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 deceits.
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 illusion.
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 follow.
"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 feigned.
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 anyway."
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 taxes.
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.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Lies of George W. Bush by David Corn. Copyright © 2003 by David Corn. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.