White (House) Lies

Why is it so difficult to hold a president accountable for not telling the truth? It has been over a year since President George W. Bush took the country to war by falsely claiming that intelligence "leaves no doubt" that Saddam Hussein possessed significant weapons of mass destruction, but until recently Bush has enjoyed better poll numbers on integrity than John Kerry. Moreover, as the Senate Intelligence Committee prepares to release a report that will blast the CIA for committing serious errors while preparing the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs -- that is, for overstating the case -- Bush's defenders are ready to make outgoing CIA director George Tenet the fall guy, even though Bush's before-the-war assertions about Hussein's unconventional weapons went much beyond what the CIA errantly reported. It's indisputable: Bush routinely exaggerated the CIA's exaggerations. Yet the nation -- or the lot of political commentators -- still argues over what should be a proven point: Bush showed little regard for the truth in his campaign for war. And a highly charged question continues to be debated: Is Bush a liar?

Most recently, this argument heated up when the independent, bipartisan 9/11 committee declared it had found no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. In reply, Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney continued to insist there had been. In brief remarks to reporters, Bush declared, "We did say [before the war] there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda; for example, Iraqi intelligence officers met with bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda, in Sudan." Those contacts, Bush did not say, had occurred in 1994, and the 9/11 commission had reported nothing came of them. Before the war, Bush had gone much further and had said of Hussein, "He's a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda." Note the verb tense. To justify the coming invasion, Bush proclaimed that Hussein was currently in league with al Qaeda. But in response to the 9/11 commission, he referred to decade-old contacts. Wasn't this strong evidence that Bush had spoken dishonestly before the war?

Bush's advocates have done a good job of countering the general accusation that the president is a liar. I know, because I have been on the receiving end of their spin and obfuscation. In September 2003, a spate of books critical of Bush were published and landed on the best-seller list. Three had the word "lies" in the title, including my own, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. At the time, left-of-center advocacy groups -- most notably MoveOn.org -- initiated public campaigns questioning Bush's truthfulness. Bush's defenders fought back, dismissing these books as irrational expressions of a phenomenon they belittled as Bush hatred. On CNN's Crossfire, conservative pundit Tucker Carlson described the anti-Bush books as written to cater "to the paranoid and craziness of the far left" and "selling because the Democratic Party has gone completely insane with Bush hatred." Conservative columnist David Brooks opined, "The core threat to democracy is not in the White House, it's the haters themselves."

Even non-ideological writers bemoaned the anti-Bush books as the latest indication that the nation's embittered and deteriorating political culture was degenerating further. Time magazine pointed to my book as more evidence of "the rise of the anger industry." New York Times Magazine's James Traub observed, "Hatred is delicious. But the sudden rash of jeremiads and their stunning popularity raises a question: Why are so many liberals, including sane and sober ones, granting themselves permission to hate the president?.... Buying a book that has 'Bush' and 'lie' in the title...is a deeply cathartic, ideology-affirming experience. It's satisfying; but I don't see how it can be a good thing, either for public debate or ultimately for the electoral prospects of the Democrats, to have liberals descend to the level of rabid conservatives." Another New York Times Magazine writer, Matt Bai, took the same line: "A new strand of vitriol has consumed the Bush-hating left.... The new leftist screeds seem to solidify a rising political culture of incivility and overstatement.... The various expressions of liberal fury are a direct imitation of what the right has been doing for more than a decade.... Hate isn't much of a message."

But these critics have overlooked the main point: the case against Bush. The essential issue is not whether Bush detractors hate the man or are angry with him. What matters is whether their indictments are persuasive and well-founded. After all, if Bush has indeed misled the public about his far-ranging tax cuts, global warming, homeland security, stem cells research, the reasons for war and other serious topics, isn't anger an appropriate response? But often commentators (mainly of the right-wing variant) have preferred to focus on what they perceive to be the emotions of Bush's antagonists. It has been an easy way to dismiss the bill of particulars. They self-servingly decry the decline of civil debate and avoid the question: How civil should debate be if the president of the United States is not telling the truth about life-and-death issues? (One exception is columnist George Will, who has at least urged Bush to acknowledge his untrue prewar assertions about the weapons of mass destruction.)

Other Bush-backers have tried to diminish the case against Bush by adopting an everybody-does-it stance. In the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, Andrew Ferguson observed, "If presidents have been liars from George Washington to Chester A. Arthur to Bill Clinton....this in turn raises the fatal suspicion that maybe George W. Bush isn't so bad." Such reasoning is a weak defense of Bush. The more sophisticated attack comes from Bush-critic critics who claim that Bush's "lies" are not really lies, that they are fudge-able policy statements common to politicians. And more than one conservative radio talk-show host has said to me that if Bush believes his spin then it cannot be considered a lie. After all, didn't it seem as if Bush truly thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

This defense of Bush does not take into account that a president has the responsibility to ascertain the truth and do his best to guarantee that the information he shares with the public is as accurate as can be. Too often, Bush has embraced and put forward misinformation to support and advance his policy desires. Did he know the information was false? That is not an excuse. In the case of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Bush, according to the White House, did not even bother to read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. Produced in October 2002, this 90-page report summarized the intelligence community's information on Iraq. Had Bush perused it, he would have seen that the evidence regarding Iraq's WMDs was often inconclusive and disputed by various US intelligence analysts and that the overall picture of Hussein's WMD capabilities was unclear. And Bush would have had good reason to question his own melodramatic, black-and-white statements about Iraq's WMDs.

If a president recklessly abandons his obligation to determine whether he is in possession of good, solid information, and then accepts incorrect or misleading material and presents it to the public because doing so serves his own ends, he is engaged in a deceptive practice that can be considered the functional equivalent of lying. Bush has yet to face any consequences for promoting deceptions crucial to his agenda, and he has not assumed responsibility for actively misleading the American public and the world. So the debate over his truth-defying ways will continue until Election Day.

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