Authors strip down Bush spin

“All the President’s Spin,” the new book by founders Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, seems to have been researched and written primarily for the entertainment of those who have, at one time or another, listened to President Bush speak and wondered why he just didn’t use a thesaurus.

Like many of the political books that have been published recently as a sort of prelude to the upcoming presidential election, “All the President’s Spin,” while an insightful look at the Bush administration’s political spin, is largely preaching to the choir. The authors lack the big-name selling power to make the book as big a success as it could be (at least among the anti-Bush campaign), and as a consequence, it has a good chance of being banished to the back of the current events bookshelf forever.

Fritz, Keefer and Nyhan wrote the book as a non-partisan analysis of the different spin techniques employed first by the Bush campaign and then perfected by his administration. From John McCain’s war record, to the 2001 tax cut, to the aftermath of September 11 and the selling of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration has repeatedly used public relations as a way to sell policies to the American public.

The premise of “All the President’s Spin” is that the Bush administration has taken public relations and marketing in American politics to a much higher and more dangerous level.

Because this is a book about the president, the non-partisan claims seem a little far-fetched in today’s politicized atmosphere. Some of the statements made come across more like accusation than analysis.

Take the chapter on the 2001 tax cut, for example. Fritz et al do an admirable job of dissecting the language of Bush’s policy initiatives, from the campaign on up, but they are unable to do so without taking some sort of stance. Bush’s constant use of the “tax family” is contestable, as many well-respected economists have repeatedly argued that the “average” benefits received don’t really represent the norm.

“All the President’s Spin” does make a concerted effort to debunk the “average” part of the claim, but they have some difficulty doing so without questioning the merit of the tax plan itself. Statistics cited come largely from more liberal economic research groups; quotes come from publications such as The New Republic, which has been critical of the tax plan from the beginning; and criticism frequently originates from sources that have been disenfranchised by Bush. Paul O’Neil comes to mind.

Surprisingly, things become much more cut-and-dry when looking at the chapters regarding pre- and post-Iraq language. Here, really questioned. Instead, the authors concentrate on differences in phrasing and measure them against shifts in public opinion. All examples are taken directly from Bush administration speeches, press conferences and interviews.

They manage to raise important questions about Bush statements regarding “weapons of mass destruction” and the subsequent language switch to “weapons programs” once public opinion shifted against the war. These sections are presented incredibly well and make a compelling case against the Bush claim that the two expressions are interchangeable.

The general conclusions of the book lay a lot of the blame for successful Bush-spinning at the feet of the media, who, the authors assert, are largely too lazy, disinterested, threatened, confused, or otherwise incapacitated to challenge the facts.

In an effort to appear non-partisan and aloof, they argue, the media has frequently been reduced to the role of glorified stenographer, repeating what each side says, and not challenging either. Thus, politicians have become used to not having their spin questioned.

Case in point: Senator Zell Miller (D-Ga.) actually became so flustered after MSNBC’s Chris Matthews questioned him about the truth of his keynote address that he challenged Matthews to a duel on national TV.

The book, published on Aug. 3, doesn’t actually include this example from the recent Republican National Convention, but one can’t help but wonder if this is what they meant.

What is known and praised for is dissecting the political spin that the media tends to ignore in its endless “he said, she said” exercise. The Web site has been praised by members of both sides and is just as quick to reprimand Michael Moore as it is Ann Coulter. The authors continue that tradition, and for the most part, it’s entertaining and well researched.

The jewel of the book, however, is the concluding chapter. The book is about Bush, that is undeniable, but the final chapter makes an effort to encompass the problems of American politics in general, and certainly doesn’t limit criticism to conservatives. The Kerry campaign, the Center for American Progress and the Rockridge Institutes, are all labeled offenders.

Still, despite its insightful analysis of both political spin and media shortcomings, “All the President’s Spin” fails to acknowledge that in a democracy, it is the job of both the media and the opposition to make an effort to debunk spin.

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