tom Daschle’s patriotism and pairing him up with Saddam Hussein and making very gross slurs on his loyalty to the United States. By the way, Tom Daschle’s a veteran -- he actually served in the military, unlike many of the people who were attacking him. But Daschle didn't fight back against it very hard.
I vividly remember seeing Daschle sitting next to Trent Lott on Meet the Press, and Lott basically not disagreeing with the slurs on Daschle, his colleague, and Daschle kind of sitting there and not fighting back hard, where he should have turned to Trent Lott and said, "How dare you -- you were a cheerleader at Old Miss. and I was in the Air Force. Who are you to question my patriotism?" And get in his face.
Now somebody did do that. It happened to be John Kerry, who stood up in New Hampshire last summer and said, basically, "How dare they attack Tom Daschle?" And then he went on to say, "As somebody who served in Vietnam, which Tom DeLay and Trent Lott didn't do, I want to tell them that one thing I learned there was that it’s patriotic to dissent." Now that was an incredibly effective speech -- people in New Hampshire gave Kerry a long standing ovation.
My own view is that’s one of the reasons Kerry became an early front runner in the presidential campaign: he showed himself willing, at that point and one or two other times, to stand up to the Republicans who were using these kind of tactics and say, "Don't try it. Don't try it because I’ll come after you, and I’ll tell the truth about you. And you won't like that." So that’s what I was thinking when I wrote those sentences, because when bullies try that kind of stuff, you need to stand up and smack them
back at least as hard.
That’s not the same thing as saying you should go around talking about the immoral affairs of all these guys all the time. I understand what your question is getting to. But there are some distinctions to be made –- what kinds of things you can expect elected officials to talk about, and how they can talk about them, and what the job of the press is to unearth facts that might undermine some posturing by some phony like Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich.
BUZZFLASH: The Bush administration, according to Jim Moore, author of Bush’s Brain, sort of runs on this two-track approach, which is Karl Rove kind of plans and leaks innuendo through various people and media outlets. And Bush sort of stays above the fray. He’s the front man. He leaves that to Karl. He may know. He may not know. Probably doesn't.
CONASON: Oh, he knows.
BUZZFLASH: Probably doesn't care. I mean, he knows Rove’s doing the smear jobs; but not necessarily everything he’s doing.
CONASON: Well, it’s Upstairs, Downstairs, you know? I mean, Bush is a patrician. He’s from a nice family with a lot of money and some kind of social background. Karl Rove is a sort of lower middle-class guy who never went to college. Of course he’s going to carry the garbage out. This is a division of labor in American society; it's perfectly reflected in that relationship.
The fact that Karl Rove may have a lot of money now and gets to go to an embassy dinner party and things like that doesn't matter. Karl Rove is a servant who does the dirty work like most people who work for George W. Bush. And George W. Bush is the son of privilege who can screw up as much as he wants, and he still gets to go to Yale. And he still gets the easy job. And he still makes the easy money. And there is always somebody there to open the limousine door. That’s it. That’s not complicated. Everyone knows that’s how it works.
BUZZFLASH: And he smiles and –
CONASON: Sure, he smiles. Well, hey, it’s not that hard to be nice to everybody who’s always nice to you.
BUZZFLASH: Let me ask a question concerning what one might call celebrity pundit journalism. We have people now like Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter,etc. What makes Bill O’Reilly an expert on anything?
CONASON: Well, you’ll have to ask him that. I have no idea.
BUZZFLASH: It used to be you had journalists in the world, and journalists were people who opined on TV. We now have people that are sort of entertainment celebrities, but they’re marketed as journalists. Roger Ebert’s definition of a celebrity is someone who’s famous for being famous. And it’s almost like Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and so forth are known for having an opinion. But on what basis do they have any value to impart that opinion to the American public, other than that they’re entertainers?
CONASON: None, as far as I can tell -– I mean that honestly. I don't know that Bill O’Reilly knows anything about anything. His remarks about the war struck me as the kind of thing that would be said by some inebriated idiot on a barstool: Let’s bomb ‘em. That sort of kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out type of thing that some idiot says who’s stumbling along in the gutter. Read the stuff that he said. And I have to tell you it astonished me that this is somebody who is put forward as an authority. It’s a joke. What he has is a loud voice and ability to get what's called a "Q rating." And there’s some portion of the audience that sees him and listens to him and identifies with him. And so it doesn't matter if he knows what he’s talking about, or has thought about it, or changes his mind two minutes later, or lies about his own career, which he did. Or his own background, which he also did. None of that makes any difference. And the reason is that that’s how broadcasting works now in America. And being a qualified journalist and actually learning something, which is kind of what you have to do to get into broadcasting in a lot of other countries, is just not the case here. You will rise very fast here with no qualifications whatsoever. It wasn't always like that, but it is now.
BUZZFLASH: Just to sort of carry through on this theme of celebrity pundits -- this is probably too new for your book, but it came out that both Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, while denouncing the French, tend to enjoy French restaurants and still do to this day.
CONASON: Oh, I have a whole section about Rush’s tastes in the book –- his high-falutin’ tastes.
BUZZFLASH: In light of their urging a French boycott and being very anti-French, it hasn't slowed down their tastes for all things French.
CONASON: Well, Rush told Cigar Aficionado magazine years ago that Paris was one of his favorite places to go on vacation. And he loves French wine, the more expensive, the better.
BUZZFLASH: When you listen to them, they’re very bitter, angry, hostile at things. Rush is a "great broadcaster" in a classic broadcaster sense (he knows how to exploit the medium), but they’re so angry.
CONASON: Let me tell you something. I don't believe they’re so angry. I certainly don't believe Rush is that angry.
BUZZFLASH: Well, they’re living a good life because of the money they’re making, and enjoying themselves off the show’s profits.
CONASON: I don't doubt that Rush probably hates a lot of liberals, but he also is not nearly as angry as he pretends to be.
Why would he live in New York? Why would he spend his vacations in places like London and Paris? Why would he, for example, smoke Cuban cigars, as he boasts about doing? This is somebody who knows how to exploit other people’s anger. He knows how to exploit the anger of people who are not nearly as well off as he is -- their frustrations, their prejudices, their insecurities -- for his own profit.
And by doing so, he divides the country without so much as a twinge of conscience. He doesn't mind doing that. I don't believe he actually cares about America very much. He cares about Rush.
This is something that most people don't understand about the contemporary conservative movement: They’re not really particularly interested in the promotion of the general welfare, as the Constitution puts it, or about uniting the country against foreign enemies or helping to achieve domestic tranquility.
All the goals that the founders had for the United States are not ideas that contemporary so-called conservatives are much interested in.
I’ll tell you what they’re interested in: They’re interested in achieving their own power, in amassing their own wealth, in protecting themselves -- and their interests -- against the interests of the majority.
Those are the goals of the leaders of the movement that now calls itself conservatism.
And it has very little to do with American traditions and American ideals.