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Election 2004: What Happened?

ISSUE:  Summer 2005

[Editor’s note: This essay was originally delivered as a lecture at the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and appears by their courtesy and the author’s.]

I have no way to prove it statistically, but the 2004 Presidential campaign sounded to me like the most dishonest in memory. Not that American politics has often been a model of truth, and to give 2004 credit, nobody went as far as to accuse Bush or Kerry of being a cannibal—one of the many more bizarre attacks on Andrew Jackson. But most campaign dishonesty is not such ancient history. I first voted in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was complaining about a missile gap that did not exist. The first president I covered extensively was Richard Nixon. I was present in 1973 when he declared his innocence. (Actually, that made the best combination of dateline and lead of my 44 years in the news business. It read: “Disneyworld, FL—’I am not a crook,’ President Nixon said last night.”) But maybe we should put that in another category—the claims of innocence that criminals make whether they’re politicians or burglars—and come to think of it, it was burglary that got Nixon in trouble. Nixon’s problems of course lead to Jimmy Carter, a self-styled model of sincerity. I heard him promise over and over never to tell a lie. And in that very same basic stump speech he would say, “I am not going to make an issue of Watergate in this campaign,” thereby breaking that promise in the instant he made it. Of course, in 1980 his campaign broadcast ads on black stations lying that John Anderson had voted against the Civil Rights laws of 1964 and ‘65.

So don’t think of me as a latter-day Captain Renault from Casablanca observing in horror at Rick’s Café Americain, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” I have heard it before, and if I was appalled, I was not surprised. I don’t have enough space to cite all of this year’s whoppers, so let me concentrate on a few selections to establish the principle of how dishonest this election was.

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Most of the lies got told in television advertisements. Congressional reformers hoped that the new campaign laws would curb that tendency by the requirement that candidates appear on screen and say they personally approved an ad. The assumption was that they would be reluctant to say something that could immediately be proved untrue. Well, the reformers were mistaken. That provision was, like much else in McCain-Feingold, something of a failure.

The falsehoods started early, basically, about as soon as it was clear who the Democratic nominee was. On March 30, a Bush campaign ad labeled John Kerry a supporter of a 50¢-per-gallon gasoline tax increase. Now, that’s actually a serious idea advanced by, among others, the Chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors back in his Harvard days. He said it would reduce traffic congestion and global warming by discouraging driving or at least by encouraging people to buy cars with good mileage. But Kerry did not have the suicidal political courage to support it. Two days later the Kerry campaign hit back with an ad stating that George W. Bush said sending jobs overseas “makes sense for America.” No, he didn’t say that. He didn’t write it either. What he did was sign a letter to Congress transmitting a report that included that thought, which is fairly standard academic economics, if awful politics. That report incidentally was composed by the same economic advisor who had once called for the gas tax increase.

The National Annenberg Election Survey did some polling about these false claims in 18 battleground states where the ads had been shown intensively. Sixty-one percent believed that Bush favored sending jobs overseas and forty-six percent believed that Kerry wanted to raise gasoline taxes by 50¢ per gallon. But these lies were not accepted only in the battleground states. Nationally, fifty-three percent said Bush wanted to export jobs, and forty-one percent said Kerry wanted to raise gas taxes. One reason these lies spread beyond the states where they were paid for on television ads is that they get covered on national news, but another reason they connect is that they have some relation to the images Americans have about their politicians. I know perfectly well that many of these responses to those questions were not given because the respondent was certain about what Kerry or Bush had advocated or even that the respondent himself or herself had heard the claim stated as fact. Any time you ask factual questions in a poll, you are inviting a fair amount of guesswork. Many people don’t like to admit ignorance, and they think they are being asked the question because it is something that the distinguished academic pollsters at Penn think they ought to know. But each of these lies had some vague credibility.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, no scholar of American politics, explained the effect when he wrote in 1864, “[A] lie that is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies . . . a lie which is all a lie may be met and fought with outright; but a lie which is part a truth is a harder matter to fight.” Now fast-forward 140 years to 2004 and reduce the part from a half to a faint smidgen. You get this: “Well, Democrats may or may not really be in favor of raising taxes but they have opposed a lot of Bush’s tax cuts, so maybe it’s a good guess that Kerry wanted to raise gasoline taxes.” Or this: “A lot of jobs have gone overseas since George Bush became president, and he hasn’t stopped it from happening, so maybe he’s in favor of it.” On that basis, if that logic works, I know why the Democrats lost the election: they didn’t run an ad in Florida saying “Bush backed hurricanes.”

