Bush's mystery bulge
The rumor is flying around the globe. Was the president wired during the first debate?
Oct. 8, 2004 | Was President Bush literally channeling Karl Rove in
his first debate with John Kerry? That's the latest rumor flooding the
Internet, unleashed last week in the wake of an image caught by a
television camera during the Miami debate. The image shows a large
solid object between Bush's shoulder blades as he leans over the
lectern and faces moderator Jim Lehrer.
The president is not known to wear a back brace, and it's safe to say
he wasn't packing. So was the bulge under his well-tailored jacket a
hidden receiver, picking up transmissions from someone offstage feeding
the president answers through a hidden earpiece? Did the device explain
why the normally ramrod-straight president seemed hunched over during
much of the debate?
Bloggers are burning up their keyboards with speculation. Check out the
president's peculiar behavior during the debate, they say. On several
occasions, the president simply stopped speaking for an uncomfortably
long time and stared ahead with an odd expression on his face. Was he
listening to someone helping him with his response to a question? Even
weirder was the president's strange outburst. In a peeved rejoinder to
Kerry, he said, "As the politics change, his positions change. And
that's not how a commander in chief acts. I, I, uh -- Let me finish --
The intelligence I looked at was the same intelligence my opponent
looked at." It must be said that Bush pointed toward Lehrer as he
declared "Let me finish." The green warning light was lit, signaling he
had 30 seconds to, well, finish.
Hot on the conspiracy trail, I tried to track down the source of the
photo. None of the Bush-is-wired bloggers, however, seemed to know
where the photo came from. Was it possible the bulge had been
Photoshopped onto Bush's back by a lone conspiracy buff? It turns out
that all of the video of the debate was recorded and sent out by Fox
News, the pool broadcaster for the event. Fox sent feeds from multiple
cameras to the other networks, which did their own on- air
presentations and editing.
To watch the debate again, I ventured to the Web site of the most sober
network I could think of: C-SPAN. And sure enough, at minute 23 on the
video of the debate, you can clearly see the bulge between the
president's shoulder blades.
Bloggers stoke the conspiracy with the claim that the Bush
administration insisted on a condition that no cameras be placed behind
the candidates. An official for the Commission on Presidential Debates,
which set up the lecterns and microphones on the Miami stage, said the
condition was indeed real, the result of negotiations by both
campaigns. Yet that didn't stop Fox from setting up cameras behind Bush
and Kerry. The official said that "microphones were mounted on
lecterns, and the commission put no electronic devices on the president
or Senator Kerry." When asked about the bulge on Bush's back, the
official said, "I don't know what that was."
So what was it? Jacob McKenna, a spyware expert and the owner of the
Spy Store, a high-tech surveillance shop in Spokane, Wash., looked at
the Bush image on his computer monitor. "There's certainly something on
his back, and it appears to be electronic," he said. McKenna said that,
given its shape, the bulge could be the inductor portion of a two-way
push-to-talk system. McKenna noted that such a system makes use of a
tiny microchip-based earplug radio that is pushed way down into the ear
canal, where it is virtually invisible. He also said a weak signal
could be scrambled and be undetected by another broadcaster.
Mystery-bulge bloggers argue that the president may have begun using
such technology earlier in his term. Because Bush is famously prone to
malapropisms and reportedly dyslexic, which could make successful use
of a teleprompter problematic, they say the president and his handlers
may have turned to a technique often used by television reporters on
remote stand-ups. A reporter tapes a story and, while on camera, plays
it back into an earpiece, repeating lines just after hearing them,
managing to sound spontaneous and error free.
Suggestions that Bush may have using this technique stem from a D-day
event in France, when a CNN broadcast appeared to pick up
-- and broadcast to surprised viewers -- the sound of another voice
seemingly reading Bush his lines, after which Bush repeated them. Danny
Schechter, who operates the news site MediaChannel.org, and who has
been doing some investigating into the wired-Bush rumors himself, said
the Bush campaign has been worried of late about others picking up
their radio frequencies -- notably during the Republican Convention on
the day of Bush's appearance. "They had a frequency specialist stop me
and ask about the frequency of my camera," Schechter said. "The
Democrats weren't doing that at their convention."
Repeated calls to the White House and the Bush national campaign office
over a period of three days, inquiring about what the president may
have been wearing on his back during the debate, and whether he had
used an audio device at other events, went unreturned. So far the Kerry
campaign is staying clear of this story. When called for a comment, a
press officer at the Democratic National Committee claimed on Tuesday
that it was "the first time" they'd ever heard of the issue. A
spokeswoman at the press office of Kerry headquarters refused to permit
me to talk with anyone in the campaign's research office. Several other
requests for comment to the Kerry campaign's press office went
As for whether we really do have a Milli Vanilli president, the answer
at this point has to be, God only knows.