Sex, Lies and Videotape: the 2004 US Presidential Election

What happened? Why did it happen? How could it happen? How did George W. Bush win a narrow, yet decisive re-election victory? Or, depending upon your viewpoint, how did he win the Presidency this time, for the first time? People around the world are asking this question. My friends in Europe are wondering how Bush did it. The UK Daily Mirror‘s post-election day headline blared, “How Can 59,054,087 People Be So Dumb?”

Are they dumb? I don’t know. But a lot of us, that is, 48 percent of us, are pretty gloomy right now as we think about the next four years under W’s regime. But, before we, in the States, or our friends abroad, prepare to face those four years, I want to respond to the perplexing questions of how and why the election turned out as it did. I’m borrowing the title of Stephen Soderbergh’s ground breaking 1989 indie film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape to help explain how this happened because, in the 2004 election’s focus on sexual preference issues, in Bush’s lies about Iraq, and his supporter’s lies, accepted by him, about Senator Kerry’s war record, and, in Osama Bin Laden’s pre-election videotape shown on TV, all comprise to some extent the source of the Kerry defeat.

What is going on when voters ignore the actual national and international situation, such as thousands of lost jobs at home and the mess that Iraq is today, and vote for incumbent President Bush? Perhaps Stephen Colbert’s satirical “punditry” on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show the day after the election provides a clue. He suggested that the voters who said they were voting for “morals” or “values”, which according to The New York Times report of 4 November 2004, eight out of ten Bush voters said was their main reason for voting for Bush, they were in actuality expressing fear. Certainly, a fear of terrorism was a crucial issue for many of these voters. But, for many Bush voters, the equation of their “moral values” with their anti-gay feelings enabled them to express their phobia about gays.

It might be, as Nancy Franklin writes, in the 15 November 2004 The New Yorker (“Blue Blood, Who Knew What When?”), that the focus on Bush voters as “value” voters is the “. . .statistic most likely to be repeated constantly in the next four years,” as the media try “to set their own on-air agenda for the next four years. . .” But, that doesn’t alter the fact that people who supposedly have deep “moral values”, that is, voted for Bush because in part they fear gays, wish to marginalize them, and to deny them basic American liberties, such as the right to marry.

The phrase, “moral values” can encapsulate numerous issues. Abortion, stem cell research, and prayer in school are often concerns of those who say moral values are vital to their political choices. But gay marriage galvanized “moral values” voters as no other issue did in this campaign, at both the local and the national level. On 2 November, 11 states voted to ban gay marriage, and often domestic partner status, as well.

The anti-gay marriage movement began in earnest in early 2004, when in February the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts “cleared the way to gay marriage” as it ruled there was no constitutional reason to prevent such unions. Immediately, “President Bush waded into the debate with a statement criticizing the ruling.” ( 4 February 2004) Also in February, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome announced the city would allow gay marriage. (www. 10 February 2004) Anti-gay activists like Connie Mackey of the Family Research Council responded to the rulings with angry statements. (Ibid, CNN) But it was President Bush who quickly turned the controversy into a major election issue, with a strong statement calling for a Constitutional Amendment defining marriage as a male-female relationship. ( 24 February 2004)

President Bush’s avid support for the amendment pushed it to the forefront of the election campaign. His radical attempt to alter the Constitution to deny gay Americans their basic civil rights belies his and his supporters’, claim that they are conservative. A recent letter to the Editor printed in The New York Times notes, “Rural Americans embrace a set of cherished values and are proud of their heritage. . . They are not homophobes. The fact that these folks live on Main Street in Lima, Ohio, instead of Park Avenue in Manhattan makes them no less American.” (The New York Times, Letters to the Editor, 12 November 2004) Actually, they are homophobes. And they, and the president, not only want to treat gays as second-class citizens, they want to enshrine that second-class citizenship in the Constitution.

This issue is not some constitutional, social, or moral abstraction. I have seen the discouragement and the upset over this matter expressed by several of my students. One student e-mailed me the day after the election, saying that his disgust in the vote was so profound, so disheartening; that the last thing he wanted to do was talk about politics in our class, or anywhere. Another student took the election results in a very personal way. “These people,” he told me, “and the President, they act like I’m not human, like I’m some ogre or monster. What about Dick Cheney’s daughter? Does Bush think she’s not a person?” Good question. Other students wondered how the Vice President’s daughter lives with herself, campaigning for a president who doesn’t believe that she is entitled to basic American rights. They wonder how people can loathe them so completely because of their sexual preference. And they wonder how people who would deny an entire population their basic civil rights can claim the moral high ground in American politics.

