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Political Animal

The Rabbit Hole

By Brian Morton | Posted 11/5/2003

Sometimes it's necessary, as Lewis Carroll once wrote, to believe six impossible things before breakfast. And when it comes to reading the daily exploits of this president and this administration, it gives all of us a chance to live in a surreal world where words don't mean what we think they mean; they only mean what the president says they mean, and only at the time he says them. Unless, of course, that also changes.

Last week, the president held a press conference where he stated that the huge mission accomplished sign that hung as a backdrop at his speech aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1 was the idea of the Navy, not his advance people aboard the ship.

In the president's own words: "The 'Mission accomplished' sign, of course, was put up by the members of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln saying that their mission was accomplished. I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from staff. They weren't that ingenious, by the way." Ha, ha.

Now, we here at Animal Control know a little about "advance" work. We once served as the guy who heads out to a speech site, who takes coat hangers and yanks them into diamond shapes in order to duct-tape them to flagpoles behind podiums so that the American flags draped behind the speakers look perfectly draped. To do advance means to take care of the little things, no matter how small.

An advance person is sent out ahead to make the pictures look good, to make sure there aren't any glaring embarrassments that could end up fodder for anyone from the weekend political talk shows to Matt Drudge. Since the national press corps has been known to seize on anything from the choice of cheese in a candidate's sandwich to the way his or her hair is cut, a presidential advance person knows to fluff a scene so that it looks as if the skies opened up in a halo of sunshine around the commander in chief and his words are blessed by the gods. Or so they hope.

So if there's one thing we know, it's that no lieutenant commander on that ship suddenly turned to Scott Sforza, the president's advance man aboard the Abraham Lincoln on April 29, and said, with a light bulb going off over his head, "I know! Let's hang a big mission accomplished sign from the bulkhead behind the president so it shows up on TV!"

We have the fullest amount of respect for the resources available to an aircraft carrier of the U.S. Navy, and the capable seamen aboard it. But we find it highly unlikely that the print shop aboard ship would have the capacity to print a giant four-color vinyl-backed banner that looks suspiciously similar to all the other four-color stars and stripes-bedecked banners that the White House advance shop puts out for the president's speeches. You know the kind--any time the president speaks, you see some pithy message behind him on the backdrop: SAVING OUR ECONOMY, FIGHTING TERRORISM, HELPING SMALL BUSINESS, MAKING THE WORLD SAFE FOR HALLIBURTON--that sort of thing.

As The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller wrote 15 days after the Lincoln event, "White House officials say that a variety of people, including the president, came up with the idea, and that Sforza embedded himself on the carrier to make preparations days before Mr. Bush landed in a flight suit and made his early-evening speech. . . . Media strategists noted afterward that Mr. Sforza and his aides had choreographed every aspect of the event, even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated colors over Mr. Bush's right shoulder and the 'Mission Accomplished' banner placed to capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot."

So what does this mean? It means that, whether it comes to issues large or small, the president and his team feel it is quite OK to issue a brazen lie to cover their actions--and they feel quite confident that they'll get away with it. And in the current media climate, they can. Because with their cheering sections at Fox News, The Washington Times, and The Wall Street Journal, plus all the conservative commentators in the nation's editorial pages, on talk radio, and on MSNBC and CNBC, real lies, large or small, are explained away, dismissed, and forgotten.

Back when Marion Barry ran Washington, D.C., any time he held a press conference, he had a retinue of staffers and flunkies standing behind him. In essence, their role was to support the playground bully, to serve as the laugh track for the big guy. Tough questions were dismissed with a quip, and the staffers would laugh as the mayor mocked the reporter for his nerve. It's not much different at the nation's helm today; columnist Joe Conason notes that when "George W. Bush is prevaricating, he often utters a little wisecrack." And the media stands behind him and laughs along.

But the truth, the real truth, goes down the rabbit hole. And the rest of us, not knowing whether to believe him or our own eyes, are left searching for those other five impossible things.

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