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Talking the Talk

You could hear the talking points in President Bush's press conference last night, how Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove had trained the president to answer the questions of a White House press corps that is, at long last, showing signs of spine. Bush's agenda was clear: to stanch growing public doubts about the Iraq war in the wake of recent violence. His strategy? To acknowledge that, yes, things have been "tough" in recent days, but in the long run, this war is essential to American security. That's why Bush kept using some variant of the phrase "historic mission" -- five times, by my count. It's political redirection. The president wants us to look past the images of burned corpses in Fallujah and simultaneously give the war an aura of legitimacy.

But Bush has a big problem. The public increasingly believes that his arguments for going to war -- that Saddam supported Al Qaeda, possessed weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the United States -- were simply not true, and may even have been willful misrepresentations of the truth by old warriors anxious to find cause to oust Saddam.

Make that two big problems. The press, which has been getting stiffed by the White House for years, doesn't have an iota of goodwill towards the president. (Call it the "Fleischer Effect" -- you can spit on the media for only so long before it spits back.) That's why reporters kept asking Bush if he'd made any mistakes or felt he should apologize for not doing more to prevent 9/11. They know this is a lose-lose scenario for the president. If he doesn't apologize, Bush looks like he's dodging responsibility, especially in comparison to Richard Clarke. If he does, it's payday for Democrats. This is media payback, and it is a bitch.

The subtext of last night's press conference was the question of whether Iraq is "another Vietnam." What that term means will be debated by partisans on both sides, but here's one attempt at definition: It means a war predicated on false assumptions, faulty intelligence and American hubris; a war sold to the American public by distortions and deceptions on the part of administration officials; a war that can not be "won" in any clear-cut sense; and a war that threatens to continue indefinitely, costing growing numbers of American lives abroad and producing traumatic social upheaval at home.

If this is what Americans think of the war in Iraq come November, Bush can't win. That's why the "mistake" question is so excruciating for Bush. It gives John Kerry the opportunity to rephrase his line regarding Vietnam: Who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?

"The analogy is false," Bush insisted last night. Yet, his answers inadvertently supported it. He spoke of his willingness to send as many troops as necessary and implicitly conceded that they'll be in Iraq indefinitely. He spoke of transferring "sovereignty" to the Iraqis come June 30, but he couldn't say to what lucky Iraqi we would transfer it, or even exactly what "sovereignty" meant. (Shades of South Vietnam.) He insisted that we had to "stay the course" in Iraq so that we would not have allowed "our youngsters to die in vain... Withdrawing from the battlefield would be just that."

But of course, if the war was wrongly conceived from the start, then our soldiers already have died in vain, and Bush is saying that more men and women need to die in order to give meaning to the deaths that have already occurred. Follow the logic: If every new death legitimizes the one preceding it, that's a justification for endless war.

Bush's final sentence last night was this: "The credibility of the United States is incredibly important for keeping world peace and freedom." It was a line straight from the mouth of Robert McNamara -- the idea that preventing loss of American "credibility" is reason enough to justify a misbegotten war. It took him a while, but McNamara apologized for his mistakes. Maybe one day, decades from now, George W. Bush will do the same.

Richard Blow is the former executive editor of George Magazine. He is author of 'American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr.,' and is writing a book about Harvard University.

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