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DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL! Saletan scolds libs for seeking the truth—then repeats some prime Gingrich propaganda:


FOOLS FOR HIGH OFFICE: Just how far in the bag is your “press corps?” At last, we get a small-bore chance to find out. Newsweek reports that L. Jean Lewis has been named chief of staff of the Defense Department’s inspector-general office; this is one of the most amazing news reports of the year. Gene Lyons’ column gives you the background, although we recommend Lyons’ Fools for Scandal for the early account of Lewis’ clowning. In a rational world, one would expect a “press corps” to jump when a circus clown is named to such a high position. But as Lyons explains, the press corps managed to look away when Lewis engaged in her first round of clowning (and when she baldly lied to the Congress). The question is obvious: Will the press discuss Lewis’ bizarre history with her ascension to this position? Or is the corps so far in the bag that even this remarkable event will be ignored? Lewis is a crackpot and clown. But then, many in the press may say, “Hail to thee, kindred spirit.”

PROPAGANDA CAMPAIGNS AND THE PROPAGANDIZING PROPAGANDISTS WHO PRODUCE THEM: Who lies more, Dems or Reps? Careerist scribes are busy insisting that there’s just no way for sages to say. The Bush-haters are just as bad as the Clinton-haters, they say. And they revile naughty liberals who speak to these issues. At Slate, Will Saletan is the latest scribe in thrall to a force we might call the New Moral Equivalence:

SALETAN: Lying and cheating don’t belong to Republicans or Democrats. We’re all susceptible, and we’re all guilty.

Sure, some people are more guilty than others. But if that’s your obsession, I commend to you the words of my colleaque, Jack Shafer: If you’re interested in which wing lies more, you’re probably not very interested in the truth.

Say what? Let’s see if we can figure that out. Since we all lie and cheat at some point, it doesn’t matter if one side does it more. And if you’re interested in sorting this out, “you’re probably not very interested in the truth.” Sane people will note that this makes little sense. But careerist scribes will keep peddling this cant, protecting their big future paydays.

Who do Shafer and Saletan savage? Among others, they wag their fingers at Joe Conason, who is, according to their formulations, “probably not very interested in the truth.” In his new book, Big Lies, Conason argues that a potent conservative propaganda machine has distorted our discourse in the past decade. How comical that, in assailing Conason, Saletan repeats a foundational myth from that very propaganda machine. Here it is, nicely typed, just the way Newt taught the press corps to type it:

SALETAN: ABC’s This Week aired a delicious exchange between George Stephanopoulos and Howard Dean aboard a Dean campaign van. Stephanopoulos asked Dean whether it was true, as rival candidate Dick Gephardt alleged, that Dean had supported $270 billion in Medicare cuts advocated by Newt Gingrich in 1995. Dean said it was “very unlikely.” Then Stephanopoulos showed Dean newspaper clips backing up the allegation. “It’s pretty clear that you said you would accept a 7 to 10 percent cut in the rate of growth of Medicare,” said Stephanopoulos. “Oh!” Dean interjected, raising his eyebrows. “Cutting the rate of growth! That’s much different.”

Excuse me, but wasn’t that difference exactly what Clinton deliberately blurred in his 1996 campaign? Didn’t he beat Bob Dole by accusing Dole and Gingrich of cutting Medicare?

Saletan repeats a foundational myth of the GOP propaganda machine. Clinton “deliberately blurred” the truth about Medicare in 1996, he says. And that’s how he managed to beat poor Bob Dole. But alas! This conventional claim is utterly bogus. Let’s try to explain it—again.

What’s the history? In 1995 and 1996, both parties proposed spending less on Medicare in future years than it would cost to maintain the existing program. For obvious reasons, this type of proposal had always been described by both parties as a “cut.”

During the endless debate on this matter, Clinton and his budget advisers routinely described their own proposal as a “cut.” (Links to examples below.) But Clinton—acknowledging the cuts in his own proposal—argued that the Gingrich proposal was cutting the Medicare program too much (by that $270 billion over seven years). Repeat: Clinton did not say that only Gingrich was proposing “cuts” in the Medicare program. He said that both parties had proposed such “cuts,” but said that Gingrich was cutting too much.

But Gingrich didn’t like the word “cut.” The Gingrich gang had done some research—research which was described in detail by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf in their book, Tell Newt to Shut Up. (The book was based on the pair’s reporting in the Washington Post.) Through extensive polling and focus groups, the GOP had found that the public responded poorly to talk of “cutting” Medicare. So the Gingrich gang sought other ways to describe its proposal—and its members began calling Clinton a liar for using the traditional word, “cut.” As Maraniss and Weisskopf describe in detail, GOP leaders had to train themselves to avoid use of that word—a word which they had always used to describe this sort of proposal. But the training proved successful, and they soon began peddling a misleading formulation—they were only cutting the rate at which Medicare would grow, they kept insisting. In this way, they badly deceived the public, making voters think that Medicare services would grow if the GOP plan was adopted. And of course, they kept calling Clinton a liar—a rank deception which writers like Saletan transmit to this very day.

Let’s say it again: Both parties proposed spending less than it would cost to maintain the existing program. But only Clinton was willing to use the traditional term, “cut.” Gingrich and company kept insisting that there were no “cuts” in their proposal. And they kept insisting that Clinton who was deceiving the public when he talked about Medicare “cuts.” (For two solid years, your hapless “press corps” couldn’t sort out this conundrum.)

And how did this stupid situation resolve? In the spring of 1997, the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House finally reached their “Balanced Budget Agreement.” As part of that agreement, future Medicare spending was adjusted by about half as much as Gingrich had originally proposed. Result? Medicare services were cut so badly that Congress scrambled to restore the funding. The public was screaming about the cuts in service—cuts which they had been led to believe would never occur.

Gingrich’s Medicare push was truly remarkable—one of the great propaganda campaigns of our time. And it was a remarkable two-pronged campaign, in which 1) the public was misled about the Gingrich proposal, and 2) Clinton was attacked as a liar in the process. Maraniss and Weisskopf described this propaganda campaign in detail—described the way Gingrich, Kasich and other GOP leaders taught themselves not to use the word “cut.” But Saletan still recites the Gingrich line—and still tells you that Clinton was lying.

Who deceives the public most? In certain eras, it does make a difference. Different people will make different assessments of the wars of the past dozen years. But Saletan offers a silly lecture while peddling one of the past decade’s biggest deceptions. But so it goes as our hapless “press corps” runs to showcase their incomprehension. And so it went as the RNC laid the groundwork for Campaign 2000. As with Clinton in 1996, so too with Gore in 1999 and 2000: The RNC repeatedly misled about Gore, and got the press to call Gore a Big Liar. To Saletan, none of this matters.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Way back in August 1999, we posted three incomparable position papers on the endless Medicare Madness. They come in three lengths—short, medium and long. The two-year Medicare wars were auspicious; they clearly showed the emerging power of the GOP propaganda machine. Sorry, Will—it does make a difference. Readers will deftly click here.