Beware the lawyer-President.
Lawyers are the most intensely trained wordsmiths on the planet. Persuasion is their business. While the Cannons of Ethics forbid them from lying, they are taught in law school to “slant facts” toward the direction they want you, the listener, to go. They are encouraged to lead you to a place they want you to be, even if in reality you should be somewhere else.
As an example, you will recall our last lawyer-President tried to change the definition of what “is” is to keep him out of a sex scandal. While that bit of misdirection saved him during his post-impeachment expulsion trial in the Senate, the legal Ethics Committee in Arkansas didn’t buy it and suspended his law license.
One of the usual ways a lawyer-politician will wiggle out of a question is to, in the beginning of his answer, change the subject. This is done subtly, like a magician’s slight of hand, so the listener doesn’t even know it happened.
It’s the job of journalists, also wordsmiths, to look for this sort of trickery and catch the lawyer-politician in the act.
President Obama, consider yourself caught, thanks to a question about torture, or the lack thereof (the question was neutral) asked by Jake Tapper of ABC News.
Here is the question Jake posed to the President:
“Thank you, Mr. President. You've said in the past that waterboarding, in your opinion, is torture. Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?”
Note the TOPIC of the question: Jake seeks The President’s interpretation of the Geneva Conventions on torture.
Now let’s parse Obama’s answer:
“What I've said — and I will repeat —“
Before we continue, let’s look at how the President started his response, because he uses a rhetorical tool taught to him in law school. Note the forcefulness of the phrase “and I will repeat.” He is acting as if he has nothing to hide, so you the listener will more easily believe he has nothing to hide. That is the classic set up before the lawyer-politician is about to hide something, so you are less likely to notice it – the verbal equivalent of the magician’s slight of hand.
The last time we saw the “I will repeat” lexicon used as a tool of believability was by President Clinton. After he uttered it, he then famously said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…”
President Obama continued his answer, and keep in mind the TOPIC is supposed to be the Geneva Conventions:
“…is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture.”
Gotcha, Mr. President.
The question asked of him was if waterboarding violates Geneva Conventions. He slipped in a change of subject – that it violates “our ideals and values.” He does not mention the GC or any other laws. He changed the topic so fast most people didn’t notice he did that, and that’s what the lawyer-politician, like the magician, counts on.
Under the rules of rhetorical misdirection, he can’t end it there, or it will give you the listener time to ponder that he changed the subject. He must now bolster his argument, which keeps you from recognizing that he is on a different subject altogether.
So the President continued:
“I don't think that's just my opinion; that's the opinion of many who've examined the topic. And that's why I put an end to these practices.”
How clever! When the President speaks of “many who’ve examined the topic…” you think he is on the topic of International Law (since that was the original question). In your mind you picture a team of International Law professors examining the Geneva Conventions, don’t you?
But the President already changed the topic from the GC to “our ideals and values.” So who were these people the President referred to as having examined the “topic?” Who out there has on their business card that they are experts in “our ideals and values?” Of course there are no such people, so no such people looked. This goes beyond fair rhetorical persuasion or fact slanting – this was a lie.
Why is President Obama changing the topic away from Geneva Conventions when he answers the “torture” question? There are a couple of reasons.
First, he is getting great political traction by making people believe President Bush tortured people and he put a stop to it. That satisfies his far left constituency, even though he is duping them the most. Obama has never said Bush’s waterboarding violated the Geneva Conventions, but he reaps the public relations benefit by making people think that he has.
Second, Obama is no longer merely a protesting community organizer. He’s the President, and he now has the burden of interrogating the bad guys to get information.
The Geneva Conventions, contrary to public perception, do not have a list of things you can’t do because they are torture. Instead, there is a definition of what is “torture” that is so vague it’s impossible to follow:
a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) Taking of hostages;
(c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
By the way the above applies to "High Contracting Parties" to the Geneva Conventions, which al-Qaeda is not, so the three men Bush waterboarded weren’t covered by them anyway. Obama knows that, but no journalist with access has asked him about it.
There is no mention of “waterboarding” in the Geneva Conventions, so whether that is torture is left to interpretations of the above definition, and that’s the problem.
The Geneva Convention language is so vague one International Kangaroo Court might find waterboarding is torture. Another might find mere name-calling is so "humiliating" it is torture.
Barack Obama knows if he takes the position that President Bush violated the Geneva Conventions, he opens the door to some “International Court of People Who Hate America” someday trying to hang him for merely questioning an al-Qeada member and, heaven forbid, degraded him with insults.
Barack Obama has never said President Bush tortured in violation of the Geneva Conventions, because Bush didn’t. Obama will let you think he has accused Bush, but if push comes to shove he has “plausible deniability” because a parsing of his words show he never actually said it. He will simply blame you for misinterpreting him.
Obama certainly didn’t tell Jake Tapper last night that President Bush’s waterboarding violated the Geneva Conventions, no matter how many news reporters you’ll see today who bought the deception.