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The Emperor Has No Information

11.14.2004 | POLITICS

The presidential election is over, but there's a big story coming down the pike. It started with the 2004 televised presidential debates, and kept accelerating on the Internet. What could not be ignored was the rectangular bulge on the back of President Bush's jacket seen during the first debate. Was it just a wrinkle in the president's shirt or jacket? Or was it something more disturbing?

Let's review the many "official" explanations given after the initial White House position that the photos had been doctored collapsed:

Story #1 -- One of the first major news media stories on the bulge was by Mike Allen in the Washington Post. "Several officials, pressed for a serious answer, flatly denied that anything was fishy about the hump. These officials said they had checked and that there was nothing under Bush's jacket -- not a wire, not a transmitter, not a garage door opener. Bush was not wearing a protective vest, sources said. ...'It is preposterous,' campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said. He declined to elaborate or to suggest what could have produced the unusual photo," according to Allen. On an on-line discussion, when asked about the bulge issue, Allen said "White House and campaign responses have been so contradictory. ...Bush aides...can't explain the bulge...they say he was not wearing a vest." In the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller also wrote about the bulge and said: "The bulge -- the strange rectangular box visible between the president's shoulder blades in the first debate -- has set off so much frenzied speculation on the Internet that is has become what literary critics call an objective correlative, or an object that evokes large emotions and ideas."

Story #2 -- The president himself tossed aside the odd bulge appearance on Good Morning America when Charlie Gibson asked "What the hell was that on your back, in the first debate?" Bush chuckled and said, "Well, you know, Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett have rigged up a sound system--" Gibson interrupted "You're getting in trouble--" Bush jumped in "I don't know what that is. I mean, it is, uh, it is, it's a--I'm embarrassed to say it's a poorly tailored shirt." Gibson asks incredulously "It was a shirt?" "Yeah, absolutely," said Bush. Gibson pushes: "There was no sound system, there was no electrical signal? There was-- " Bush tries to be funny: "How does an electrical--please explain to me how it works so maybe if I were ever to debate again I could figure it out. I guess the assumption was that if I was straying off course they would, kind of like a hunting dog, they would punch a buzzer and I would jerk back into place. I -- it's just absurd." Okay, the president was not under oath. But did he lie?

Story #3 -- Andres H. Card, Jr., the White House Chief of Staff dismissed the bulge as nothing more than "a poorly tailored suit." A shirt problem had turned into a jacket culprit.

Story #4 -- Ken Mehlman, the Bush campaign manager, was asked by Tim Russett on NBC's Meet the Press: "This was the first debate, George Bush at the podium, the bulge in the back of the suit. All right. Come clean. What is it?" Mehlman, trying to be funny, said: "The president, in fact, was receiving secret signals from aliens in outer space. You heard it here on Meet the Press."  Russett follows with: "It was not a bulletproof vest or magnets for his back or anything?" Mehlman responds: "I'm not sure what it was, but the gentleman responsible for the tailoring of that suit is no longer working for his administration." Blame the tailor.

Story #5 -- Mark Kinnon, media director for the Bush campaign when asked about the use of some sort of communication device said: "The president has never been assisted by any audio signal."

Story #6 -- Bush campaign staffers scoffed at the attention to the bulge and blamed a conspiracy theory instigated by bloggers, and they denied specifically that it was a type of Kevlar vest. The official line was: "Mr. Bush was wearing neither an electronic receiver nor a bulletproof vest on his back. He was merely wearing a rumpled suit jacket. Who ya gonna believe -- us, or your lying eyes?" Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel said: "Some people have been spending far too much time on left-wing conspiracy web sites." Blame the Internet and the bloggers.

Story #7 -- During the campaign, Karl Rove said, "Nothing was under his jacket." Would Karl Rove lie?

Story #8 -- After the election, The Hill reported that Secret Service sources said the bulge was the outline of a bulletproof vest. One Internet commenter raised these questions: If Bush had a vest during the debates, wouldn't the Secret Service have had Kerry wearing one? And why would Bush be wearing a vest under while driving around in a pickup on his extremely well guarded ranch?