Another thing the McCain-Feingold Act failed to do was cut down on advertising by 527s, outside groups with no formal connection to the campaigns—though coincidences of personnel and donors make their independence suspect. The outside groups were mostly known for negative ads. One of them, the Media Fund, ran an ad saying George W. Bush raided Social Security to pay for tax cuts for millionaires. The sponsors defended the ad by saying the deficits menaced Social Security, and they do. Yes, and yes, tax cuts for millionaires and for others contributed mightily to the deficit. But so did recession, 9/11, and spending on everything from defense to highways to education. Forty-three percent of our respondents in those battleground states said the Media Fund charge about Bush raiding Social Security was accurate.

That was small potatoes compared to the work of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In August this group started running an ad claiming that John Kerry lied to get his medals in Vietnam: a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. In the days before cable television, I don’t think very many people would have taken that group seriously. One of the biggest Republican donors in Texas paid for the first ad. One of the veterans had a long history of antagonism toward Kerry based on Kerry’s anti-Vietnam war statements after he left the Navy. Others had been somewhere else when Kerry was under enemy fire. Yet, their charges were taken seriously, first, by cable television, and then network television, and then by the print press. This gave it an exposure vastly beyond the relatively small time buy that they made in three states to begin with. Because the ad got played and replayed on news and discussed on talk shows, at one point our data showed that more of a quarter of the public agreed with the idea that Kerry had not earned with all his medals. When the press got around to probing his attackers, that fraction dropped a bit.

But why did anybody pay attention in the first place? As my friend David Broder wrote in the Washington Post, “Time was when any outfit such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that came around peddling an ad with implausible charges would have run into a hard-nosed reporter whose first questions before he or she wrote the story would have been, ‘Who the hell are you? What’s your angle? What’s your proof?’” I’ll have more to say about journalism’s failings later on—I don’t want to leave all the blame for dishonesty on television ads and the people who made them and pay for them—but I cited cable television here, so let me explain a bit. The idea that there are two sides each deserving respect to every argument in politics isn’t original to cable news. For the New York Times and before that for the Baltimore Sun, I’ve read, edited, and even written articles that bend over too far backwards to be even-handed when one side was clearly wrong or at least a lot more wrong than the other. But in newspapers you had the ability to decide that one thing was so absurd that you didn’t bother to report it all, and then you didn’t need to deal with the back and forth.

Cable television news seems to have no such checks. If someone had sponsored an ad accusing Kerry of believing the Earth was round, several cable television programs the next day would have given the sponsor of that ad time to defend the accusation, balanced of course, by a Kerry family friend or political aide, saying Kerry never said any such thing. If it was what cable television calls an “in-depth report,” there would also have been a learned geography professor discussing whether or not the Earth really is round.

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But back to the main problem: dishonesty in this campaign. It’s not just an advertising problem. Both candidates practiced it on the stump. Just after Labor Day, Kerry started accusing Bush of raising Medicare premiums. This is what he said, “George Bush socked seniors with a seventeen percent increase in Medicare. What’s right about that? That’s the biggest increase in Medicare premiums in the history of the program.” “Seventeen percent” and “biggest” are accurate, but “socked” suggests that the President imposed the change by himself; he didn’t. It was an inevitable consequence of statute, some of it in the Medicare reform law that Bush favored and Kerry opposed. But the only part of the law which Kerry made a point of opposing were the prescription drug benefits. It had nothing to do whatever with the increased cost of this year’s benefit.

Then, just before the election, Kerry started accusing Bush of having a plan to cut Social Security benefits by up to forty-five percent. Bush didn’t have a plan; I’m not sure he has one today. Kerry was relying on one estimate of what one of several ways of allowing workers to invest some Social Security taxes in the stock market could lead to. But Bush was even more dishonest in his description of Kerry’s healthcare proposal. Bush regularly said, “When it comes to healthcare, my opponent wants government to dictate. I want you to decide.” The idea that we decide about our healthcare will come as a great shock to our insurance companies. Sometimes Bush said as he did in New York on September 20, “The guy I’m running against, Senator Kerry, wants to nationalize healthcare.” His ads carried the same dishonest message. In fact, Kerry’s healthcare proposal, good or bad, was designed to shore up the existing private insurance system, and unlike the Clinton Administration plan, it managed to focus on both reducing the number of uninsured and on curbing rate increases for those who had insurance, which in turn would keep some of those people from becoming uninsured.

