NOT until 2004 could the 9/11 commission at last reveal the title of the intelligence briefing President Bush ignored on Aug. 6, 2001, in Crawford: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” No wonder John McCain called for a new “9/11 commission” to “get to the bottom” of 9/14, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers set off another kind of blood bath in Lower Manhattan. Put a slo-mo Beltway panel in charge, and Election Day will be ancient history before we get to the bottom of just how little he and the president did to defend America against a devastating new threat on their watch.
For better or worse, the candidacy of Barack Obama, a senator-come-lately, must be evaluated on his judgment, ideas and potential to lead. McCain, by contrast, has been chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, where he claims to have overseen “every part of our economy.” He didn’t, thank heavens, but he does have a long and relevant economic record that begins with the Keating Five scandal of 1989 and extends to this campaign, where his fiscal policies bear the fingerprints of Phil Gramm and Carly Fiorina. It’s not the résumé that a presidential candidate wants to advertise as America faces its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. That’s why the main thrust of the McCain campaign has been to cover up his history of economic malpractice.
McCain has largely pulled it off so far, under the guidance of Steve Schmidt, a Karl Rove protégé. A Rovian political strategy by definition means all slime, all the time. But the more crucial Rove game plan is to envelop the entire presidential race in a thick fog of truthiness. All campaigns, Obama’s included, engage in false attacks. But McCain, Sarah Palin and their surrogates keep repeating the same lies over and over not just to smear their opponents and not just to mask their own record. Their larger aim is to construct a bogus alternative reality so relentless it can overwhelm any haphazard journalistic stabs at puncturing it.
When a McCain spokesman told Politico a week ago that “we’re not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say” about the campaign’s incessant fictions, he was channeling a famous Bush dictum of 2003: “Somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter.” In Bush’s case, the lies lobbed over the heads of the press were to sell the war in Iraq. That propaganda blitz, devised by a secret White House Iraq Group that included Rove, was a triumph. In mere months, Americans came to believe that Saddam Hussein had aided the 9/11 attacks and even that Iraqis were among the hijackers. A largely cowed press failed to set the record straight.
Just as the Bushies once flogged uranium from Africa, so Palin ceaselessly repeats her discredited claim that she said “no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere. Nothing is too small or sacred for the McCain campaign to lie about. It was even caught (by The Christian Science Monitor) peddling an imaginary encounter between Cindy McCain and Mother Teresa when McCain was adopting her daughter in Bangladesh.
If you doubt that the big lies are sticking, look at the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. Half of voters now believe in the daily McCain refrain that Obama will raise their taxes. In fact, Obama proposes raising taxes only on the 1.9 percent of households that make more than $250,000 a year and cutting them for nearly everyone else.
You know the press is impotent at unmasking this truthiness when the hardest-hitting interrogation McCain has yet faced on television came on “The View.” Barbara Walters and Joy Behar called him on several falsehoods, including his endlessly repeated fantasy that Palin opposed earmarks for Alaska. Behar used the word “lies” to his face. The McCains are so used to deference from “the filter” that Cindy McCain later complained that “The View” picked “our bones clean.” In our news culture, Behar, a stand-up comic by profession, looms as the new Edward R. Murrow.
Network news, with its dwindling handful of investigative reporters, has barely mentioned, let alone advanced, major new print revelations about Cindy McCain’s drug-addiction history (in The Washington Post) and the rampant cronyism and secrecy in Palin’s governance of Alaska (in last Sunday’s New York Times). At least the networks repeatedly fact-check the low-hanging fruit among the countless Palin lies, but John McCain’s past usually remains off limits.
That’s strange since the indisputable historical antecedent for our current crisis is the Lincoln Savings and Loan scandal of the go-go 1980s. When Charles Keating’s bank went belly up because of risky, unregulated investments, it wiped out its depositors’ savings and cost taxpayers more than $3 billion. More than 1,000 other S.&L. institutions capsized nationwide.
