Bush's “Transformational” Democracy
George W. Bush’s advisers call him “a transformational president,” meaning that they believe his election to a second term on Nov. 2 will cement Republican political control for the foreseeable future. Some outsiders might consider the boast hyperbole, but this prediction of conservative hegemony should not be underestimated.
The conservatives have been building toward this objective for at least the past 30 years. Indeed, if one views the emerging conservative dominance from the perspective of the past three decades, it is an impressive – and, to many, a chilling – vista.
Combined with the rise of Bush family dynasty, this historical development suggests that the United States may be moving toward a significantly different form of government, far less open to disagreement and debate, a process where even mainstream Democrats, such as Al Gore and John Kerry, can expect to be turned into caricatures of themselves and made effectively unelectable.
This emerging political future came into sharper focus for me as I spent the last five months researching and writing a book on the ascendance of the two George Bushes to the pinnacle of U.S. political power. Entitled Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, the book examines how the two George Bushes have intersected with scandals and other major political events over the past 30 years.
Besides tracing how the Bushes crisscrossed these events, the book examines the broader question of how the United States reached today’s political crossroads. While George H.W. and George W. Bush played significant roles at many turning points, they also were beneficiaries of a sophisticated Republican strategy, which took shape in the late 1970s.
‘War of Ideas’
The Republican strategy centered on building a political/media infrastructure to fight what conservatives call “the war of ideas,” a concept that they do not mean in a metaphorical sense. Their goal has been to “win” this “war” by crushing their enemies.
The conservatives began building their “war” machine in the 1970s mostly for defensive reasons, to protect a future Republican president from “another Watergate” and to neutralize anti-war protests against some future Vietnam. But this well-funded network of think tanks, media outlets and attack groups also had an offensive capability that George H.W. Bush exploited in the 1988 and 1992 campaigns and that George W. Bush used effectively in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns – as well as during the run-up to war in Iraq to silence political objections to his planned course of action.
Indeed, the younger George Bush – with his thin appreciation for the value of free-and-open debate – may be the perfect vessel for transforming the U.S. political process into a more authoritarian system envisioned by some hard-line conservatives. After Election 2000, Bush joked that “If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier – so long as I’m the dictator.”
While the United States is not headed toward a traditional dictatorship nor even a tightly controlled “democracy” on the model of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Republicans do envision the nation undergoing a transformation into a new political model that would ensure their party’s control of all levers of American power for a generation or more.
In effect, the transformation would mean that any candidate without the blessings of the powerful conservative echo chamber will have about as much chance of winning as the Washington Generals do against the Harlem Globetrotters. The contest might be mildly entertaining, but the outcome will never be in doubt. Elections will become largely ceremonial affairs.
The deconstruction of the Democratic candidates – or even moderate Republicans – will fall primarily to the conservative media, including Fox News, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, the Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh, well-funded Internet sites, and an army of over-the-top conservative commentators on TV, radio and in newspaper columns.
Mainstream journalists, trying to protect their own careers, will mostly play along or stay silent. No one will want to risk taking these Republicans on, as CBS News and Dan Rather recently learned when they were deceived about the origins of four memos purportedly written by Bush’s former National Guard commander.
While there’s virtually no career risk in running bogus accounts against Democrats – such as the ugly attacks on Kerry’s Vietnam War record by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” – there is a huge downside for journalists if mistakes are made in criticizing a Bush.
As I discovered in researching Secrecy & Privilege, this phenomenon of “protecting the Bushes” is another feature of the emerging political process. Other related findings in the book include:
* During the Nixon-Ford administrations, the elder George Bush was viewed as a Mr. Fix-It with gold-plated connections. Richard Nixon turned to Bush in 1973 during Watergate to lead the Republican National Committee and to throw investigators off the Watergate trail. President Gerald Ford later put Bush in charge of the Central Intelligence Agency to stop the flood of politically damaging stories about CIA abuses.
* In fall 1976, CIA Director Bush deflected a scandal about a terrorist bombing in Washington that killed Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier and an American co-worker. Though in possession of incriminating evidence pointing to the U.S.-backed Chilean government, Bush’s CIA steered investigators away from the real killers while Ford almost surged from behind to catch Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.
* As CIA director, the senior George Bush also set the stage for the “politicization” of the CIA’s analytical division by letting in conservative ideologues for the so-called Team B experiment, the first step in a systematic exaggeration of Soviet military power and the gutting of the CIA’s tradition of analytical objectivity. In 1991, Bush named Robert Gates, a key “politicization” figure, to run the CIA.
* George H.W. Bush brought disgruntled CIA veterans into U.S. domestic politics during the 1980 campaign. After Bush was picked as Ronald Reagan’s running mate, these former CIA officers carried their intelligence skills – and their determination to oust President Carter – into the Reagan-Bush campaign. One of Bush’s key operatives was former clandestine services chief Ted Shackley, the CIA’s legendary “Blond Ghost.”
* Shackley and other CIA veterans coordinated with Bush in monitoring President Carter’s Iran hostage negotiations in 1980. New evidence also supports allegations that senior Republicans went beyond keeping track of Carter’s progress in gaining a last-minute “October Surprise” release of 52 American hostages. Senior Republicans, including CIA personnel, appear to have met directly with Iranian representatives and disrupted Carter’s negotiations. The hostages were finally released after Reagan was sworn in as President on Jan. 20, 1981.