On Iraq, Bush claimed that Kerry had said he “prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy.” What Kerry actually said doesn’t come anywhere close to supporting that interpretation. Kerry said, “Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in Hell. But that was not, in and of itself, a reason to go to war. The satisfaction we’ve taken in his downfall does not hide this fact. We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left Americans less secure.”

If the ads were not bad enough, then there was the Republican National Committee. It was the source of a dishonest mailing to voters in West Virginia and Arkansas that said the Bible would be banned if liberals like Kerry won in November. The fliers showed a Bible with the word “Banned” across it, alongside a picture of a man on his knees placing a ring on the hand of another man. The legend there was, “Allowed.” When asked to defend the flier, the National Committee said the Democrats would appoint liberal judges who would legalize same-sex marriage. They couldn’t get around to explaining what the Bible had to with it.

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One question I am asked is which side was worse. I think the answer is that the Bush campaign was worse. Understand this is not a zero-sum game, in that the Kerry people told a variety of lies that in some past elections would have been remarkable, but the Bush campaign’s lies were more fundamental, and more central, whereas Kerry’s were more exaggerations and sloppy. Incidentally, the American people seem to agree. At the New York Times, we completed a post-election survey of more than 8,000 adults, and we asked respondents to rate the two campaigns’ honesty on zero to ten level. The differences are not great, but they are significant, especially in a year so partisan that less than one voter in six ever thought of voting for the other guy. Bush got an average of 6.8; Kerry got a somewhat better 7.2. Look at it another way: twenty percent of Kerry’s voters gave him a ten; only fourteen percent of Bush’s voters gave Bush a ten.

Why did this happen? First of all, although there were some improvements this year, the press could do a much better job of exposing lies. Why doesn’t it? I think there are three important reasons. Whatever the politicians say or a cynical public thinks, almost all American reporters strive to be as impartial as they can. So the idea of making judgments rather than just laying out both sides’ arguments often makes reporters uncomfortable. That’s a role they want to leave to editorial writers and columnists. But the problem with that approach for the reader and the job of journalism is not the comfort of journalists, is that most people had no way of judging the heart of John Kerry’s Iraq plan, the idea that if he got to be president than countries which refused to send troops when Bush asked would eagerly or at least reluctantly enlist under a President Kerry. But there are skilled diplomatic reporters here and foreign correspondents around the world who could have answered that question for their readers or television audiences. Nor could most people study the detail of Bush’s and Kerry’s respective health plans and decide whether they would work and at what cost. But there are reporters who could do just that. When editors don’t assign those stories, they cheat their readers in order to seem fair to the two campaigns, not that they’ll ever really succeed in that. I cannot remember a campaign which thought it was being covered fairly, even ones that won overwhelmingly. They think they would have won even more so, I mean, Johnson didn’t think he was being covered fairly. Neither did Goldwater, and I don’t know anybody since then who has thought that articles that occasionally suggest that politicians have screwed up is a fair account.

Another reason why the press doesn’t spend much time on stories about a candidate’s proposals is that most political reporters are not comfortable with policy stories. The reporters who cover the candidates day-to-day focus on tactics. When a candidate makes a major policy speech they focus on why he did so, not on what he said, unless what he said amounted to a contradiction on something he said before. They seem to fear that entertaining an idea that a candidate said something before he believes it will make the reporter seem naive. They ought to at least consider sincerity as one of the causes of a speech. The press really ought to overcome what I call the curse of Teddy White. Theodore White was an exquisite journalist, a great gentleman, a very wise man. He wrote The Making of the President in 1960 and revolutionized American political reporting with his behind-the-scenes looks at why campaigns did what they did. Other reporters figured out they could do the same and over the years they focused more and more on the inside story and forgot about what was in the open or dismissed it because they had heard it before.

