Passionate Conservatism

Karl Rove's Republicans swerve right on the way to the middle

I'm inclined to agree with him. Which leaves me in something of a spot. What to do about the fact that so many of the men the Bush administration has charged with redeeming the fear are turning out to be incompetents and crooks?

Speaking of GOP comedy. Did you hear the one about how two Americans blown up in a bombing in Kabul round about convention eve? Not if you were watching the convention coverage.

Reassured, or moved to support Bush-Cheney?
photo: Staci Schwartz
Reassured, or moved to support Bush-Cheney?

Instead, you heard the Republican talking points. Like the line speaker after speaker repeated, over and over again, about (these words are Laura Bush's) the "50 million more men, women, and children [that] live in freedom thanks to the United States." That is meant to include the entire population of Afghanistan and Iraq. Which brings us to the other missed story of this convention. The word that—if Michael Powell wasn't FCC commissioner, our press corps were stalwart, and there was any justice in the world—would be on every set of lips: bullshit.

Consider the "50 million" figure. Every informed observer knows that the idea that the 28 million residents of the nation of Afghanistan "living in freedom"—instead of in the zones beyond spitting distance of the capital, under the rule of the same old warlords and Taliban remnants as before—is a fantasy. Similarly fantastic, and repeated by nearly every speaker: that homeownership, and especially minority homeownership, is at an "all-time high." The number of homeowners has grown every year on record. Every year is an "all-time high." The relevant number is the rate of growth. In a typical two-year period during the Clinton years—from the second quarter of 1994 to the second quarter of 1996, for example, the percentage of American homeowners went up 1.8 points. In the last eight quarters, under Bush, it went up . . . less than one point. Dick Cheney's claim that the homeownership rate is proof that "the Bush tax cuts are working" is delusion on crack.

More and more as convention week went on, I found myself lamenting the lack of a word in the English language to describe the kind of utterance that produces this uncanny frustration, this furious oscillating over whether to call something you swear you just heard a lie, a product of ignorance, or a side-effect of lamentable political self-hypnosis. All are morally contemptible if uttered by figures at this level. Be that as it may, the problem is terminological efficiency. And it was the Great Communicator himself, the hero of this convention, who came through for me in the pinch. Ronald Reagan used to love to repeat, "It's not that our liberal friends are ignorant. It's just that they know so much that just isn't so."

Just so.

Honoring Reagan's memory, I began to refer to the phantasmagoric breaths of wind that kept on issuing from Madison Square Garden speakers as "not-so's." Try it. As a coinage, it's expansive. It even encompasses Zell Miller's claim that, say, John Kerry is "selling off our national security," leaving us to defend ourselves with "spitballs," because he cast a protest vote again an annual defense authorization bill that included funding for the Apache helicopter and the F14 Tomcat. It's just not so—at least not in any way that makes sense politically, considering that the vice president on whose behalf Miller toils is on the record around the same time calling those same systems "unneeded."

Surely this is historic. A presidential campaign is being built on a tissue of demonstrable falsehoods. And those are just the biggest not-so's. Here are some of the smaller. They came faster than I could fact check them. And, apparently, faster than the New York Times or Washington Post could fact-check them.

Zell exhorts, to a standing ovation that lasts 20 seconds, that "today's Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator." A Nexis search indicates that Senator Kerry has never been quoted saying that. Nor Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, nor House leader Nancy Pelosi, nor Senate or House Democratic whips Harry Reid or Steny Hoyer; nor Hoyer's deputy whips Charlie Stenholm, Nita Lowie, Maxine Waters. I'll admit at this point I stopped searching. Maybe Miller is referring to the clerk in the House Democratic cloakroom.

The great straight-talker himself, John McCain, breathed a not-so (like all the most vintage examples of the genre, this one also received a standing ovation) when he said Michael Moore's film depicted "Saddam's Iraq as an oasis of peace" (Moore's actual claim: there are children in Iraq, and they fly kites).

Bill Frist not-so'ed compulsively, not least when he implied that it was George Bush, not a generation of Democrats, who proposed a prescription drug subsidy under Medicare (the GOP stonewalled the notion until they had a president of their own who could claim credit for it).

"Arnold Leaves Them Laughing," Newsday headlined. He also, Newsday neglected to note, not-so'ed: "The President didn't go into Iraq because the polls told him it was popular. A matter of fact, the polls said just the opposite." The facts: two-thirds supported the invasion the month before it happened, 58 percent on its eve, and almost three-quarters after 9-11.

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