* In 1992, while seeking reelection, President George H.W. Bush succeeded in containing a congressional probe into the 1980 hostage controversy by hiding behind shaky or false alibis. In January 1993, the Russian government delivered a classified report to the U.S. Congress corroborating allegations that senior Republicans, including Bush, met with Iranians in 1980. But the House investigative task force, headed by Reps. Lee Hamilton and Henry Hyde, kept the Russian report secret from the U.S. public.
* During the 1992 campaign, President George H.W. Bush personally encouraged his subordinates to dig up dirt about Bill Clinton’s anti-war activities and his student travels to Eastern Europe. Bush’s pressure led to an illegal search of Clinton’s passport file at State Department archives and the leaking of a baseless criminal referral that opened the door to attacks on Clinton’s patriotism.
* George W. Bush adopted similar hardball tactics in his campaigns. In Campaign 2000, the younger George Bush was aided by a powerful conservative news media that had been constructed in the quarter century since Watergate. A key feature of that right-wing machine has been the Washington Times, a publication financed by South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon. Secrecy & Privilege unearths evidence that Moon’s fortune has relied on illegal money laundering and that investigations of this criminal conspiracy have been short-circuited by Republican administrations.
* During the Florida recount in 2000, George W. Bush’s campaign paid the expenses of Republican operatives who were flown to Florida and staged a riot that stopped the counting of votes in Miami. Campaign documents also show that Bush picked up the tab for a post-riot celebration that included crooner Wayne Newton signing “Danke Schoen.”
Beyond those specific findings, Secrecy & Privilege shows how the elder George Bush injected CIA-style propaganda strategies – such as the concept of “perception management” – into the U.S. political process. In covert operations, intelligence operatives use “perception management” techniques to control how a target population perceives events by tailoring propaganda “themes” to exploit the population’s cultural weaknesses or biases.
Working with former CIA officers who joined him in the White House in the early 1980s, then-Vice President Bush helped craft secret policies for manipulating U.S. public opinion and for hiding controversial policies from the public’s view.
The evidence now shows that Bush played a key role in carrying out clandestine U.S. foreign policies in Central America and the Middle East. Some of those policies were exposed in the Iran-Contra Affair in the late 1980s, but the emerging conservative political/media infrastructure helped the Reagan-Bush administration limit the Iran-Contra disclosures in ways not available during the Watergate scandal a little more than a decade earlier.
The impact of the conservative Republican political/media strategy was compounded by a corresponding failure of liberals and Democrats to respond in kind. Secrecy & Privilege reveals that Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, repeatedly sought accommodation rather than confrontation with Republicans, apparently out of false hope that meaningful bipartisanship was possible.
Toward that end, national Democrats often joined in shutting down investigations of alleged Republican wrongdoing, such as occurred with probes of the Iran-Contra scandal, the Iraqgate evidence of Reagan-Bush coddling of Saddam Hussein, and the October Surprise allegations of Republican interference in Jimmy Carter’s 1980 hostage negotiations.
The Democrats were “rewarded” for these bipartisan gestures with an even more powerful dose of the Republican attack strategies. Clinton’s presidency was pounded with allegations of wrongdoing over his Whitewater real estate investment and a host of other minor issues, such as the firing of employees in the White House Travel Office.
Though those allegations led to no charges against Clinton, the scandal frenzy eventually led to Clinton’s 1998 impeachment for lying about a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton survived a trial in the Senate in 1999, but Clinton’s legacy was forever tarnished and Vice President Gore’s campaign to succeed Clinton was badly damaged by the impeachment fallout.
In Campaign 2000, mainstream journalists joined with their conservative colleagues in bashing Gore out of what appeared to be a sense of frustration over Clinton’s survival. From the New York Times to the Washington Times, the national press corps exaggerated Gore’s alleged proclivity for exaggeration, creating what became a decisive issue in the minds of many American voters who came to doubt Gore’s honesty. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore vs. the Media” and “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]
Campaign 2004 is turning out to be a kind of sequel to Campaign 2000, with the potent conservative machine churning out personal attacks against Sen. John Kerry’s integrity, honesty and patriotism. At the Republican National Convention in New York, some delegates wore band-aids with purple hearts to mock Kerry’s war wounds and reinforce the attacks on Kerry’s heroism from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Kerry, who won the Bronze Star and the Silver Star for heroism in Vietnam, had skippered a Swift boat in the Mekong Delta during Operation Sealords, one of the most hazardous assignments in the Vietnam War. Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, Navy commander in Vietnam, estimated that sailors in Operation Sealords suffered a 75 percent casualty rate.
But the conservative news media and mainstream news outlets, such as CNN, let themselves be used to promote the dubious Swift Boat Veterans for Truth charges challenging Kerry's heroism and honesty. The impact on Kerry’s reputation was devastating, sending him into freefall in some national polls and making him the subject of public derision.
For his part, George W. Bush refused to specifically denounce the attacks on Kerry, saying only that all political advertising from independent groups should be banned. In effect, Bush was equating the spurious attacks on Kerry’s war record with questions raised by some liberal groups about how Bush slipped past better-qualified candidates to get a position in the Texas Air National Guard and then failed to fulfill even those duties.
This summer’s dismantling of John Kerry is a sign of what the “transformed” American political system may look like for years to come.
Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s, has written a new book entitled, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. Copies can be obtained from the publisher at www.secrecyandprivilege.com. This article first appeared in ConsortiumNews.com. Thanks to Oliver Shykles.