Bottomless Cynicism

TRB

September 03, 1992|By TRB

All politicians lie. Bill Clinton has at least shaded the truth about Gennifer Flowers. But George Bush's acceptance speech line about the 128 tax increases is a lie of gem-like purity and distilled cynicism. It was false, he (or his speech writers) knew it was false and knew it was widely known to be false, and he said it anyway.

In 1988 Michael Dukakis said the election was about competence, not ideology, then ran an incompetent campaign. In 1992 George Bush says the election is about ''trust'' and ''character'' (as opposed to, say, the economy), then neatly demonstrates his defects in exactly those departments.

The week before Mr. Bush's speech -- when the 128-to-1 canard was already circulating -- I wrote a column establishing beyond all honest doubt that both numbers are wildly inaccurate. There's room for quibbles about the exact tally. But, however you measure it, Mr. Bush has presided over more separate tax increases in his four years as president than Mr. Clinton has in his 12 years as governor.

I do not flatter myself that the president of the United States reads my column. But I do know that the people who prepared Mr. Bush's speech had read it, because they cited the column in a supporting document released with the speech text. This document asserts -- as if a sufficient refutation -- that the piece was ''written by liberal columnist Michael Kinsley, and his research assistant, a Clinton campaign volunteer.''

Research assistant? It's true that I contacted (and quoted) the Clinton campaign. I also got ''research assistance'' from the Bush campaign. In the journalism business, we call this ''reporting.''

No ''research assistance'' was necessary to see that the list of 128 alleged Clinton tax increases circulated by the Bush-Quayle people is a joke. A glance does it. To take the most egregious cases, three of the numbers on the list have no words attached to them at all. Another item is a verbatim repetition of a previous item.

Maybe Mr. Bush didn't know when he spoke the words that they had been publicly established as untrue. But he knows now. What did he do when he found out? Did he perchance think, ''What would my idol, Harry Truman, have done?'' Did he call someone on the carpet and say, ''How dare you put lies in my mouth?'' Apparently not, because the Bushies are still, incredibly, claiming that the statement was accurate. ''We stand by the figure 128,'' said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater more than a week after Mr. Bush's speech.

The Bush campaign has circulated a four-page memo rebutting my previous column. It is headlined: ''Clinton's 128 Taxes and Fees: Undeniable.'' It asserts, ''The list is solid.'' But in fact the memo does not defend -- how could it? -- the three totally nonexistent items. Nor does it challenge my count -- 133 -- of Mr. Bush's own tax increases. It engages in scholastic quibbles about some -- but not all -- other items I questioned. I could quibble back.

This memo can't be intended seriously to persuade anyone that the 128 figure is ''solid.'' The Bush campaign's purpose is merely to create the impression that there is some honest controversy -- which there isn't -- about the truth of Mr. Bush's original sally. In this, the Bush people have taken cynical advantage of certain conventions of the press.

Journalists are hampered by a reluctance to say flat-out that the president is a liar. The New York Times did say the figure is ''false, based on trickery.'' But more common are such descriptions as ''exaggerated'' (Washington Post), ''highly misleading'' (Wall Street Journal -- which itself exposed the fraud early on), and ''at best a distortion of Clinton's record''(Boston Globe).

Keep the phony dispute going and eventually the press declares wearily that both sides have called the other one dishonest for long enough and it's time to move on. This has now happened. Meanwhile, voters who haven't followed the issue with my own neurotic obsession are left with the vague impression that Mr. Clinton has raised a lot of taxes and who cares exactly how many.

Some lies are complicated, like Mr. Bush's assertion in the same speech that Congress forced the 1990 tax increase on him. Some essentially dishonest statements are technically truthful, like his assertion that the Democratic platform doesn't contain the letters G-O-D. (It doesn't, but it does contain the letters F-A-I-T-H, referred to as one of ''the basic values that built this country and will always make it great,'' and a similar passage in praise of R-E-L-I-G-I-O-U-S I-N-S-T-I-T-I-O-N-S.)

The 128-tax-increases-to-1 lie is crystal-clear. As such, it is a test of character not just for Mr. Bush but for those around him. There are decent people among the Bush campaign and Republican '' leadership, and others who wish to be thought of as decent. Do they care if the president lies? If they remain silent -- or defend the lie -- we'll have our answer.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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