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Yet Bush, unlike other vice-presidential hopefuls before him, didn't simply muzzle his own views and publicly support the platform. Having cast his lot with Reagan, he would now deny that he had ever been anything but a Reaganite.
Bush traveled the country hawking his newfound pro-life stance. "I oppose abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake," Bush would write in his 1987 campaign biography, Looking Forward. It was at least conceivably true. Perhaps Bush had undergone a sudden change of heart. After all, scores of politicians have. But in the next sentence, Bush attempted to wipe away his years as a pro-choicer, writing that in 1980 "Reagan and I both disapproved of the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade; we agreed that some form of constitutional amendment was needed to overturn the decision."(Emphasis added.)
He next set out to vanquish the specter of "voodoo economics," which, a year after the Reagan-Bush inauguration, still tagged behind Bush in the corridors of the White House and kept him on the outs with Reagan's suspicious inner circle. Reagan's tax cuts had given birth to mounting deficits, discomfiting reminders of Bush's campaign slur. Even Reagan's once feverishly devout budget director, David Stockman, admitted to William Greider in an infamous December 1981 Atlantic article that "none of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers." If privately Bush felt vindicated by the fiscal havoc the administration was wreaking, he didn't let on.
Determined to put the ghost of those damnable little words to rest, Bush called upon his contacts at the networks -- including a nephew at NBC News -- to see if the tape of him saying "voodoo economics" existed, according to the Nation's Christopher Hitchens. They told him it did not.
Thrilled by this discovery, on February 9, 1982, Bush set out to put an end to the matter. "What I said back then -- well, it's hard to find," he told a crowd in Houston. "Number one, I didn't say it. Every network has searched for it and none can find it. So I never said it."
It was a page right out of Franklin Roosevelt's book. Like Bush, Roosevelt had also made a memorable speech about the economy that he came to regret. In 1932, at the height of the presidential campaign, he railed against excess government spending and large federal debts before a crowd in Pittsburgh. Four years later, beset by an enormous bureaucracy and a looming debt of his own, Roosevelt was again scheduled to speak in Pittsburgh. In The Age of Roosevelt, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recounts the story. Roosevelt ordered his speech writer to come up with a speech that would give "a good and convincing explanation" of what he'd meant in 1932. "Mr. President," the aide returned, "the only thing you can say about the 1932 speech is to deny categorically that you made it."
Bush had no luck with his own denial. The vice president's speech made the nightly news across the country. As it turned out, NBC did indeed have a copy of Bush invoking "voodoo," and paired it on the screen with his denial.
Far from humiliated, however, Bush came away from the debacle unscathed. Yes, he had been caught in midlie before the entire country. Yet no one cared. Bush had learned from long experience that the national memory was short, and poor. Nixon, his first mentor, had been a worthy teacher of the power -- and ultimately the limitations -- of the political lie.
Nixon's fall, however, had lowered the electorate's threshold of tolerance for outright lies, and candidate Jimmy Carter was quick to capitalize on the new disenchantment. A pinion of his 1976 presidential campaign was the bodacious promise, "I will never lie to you; I will never mislead you." And the people believed. But double-digit inflation, gas lines, and stagflation only prepared the country for a new kind of liar in Ronald Reagan, who vowed balanced budgets, full employment, and tax cuts. Bush knew that by echoing Reagan, what he said, too, would be believed, that his lies could pass as truth. All that was required to erase and replace his past was that he repeat the new version often enough, and with confidence.
His political past sent down the memory hole, Bush emerged six years later as Reagan's heir apparent. As he accepted the Republican nomination, the nominee gently tugged at our legs with words that foreshadowed lies to come: "Now I may not be the most eloquent...but there's nothing self-conscious about my love of country," Bush intoned. "I believe public service is honorable. And every time I hear that someone has breached the public trust it breaks my heart."
Even as he wooed the nation with those cloying lines, he sought to slip free of their meaning. As he demonstrated by his bobbing and weaving on the role he played in the Iran-contra scandal, the moralist-candidate wasn't about to die of heartbreak.
From the day the scandal broke on November 25, 1986, Bush, like Reagan, denied having any knowledge of the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the contras. Yet the vice president went further than that. Bush alleged he was so far out of the decision-making loop that he wasn't even directly aware that arms were being sold to Iran at all. "I sensed that we were sending arms," he said in January 1988. "And I sensed that we were trying to get hostages out. But not arms for hostages."