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On the stump, the art of distortion

Remarks by Bush, Kerry scrutinized

BANGOR -- As he often does at campaign events, President Bush got his biggest rise out of the crowd in Bangor Thursday afternoon when he said he was simply paraphrasing Senator John F. Kerry's statements.

"Incredibly, this week my opponent said he would prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to the situation in Iraq today," Bush said at a campaign rally at Bangor International Airport, drawing a round of boos.

There was just one problem: Kerry never said what Bush said he did. In a major address Monday in New York City, where Kerry laid out his opposition to the manner in which Bush invaded Iraq, he was careful to call Hussein "a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell."

"The satisfaction that we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure," Kerry said, blaming what he described as Bush's lack of diplomacy and proper war planning for putting the nation at greater danger.

Distorting an opponent's words and selectively using facts and figures is nothing new in politics. Democrat Al Gore was accused of excessive exaggerations in his campaign against Bush in 2000, with apocryphal stories told as fact and his memorable claim to have been behind the creation of the Internet (his actual quote, in a 1999 interview on CNN, was: "I took the initiative in creating the Internet.")

Kerry exaggerates, too. For example, he regularly manipulates federal employment data -- particularly in swing states -- by counting only the jobs lost in the private sector under the Bush presidency, and not including the jobs created in the public sector over the past three-plus years.

Kerry has also blamed the president for a Medicaid rate hike that was not his doing, and has contended that the war in Iraq has cost some $200 billion when the real cost is closer to $120 billion.

But Bush appears to be the worse offender this year, in terms of the number of misleading claims and the consistency of their appearance in his stump speech. A review of Bush's public statements in recent days reveals a number of areas where he is repeatedly using exaggerated claims and incomplete statistics, in an apparent attempt to fit his campaign themes.

George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley who has written extensively about political addresses, said Bush and his advisers have been masterful at using partial facts and their spin on Kerry's statements to create the perceptions they want.

"I've never seen anything like this," Lakoff said. "This is a particular trick, and these guys have mastered it. Each piece is misleading, and together they create a way of understanding Kerry and Bush that is useful to them."

On the war in Iraq, Bush often describes step by step his decision-making process. He discusses the presentation of evidence of Hussein's weapons programs at the United Nations as part of his defense.

"I gave a speech to the United Nations," Bush said in Bangor. "They looked at the same intelligence I had looked at. They remembered the same history we remembered. And they voted, 15 to nothing, to say to Saddam Hussein: disclose, disarm, or face serious consequences."

In 2002, the UN's Security Council did threaten "serious consequences" for Hussein if he did not comply with weapons inspections. But the United States failed in its attempt to get the council to authorize the use of force in March 2003, a fact Bush does not mention in his stump speech.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in an interview this month with the British Broadcasting Corp. that the US-led invasion "was illegal" because there was no second Security Council resolution.

"It was up to the Security Council to approve or determine what those consequences should be," Annan said. "From our point of view and from the [United Nations] charter point of view, it was illegal."

On health care, Bush has sought to draw a stark contrast between his plans and Kerry's by saying the Massachusetts Democrat would seek to "nationalize" health care. A Bush campaign commercial calls it a "big-government-run" plan being pushed by Kerry and "liberals in Congress."

"The guy I'm running against, Senator Kerry, wants to nationalize health care," Bush said Monday night in New York. "He wants the bureaucrats to make the decisions for the doctors and patients."

Though Kerry does want to expand health coverage through the federal Medicaid program, his health plan does not call for a nationalization of the health care system. Kerry's health plan is based primarily on tax credits and incentives, and does not include any new federal mandates that would move toward the socialized medicine that a plan to "nationalize health care" suggests.

Kevin Madden, a Bush campaign spokesman, said Bush's description of Kerry's health care plan and position on Iraq is an attempt to "offer a stark contrast." Bush is not distorting Kerry's statements but is trying to explain his opponent's positions based on the many "nuances" he has offered, Madden said.

In other cases, Bush uses questionable statistics to buttress his claims. He touts his record on the economy and job growth by saying he inherited a recession from his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Then he says that his tax cuts have spurred growth faster than any seen since the mid-1980s.

"Our economy is strong, and it is getting stronger," he said at the rally in Maine. "Our economy has been growing at rates as fast as any in nearly 20 years."

This statement is derived from a report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, according to the Bush campaign. In May, the bureau found that the nearly 5 percent year-to-year growth of the economy represented the fastest pace in two decades.

But in the most recent quarter for which data have been released -- the second quarter of 2004 -- gross domestic product grew at an annualized rate of just 2.8 percent, lower than the 3 percent that was expected, and far below its previous pace. The growth rate over the most recent four quarters has been about 4.8 percent, lower than the 4.9 percent rate from mid-1999 to mid-2000.

In addition, while Bush touts the 1.7 million jobs added nationwide over the past year, the country still has 900,000 fewer jobs than when Bush took office.

Talking about education, the president credits the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act with raising the test scores of minorities and economically disadvantaged elementary students.

"The reforms we passed are working," Bush said in Bangor. "The achievement gap amongst minority students is closing in America."

There is fragmentary data to support Bush's claim that the additional federal dollars to schools and the new accountability standards have helped minority students improve their test scores relative to white students, but education specialists agree there is not yet enough evidence to declare the act a nationwide success.

Besides, the "achievement gap" has been getting narrower for roughly the past decade, said Paul Peterson, director of the Program in Education Policy and Governance at Harvard's Kennedy School.

"It's been going on for some time, and it's continued during the No Child Left Behind years," he said. "There is some evidence to support these arguments. But I wouldn't say there is overwhelming national evidence that proves this."

Patrick Healy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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