In some past campaigns, newspapers and CNN frequently ran some ad boxes, which included measures of how accurate the television ads were. The low-esteem in which the 2000 Bush Campaign viewed me may be partly because I once gave one of their campaign ads a zero for accuracy. But that was an unusually blunt judgment—most ad boxes were more timidly written, and this year they were written and broadcast much less than they had been in recent years. The local stations that are getting rich off campaign ads; you may not have noticed it in Virginia, but if you happened to visit friends in West Virginia, you didn’t see anything else. Those stations frequently run them during news shows, but they showed no interest in biting the hands that fed them by dealing with the accuracy of the ads.

Under my colleague Brooks Jackson, the Annenberg Public Policy Center ran a project called FactCheck throughout the campaign. Every couple of days, his website,, exposed a new set of lies. It got a lot a remarkable amount of attention when Vice President Cheney in trying to defend himself claimed that had proven he was accurate on something. In fact, hadn’t, but it had said that some of the attacks were exaggerated. When he said, that was the wrong website. In order to avoid being overwhelmed they forwarded all hits that night to a George Soros website, whose legend was “Bush and Cheney must be replaced.” At any rate, we got more attention to FactCheck after that.

One of the places where facts and lies and so on are most prominent and can confront each other is during the so-called debates. Everyone agreed they’d be a big test for Kerry; they were, and he did pretty well. Before the debates, though, I said they’d also be a test for journalists of whether they could appreciate the importance of the event, and how voters make sense of what was said, checking the accuracy of what’s said about the past and the plausibility of what’s claimed for the future. Because it was a critical moment, it wasn’t going to be enough for the press to say, “Oh, we covered that a while ago.” I said, “Cover it again, and don’t just bury the fact-checking story inside while the front page political analyst confuses himself or herself with a drama critic.” Beware in discussions of these things of the word performance. The papers should be covering style and strategy, but inside, and putting the facts on page one.

Looking back, I think the print press did a credible job this time of fact-checking the debates, and I think ABC News tried pretty hard as well. Most of television doesn’t care or lacks the nerve to try. But even the print press really came late in the game. It might have mattered if there had been a lot of undecided voters, but there weren’t. I think the dishonesty and the willingness of the public to accept it matter to the political system. One consequence is that it is a lot harder for politicians to work together if they’ve just finished lying about each other on the stump. Even more important, I think, is what it does to the public.

This year the country is patting itself on the back because sixty percent of voting age citizens voted, up substantially from fifty-four percent in 2000. While the press and the Republicans celebrate Bush’s victory as some sort of decisive political statement, he really finished second with thirty-one percent. Not voting got forty percent. So for all of those pictures we saw of people standing in line to vote early, or standing in even longer lines to vote on Election Day, there were more people who never voted at all. A lot of them of course were in states which our electoral college system makes meaningless and which candidates therefore ignore, such as Virginia, the District of Columbia, where I vote, Maryland next door, about three-fourths of the states, including three of the biggest, New York, California, and Texas, got no campaigning whatever. But I also think a fair number of those non-voters are among the thirty-eight percent of registered voters who told another Annenberg Survey they were less than very confident their votes would be accurately counted. It’s not a big leap from the idea that candidates lie most of the time to the idea that somebody will be lying about whom you voted for.

The other question I get asked is what can be done about it. Now, while I think that the press ought to do more fact checking, I really don’t think that that would be decisive. I see even less likelihood that American voters will suddenly decide to turn on candidates who lie, particularly if both of them are doing it. What does that leave them with? So I have a wistful alternative. It’s derived from all the emphasis that people seem to be putting on moral values in American politics and campaigns. I’m not talking about how strongly they oppose same-sex marriage or abortion. I’m talking about what we know about what they do or don’t do. Now, these days, at least, they must not be caught committing adultery. Of course, they should not kill or steal. Those are certainly on the A-list of commandments for politicians to take seriously. Unfortunately, there’s also a B-list. Graven images have not been much of a problem lately. But candidates seem to be given a pass on taking the Lord’s name in vain and campaigning on the Sabbath. I wasn’t aware of anyone faulting Kerry for coveting Bush’s house. But there is one commandment I wish our new faith-based politics would put back on the list. It’s the ninth—you know, the one that goes, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”


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