Story #9 -- A few days later, Karl Rove appeared on several Sunday news shows and claimed the bulge was due to some problem with the president's jacket, some sort of pucker he blamed on the tailor.

Story #10 -- A spokesman for the Secret Service refused to comment on the bulge matter.

Add to all of this that Bush's chief debate negotiator, James A. Baker III, sought and received a stipulation that cameras must not be positioned behind the candidates, although this was not honored by the media. Why would Baker want this?

Here's where some objective information revealed on many Internet sites comes into play. The shirt and jacket stories were not consistent with the same odd protrusion existing on Bush's jacket in all three debates, when he wore different shirts and jackets, and was also inconsistent with photos of Bush in many other situations showing the same type of bulge, including the photo of Bush in a pickup truck on his ranch.

Following an initial story on, the most detailed account of the Bush bulge was a story by Dave Lindorff on The crux of the story was a recounting of what a NASA photo imaging expert had discovered. Robert M. Nelson worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology for some three decades. Nelson was a senior scientist with impeccable credentials. He had analyzed digital photographs taken from video broadcasts of the three debates using standard methods that sharpen but do not distort the image. Nelson said:

In the first debate the bulges create the impression of a letter T with a small feature which appears similar to a wire under the jacket running upward from the right. In the second and third debates the jacket has a generally padded shape across a large part of the entire back which tapers inward toward the spine in a downward direction. This is consistent with the hypothesis that a pad was inserted to conceal the T-shaped device seen in the first debate.

Bruce Hapke, professor emeritus of planetary science at the University of Pittsburg examined the images and concluded: "I would think it's very hard to avoid the conclusion that there's something underneath his jacket. It would certainly be consistent with some kind of radio receiver and a wire."

Lindorff observed: "Nelson's work makes on thing abundantly clear: the White House, the Bush campaign, and the president himself have been lying about the bulge in his suit." Lindorff and others on the Internet did research and discovered that there are relatively common systems consisting of a back-mounted transceiver, a neck loop, and a wireless earpiece hidden in the ear cannel. They have been used for some years by all sorts of people, including public speakers, politicians, actors, musicians, and news people on television.

Alex Darbut of Resistance Technology, Inc. said this of the Bush bulge: "There's no question about it. It's a pretty obvious one--larger than most because it probably has descrambling capability." It should also be noted that some Internet detectives had blown up digital photographs of the debates to reveal a thin wire on Bush's shirt.

There are four other relevant pieces of information about bulgegate. First, During a D-day event in France, a CNN broadcast appeared to pick up--and broadcast to surprised viewers--the sound of another voice apparently providing Bush his lines, after which Bush repeated them. Second, Danny Schechter, who operates, who had been looking into rumors about Bush's being wired, became aware of concerns that others might be picking up their radio frequencies. On the first day of the Republican convention "They had a frequency specialist stop me and ask about the frequency of my camera," Schecter said. Third, James Atkinson, a technology expert, told of a Bush visit to Boston in March 2004 when he stayed at the Park Plaza Hotel; the system he was using could be heard on the right frequency 1500 feet away, "and one of his advisors could be heard doing voice checks and then feeding him data about the school he was about to visit." This person provided details on the specific system the White House had purchased in the past few years.

Fourth, Fred Burks, a long-time contract Indonesian language interpreter working for the State Department and since 1995 for the White House, told of his experience working at a White House meeting between President Bush and the president of Indonesia soon after September 11, 2001. Burks said:

During the 90 minutes, President Bush not only covered all the [22] points, he covered them quite well and without any notes! Not once during the entire meeting did he look at any notes or receive cues from anyone present in discussing the Indonesian political situation with depth and intelligence. I was astonished! "How could this be?" I asked myself. ...I am convinced that he must have been using some sort of earpiece through which someone was telling him what to say.

There was also considerable analysis of a number of Bush's odd silences and statements during the debates that could be explained by his paying attention to what was being said to him in his ear. At one point, for example, Bush snapped "Let me finish!" But neither Kerry nor the moderator had interrupted him. There simply was no apparent reason for Bush to say that. A completely different explanation of the bulges was some type of medical device, perhaps to relieve chronic pain or address abnormal heart rhythms, but this seemed less plausible.

