One-Party State

Pumping Irony

excerpted from the book

Banana Republicans

How the Right Wing Is Turning America into a One-Party State

by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin, 2004

Much of the real power and influence-peddling in Washington, D.C., begins on K Street, a nondescript corridor of office buildings located a few blocks north of the White House. K Street is where the big lobbying firms and corporate trade associations have their headquarters. It is sometimes referred to as the fourth branch of government. Many of the top K Street lobbyists are, in fact, former government officials -senators, congressmen and their staffs who, after retiring from office (or after losing their last election) go to work as hired advocates for companies and industries. Their ability to influence government policy comes in part from the personal relationships they have with their former colleagues, and from the campaign contributions that corporations can channel to politicians who do their bidding. Lobbyists, as columnist Michael Kinsley has observed, are "a group of people who charge a lot of money to give disproportionate influence in our democracy to people with even more money.""

Historically, however, the power of corporate lobbyists has been somewhat mitigated by the two-party system. Since the party in power could vary from one election to the next, K Street had to hire top names from both major parties as a way of ensuring access. Ideological differences between the parties therefore limited the ability of corporations to control the policy agenda. In addition to corporations, the Democratic Party needed to appeal to constituencies including the labor movement, minorities, environmentalists and other liberals who have historically turned out as voters and activists in support of the party's candidates. As Nicholas Confessore observed in the July/August 2003 issue of the Washington Monthly, the relationship between Democrats and lobbyists contained an "Inherent tension": "For the most part, K Street groups supported Democrats because they had to and Republicans because they wanted to. The Democrats needed corporate money to stay competitive, but were limited by the pull of their liberal, labor-oriented base. Although the party became generally more pro-business during the 1980s, it had few natural constituencies on K Street."" After Republicans achieved control over all sectors of the federal government in the early 21st century, however, corporate lobbyists were happy to jettison bipartisanship and throw their weight solidly behind the Republican machine, which targeted control of K Street by pressuring the major lobbying firms to hire only Republicans.

Party strategist Grover Norquist is one of the leading masterminds of this strategy. Working with Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, he launched the K Street Project in 1995 to compile a database of lobbyists. The database lists lobbyists' names, where they work, which party they belong to, where they have worked politically and how much money they have contributed to the candidates and causes of both parties. The purpose of the list is to decide who "deserves" access to the White House, Congress and federal agencies. Contributions to the wrong party can "buy you enemies," explained Congressman Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee." According to Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian Coalition staffer who no", works for Senator John McCain, the pressure on lobbyists has made DeLay "the 'Dirty Harry of Capitol Hill, the bad cop. Every K Street lobbyist is shaking in their boots because K Street lives on access, and DeLay can shut off their oxygen.""

Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is another key player in the K Street Project. In the months following the 2000 elections that gave Republicans the White House, Santorum began convening a private meeting each Tuesday morning of Republican lobbyists, attended sometimes by representatives from the White House and other senators. Democrats and journalists were not invited. "The chief purpose of these gatherings is to discuss jobs specifically, the top one or two positions at the biggest and most important industry trade associations and corporate offices," Confessore reported. "Every week, the lobbyists present pass around a list of the jobs available and discuss whom to support. Santorum's responsibility is to make sure each one is filled by a loyal Republican-a senator's chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated. After Santorum settles on a candidate, the lobbyists present make sure it is known whom the Republican leadership favors.""

Republican dominance on K Street has further enhanced the party's fund-raising advantage over Democrats. "An analysis of political donations by industry groups shows that over the past decade, 19 major sectors have shifted from a roughly 50-50 split between the two main parties-or in some cases, a slightly proDemocratic tilt-to a solid alignment with the Republican Party, which now enjoys advantages exceeding 5 to I in some of these sectors," the Washington Post reported in November 2002." Key industries that have shifted Republican include accounting, aerospace, alcoholic beverages, commercial banking, defense, health care and pharmaceuticals. "Just like the Democrats get a 90-10 split from the trial lawyers and labor, we will have 90-10 in the staffing on K Street and 90-10 business giving," Grover Norquist gloated in November 2002. But trial lawyers and labor give only a fraction of the amount that corporations donate to election campaigns. In 2002, contributions from businesses accounted for 73 percent of all election giving, compared to only 7 percent for labor. (Most of the remainder came from "ideological" or "other" donors, such as environmental groups, the National Rifle Association, clergy or nonprofit organizations.)'

In place of the "Inherent tension" that existed between Democratic politicians and K Street lobbyists, their ideological closeness with Republicans has made the party and Its corporate supporters virtually indistinguishable. "Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, and others have set up a K Street patronage operation that effectively obliterates the distinction between conservatives and corporatists," conservative columnist David Brooks observed in June 2002.

