Friday, December 19, 2003

The New Political Science: Reinterpretation

As I haven't stimulated much controversy here yet, I thought I'd take the opportunity to restate something I've concluded over the last year. I'd said before that Bush is a political genius of sorts, but in reality all I can assert is that someone who writes his speeches is a political genius of the new type: he can get a politician to say X and have the nation hear Y. This skill evolved in the Reagan administration and was honed in the Clinton years.

In perhaps the most famous example, then-President Clinton faced down a news conference in early 1998 on the Lewinsky debacle, and solemnly told the nation X ("There is no sexual relationship"). While I'd say most Americans heard Y ("I did not cheat on my wife"), Clinton could later reinterpret his statement as Z ("The sexual relationship between Monica and I is over.") This was rather adept, since saying Y would have given political opponents a bald-faced lie they could resurrect later, and Z would have admitted the truth too early. As it happened, he was able to hold up that tension till August, when Middle America had ceased wanting to hear about it anymore.

George W. Bush- or rather, someone in the Bush Administration- has been even more clever and circumspect. Raise your hand if you think that George Bush stated before the invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein currently possessed weapons of mass destruction. Put your hands down, because he invariably left a little room to maneuver. I've looked through a few months of his releases, and found him saying that Iraq "desires weapons of mass destruction", and that there was a "grave and gathering danger" from Saddam. He said that Iraq "likely maintains stockpiles of chemical and biological agents", and is "willing to use weapons of mass destruction" (if he possesses them). In the closest quote I can find, at the time of his 48-hour ultimatum, he told the American people, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq's neighbors and against Iraq's people."

None of these are airtight or damning, however. After all, missiles are some of the most lethal weapons ever devised, and Saddam had a couple of those. Nothing I found would make a solid clip of "Bush lying" for, say, a Democratic ad. All the direct things we thought Bush said about Iraq and WMD were either set out by other administration officials, or conservative commentators, or were only what we thought the President meant. If you don't believe me, search through the transcripts yourself, looking for something that can't be reinterpreted away. (Although I thought it was a great touch that the official White House website gives these transcripts the header "Iraq: Denial and Deception"...)

Do I think that this counts as misleading? Yes. As lying? Maybe. It's saying something vague and letting the audience fill in the blanks with things you didn't say. But it's not just George W. Bush, and it's going to be the norm in government from now on. I think that nonverbal cues are beginning to lead us astray, so perhaps the best solution is to only read the transcripts of speeches and do our best to avoid leaps of implication. Welcome to post-Watergate politics: no more "plausible deniability", but it's all about "plausible reinterpretation".

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