It was ugly for the McCains. He had received more than $100,000 in Keating campaign contributions, and both McCains had repeatedly hopped on Keating’s corporate jet. Cindy McCain and her beer-magnate father had invested nearly $360,000 in a Keating shopping center a year before her husband joined four senators in inappropriate meetings with regulators charged with S.&L. oversight.
After Congressional hearings, McCain was reprimanded for “poor judgment.” He had committed no crime and had not intervened to protect Keating from ruin. Yet he, like many deregulators in his party, was guilty of bankrupt policy-making before disaster struck. He was among the sponsors of a House resolution calling for the delay of regulations intended to deter risky investments just like those that brought down Lincoln and its ilk.
Ever since, McCain has publicly thrashed himself for his mistakes back then — and boasted of the lessons he learned. He embraced campaign finance reform to rebrand himself as a “maverick.” But whatever lessons he learned are now forgotten.
For all his fiery calls last week for a Wall Street crackdown, McCain opposed the very regulations that might have helped avert the current catastrophe. In 1999, he supported a law co-authored by Gramm (and ultimately signed by Bill Clinton) that revoked the New Deal reforms intended to prevent commercial banks, insurance companies and investment banks from mingling their businesses. Equally laughable is the McCain-Palin ticket’s born-again outrage over the greed of Wall Street C.E.O.’s. When McCain’s chief financial surrogate, Fiorina, was fired as Hewlett-Packard’s chief executive after a 50 percent drop in shareholders’ value and 20,000 pink slips, she took home a package worth $42 million.
The McCain campaign canceled Fiorina’s television appearances last week after she inadvertently admitted that Palin was unqualified to run a corporation. But that doesn’t mean Fiorina is gone. Gramm, too, was ostentatiously exiled after he blamed the economic meltdown on our “nation of whiners” and “mental recession,” but he remains in the McCain loop.
The corporate jets, lobbyists and sleazes that gravitated around McCain in the Keating era have also reappeared in new incarnations. The Nation’s Web site recently unearthed a photo of the resolutely anticelebrity McCain being greeted by the con man Raffaello Follieri and his then girlfriend, the Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway, as McCain celebrated his 70th birthday on Follieri’s rented yacht in Montenegro in August 2006. It’s the perfect bookend to the old pictures of McCain in a funny hat partying with Keating in the Bahamas.
Whatever blanks are yet to be filled in on Obama, we at least know his economic plans and the known quantities who are shaping them (Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker). McCain has reversed himself on every single economic issue this year, often within a 24-hour period, whether he’s judging the strength of the economy’s fundamentals or the wisdom of the government bailout of A.I.G. He once promised that he’d run every decision past Alan Greenspan — and even have him write a new tax code — but Greenspan has jumped ship rather than support McCain’s biggest flip-flop, his expansion of the Bush tax cuts. McCain’s official chief economic adviser is now Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who last week declared that McCain had “helped create” the BlackBerry.
But Holtz-Eakin’s most telling statement was about McCain’s economic plans — namely, that the details are irrelevant. “I don’t think it’s imperative at this moment to write down what the plan should be,” he said. “The real issue here is a leadership issue.” This, too, is a Rove-Bush replay. We want a tough guy who will “fix” things with his own two hands — let’s take out the S.E.C. chairman! — instead of wimpy Frenchified Democrats who just “talk.” The fine print of policy is superfluous if there’s a quick-draw decider in the White House.
The twin-pronged strategy of truculence and propaganda that sold Bush and his war could yet work for McCain. Even now his campaign has kept the “filter” from learning the very basics about his fitness to serve as president — his finances and his health. The McCain multihousehold’s multimillion-dollar mother lode is buried in Cindy McCain’s still-unreleased complete tax returns. John McCain’s full medical records, our sole index to the odds of an imminent Palin presidency, also remain locked away. The McCain campaign instead invited 20 chosen reporters to speed-read through 1,173 pages of medical history for a mere three hours on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. No photocopying was permitted.
This is the same tactic of selective document release that the Bush White House used to bamboozle Congress and the press about Saddam’s nonexistent W.M.D. As truthiness repeats itself, so may history, and not as farce.