"Beginning in the 1990s, Washington's corporate offices and trade associations began to resemble immature campaign committees, replete with pollsters and message consultants," Confessore writes. "To supplement PAC [Political Action Committee] giving, which is limited by federal election laws, corporations vastly increased their advocacy budgets, with trade organizations spending millions of dollars in soft money on issue ad campaigns in congressional districts. And thanks to the growing number of associations whose executives are beholden to DeLay or Santorum, these earnings are increasingly put in the service of GOP candidates and ralses." During the Iraq War, for example, radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications had its stations sponsor pro-war rallies nationwide and even banned the Dixie Chicks from their playlist after one band member criticized Bush. Companies such as General Motors, Verizon and Morgan Stanley have lobbied their stockholders and customers to promote Bush administration tax cuts, and the pharmaceutical industry both helped write and promote Bush's Medicare plan.

... the actual contracts for rebuilding Iraq have also gone to companies that give big donations to the Republicans. Weeks before the first bombs dropped in Iraq, the Bush administration began its plans for rebuilding the country. The plans were developed in secret, according to ABC News, with only a handful of companies allowed to bid on contracts for the reconstruction of Iraqi schools, airports, roads, bridges, hospitals and power plants.

The companies allowed to bid were all generous political donors, mostly to Republicans: Bechtel, Fluor, Parsons, the Washington Group and Halliburton -Vice President Dick Cheney's old firm."

The pattern is this: companies like Halliburton give money to support Republican politicians, who in turn use their clout to ensure that the companies get fat contracts, who in turn give a portion of their profits to keep Republicans in power. Around and around the circle goes, and everybody, gets a piece-except, of course, for the rest of the American people, who pay the bill for all this fun with their tax dollars and the mounting federal deficit.

The relationship between corporations, lobbyists, industry funded think tanks and the Republican Party has become so intertwined that simply listing all the overlapping relationships can boggle the mind.

Much of the administration's intelligence information about Iraq actually came from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an organization created and funded by the U.S. government at the behest of the first Bush administration for the purpose of creating conditions for Saddam Hussein's overthrow. Not surprisingly, the information from the INC and its head, Ahmed Chalabi, tended to reinforce the already existing assumptions of policymakers in the second Bush administration, even when that information contradicted other reports coining from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The INC's "Intelligence isn't reliable at all," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA official and counterterrorism expert. "Much of it is propaganda. Much of it is telling the Defense Department what they want to hear. And much of it is used to support Chalabi's own presidential ambitions. They make no distinction between intelligence and propaganda, using alleged informants and defectors who say what Chalabi wants them to say, [creating] cooked information that goes right into presidential and vice-presidential speeches."

By its nature, television is expensive to produce and broadcast (although that may be changing, thanks to the Internet and other technological advances). It therefore lends itself to control by the people who call afford to pay for the considerable costs of production. It is also a highly emotional medium. Unlike print, which requires that the audience make a conscious effort, television is often absorbed unconsciously, as pure images and background in our information environment.

Reporter Leslie Stahl tells a story in her memoir, Reporting Live, of all experience she had in 1984 when she broadcast a piece for the CBS Evening News about the gap between rhetoric and reality, under the Reagan administration. She juxtaposed images of staged photo opportunities ill which Reagan picnicked with ordinary folks or surrounded himself with black children, farmers and happy flag-waving supporters. These images, she pointed out, often conflicted with the nature of Reagan's actual policies. "Mr. Reagan tries to counter the mention of an unpopular issue with a carefully chosen backdrop that actually contradicts the president's policy," she said in her Evening News piece. "Look at the handicapped Olympics, or the opening ceremony of all old-age home. No hint that he tried to cut the budgets for the disabled or for federally subsidized housing for the elderly."

Stahl's piece was so hard-hitting in its criticism of Reagan, she recalled, that she "worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out." Much to her shock, however, she received a phone call immediately after the broadcast from White House aide Richard Darman. He was calling from the office of Treasury Secretary Jim Baker, who had Just watched the piece along with White House press secretary Mike Baker's assistant, Margaret Tutweiler. Rather than complaining, they were calling to thank her. 'Way to go, kiddo," Darman said. "What a great story! We loved it."

"Excuse me?" Stahl replied, thinking he must be joking.

"No, no, we really loved it," Darman insisted. "Five minutes of free media. We owe you big-time."

"Why are you so happy?" Stahl said. "Didn't you hear what I said?"

"Nobody heard what you said," Darman replied.

"Come again?"

"You guys in Televisionland haven't figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. Leslie, I mean it, nobody heard you."

Stahl was so taken aback that she played a videotape of her segment before a live audience of a hundred people and asked them what they had 'List seen. Sure enough, Darman was right. "Most of the audience thought it was either an ad for the Reagan campaign or a very positive news story," Stahl recalls. "Only a handful heard what I said. The pictures were so evocative-we're talking about pictures with Reagan in the shining center-that all the viewers were absorbed. Unlike reading or listening to the radio, with the television we 'learn' with two of our senses together, and apparently the eye is dominant. When we watch television, we get an emotional reaction. The information doesn't always go directly to the thinking part of our brains but to the gut. It's all about impressions, and the White House understood that."

The George W. Bush administration also understands this lesson. At the Republican National Convention that nominated Bush in 2000, only 4 percent of the actual delegates were black, compared to 20 percent at the Democratic Convention, but the talent onstage looked quite different: not lust Colin Powell, but comedian Chris Rock, the Temptations, a gospel choir, rhythm-and-blues and salsa singers, and Representative J. C. Watts (the only black Republican in Congress). "It's all visuals," Karl Rove told campaign finance chief Don Evans. "You campaign as if America was watching TV with the sound turned down."

