The Semantics of Lying
Once again, I've been sideswiped by a New York Times writer.
After my book, The Lies Of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception was published last year, two Timesfolk – James Traub and Matt Bai – wrote articles tut-tutting about writers such as myself, Al Franken and Joe Conason who dared to tag Bush a liar. In these articles, they pointed to my book as evidence of the further decline in political discourse. But they devoted little attention to evaluating the case I make against Bush. Now, just as the expanded paperback edition has been released, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof yesterday took a similar swing at me and others who have questioned Bush's integrity.
His column begins:
So is President Bush a liar?What irks Kristof is that such criticism reminds him of the GOP attacks on the Clintons in the 1990s, when the First Couple were even accused of killing their friend Vince Foster. I think most people, if they had to choose, would rather be accused of lying than murder. But that's a slight criticism of the analogy. More unfairly, Kristof blends the lying charge with various conspiracy theories pushed by some Bush critics (Bush invaded Afghanistan to help cronies construct an oil pipeline there; Bush has already captured Osama bin Laden but won't reveal this until closer to the election). But not all of the Bush critics who have attacked Bush for being dishonest are peddlers of these way-out notions. For example, I have developed a modest reputation (or notoriety) for being critical of 9/11-related conspiracy theories. Tying the Bush-is-a-liar charge to farfetched speculation serves to discredit the former without seriously examining the argument.
Plenty of Americans think so. Bookshops are filled with titles about Mr. Bush like "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," "Big Lies," "Thieves in High Places" and "The Lies of George W. Bush."
A consensus is emerging on the left that Mr. Bush is fundamentally dishonest, perhaps even evil – a nut, yes, but mostly a liar and a schemer. That view is at the heart of Michael Moore's scathing new documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11."
"I'm against the 'liar' label for two reasons," Kristof writes. "First it further polarizes the political cesspool, and this polarization is making America increasingly difficult to govern. Second, insults and rage impede understanding."
These are tactical points – which Kristof is certainly free to make. But they are unrelated to the basic issue: is the charge true? More on that below. But even if we accept Kristof's desire for a high-minded political discourse, consider this: If the president of the United States is not telling the truth about critical matters (war, taxes, global warming, stem cell research), isn't he the one poisoning the cesspool and inhibiting effective governance? And if he is being dishonest on these fronts, wouldn't illumination of that enhance rather than detract from the debate? The president of the United States has a bully pulpit; he has the largest megaphone in the room. If he is falsely describing the terms of the discussion, he is rigging the national debate. And if that is his M.O., why should it not be criticized?
After Kristof's column appeared, I called and asked him if he had read my book. He replied, "I can't say I read every word. I did go through it."
Let's put aside Iraq for a moment, I said. In 2001, Bush argued that the science about global warming was too iffy – "incomplete," he put it – and, thus, he was justified in pulling the United States out of the Kyoto treaty. His press secretary, Ari Fleischer, maintained the science was "inconclusive" on whether the atmosphere was warming due to human-induced causes. But at the time there was an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity was causing global warming (only a small number of contrarian scientists claimed otherwise). So why was it not lying when Bush said the science was tentative?
Kristof said that this was "a good example" and that he considered Bush's remarks on global warming "a classic truth-stretcher." But with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the international body of thousands of scientists assembled by the UN and the World Meteorological Organization) and the National Academy of Science saying the science was conclusive, how could the Bush White House maintain it was not? Bush could have challenged the findings of the IPCC and NAS, but then he would have had to explain why he (and Fleischer) knew better than the climatologists. "A lie is an intentional deception," Kristof said. "Bush, like a lot of people, has the ability to say a lot of things [that are not true] and live in their own world."
Maybe, I suggested, I should have titled my book, The Delusions of George W. Bush. That would have been better, Kristof responded. Yet somehow I do not believe that had I argued Bush was purposefully detached from reality – in other words, a psycho – that this would have met with the approval of Kristof and others yearning for a civil debate (on their terms).
