With all the attention drawn by the ongoing CIA leak case and the indictments of Dick Cheney’s brain, Scooter Libby, another unethical and illegal action by the White House has sparked little comment.
The federal General Accountability Office ruled in October that money spent by the Bush administration to buy positive publicity for its programs was illegally spent.
Disgraced columnist Armstrong Williams, the fake opinionist who was revealed last winter to be a paid mouthpiece of the administration, says he may give back some of his ill-gotten gains to the federal government now that the GAO has ruled that the money was spent illegally to produce “covert propaganda.”
The key word here is some. The part he plans to keep – which also comes from the federal taxes he rails against as excessive – is money he earned honestly, he argues. (Or sold his soul for, at least.)
In fact, the belated gesture, should it actually come about, would be merely another calculated step in William’s hypocritical attempt to rehabilitate himself – as in, I sure would like to get back my credibility . . . and my syndicated column. (And never mind that I used it to promote a political agenda for the old payola even while pretending to be an independent thinker who was objectively weighing the pros and cons.)
As I recounted in an earlier column, Williams was paid nearly a quarter-million dollars to heap praise on Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.
In January Williams claimed in his own defense that he would have done these things without being paid a nickel because NCLB is something he deeply believes in. But this explanation is belied by his own words, unless he’s had a Road to Damascus conversion since he wrote them. A big fan of federal vouchers to pay for kids attending private and religious schools, Williams had severely criticized the final legislation that Bush signed because the provision for vouchers had been taken out of it.
“By letting vouchers fall by the wayside and by throwing more money at public schools than any president has previously imagined, Mr. Bush scooped out the soul of his own education proposal,” Williams wrote in his syndicated column published May 16, 1991. A month later on Fox News, he said Bush had “just totally capitulated to Sen. Ted Kennedy on his education plan.”
But that was before he signed a handsome contract two years later with Ketchum, Inc., a public-relations firm hired by the Education Department to promote the law. Suddenly Williams saw the light: NCLB was good, very good, and five very positive columns about NCLB flowed from his goldcovered fingers. (And never mind that NCLB doesn’t provide for vouchers, it has more soul than a Ray Charles album!)
But Williams still can’t come clean. He’s now trying to defend his behavior by explaining he simply wears different hats, and this was just a business deal that his PR firm hatched with the Department of Education to produce a couple 1-minute ads, so it was perfectly legitimate. (Which raises the question of why, if everything were so proper, he wouldn’t do it again.)
He’s “negotiating” to return part of his loot, he now explains, because he didn’t really promote NCLB, as was called for in the contract, and had, in fact, asked that provision of the contract to be removed. (It wasn’t, but what the heck, he’d signed it anyway.)
“I’ve said all along that there were things that they asked me to do that was clear in the beginning that I would not do,” he told USA Today in October. (Huh? What happened to him being willing to promote the law for free because he believed in it so fervently? Were all those positive columns he wrote about it pure coincidence?)
Even the Department of Education spokeswoman admitted it was ridiculous (not to mention a lie) to deny, as the department previously had, that Williams was being paid personally, and without informing his audience, to promote NCLB.
“We’ve been saying for the past six months that this was stupid, wrong and ill-advised,” she told USA Today.
And the GAO recently concluded that the Education Department had violated federal law by paying Williams to promote Bush’s plan. A department investigator said Williams’ own reports showed that he’d promoted the Bush plan 168 times in columns and on radio and TV. (Williams now claims this is only “confusion.”)
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who along with Senator Kennedy asked the GAO to investigate the matter, said “the Bush administration took taxpayer funds that should have gone toward helping kids learn and diverted it to a political propaganda campaign,” and demanded the money be returned to the Treasury.
Lautenberg has also called for fraud charges to be brought against Williams, and a Justice Department investigation is under way.
“I hope that we can put this mistake behind us,” Williams wrote in swan song after his duplicity was exposed, and at least those words are without a doubt the whole truth.
This whole issue may seem like very small potatoes in an administration that uses “covert propaganda” for far more lethal ends, such as justification for invading Iraq and killing uncounted thousands of its citizens along with 2,000 of our own kids. (Saddam has a huge arsenal of weapons of mass destruction! And he’s about to develop a nuclear capability unless we act fast! Mushroom clouds are coming! The sky is falling!) — all part of the Bush agenda for keeping American oil billionaires safe from terrorists and taxes.
And maybe it is tiny spuds, but the principle is the same:
The president’s minions keep demonstrating in myriad ways they will not hesitate to deceive the ordinary people who elected them to benefit the really important people who paid the tab for their victories.
In what now seems like a sick joke, Bush promised during his first campaign to bring honor and integrity back to a White House soiled by Bill Clinton’s tawdry sexual escapades, and enough Americans fell for it to give him an eight-year lease.
But Clinton only jollied a more-thanwilling young woman and betrayed the trust of his family.
Bush is sticking it to all of us – whether we willingly bend over or not.
David Grant Long is a resident of Cortez.