In our previous book, Weapons of Mass Deception, we described the extraordinary level of detail that went into preparing Bush's May 1, 2003, landing in a fighter let aboard an aircraft carrier to celebrate what he called the end of "major combat operations in Iraq ."46 Orchestrating the event cost about $1 million in taxpayer dollars .4- In reality, the aircraft carrier was so close to shore that it had to be repositioned in the water to keep TV cameras from picking up the San Diego shoreline." In order to get the light just right and keep the ship from arriving at port before the prime-time broadcast, a Pentagon official admitted, the USS Abraham Lincoln made "lazy circles" 30 miles at sea and took 20 hours to cross a distance that could have been covered in an hour or S0.49 (Without the stagecraft, in other words, Bush could have walked aboard, rather than flown.) During his speech, commanders gauged the wind and glided along at precisely the right speed so sea breezes would not blow across the ship and create unwanted noise. When the wind shifted during the speech, the ship changed course.",

Similar attention went into the staging of Bush's Surprise visit to Baghdad on Thanksgiving 2003 to share turkey with the troops. Although Bush was shown on camera cradling a huge platter laden with a golden-brown turkey, the object in his hands was actually a decoration. "A contractor had roasted and primped the turkey to adorn the buffet line, while the 600 soldiers were served from cafeteria-style steam trays," reported the Washington Post." The soldiers who cheered Bush were prescreened for his arrival, while others showing tip for turkey were turned away.' In a letter to Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon-authorized newspaper for the U.S. military, Sgt. Loren Russell complained that the soldiers under his command in Iraq had actually been denied their expected evening meal, because the facility where they usually ate had been reserved for Bush's appearance. "I'm lucky enough to be with soldiers who often complain among themselves, but all they expect are good leadership and three square meals a day," Russell wrote. He added, "Imagine their dismay when they walked 15 minutes to the Bob Hope Dining Facility, only to find that they were turned away from their evening meal because they were in the wrong unit.... And all of this happened on Thanksgiving, the best meal of the year when soldiers get a taste of home cooking.";` The point to these exercises in politics as theater is that they enable symbolism and style to substitute for substance. The speech aboard the aircraft carrier sent a message that "the war is over," even if Bush didn't use those precise words. The turkey hoisted in his arms on Thanksgiving sent a message that he cared enough about the troops to serve them their food in person. Imagery substitutes so thoroughly for substance that the Bush administration's photo opportunities have often directly contradicted his actual policies:

* In March 2001, Bush visited Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. "This is a hospital, but it's also-it's a place full of love," he said, adding, "There's a lot of talk about budgets right now, and I'm here to talk about the budget. My job as the president is to submit a budget to the Congress and to set priorities, and one of the priorities that we've talked about is making sure the health-care systems are funded ."54 Yet Bush's first budget proposal actually proposed cutting grants to children's hospitals (including the "place full of love" in Egleston) by $35 million, or 15 percent . 55

* A year later, Bush gave speeches before groups of "first responders" (police, rescue workers and firefighters). "We're dealing with first-time responders to make sure they've got what's needed to be able to respond," he said, standing before a large backdrop that featured a huge, blown-up photo of a 9/11 rescue worker." Yet Bush actually opposed requests from fire chiefs for funding to help communities hire additional firefighters. According to the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), fire departments throughout the country were vastly understaffed and unprepared to cope with a terrorist attack. To fill this gap, they called for a federal grant program that would help hire 75,000 new firefighters, at a cost of $7.6 billion. Bush responded with a proposal for less than half that amount, most of which was allocated for equipment and training rather than personnel." The gap between pretty poses and actual money prompted the IAFF to vote unanimously in August 2002 to boycott Bush's planned national tribute to firefighters who died on September 11. "Don't lionize our fallen brothers in one breath, and then stab us in the back by eliminating funding for our members to fight terrorism and stay safe," said IAFF president Harold Schaitberger. "President Bush, you are either with us or against us. You can't have it both ways.""

* In June 2002, Bush toured a housing project supported by a HOPE VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). He was photographed standing alongside happy home dwellers who had obtained assistance from the program, which was set up in 1992 to pay for rehabilitation, new construction and other housing improvements in America's most distressed public housing. "Part of being a secure America is to encourage home ownership," Bush said as he toured the project, adding, "All you've got to do is shake their hand and listen to their stories and watch the pride that they exhibit when they show you the kitchen and the stairs. In his 2004 proposed budget, Bush eliminated funding for HOPE VI.

* In January 2003, Bush gave a speech at a St. Louis warehouse announcing his new tax plan. He stood in front of what appeared to be a backdrop of cardboard boxes stamped "Made in U.S.A." The backdrop, however, was actually a facade painted on canvas. The warehouse where he gave his speech did contain cardboard boxes, but the real boxes were all stamped "Made in China." To minimize the possibility that anyone would notice the difference between reality and the painted facade, a Bush aide had carefully taped white labels over all of the actual boxes, obscuring the words "Made in China ."

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