But let's cut to the chase: the war in Iraq. "Bush should be whacked for WMDs," Kristof told me. But, he added, this had been an instance of improper "emphasizing," not "lying." In his column, Kristof notes that Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack "underscores that Mr. Bush actually believed that Saddam did have WMD." Kristof refers to a scene in the book when Bush, during a December 21, 2002 meeting, said to CIA director George Tenet, "I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD, and this is the best we've got?" (That was when Tenet, according to Woodward, told Bush, "It's a slam dunk case.") And Kristof points to instances in the book when Bush told Tenet, "Make sure no one stretches to make our case."
But then Kristof writes, "In fact, of course, Mr. Bush did stretch the truth. The run-up to Iraq was all about exaggerations, but not flat-out lies. Indeed, there's some evidence that Mr. Bush carefully avoids the most blatant lies."
Kristof is being too charitable. Before the December 21 meeting, Bush was hardly careful. He said that Iraq had a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons. He declared that Iraq had a "growing fleet" of unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to attack the United States with biological and chemical weapons. But the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq of October 2002 concluded that Iraq had a biological weapons program, not a "massive stockpile," and that Iraq was developing UAVs not maintaining "a growing fleet." As it turned out, the NIE had dramatically overstated the biological weapons and UAV programs – as well as Iraq's chemical weapons program – but Bush subsequently overstated the overstatements. He also declared that Saddam Hussein was "a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda." Note the verb tense. The Bush administration, which has recently cited limited contacts between al Qaeda and Hussein's regime in the early and mid-1990s, has yet to produce evidence showing that Hussein was in league with al Qaeda in the years immediately before or after September 11. (The 9/11 commission staff has reported that they found no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between Hussein and al Qaeda.)
Were all these assertions merely stretches of the truth? If you stretch the truth far enough, it breaks. Perhaps Bush did believe what he was saying. (His aides acknowledged he never bothered to read the 90-page National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.) Still, he was acting in reckless disregard of the truth, and that is the functional equivalent of lying.
My book does not limit the indictment of Bush to only his prewar assertions about Iraq. Bush said he would not deploy an antiballistic missile system unless it worked. But that is precisely what he is doing – according to the Pentagon's own testing office. In promoting his supersized tax cuts during the 2000 campaign, he claimed, "The vast majority of my tax cuts go to the bottom end of the spectrum." By any analysis of the numbers, that was a false statement. When he announced in 2001 his decision to ban federal funding for research using new lines of stem cells, he said that 60 stem cell lines were already available and that these lines could support an effective research program. But biotech experts immediately declared there were closer to ten existing lines, which was not nearly enough to support major research. Yet the Bush administration kept insisting 60 or more lines were available. Three years later, Bush and his aides (and even his wife) continue to maintain there are enough stem cell lines for federally-funded researchers. The wide-ranging consensus among experts in the field is that Bush is not telling the truth.
Can all of these statements – and many others – be dismissed only as hyperbole? Repeatedly, Bush has issued untrue assertions to persuade Americans to think something that is not true. That is deception.
How literal must we be? For the fastidious among us, let's turn to the dictionary. I am using The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Here is its definition of lie:
1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood. 2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.How do Bush's statements about the supposed WMDs in Iraq, stem cells, global warming, and tax cuts not qualify as lies under these terms? Kristof, raising the issue of Bush's state of mind (does he or does he not know he's speaking untruths), seems to suggest that one can tell lies without being a liar. But this is how the people at American Heritage define the verb:
1. To present false information with the intention of deceiving. 2. To convey a false image or impression.Maybe one can lie unintentionally – that is, by repeating bad information. But shouldn't the president of the United States have an obligation to ascertain that the information he is sharing with the public (and the world) is reliable? Moreover, if he does slip and says something untrue by accident, he is responsible for acknowledging that after the fact. But Bush – as in the case of the stem cell lines – sticks to his untruths long after they have been disproved.