Most of the Internet hullabaloos centered on the question of Bush receiving "help" during the debates. Just as important was how the major news media tip-toed into the bulge story, mostly focusing on the Internet coverage, but did not pursue the cause and importance of the bulge itself. They seemed afraid to confront the possibility before the election that the President of the United States was cheating during the debates. NASA scientist Nelson had tried for several weeks to interest the media in his enhanced photos from the first debate. Several small newspapers and then the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post did not bite.

Prior to the election, former Mother Jones editor Jeffrey Klien said:

Major media outlets are understandably reluctant to influence an election, but in this instance, they have a certified government expert willing to go on the record; there's absolutely no excuse for their silence. All any journalist needs to do is report this news.

Another perspective was aired by Margaret Whitman on a week before the election, namely why the Kerry campaign also ignored the bulge story and the possibility that Bush had been coached during the debates. One answer is that Kerry did not care because he "won" all three debates. Whitman said: "How can [the Kerry campaign] let this go with the polls being neck and neck? ...It almost seems like John Kerry is protecting his ole fraternity brother." Or was it a desire to protect "the presidency," not Bush?

A few days after the election, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting put out a press release "New York Times Killed 'Bush Bulge' Story." They reported that five days before the election the Times had killed a story about the mysterious object Bush wore on his back during the debates. FAIR said: "The Times' bulge story is the latest example of possible self-censorship by major news media during the election campaign."

After a few more days, the New York Times did a story on the bulge with a humorous slant; it was titled "Cashmere and Kevlar? Bulge Affair Has Tailor Miffed." The Times acknowledged the bulge in all three debates and that The Hill had discovered the bulletproof vest explanation and that afterwards the Secret Service refused to confirm it.

There are many good reasons why the Secret Service would want to have the president in constant communication during some activities. So why lie about it? But would it be necessary in highly secured debate locations with Secret Service agents standing a few feet away? And if the White House somehow convinced the press to not do stories on the Bush bulge because of national security or presidential safety needs, then the press should have its heads slapped hard, very hard. How could any reasonable journalist ignore the possibility that just maybe Bush did get some prohibited help during the debates? Why did Baker want no views from the back of the debaters? What about the other evidence of Bush's previous use of a device to get information? What about the strange silences and statements by Bush during the debates? Why did countless photos of Bush on the campaign trail show no evidence of the bulge?

The Bush bulge received so much attention that in a poll of registered voters The Economist included a question that referred to the bulge shown on the second televised debate. Thirty percent thought the bulge was caused by "a radio receiver so that his team could communicate with him during the debate." This result did not vary significantly with sex, age or intention to vote, but varied considerably with party affiliation. Of democrats, 48 percent had this view, but of Republicans only 11 percent shared this view. Only 4 percent of Democrats thought that the bulge was due to a fold in Bush's jacket, compared to 17 percent of Republicans. This is proof positive that a positive status quo belief in Bush could block out the cognitive dissonance caused by the possibility that he was coached during the debate.

Surely, if revealed before the election, debate cheating would certainly have impacted some voters, and rightfully so. The major news media had a responsibility to the public to take the bulge story a lot more seriously. Here is what one blogger said:

It is clear that both politicians and media are all part of one and the same game, if they won't latch on to this issue. Like it just does not matter that the President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States and all its forces, is wearing a large unidentified box on his back.

Eventually, like other "gates," the truth about bulgegate may come out in the major news media, but it will happen after Bush won reelection. Many people thought Bush did poorly in his three televised debates, but what would his performance have been without the bulge device? It seems likely that the real "secret" is that over a long time America's president has been relying on an electronic device to feed him information when he most needs it, not just to give the Secret Service access to him. If so, the American public should know that, because it certainly says something significant. The Bush II White House seems not to have learned history's lesson that in the end the cover-up does you in. In this case, the truth that will be revealed is: The emperor has no information.

About the Author
Joel S. Hirschhorn is the author of Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money (Sterling and Ross, 2005) and of the forthcoming Status Quo Busting: Thinking Strategically and Acting Boldly to Save Our Republic. Visit him at
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