Candidates not the only ‘spinners’

Published 9:50 pm Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Some years ago, I accepted a magazine assignment to write about the Texas Prison Rodeo. Never having set foot inside a penitentiary, I asked a friend who’d been a prison warden in two Southern states for advice. After we talked for a bit, my friend leaned back, put his boots up on the desk, lit a cigar, and cut to the chase.

“You don’t strike me as a naive person, so don’t take me wrong,” he said carefully, pausing for emphasis. “But some of those boys will lie to you.”

In that spirit, a guide to the upcoming marathon presidential campaign. Lest anybody tell you different: ALL candidates are consumed with ambition; ALL seek power; ALL have formidable egos. Nobody who didn’t could survive the ordeal. Furthermore, ALL political events are stage-managed to the maximum extent possible. Even if they appear on “Oprah,” they’re not there to bare their souls.

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An American presidential campaign is the ultimate “reality TV” show. It follows that the anchorcreatures and pundits who bring it to your living room use it to advance their own careers, often by substituting made-for-TV plots and themes for the humdrum issues candidates prefer to discuss. Few voters grasp how much the media’s obsession with personality, “character,” and hot-button issues like race and sex, often involves distorting reality to fit a pre-selected theme.

On his Web site, The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby has exhaustively chronicled how fictive scenarios about Al Gore and George W. Bush dominated the 2000 presidential election. The Beltway press consistently portrayed Gore as a big faker who made up self-aggrandizing tales about himself, while Bush was an “authentic” politician with a common touch. A gushing Bush profile in, yes, The New York Times set the tone early: “Nobody would ever mistake him for Vice President Gore … His style is an amalgam of East and Southwest, Yale and the oil patch. Call him the Madras Cowboy.”

The “Madras Cowboy” line never took, but the theme sure did. I vividly recall talking with two Democratic friends, both physicians, both a lot smarter than myself, who’d swallowed the anti-Gore storyline whole. Invented the Internet, “Love Story,” the lot. The first claim Gore never made; the second, author Erich Segal made clear, was largely true. He had modeled his novel’s protagonist on Gore, his former student.

The result is that our president’s a bicycle-pedaling “Texas rancher” who, to my knowledge, has never owned a horse or cow; an epic liar rivaled only by Richard Nixon and his fellow Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Many find it hard to grasp how today’s Beltway press operates, because in their own professional lives, inventing or ignoring dispositive facts ultimately leads to firing, disgrace and revoked licenses. In Washington, it brings fame, fortune and guest spots on “Hardball,” where pundits ponder questions like this one from the excitable host about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s alleged unwillingness to explain her vote authorizing the Iraq war:

“Everybody in America knew we were going to war with Bush. He made it pretty clear from Day One we were going to war. How come she still pretends that she didn’t know he was going to war? It’s like she didn’t know anything about Bill and his behavior! How many times is she going to be confused by men?”

See how it works? From WMD straight back to Bill Clinton’s pants. Never mind that when the Senate voted in 2002, Bush swore that war was the LAST thing he wanted. Did Sen. Clinton believe him? I have no way of knowing. Her contemporaneous public statements accepted intelligence reports touting Iraq’s WMD and ties to Al Qaeda, both now known to be false.

But Clinton’s clearly this campaign’s Beltway pinata, a calculating phony like Gore. Recently, for example, a New Hampshire voter asked her why she hadn’t called her Iraq vote a mistake. Reporters for the trend-setting New York Times and Washington Post knew what to do. They paraphrased her answer and guessed at her motives. “Mrs. Clinton,” the Times wrote, “stuck to a set of talking points that she and her advisers hope will ultimately overcome the antiwar anger that is particularly strong among Democrats.”

Here’s the transcript of what Clinton actually said: “I have said, and I will repeat … that, knowing what I know now, I would never have voted for it. But I also — and, I mean, obviously you have to weigh everything as you make your decision — I have taken responsibility for my vote. The mistakes were made by this president, who misled this country and this Congress into a war that should not have been waged.”

How much does Clinton’s position differ from those of Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, depicted as her main rivals? Hardly at all, in practical terms. But you’d never know that if you follow the spin.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at