[R-G] Inside the Bush White House’s Nonstop Propaganda War

Anthony Fenton fentona at shaw.ca
Tue Jul 15 10:15:54 MDT 2008


Inside the Bush White House’s Nonstop Propaganda War
Monday, July 14th, 2008
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By Mark Dery | Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan  
exposes the culture of deception that sold an unnecessary war to the  

Scott McClellan is having a “Matrix” moment — the moment when you wake  
up, with a jolt, from the reassuring fictions of the media dreamworld  
to the face-slapping reality of unspun fact. Remember that scene in  
“The Matrix” where Laurence Fishburne parts the veil of illusion — the  
computer-generated simulation humanity experiences as everyday reality  
— to reveal the movie’s post-apocalyptic world for the irradiated slag  
heap it really is? Like that. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” he  
tells Keanu Reeves, a riff on the postmodern philosopher Jean  
Baudrillard’s pronouncement, in his book Simulations, that we live in  
a “desert of the real” — an ever-more-virtual reality where firsthand  
experience and empirical truth are being displaced by media fictions.  
He offers an example tailor-made for the Bush presidency: “Propaganda  
and advertising fuse in the same marketing and merchandising of  
objects and ideologies.”

This, in a word, is life inside the Bush administration’s Ministry of  
Truth, as described by McClellan in What Happened: Inside the Bush  
White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. In his frag ‘em-and- 
run memoir, the former White House press secretary — whose Secret  
Service code name, I kid you not, was “Matrix” — recounts how he and  
the rest of Team Dubya got caught up in the “permanent campaign,” a  
nonstop propaganda war whose tactical weapons were “the manipulation  
of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth, and spin,”  
and whose goal was to stage-manage the media narrative and thus public  

Now that McClellan has broken free from what he calls the “Washington  
bubble,” he can see the “massive marketing campaign” (his words, my  
italics) to sell the war in Iraq for the steaming heap of dookie it  
was: a PR operation characterized by a, er, “lack of candor and  
honesty,” as the author so masterfully understates it, having just  
told us that the administration dropped the trap on chief economic  
adviser Larry Lindsey for telling the Wall Street Journal that Bush’s  
war would likely cost between $100 billion and $200 billion — a fatal  
misspeak at a moment when “talking about the projected cost of a  
potential war wasn’t part of the script.” Neither was talking about  
“possible unpleasant consequences” (the choice of adjective is sheer  
virtuosity, like a grace note in a Paganini caprice); “casualties,  
economic effects, geopolitical risks, diplomatic repercussions,” and  
other buzz-killers might jeopardize what advertisers call the  
“supportive atmosphere” that puts consumers in that impulse-buying  
mood — in this instance, buying the dubious case for war from a  
president who famously prefers faith to facts, a president who listens  
to his gut. Unfortunately, the trustworthy gurglings of the Bush gut  
were indistinguishable, in this case, from the offstage urgings of the  
neocons Colin Powell derided as “fucking crazies.”

What Happened is a dyspeptic mixture of born-again confessional and  
media culpa; it’s The Confessions of St. Augustine, as written by  
Michael Deaver. Four sentences in, McClellan lets us know that today’s  
homily will take as its text John 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth,  
and the truth shall make you free.” Our pilgrim spends much of his  
progress bogged down in that Slough of Despond, Washington, D.C.,  
where even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night,  
like the “fundamentally decent” George W. Bush, can fall prey to the  
rancorously partisan, win-at-any-cost mindset of the Permanent  
Campaign Mentality. Narrow is the gate and straight is the way, and  
lying in wait in the tall grass are the news media, whom McClellan  
somewhat redundantly insists on calling “complicit  
enablers.” (Personally, I prefer the more precise Enabling Enablers  
Who Enable Too Much.) The media oversimplify complex issues, batten on  
scandal, are “too deferential” to power (yet another nail in the  
coffin of the liberal-media canard, not that it will stay buried), and  
focus on the horse-race aspects of politics rather than the weighty  
matters that furrow the American brow, between episodes of “Flavor of  

The book ends with some halfhearted bromides, on loan from Billy  
Graham: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” The  
organ swells, sobbingly. “It would be difficult if not impossible to  
find anyone who has lived in this destructive world of Washington …  
who is truly ‘without sin.’” All together now: “A-maz-ing grace, how  
sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me!”

