This month marks the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, so we’re doing a four part retrospective on some of the propaganda involved. That may sound like a lot of coverage for an event so far in the past, but it barely scratches the surface. It was, after all, a major milestone in media manipulation, as well as just about the most momentous court decision in the nation’s history. (It also signaled the collapse of the American electoral system, but that’s a topic for some other blog.)
One thing that makes the case so noteworthy is the court’s sheer unmitigated gall, its arrogance of unbridled power. The ruling was rendered by a highly partisan majority of five justices, at least two of whom had close personal ties to the plaintiff. (It was not, as many believe, a 7-2 decision. And it was not, as many believe, Al Gore who filed the suit.) And they were ruling on a lower decision in a state where the governor was Bush’s brother and the secretary of state was his campaign co-chair. In order to make the argument they made, these five had to do an abrupt about face from positions they’d staunchly maintained for years on states’ rights. And they did so twice. First, there was the preliminary ruling, in which they halted the Florida recount on the grounds that Bush would probably win his suit (a conclusion they drew without even having read the briefs yet) and that any evidence to the contrary might hamper his claim; in other words, they felt that protecting his claim to victory was more important than finding out who really won. (No, that’s not an exaggeration.) A few days later, they affirmed their own prophecy with a final ruling, stating that the recount (which they themselves had delayed) couldn’t be completed by the deadline – which in fact was not really a deadline at all. And just for good measure, they decreed that unlike past court rulings, theirs was not to be used as a precedent, but their logic was to apply to this one case only.
The other thing that makes this case so special is its long-range political impact. Quite simply, it effectively turned the U.S. into a one-party state, namely a Republican party state – and perhaps permanently. That might sound like an odd assessment given that we recently saw the election of a Democratic president by an overwhelming margin, and we’ve just seen two years of an overwhelmingly Democratic congress. But it’s most likely that the past two years were an aberration; and besides, it doesn’t matter so much who holds the majority as who holds the clout. In the White House, George W. Bush was able to appoint new Supreme Court justices to carry on the Court’s right-wing bent. And the Court has done just that, with rulings that further solidify the party’s base of power. One ruling was a big payoff for the NRA, a powerful right-wing faction and major perpetrator of anti-Democratic hysteria. More recently, a ruling on campaign finance shattered the dam on unlimited campaign cash, which inevitably gave the GOP a huge advantage, as the midterm elections results show – and they’re just getting warmed up. The party is now able to redistrict to give itself an even further advantage; and having more elected representatives from the party means opportunities to appoint more ideologue justices. And so on. It’s a cycle that will be difficult if not impossible to break.
But what we’re really concerned with here is the role the media played in the whole affair. And it was a crucial role indeed – before, during and after the election. The media helped make the election as close as it was, thus making the lawsuit possible, and it played a big role in legitimizing the results afterward.
To begin with, we must recall that George W. Bush was at first given very little chance of winning. He was up against a well-respected vice president whose administration had overseen one of the biggest economic recoveries ever. Once upon a time, he’d actually volunteered to serve in Vietnam. And for years he had been a champion of sound environmental stewardship.
But Al Gore wasn’t the main obstacle Bush had to overcome. The main obstacle was George W. Bush. His candidacy was regarded by many, including many members of his own party, as a bad joke. His life had been a long history of behaving like the wealthy playboy he was, with heavy drinking, and reputed cocaine usage – a series of “youthful indiscretions” as he called them, lasting until he was about age 40. The evidence was that he had avoided Vietnam by securing a cushy post with the National Guard, and then failed to report for duty for a long period of time. He had driven every business he touched into the red (a streak that would remain unbroken after his tenure in the White House). He even had an arrest record. And then there were the gaffes when he opened his mouth – not only mangling the English language far more acutely and far more often than your average politician (he inspired the collection of several volumes of “Bushisms”), but also committing errors that betrayed an alarming ignorance of history, government and world affairs. He even expressed confusion about the function of the executive branch of the federal government, which he was campaigning to lead. (C’mon, it’s only a presidential election, not a college exam.)
Yet Bush also had at least one ace in the hole that would trump any hand Gore could possibly play: campaign strategist Karl Rove, just about the most brilliant political strategist ever, and one of the most brilliant propagandists ever. “Turd Blossom”, as Dubya affectionately dubbed him, not only could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, he could make the public want to trade in all their silk purses for a single sow’s ear. The story goes that when he was a kid in 1960, his family supported Nixon for president, and when a certain girl in the neighborhood -whose family favored Kennedy – found out about this, she pounced on him and beat him up. Angered and humiliated, he made it a lifelong mission to get revenge on Democrats, and thus on the female bully. And in recent years, he’s been pounding her to a pulp, over and over again. (He re-emerged during the 2010 midterms to help the Tea Party jockey into power.)
In 2000, his approach was ingeniously simple: make his client’s simplicity a virtue. Which is to say, reinvent George W. Bush as “one of us”, an “Everyman from Mayberry”, in the words of one commentator. Under Rove’s mentoring, he was rechristened Dubya, after having been called Junior his whole life. His origins as a privileged Yankee frat rat were buried and he was reborn as a son of the soil from the good ole Republic of Teksizz, complete with boots and hat. Unlike that uppity Harvard snob Al Gore (a product of Tennessee, but never mind that), George Dubya ( a product of Connecticut who attended Yale, but never mind that) was a cattle rancher, who was frequently photographed clearing out brush – because after all, he surely always attended to that chore personally. When he was photographed next to his ranch house, the propane tank was covered by bales of hay. And when he was photographed or filmed giving a speech, men in the audience who were close to the camera were instructed to remove their jackets and ties and roll up their sleeves to appear like plain ol’ folk. (A picture is worth a thousand words, even if they’re grammatically correct). His favorite sandwich was peanut butter (Jiff, of course) and jelly (grape, of course) on white bread (what else) and he brushed his teeth afterward with Colgate. Suddenly, being average was where it was at – as he would later assure the C students graduating at his alma mater, they too could become president someday. Why should we expect our brain surgeons or our airline pilots or our defense attorneys or our world leaders to be achievers?
And needless to say, the media took the bait in splendid fashion. They touted polls indicating that Dubya was the candidate that more people would prefer to go fishing with or have a beer with – which heaven knows is exactly the person you want to have his finger on the button. Even his elocutionary problems were glossed over and in at least one case (The Albuquerque Journal) actually corrected by the press – heaven forbid we allow the public to think the guy was unsuited for public office. When his flubs did draw attention to themselves, the media tended to shrug and say, aw ain’t that cute. The ever-entertaining National Review even suggested, with a perfectly straight face, that his mutilated English was a deliberate effort to use language in newer, more expressive nuances. You just can’t make up this kind of stuff.
So Dubya’s (lone) star began to rise, and it looked like he might have a ghost of a chance after all. But there was still the problem of an opponent to demolish.
And demolish him they did, in most magnificent fashion.
(Next: Bushwhacking Gore)