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Published: Sunday, 2/20/2005

With Bush, it's all in the packaging

WASHINGTON - It's all about the "A." As in advertising.

One of President Bush's top priorities has been to change the 1970 Clean Air Act. He wants to give utilities, factories, and oil refineries more time to meet national standards for controlling carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants and also permit industries to trade "pollution credits." But to many this seemed like a cave-in to polluting industries. So the administration began pitching its plan as the "Clear Skies Initiative." It is now pending in the Senate.

"This is a flat-out rollback of our environmental laws, and I want to believe this is just too hot-button an issue to touch. But I don't know what is going to happen now. 'Clear skies' sounds good to a lot of people," said Nathan Willcox, a Philadelphia environmentalist who specializes in clean-air issues.

Mr. Bush, an oilman from Texas, also has long yearned to make big changes to help the energy industry. And just about everyone agrees we need a national energy policy to do such things as revamp the electric grid system to avoid a blackout similar to the one that left many cities without power in the summer of 2003. But Mr. Bush's "Energy Policy Act of 2005" not only would permit oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it would give huge tax incentives and subsidies to the nuclear industry, the auto industry, the coal industry, and alternative-energy industries.

When Congress balked at the sheer scope of the legislation, Mr. Bush began saying it would lower high heating and gasoline bills, a source of anguish to millions of Americans. In his State of the Union speech this year, Mr. Bush said, "I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy."

But experts insist the administration's proposed "energy policy" would neither drive down consumer prices nor significantly reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) some time ago dubbed the President's energy bill what some Republicans and many Democrats insist it really is - the No-Lobbyist-Left-Behind bill.

The President's drive for partially privatizing Social Security was mired in fear that retirees could be financially bereft if the stock market crashed. So the administration demanded that everyone, including the media, stop referring to "private accounts." The new nomenclature would be the more appealing "ownership society" and "personal investment accounts."

Mr. Bush also did not mention cutting benefits and delaying retirement, which is what his plan undeniably would do. He instead began speaking passionately of the urgent need to "strengthen" and "save" Social Security, although all economists agree there is no immediate crisis. And some of the public's animosity has begun dissipating.

When Mr. Bush overruled Vice President Dick Cheney and called for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, he never said a word about his true intention - to make it illegal for gay men and women to marry anywhere in the United States. As with Social Security, he couched his intention positively. "Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society," he said, "it should not be redefined by activist judges. For the good of families, children, and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage." Who, he was saying, could oppose that?

When Mr. Bush proposed to end the estate tax, the federal tax on inheritances, opponents said his plan would not help ordinary Americans but was to benefit the rich in erecting tax shelters around their estates. So the administration began referring to the "death tax." And public opinion for getting rid of it soared.

The most brilliant name conceived by this administration would have to be the No Child Left Behind Act. It doesn't mean that at all; it means that teachers have to teach in a way to make their students pass tests. After that, the children who don't pass are left behind.

And, of course, when the administration sought power to listen to conversations between lawyers and their clients, to find out what people might check out of libraries, to hold suspects without charging them with crimes, and to conduct secret surveillance without court orders, the law was titled the Patriot Act. The implication was that only traitors would oppose it.

All modern administrations have engaged in advertising and public relations. During President Bill Clinton's second term, the government spent $128 million on public-relations firms. During the first four years of the Bush Administration, $250 million worth of such contracts was awarded. (We now know that the administration hasn't been above skirting ethics barriers by paying media personalities to push its messages.)

But this kind of relentless packaging comes at a cost. Americans can't be blamed for greeting Mr. Bush's pronouncements with skepticism, as in "What is his real goal?"

It's all about the "A." As in "A" for the answer to that question.



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