Amnesia Strikes Bigfoot

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Dan Balz re-writes history (and his own reporting) in order to paint the Bush administration’s ads attacking John Kerry as representing some sort of drastic switch from previous campaigns.

Balz leads with this assertion: “The opening stages of President Bush’s campaign represent a dramatic departure in tone and style from Bush’s campaigns for governor and president. The man who calls himself a wartime president has become a warrior as a candidate.”

In the next three paragraphs, Balz tells us that “Bush’s earlier campaigns were notable for their positive tone,” asserts that “In contrast to those previous runs for office, Bush’s reelection campaign has been notable for its quick plunge into attacks on his Democratic rival,” and declares that the campaign has taken on a “new tone” from previous runs for office.

That just doesn’t square with the facts. For example, the Bush campaign’s first ad of the general election, launched in June of 2000, was hardly a Valentine, suggesting that “Under Al Gore and Bill Clinton, national reading scores stagnated,” and that “Gore and Clinton had eight years, but they’ve failed.” A later ad, titled “Credibility,” attacked Al Gore for his stance on presidential debates, concluding that “If we can’t trust Al Gore on debates, why should we trust him on anything?” (You can view the ads yourself at Stanford University’s campaign ad archive.) The tone even carried through to then-Rep. Dick Cheney’s speech accepting the vice presidential nomination, in which he accused Gore and Clinton of turning Washington into “a scene of bitterness and ill will and partisan strife.”

Balz’s own reporting during that campaign reflected this. Writing an October 11, 2000, lead-in to the second presidential debate, Balz and Claudia Deane noted that “The two candidates will meet tonight amid signs that the race is growing increasingly negative. The Bush camp has made Gore’s credibility a central issue, arguing that he can’t be trusted as president. Gore’s team has stepped up criticism of Bush as a candidate unfamiliar with critical issues and ill prepared to assume the presidency.”

Likewise, the lede from a piece co-written with Ceci Connolly which ran on November 1, 2000, stated that “George W. Bush returned to the theme of compassionate conservatism on the campaign trail yesterday and his campaign launched a new ad accusing Al Gore of ‘bending the truth,’ as the two presidential candidates scoured for votes in California and two other crucial West Coast states.”

Perhaps this explains why Balz has trouble finding anyone to support his thesis. The closest he comes is a University of Texas at Austin professor, who tells him, vaguely, that the Bush team is “off their feet, and that’s led them to a diagnosis that calls for a campaign that departs from their pattern.” None of the six Bush advisors quoted in the piece (Fred Meyer, Karen Hughes, and Marc Racicot, a “senior official,” “one of Bush’s most senior advisors,” and “one of Bush’s most trusted advisors”) back Balz’s newly-revised characterization of the 2000 race.

Certainly, the Bush administration has gone directly after presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry much earlier than previous White Houses have attacked their opponents, as the Post’s Dana Milbank pointed out on March 8.

Balz’s simplified narrative — the old Bush was positive, the new Bush is negative — serves not only to distort the past, but to project an image of, as Balz has it, “a candidate deeper in trouble than he expected against an opponent he did not anticipate.”

Come on, Dan. Google yourself.

Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.