"Mr. Bush's central problem," Kristof writes, "is not that he was lying about Iraq, but that he was overzealous and self-deluded. He surrounded himself with like-minded ideologues, and they all told one another that Saddam was a mortal threat to us. They deceived themselves along with the public – a more common problem in government than flat-out lying."
Yes, but. It remains unclear whether Bush's lieutenants truly believed Hussein was the immediate threat they claimed he was due to his supposed possession of WMDs. As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said, Hussein's WMDs was the argument for war upon which different people within the administration could agree. This suggests some were moved by other reasons. And even if Bush and the rest did deceive themselves, they still bear responsibility for having deceived the public – and for having done very little to assess prudently the available evidence.
In the penultimate paragraph of his column, Kristof laments liberals adopting a simplistic form of Bush criticism:
It wasn't surprising when the right foamed at the mouth during the Clinton years, for conservatives have always been quick to detect evil empires. But liberals live subtlety and describe the world in a palette of grays – yet many have now dropped all nuance about this president.But if the man is not telling the truth, if he is deceiving the public about life-and-death matters, why not say so? Why not express anger?
Kristof concludes by – insults of insults! – equating Bush's critics with the devil himself, Bush:
Mr. Bush got us into a mess by overdosing on moral clarity and self-righteousness, and embracing conspiracy theories of like-minded zealots. How sad that many liberals now seem intent on making the same mistake.Truth, then, is no defense for the liberals, who should stick to subtle, nuanced, restrained pokes at Bush, even if he did, as Kristof admits, deceive the public. Kristof is, at least, taking his own advice. Talk about subtle distinctions: claiming Bush lied the nation into war is wrong and inappropriate; saying Bush deceived the nation into war is fine and fair.
My hunch is Kristof is talking less about principle and more about politics. During our chat – and it was pleasant – he argued that using the word "'lying' is inflammatory and reduces persuasive power. Middle of the road people are turned off by it. It really is important to avoid getting swept up in anger. That reduces analytic power." He added, "Not that we should not criticize any of these things." But he advocated focusing on specifics and eschewing overarching name-calling. For example, he is all for blasting Bush for falsely claiming his tax cuts would benefit the poor more than the rich. But he advises anti-Bush forces not to cite such a statement as a lie. This is "a more effective way," he asserted, "to convince swing voters."
"It is a question of tone," he said. "It is fair to pick on each of these things. And it is reasonable to point out there is a pattern. But when the focus becomes the connection [of untrue statements], that [accusatory] tone, it becomes more insulting than each of the individual points." His bottom line, I suppose is, bash the lies, not the liar.
Whether this would be a more productive political strategy, I do not know. I did not write the book to win over the 37 swing voters in Ohio that will decide the election. My aim was to produce a straightforward examination of a pattern of deception that Kristof and many other recognize. Why not call a lie a lie? Politeness has its place in public discourse. But so does straight talk. And if the standard of political speech is whether it wins over the undecided, Kristof should look at a Washington Post-ABC News poll that came out a few weeks ago. Asked who could be labeled "honest and trustworthy," 52 percent of the respondents chose John Kerry; only 39 percent picked Bush. A January poll found that 57 percent thought Bush was "honest and ethical." Ever since then, on questions regarding his honesty, Bush had generally been in the mid-50s. If that Post-ABC News poll is accurate, the public impression of Bush has shifted dramatically. I am not saying that The Lies of George W. Bush is responsible for this. (Who knows?) But Bush's ability to honestly address the critical issues facing the nation has become an issue in this campaign.
The important question is not whether Bush's false and exaggerated assertions are "lies" or "deceptions," as if the outcome of this word game were important. What matters most is that Bush has misled the public. If Kristof wants to pussyfoot around the topic of "lies" in order to convince people of the dangers of four more years of Bush, more power to him. Others of us are willing to engage in plain speaking. In this regard, perhaps we have been inspired by the president.