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Richard Cohen

Secretary of Spin?

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page A25

I have only a glancing acquaintance with George Bush's good friend Karen Hughes. I met her on the first Bush presidential campaign and was awed by her uncanny ability to answer a question over and over again, each time with the same inflection, volume and, of course, words. This left me suspecting she had a computer chip implanted somewhere in her body or that she was naturally one of those people who, no matter how forceful your complaint, respond with the wholesome but empty phrase "Have a nice day." When she comes before the Senate for confirmation in her new job -- undersecretary of state -- Hughes should not have a nice day.

I have no animus toward Hughes, and this should not be seen as anything personal. It is just that Hughes, once a counselor to the president and always an intimate, represents an administration that values truth only in the abstract. In its day-to-day dealings with the American people, it has the ethical approach of a slippery door-to-door salesman -- anything to make the sale. Until the Bush administration vows to become more forthright, the Senate ought to put the Hughes nomination in mothballs.


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes, who is nominated as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. (Mannie Garcia -- Reuters)

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Take, for instance, the government's smarmy practice of preparing video news releases and packaging them as actual television news. The New York Times recently detailed how government agencies prepare admiring reports on what they are doing and then send them off to local TV stations, which use them, sometimes pretending the reports are their own. Only a fool would expect the TV industry -- especially local TV news -- to grow up and embrace professional standards, but the government is a different story. It's ours. We fund it. It should not be using our money to propagandize us. That, truly, is adding insult to injury.

The Bush administration did not originate this practice. The Clintons did it, too. But the Bushies have apparently expanded it, and the administration has rejected a Government Accountability Office ruling that this sort of stuff is "covert propaganda" -- inappropriate on its face. What the administration seems not to understand is that the practice -- no matter when it originated and who else did it -- only enhances the White House's reputation for slyness.

It was also inappropriate for the Education Department to offer money to Armstrong Williams and other media figures -- a bit of Tammany largesse that spoke volumes about the ethical standards of some administration officials. Bush ordered it stopped, but no one was disciplined. Fortunately for the Education Department, a bribe can always be called a grant.

This kind of just-this-side-of-honest approach to things is exemplified by Bush's Social Security road show. You would think that any president, especially one who claims a landslide-like mandate, would be able to pitch a tent anywhere in this great nation and talk to Americans at random. But that is not what Bush does. His questioners are his groupies, adoring fans of our adorable president who would not think of asking him a hard question. They are vetted, examined down to their ideological DNA, rehearsed and then sent out like automatons to ask programmed questions. Bush's town meetings are town meetings only if the town is Pyongyang.

Of course, all of this is small potatoes compared with what it took to sell the Iraq war to the nation. Dick Cheney was a one-man Mount St. Helens, erupting lies and exaggerations about Iraq's (nonexistent) nuclear threat. Those lies cannot now be suddenly changed to truth because, at the moment, a fragile flower of democracy has poked through the sands of the Middle East. Hughes was once part of the White House smoke machine. Maybe she can't be held responsible for every White House fib, but she ought to be asked to explain the ones on her watch.

What matters most at the moment, however, is that Hughes is Bush's creation and a great target of opportunity. She represents a chance to force -- or, better yet, shame -- the Bush administration into ceasing its use of our money to sell us a bill of goods or pretend that its Social Security town halls, about as spontaneous as a military funeral, are really exercises in small-town democracy. Her nomination is a gift, a chance for Senate Democrats, even some Republicans (I'm looking at you, McCain) to get the Bush administration to stop blowing smoke. After all, this is not a Democratic or Republican issue. In the spirit of bipartisanship that Bush has long promised, his administration has been deceiving us all.

cohenr@washpost.com


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