The Art of the False Impression
By Bob Herbert
The New York Times
Monday 11 August 2003
Al Gore slipped into Manhattan last week and gave a rousing speech downtown before a very young audience at New York University. He got some coverage, but Mr. Gore has never been mistaken for an entertainer. In the superamplified media din created by the likes of Arnold and Kobe and Ben and Jen, it's very difficult for the former vice president, a certified square, to break into the national conversation.
That says a lot about us and the direction we're headed in as a nation. You can agree with Mr. Gore's politics or not, but some of the points he's raising, especially with regard to President Bush's credibility on such crucial issues as war and terror and the troubled economy, deserve much closer attention.
"Millions of Americans now share a feeling that something pretty basic has gone wrong in our country, and that some important American values are being placed at risk," said Mr. Gore.
Keeping his language polite, the former vice president asserted that the Bush administration had allowed "false impressions" to somehow make their way into the public's mind. Enormous numbers of Americans thus came to believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks and was actively supporting Al Qaeda; that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were an imminent threat, and Iraq was on the verge of building nuclear weapons; that U.S. troops would be welcomed with open arms, and there was little danger of continued casualties in a prolonged guerrilla war.
The essence of Mr. Gore's speech was that these corrosive false impressions were part of a strategic pattern of distortion that the Bush administration used to create support not just for the war, but for an entire ideologically driven agenda that overwhelmingly favors the president's wealthy supporters and is driving the federal government toward a long-term fiscal catastrophe.
What if Mr. Gore is right? There's something at least a little crazy about an environment in which people are literally stumbling over one another to hear what Arnold Schwarzenegger has to say about the budget crisis in California (short answer: nothing), while ignoring what a thoughtful former vice president has to say about the budget and the economy of the U.S.
Voters with children and grandchildren who may someday have to shoulder the backbreaking debt that is being piled up by the Bush crowd might want to carefully examine some of the points Mr. Gore is raising. The Bush administration would have you believe he is talking nonsense. But what if he's not?
"Instead of creating jobs, for example, we are losing millions of jobs net losses for three years in a row," said Mr. Gore. "That hasn't happened since the Great Depression." He then looked at the audience and deadpanned, to tremendous laughter: "As I've noted before, I was the first one laid off."
Credibility is the Bush administration's Achilles' heel. If the public comes to believe that it cannot trust the administration about its reasons for going to war, about the real costs of the war in human lives and American dollars, about the actual state of the nation's defenses against terror and about the real beneficiaries of its economic policies, the Bush II presidency will be crippled, if not doomed.
This is an administration that is particularly sensitive to light. It prefers to do business behind closed doors, with the curtains and shades drawn. Enormous taxpayer-financed contracts are handed out to a favored few without competitive bidding. We still don't know what went on at the secret meetings between Dick Cheney and top energy industry executives at the very beginning of the Bush reign.
"It seems obvious," said Mr. Gore, "that big and important issues like the Bush economic policy and the first pre-emptive war in U.S. history should have been covered more extensively in the news media, and better presented to the American people, before our nation made such fateful choices. But that didn't happen, and in both cases reality is turning out to be very different from the impression that was given when the votes and the die were cast."
The Bush administration has managed to dodge the hard questions and benefit from an atmosphere in which the media and much of the public would rather contemplate Jennifer's navel and Arnold's fading pecs than pursue a possible pattern of deceit at the highest levels of government.