If President Bush felt all warm and fuzzy, wrapped in his anti-gay “moral” pronouncements, he was also most likely gratified that all the angst about sex, gays, and the question of gay marriage served to help shift the election’s focus away from Iraq’s post-invasion disintegration and the Bush Administrations’ lies about the war; the very lies which got us in to Iraq, and now keep us there. I admit that in early 2003 I was very conflicted about the possibility of the war. I was neither an automatic “Yes, do it, invade” person, nor an automatic “Don’t invade, ever” person. Though disturbed by the unilateral nature of the Bush position, I had no illusions about the threat of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But during the election Bush ran away from his June 2003 declaration, “mission accomplished”, and the reality that there are not, and most likely haven’t been for some time, WMD in Iraq. Will we ever know if we were lied to about the alleged WMD? At the least, there was a subtle mis-interpretation of evidence about WMD in Iraq to gain support from people such as myself. Back on 4 May 2003, “The Bush administration admitted that Saddam Hussein probably had no weapons of mass destruction . . . A senior US official added that America never expected to find a huge arsenal.” (“Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction”, by Neil Mackay Sunday Herald)

Or, perhaps they did not expect to find any arsenal. This year, less than a month before the election, Charles Duelfer, head of the US Iraq Survey, admitted Saddam had no WMD stockpiles, though Duelfer believed that Saddam was still dangerous. But, as Michigan Democrat Carl Levin noted, “We did not go to war because Saddam had future intentions to obtain weapons of mass destruction.” ( 6 October 2004) The truth is that, especially after 9/11, Bush was absolutely bound and determined to invade Iraq, whether there were WMD there or not.

Two recent books, Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack (Simon and Schuster 2004), and Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies (Free Press 2004), make it clear that Iraq — not Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s home base before 9/11 — was Bush’s main target. In a 60 Minutes interview, Clarke stated unequivocally that on 9/11 “The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door and said ‘I want you to find whether Iraq did this.’ Now he never said ‘Make it up.’ But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said ‘Iraq did this’.” (60 Minutes archives) On 9/11, that day of horror, Bush’s first reaction was to focus on the “excuse” that he now had to get Saddam: not on the killing of thousands of people, with which Saddam had absolutely no connection.

And what about the current mess in Iraq? It worsens by the day. Did the Bush Administration truly think, or hope, that post-war Iraq would be a stable electoral democracy? Perhaps the President and his cohorts, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, told us one of those proverbial “white lies”. As in, “Trust us. After Saddam goes the Iraqis will love Americans. They will quickly become good, American-style democrats. Really.”

In the first presidential debate President Bush, of course, couldn’t think of any mistakes that he had made during his first four years in office. During his 13 April press conference, asked to name his biggest mistake Bush just rambled on, “I don’t want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t, you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.” (, 14 April 2004) In the second presidential debate on 8 October, when asked to discuss three wrong decisions he feels he may have made, Bush somewhat petulantly claimed the question was meant to trick him into admitting the invasion of Iraq was wrong. “And the answer is,” he retorted, “absolutely not. It was the right decision.” ( 8 October 2004)

There’s nothing wrong with presidential confidence. But President Bush has entered the realm of self-delusion. Yet, his “moral values”-oriented supporters could care less about the abysmal situation Iraq, or the lies and mistakes that led us there. But the most heinous of the Bush campaign lies were actually about another war: Vietnam.

George Bush dodged the draft. John Kerry served his country during the Vietnam War, and put his life on the line in combat. Yet President Bush countenanced vicious attacks that called the Senator’s war record into question. The attacks, by disaffected Vietnam veterans, were actually related to Senator Kerry’s post service anti-war activities. These veterans, still angry about those criticisms 30 years after the war, sought revenge by trying to savage the Senator’s war record. And President Bush, who avoided the draft by joining the National Guard and perhaps didn’t even fulfill that service, stood complacently by while his minions smeared the Senator. This is a face of morality? Veterans supporting the one who avoided service? The veteran’s distinguished war record disparaged and belittled? We have truly entered the age of Orwell.