Of course, the Winston Smith of the West Wing knows too well that, in  
a media age, “shaping the narrative before it shapes you” is how you  
win hearts and minds and, not incidentally, sell books. Watching him  
stay relentlessly on message as he makes the talk show rounds, one  
can’t help but wonder: Is the man still spinning? The White House and  
its flying monkeys in the right-wing blogosphere and over at Fox News  
think so: They’ve launched a counterspin offensive, Richard Clarke-ing  
him as a shameless prevaricator who will do anything to boost his book  
sales. (It was ranked No. 1 on Amazon.com shortly after its

McClellan’s critics want to make McClellan the issue, a kill-the- 
messenger strategy not unfamiliar to the man himself, who used it to  
parry former terrorism czar Richard Clarke’s criticisms of the  
administration’s catastrophic bungling of the war on terror.

But if we step outside the tired binary logic of attack pundits and  
partisan hacks, there’s a deeper meaning to this story. Like no  
administration before it, the Bush administration has mastered what  
the media critic Walter Lippmann called “the manufacture of consent” —  
the use of “psychological research, coupled with the modern means of  
communication,” to muster mass support for elite agendas. Staging  
photo ops whose choreographed drama and camera-ready visuals (Mission  
Accomplished!) are intended to play to the emotions and overrule  
objections; reducing complicated geopolitical issues to black-or-white  
dualisms (Team America: World Police vs. the Axis of Evil!);  
stonewalling the media, cherry-picking military intelligence, and  
parroting the same Karl Rove-approved talking points — the Bush  
administration represents the apotheosis of government by spin control.

Sure, sure, truth is the first casualty of war, and politics is just  
war with a smile and a starched collar. But this is the stuff of which  
doctoral dissertations on Baudrillard are made. The burgeoning genre  
of Bush administration tell-alls, of which McClellan’s is only the  
latest, paints a portrait of a White House utterly unconcerned with  
facts yet fervently attentive to public opinion polls. It is a White  
House whose solution to every unhappy turn of events — the Iraqi  
insurgency, Katrina, a moribund economy, concerns about Rumsfeld  
raised by retired generals — is to treat it not as a real-world  
problem requiring a real-world solution but as glitch in the Matrix —  
“a perception problem,” to be handled with the Message of the Day and  
the Theme of the Week.

The moral of McClellan’s story is deeper than he knows, deeper by far  
than some Book of Virtues parable about Washington’s “culture of  
deception.” The philosophical takeaway here is the historical shift  
from the Enlightenment worldview, whose commitment to reasoned debate  
and empirical truth used to be the cornerstone of our little  
experiment in democracy, to the faith-based worldview of  
fundamentalism — not just the Christian fundamentalism of the  
religious right, but fundamentalisms of every sort. The Iraq War came  
about, in large part, because of a harmonic convergence of personal  
passions, political agendas and ideological crusades, all faith-based  
rather than fact-driven. Bush, McClellan tells us, is a man who  
“convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment” and  
who “to this day … seems unbothered by the disconnect between the  
chief rationale for war and the driving motivation behind it, and  
unconcerned about how the case was packaged.” Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and  
the other saber-rattling superhawks at the neoconservative Project for  
the New American Century were on a Mission From God to democratize the  
Middle East, police the globe as part of the “constabulary duties” of  
the Last Action Superpower, and, not incidentally, found a star- 
spangled imperium. And Karl Rove’s psyops team, of which McClellan was  
a part, intuitively embraced the postmodern proposition that media  
representation is reality — that the story shapes perception, not the  
other way round. In the modern age, wrote Walter Lippmann, people are  
influenced by the mass media “pictures in their heads.” As an unnamed  
Bush aide put it in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article by Ron  
Suskind, there are those who still live in “what we call the reality- 
based community,” people who “believe that solutions emerge from your  
judicious study of discernible reality,” and then there are those who  
understand that “that’s not the way the world really works anymore. …  
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Of course, somewhere outside the Matrix-like reality of media spin,  
public perception and the White House “bubble,” in what we used to  
call the Real World (isn’t that a reality TV show?), there may be  
collateral damage. About two-thirds of the way through What Happened,  
McClellan recounts a wrenching scene I just can’t get out of my head.  
He describes one of the few times the shadow of self-doubt flickered  
across Bush’s mind, during one of the president’s visits with wounded  
soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In a dimly lit room, a  
woman and her 7-year-old son sit beside their husband and father, a  
veteran with a brain injury so severe he was “clearly not aware of his  
surroundings.” President Bush hugs the mother, tells the boy his dad  
is “a very brave man,” and whispers in the shattered soldier’s ear,  
“God bless you.” McClellan writes:

     “Then [the president] turned and walked toward the door. Looking  
straight ahead, he moved his right hand to wipe away a tear. In that  
moment, I could see the doubt in his eyes and the vivid realization of  
the irrevocable consequences of his decision.”

Welcome to the Desert of the Real, guys.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Los  
Angeles Times.

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