W's Reality Gap
George W. Bush is different, very different. Other presidents have misled, deceived, even lied. When Ike was asked his worst mistake, he candidly said, "The lie we told [about the U-2]." LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin were examples of both deception and self-deception.
The problem today is not simply that "Bush is a liar." While only he knows whether he's intentionally saying untrue things, it is a provable fact that he says untrue things, again and again, on issues large and small, day in and day out. The problem is not "16 words" in last year's State of the Union but 160,000 words on stem cells, global warming, the "death tax," the Iraq-9/11 connection and the Saddam-al Qaeda connection, the rise of deficits, cuts to Americorps, the air in downtown Manhattan after 9/11. On and on. It is beyond controversy that W "has such a high regard for the truth," as Lincoln said of a rival, "that he uses it sparingly."
Why this penchant for falsehoods?
First, George W. Bush begins any policy consideration with three fundamental questions: What does the religious right want? What does big business want? What do the neo-conservatives want? If he has stood up to any of these core supporters in the past three years, examples don't come readily to mind. Convinced by political advisor Karl Rove that the way to a second term is to "activate the base," his policy process is more catechismic than empiric -- instead of facts leading to conclusions, conclusions lead to "facts."
Second, he is openly uninterested in learning and reading -- the Bushes "aren't serious, studious readers" he has said, also admitting that he now reads headlines, not articles. The point is not that he's stupid, only that he knew less about policy and the world as a presidential candidate than the average graduate student in government. Lacking Eisenhower's worldliness or JFK's intellect, however, Bush is prone to grab onto a politically useful intellectual framework like a life preserver and then not let go -- whether it's Myron Magnet's sour interpretation of the 60s in "The Dream and the Nightmare" or Paul Wolfowitz's Pollyannaish analysis of the likely consequences of an American invasion of Iraq.
The result: the most radical, messianic and misleading presidency of modern times. Frankly, no one else comes close. It has gotten to the point that President Bush appears to believe that he can do almost anything if he says the opposite: hence "no child left behind," "clean skies law," "healthy forests," and "love the poor" are mantras repeated in the hope that he can bend reality to his will. Arthur Miller calls it "the power of audacity."
Bush himself in the past has aptly called the first Tuesday in November "Reality Day" because talk ends when there's a real result. So what happens on presidential "reality days" when the results are the opposite of his wishful assertions -- when we find neither WMD nor cheering crowds in Iraq, when a surplus of $5 trillion becomes a deficit of $4 trillion, when there are so few stem cell lines for scientific research that scientists leave for London, when the ice caps melt due to global warming, when a Supreme Court of largely Republican appointees rules that affirmative action is not "quotas" but desirable -- and when the populations of even our allies regard us as a "bungling bully" (in the phrase of the Financial Times).
When Presidents Reagan and Bush 41 were shown how their pie-in-the-sky economics were producing ruinous deficits, they enacted tax hikes to begin to correct the economy. Not Bush 43. Hearing only applause as he shuttles between his financial base to military bases -- W retreats into messianic incompetence. "We don't second guess out of the White House," he announces, confusing stubbornness for strength; and he tells the G-8 leaders in 2001, "Look, I know what I believe and what I believe is right."
Whenever President Bush is now confronted with an unacceptable reality, he either changes the subject -- is steroid use really more important than the environment? -- or expresses confidence in his certainty. "I'm absolutely confident that..." he'll say, as if the issue is his determination rather than his conclusion. One is reminded of Igor in Young Frankenstein, who when asked about the foot-high hump on his back blithely answers, "What hump?"
This is not just a credibility gap but a reality gap. An empirically challenged and uninformed leader in denial and governing on a (right) wing and a prayer, however, is a big problem. What if Bush were president during the missiles of October -- would he have been able to avoid a nuclear war? That he squandered a quarter trillion dollars and 4,000 American casualties attacking Iraq because al Qaeda in Afghanistan attacked us is not encouraging.
Just when they're needed, the usual mechanisms to bring a president to his senses are badly malfunctioning. A Congress of the same party now almost never holds adversarial hearings or holds him accountable, unlike how the Republican Congress treated Clinton. And with noteworthy exceptions, most of the media essentially gave him a pass on his eyebrow-raising military and business histories. The early and continuing storyline was that he was a charming guy who made up funny names for reporters and was no pompous prevaricator like his 2000 opponent. It was strange that, until the Niger-uranium fabrication, the media wrote far more about the spectacular deceptions of Jayson Blair than the more consequential deceptions of George W. Bush.
Of course, adding to his immunity is the understandable impulse to rally around a president during a crisis -- a crisis the president regularly stokes as in his recent "State of Baghdad address" to the Congress. Or as commentator E.J. Dionne put it, W's slogan might as well be "the only thing we have to fear is the loss of fear itself."
So it comes down to November 2. If the public rewards W with a second term -- and with no re-election contest to impose any possible moderating influence -- then W's far-right impulses will be vindicated and corroborated. On that "reality day," which will prevail -- Bush's certainty or our reality?
Mark Green, president of the New Democracy Project, is the author, with Eric Alterman, of The Book On Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (Viking 2004).