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Painting the roses red

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, February 20, 2006

The American presidency has never been a truly open and honest institution. It’s a sad but accurate fact that needs changing at a time when nearly complete transparency is demanded of just about everyone else – including the media, major corporations, Olympic athletes, private citizens engaged in overseas telephone calls and most other elected officials – for the preservation of a safe and equitable society.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, had an infamous relationship with the press in which, of the 140,000 photos taken of him during his presidency, only a handful showed him in leg braces or a wheelchair. As a result, much of the world was unaware that its most powerful resident was paralyzed from the waist down. John F. Kennedy, as well, managed to keep the media from revealing his legendary sexual exploits to the world thanks to an understanding that the president’s private life was of no concern to the general public.

Times have changed, however, and the day of the clandestine presidency is dead. Richard Nixon’s deviant behavior behind closed doors proved that the doors to the Oval Office must remain open to the oversight of the Fourth Estate. Bill Clinton, of course, found this out the hard way.

Strangely enough, the George W. Bush White House seems to be under the impression that they can turn back the clock to a time in which public accountability and media transparency simply did not apply to the highest office in the land, to a time, as Richard Nixon famously argued in a 1977 interview with television personality David Frost, when the President of the United States was above the laws of our democracy.

In a speech on Friday to the Council on Foreign Relations, Donald Rumsfeld accused the media of undermining U.S. foreign policy by focusing on negative aspects of the Iraq War instead of engaging in the propaganda battles being fought by al Qaeda. “While al Qaeda and extremist movements have utilized this forum [the free-market mass media] for many years,” he lamented, “We in the government have barely even begun to compete in reaching their audiences.”

Yes, the Secretary of Defense actually looked at the propaganda machines of our enemies (who operate in societies where an independent media is all but nonexistent) in lustful admiration. “For the most part,” he said, “the U.S. government still functions as a five-and-dime store in an eBay world.”

This is certainly an interesting position to take for a country that once put members of the Nazi propaganda machine on trial in Nuremberg on the grounds that “the results of propaganda as a weapon of the Nazi conspirators reaches into every aspect of this conspiracy, including the atrocities and ruthless exploitation in occupied countries. It is likely that many ordinary Germans would never have participated in or tolerated the atrocities committed throughout Europe had they not been conditioned and goaded by the constant Nazi propaganda,” according to the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials.

Apparently, based on Rumsfeld’s remarks, propaganda in the American media would be exempt from this criticism, though, because encouraging “exploitation in occupied countries” is good as long as it is Bush-approved exploitation.

Perhaps the most entertaining moment of Rumsfeld’s speech came when he complained that the press “seems to demand perfection from the government” on issues like Iraq and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. (Is this guy for real?) Maybe in the world according to Rumsfeld, the headline in the Washington Post on the day after 30 U.S. Marines were killed in a helicopter crash would have read “No Worries: 129,970 Soldiers Still Alive in Iraq.”

Like the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland,” Bush and Rumsfeld are faced with a reality of white roses in Iraq in which death and insurrection are everyday occurrences, yet they expect the media to do the “patriotic” thing and gloss over the truth with propaganda by painting the roses red.

These expectations of a government-supportive media (something that will never again exist for Democratic administrations either, regardless of what Rush Limbaugh says about a liberal media bias) have also resulted in the most opaque presidency in modern history. Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s frequent spats with NBC’s David Gregory have generated lots of attention, but few people point out that Gregory’s hostility would be the natural reaction for anyone who is unable to do their job properly because of the “loose lips sink ships” mentality of the Bush White House.

The last straw, in the minds of most reporters, came last week after a man was shot by the Vice President of the United States for the first time in 202 years. One would have thought that a monumental event like this would have resulted in an immediate White House announcement followed by a rapid public apology and revelation of the seemingly innocent facts of the case. Dick Cheney had other plans in mind, though, and America was kept in the dark for nearly 18 hours while the gears of the White House spin machine were set in motion.

Welcome to the new era of government propaganda: Why bother painting the roses red when you can pretend they never existed in the first place?

Joey Falco is a junior American Studies major. His column appears every other Monday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.