The smears reached new heights of mendacity during September’s Republican National Convention. During the convention some Bush delegates wore band-aids on their face, which had depictions of Purple Hearts on them. When a CNN reporter asked about the Purple Heart band-aid, one delegate responded with a chuckle, “Well, I cut myself shaving this morning. And I thought that I deserved a Purple Heart.” So this Republican delegate, covered with Bush buttons and flag pins, dismissed Senator Kerry’s sacrifice, his Purple Hearts, with a smirk.

Of course, Bush and the Republicans have honed the destruction of combat-veteran candidates to a high art. They did it in a slash and burn campaign during the 2000 Republican primary election in South Carolina to fellow Republican and former North Vietnamese prisoner of war Senator, John McCain. (And why did he embrace Bush during this election?) They did it to Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee due to his grievous wounding in Vietnam, when they defeated his 2002 re-election bid. Ironically, he fell to the charge of not being patriotic enough, as he didn’t fall into step to support Bush’s march to war in Iraq during the fall of 2002. Never was the truth of the aphorism, “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels”, demonstrated so vividly.

“Moral” Bush supporters unleashing their anti-gay bigotry. “Patriots” denigrating a veteran’s wounds and combat service, while supporting a draft dodger. Even in her looking glass world, Alice in Wonderland encountered anything as bizarre as America’s 2004 election. And it gets still more bizarre.

Osama Bin Laden’s videotaped entry into the campaign shortly before the election was puzzling, but effective. Some of my students thought that he wanted to help Kerry, by emphasizing that, three years after 9/11, Bush had failed to capture him. I didn’t, and still don’t agree with that view. First of all, Bin Laden’s appearance on American TV screens served to make certain that Americans focused on their fear of terror attacks, not on the Bush supervised mess that is now Iraq. Second, he knows that Bush will continue doggedly on in Iraq. American “liberators” have become occupiers, and, most likely, a boon to Al Quaeda recruiting in the Middle East. We’ll never know, given the chaotic nature of the situation he would have had to face, how Senator Kerry’s Iraq policy would have evolved. I have no doubt, though, that it would have been more thoughtful, cautious, and nuanced than President Bush’s disastrous policy.

How can 59 million people be so dumb? My European friends are a bit kinder in their election assessment. But they are still quite gloomy about the Bush victory. Romania is currently in the midst of its own presidential election. I know several Romanians who have been involved in politics there since the 1989 revolution brought democracy and meaningful elections to the country.

One of those friends, an academic in Bucharest, notes that, as in so many other European nations, the public does not like Bush or the Iraq war. But the leadership, “the present government seems to be at its best with the Bush administration”. That government will most likely stay in power. The claim of an improving economy, whether accurate or not, plus Romania’s admission to NATO and to the European Union — “We’re playing with Big Boys now!” — indicates the current government will no doubt overcome the public’s disdain for its close ties with Bush. My friend notes further, “We have an honest candidate (for president) with no chance at all.” My Czech friend, who lives in Prague, is, if anything, even more discouraged than those I know in Romania. She writes in a brief note the day after the election, “It’s a depressing day! Czechs will simply judge Americans for this choice, but I guess we’ll live with whatever comes.”

Indeed. They will judge us. All across Europe they are thinking about us. They’re baffled, angry, gloomy reactions will, I think, give way to even harsher views. What of America and its people? Americans claim moral superiority. Americans claim to have elected George Bush on the basis of his, and their, strong moral beliefs. I’m sure that my Czech friend, like other Europeans, are truly frustrated that they have to sit by, watch Americans (re) elect George Bush, and “live with whatever comes.”

Here, in America, though, we don’t have to “live” with it. We can take heart from the high Election Day turnout. We can keep that in mind, and work towards realizing the hope Senator Kerry expressed in his 3 November concession speech. “The time will come,” he said, “the election will come when your work and your ballots will change the world, and it’s worth fighting for.” Yet, in our willingness to fight, in our anger at Bush, we also need to remember something else the Senator said in his speech. “America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion.” I don’t think that we can look to Bush and his supporters for that compassion. Still, Senator Kerry is right. Somehow, we have to accept a paradoxical challenge. We do have to stand up to bullies. We also have to show the bullies that it is we, not they, who represent the best, compassionate impulses of American democracy.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.