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Waxman, Orwell and the Bush Reality Machine

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Attorney General Gonzales' audaciously incredulous testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the White House's repeated invocation of executive privilege to block congressional investigations, highlight the fact that the essential text to understanding the Bush years is not Bob Woodward's State of Denial, but rather George Orwell's 1984. In his classic novel, Orwell makes two fundamental points that go to the heart of the Bush administration and their current battles with Congress -- information is power since control of information leads to control over people; and "who controls the past controls the future and who controls the present controls the past."

It was clear from the start that the White House understood that information was power as they carefully choreographed every message with visual images or slogans such as "Clear Skies" that moderated the actual substance being conveyed. With David Suskind's 2002 interview with a White House aide, however, we discovered that in the Bush administration basing policy on a "discernible reality" was a thing of the past. "[W]e create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality . . . we'll act again, creating other new realities."

Indeed they did. Like no administration before it, the Bush administration has worked diligently at creating new realities by concealing, distorting and manufacturing information on a broad range of issues aided by a once timid media and docile Congress.

Last month's "Initial Benchmark Assessment Report" on the effectiveness of the surge in Iraq report was the administration's latest pièce de résistance. Despite the fact that the report's claim of success on eight of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress was pure spin and contrary to testimony by the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council that there have been "few appreciable gains," the press ran with the report's glass half-full assessment.

As the Bush administration churned "new realities," Representative Henry Waxman worked diligently within the Republican Congress to expose these false realities with reports on the Bush administration's Iraq lies, politicization of science and overall secrecy. The Democratic victory in November moved Waxman to Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and has enabled him and other Democrats to shine a spotlight on Bush's reality machine.

Waxman currently is investigating one of the quintessential administration realities -- the death of football star Pat Tillman. The Pentagon claimed that Tillman was killed leading a charge against the enemy; when in reality he was killed by friendly fire. The Bush administration, however will not relinquish their secrets without a fight, as they have gone to Nixonian extremes in invoking executive privilege to withhold evidence from Congress in the Tillman and other investigations and even attempted to claim that the Vice President was a separate branch of government.

While issues such as executive privilege, the White House's failure to retain presidential records and Bush's order restricting access to his records after he leaves office may appear mundane, Orwell teaches us that this is a much larger and significant battle as the White House is seeking to engrave its manufactured realities in the tablet of history by discarding or eliminating access to the truth. This administration already has demonstrated that it views history as another form of reality to be created when it discarded 300,000 pamphlets on helping children learn history because it embraced historical standards that were "too gloomy" and not white enough for Lynne Cheney.

History matters, since as historian David McCullough notes, it is about "who we are and why we are the way we are." This explains why history sometimes remains in debate for decades or even centuries or is rewritten to fit government propaganda such as in the former Soviet Union where it was said that "nothing is as unpredictable as the past." Consider the fact that during the past few months alone, Turkey has engaged in diplomatic skirmishes with Canada, Chile and France over their recent recognition of the 1915 genocide of 1.5 million Armenians; while Japanese officials enraged China by seeking to reduce the number of victims of the 1937 "Rape of Nanking" from the historical consensus of 150,000 to 20,000. These examples demonstrate that the "Whitewashing History Club" is a rogue's gallery, not a gentlemen's club and it is telling that the administration is seeking early membership.

Maya Angelou once said that "history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again." That is precisely what is at stake in this current battle. Congress must not yield in this fight, since although it cannot undo the cavalcade of catastrophes that have defined this administration, by countering each fabricated reality with the truth and enabling future generations to recognize the charlatan's call, it can ensure that they are not repeated.