Change the Tone

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Remember when candidate George W. Bush promised to “change the tone” in Washington from one of acrimony and accusation to one of mutual respect and cooperation? I know it’s hard to believe, given all that’s happened in the past five years. But it is worth recalling, every so often, to determine just how cynically he is now governing.

The appointment of new White House domestic policy chief Karl Zinsmeister gives us all an opportunity to remember how so many Americans were taken in by Bush’s phony campaign. It’s not only “compassionate conservatism” that went by the wayside. Zinsmeister can be accused of changing a tone for the better only if your standard is Ann Coulter.

Zinsmeister has long been a virulent critic of the American press, which he has described as being composed of little more than “left-wing, cynical, wiseguy Ivy League types, with a high prima donna quotient.” But like so many other “regular guys” who populate the Bush administration, Zinsmeister himself is a pointy-headed Ivy Leaguer who is a product of Yale University, and who, despite his oft-professed hatred of Washington, put in time staffing for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and serving on an Education Department advisory board before taking on the editorship of The American Enterprise magazine.

Zinsmeister does not confine his contempt to Washington reporters. In March 2003, in the midst of the initial Iraq invasion, he took time out from covering the war to bash his fellow reporters, writing that “a significant number [of journalists embedded with the troops] are whiny and appallingly soft … mocking military mores in snide jokes and wise-guy observations … rolling their eyes at each other when ideas like honor, sacrifice, or duty enter the conversation.”

Then he added, “Typical reporters know little about a fighting life. They show scant respect for the fighter’s virtues. Precious few could ever be referred to as fighting men themselves.” Just as Paul Wolfowitz, Laura Ingraham and others did when they accused reporters who take this dangerous assignment of cowardice, he neglected to provide any particulars. No less typically, Zinsmeister has done his fighting exclusively from behind a desk.

But tone is only one problem for Zinsmeister; truth is another. In this regard, he sure found the right administration to cut his paycheck. In its May 24 press release announcing his appointment to the Bush team, the White House claimed that “Mr. Zinsmeister is Editor-in-Chief of The American Enterprise magazine, a national publication he founded twelve years ago.” Alas, somebody made this up.

The American Enterprise first rolled off the press in 1990, four years before Zinsmeister came aboard. But it wasn’t until June 5, after The American Prospect’s Greg Sargent called the White House out on this falsehood that he bothered to correct the record. As Sargent noted, “The claim is also echoed on Zinsmeister’s bio page at [the American Enterprise Institute’s] web site, which says that ‘Zinsmeister first formulated The American Enterprise in 1994.’” The fun was just beginning, however. In a 2004 profile appearing in the Syracuse New Times, Zinsmeister was quoted saying, “People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings.” Again, there is a problem here, aside from the silliness of the quote. As The New York Sun pointed out, Zinsmeister later changed this and other quotes when he posted them on The American Enterprise Web site.

His version of the quote would read, “I learned in Washington that there is an ‘overclass’ in this country stocked with cheating, shifty human beings that’s just as morally repugnant as our ‘underclass.’” He would later use the excuse that he only changed the quotes because he had been misquoted in the original piece — something that apparently escaped his notice until he decided to post his own version.

For all we know, Zinsmeister might have fooled his superiors as well. Karl Rove had a lot on his mind before being informed by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that he would not be indicted for revealing the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, and this Bush team does not like to admit its mistakes. But it’s not as if they were picking the fellow for a troop of Boy Scouts.

This Monday, Karl Rove told supporters in New Hampshire that if the Democrats had their way, Iraq would fall to terrorists and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would not have been killed. “When it gets tough, and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party’s old pattern of cutting and running.” Oddly, Rove — who like Zinsmeister, the president, vice president and their top advisors, never served — was talking about war heroes like John Kerry and John Murtha.

Even odder, perhaps, the Washington press corps reported these comments — as they do Zinsmeister’s as typical political boilerplate — without ever recalling the promise of a “change of tone” when it comes to slandering administration opponents, no matter how ludicrous.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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