Untruth and Consequences

From Washington to FDR to Nixon, presidents have always lied. Here’s what makes George W. Bush different.

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There are three popular theories about Bush’s behavior: that the president is an intellectually incurious man who doesn’t have or want enough information to make informed decisions; that his late-life embrace of religion has given him inner peace, but also a near-absolute level of certitude; and that his demand for total loyalty discourages the give-and-take a leader needs, because aides who proffer advice or information that doesn’t jibe with administration policy are not viewed as team players.

Several White House aides, past and present, say it’s simply wrong to suggest that people around Bush are afraid to bring him bad news or contrary opinions. “I was never intimidated,” Michael Gerson told me. Former press secretary Ari Fleischer said the same thing. On July 2, 2003, when Bush made his infamous “Bring ’em on” taunt, Fleischer told the president pointedly as they walked out of the Roosevelt Room that this statement would offend a military mom with a child serving in Iraq. “I always found it easy to raise objections like that,” Fleischer said. “Easy as a layup.”

Yet Bush has somehow managed to be consistently surprised by events in the war of his own making. In the absence of any plausible explanation from his loyalists, it is his critics who are writing the history of this period. One consistent theme of these critics is that faith trumps fact for Bush when it comes to Iraq. There’s ample supporting evidence for that belief, starting with Bush’s bio-fib to Brit Hume in 2003 that he didn’t read newspapers. Hume was rightly incredulous, and Laura Bush later refuted her husband in an exchange with Jay Leno. Yet in telling this particular lie, Bush may have been revealing an important truth about himself. What he was getting at, apparently, is that he doesn’t read columns and editorials. The reason, he told me and other journalists, was his need to “stay optimistic.”

There can be a thin line between optimism and delusion. During his 2004 reelection campaign, Bush went to a Boeing aerospace plant in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, to put in a plug for the nation’s fledgling missile-defense system, and asserted, “We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world, ‘You fire, we’re going to shoot it down.’” Given the current technology, Bush’s statement was a declaration of wishful thinking, not military reality. Bush had made an equally dubious assertion while running in 2000, after several highly publicized exonerations of men on death row had prompted nationwide soul-searching over capital punishment. “Everybody who’s been executed [in Texas] is guilty of the crime of which they’ve been convicted,” Bush said. He may have believed this, but in Austin, Bush presided over more executions than any other governor in modern history, and did so in a state that offers only rudimentary legal services for indigent defendants, enforces strict time limits for post-conviction appeals, and does little in the way of executive-branch or parole-board review of trial-court verdicts. Really, Bush had no way of knowing that what he hoped was true actually was true—and there were empirical reasons to wonder. This example has a recent echo in Bush’s confident-sounding assurance in a September 6, 2006, East Room speech: “We have in place a rigorous process to ensure those held at Guantánamo Bay belong at Guantánamo.”

This kind of blasé optimism has undergirded Bush’s entire policy on Iraq, and its consequences have been grim. As Peter W. Galbraith, author of a new book critical of Bush’s prosecution of the war, put it: “With regard to Iraq, President Bush and his top advisers have consistently substituted wishful thinking for analysis and hope for strategy.” In May 2003, under that now-infamous Mission Accomplished banner aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln, Bush proclaimed, “Iraq is free” and “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” But almost four years later, scores of Iraqis are still dying every day, the country is in the throes of civil war, and American forces remain enmeshed in a conflict with no clear end. “The strategy was denial,” wrote Woodward in the last paragraph of State of Denial. “With all Bush’s upbeat talk and optimism, he had not told the American public the truth about what Iraq had become.”

Bush’s aides bristle at such words, but when asked why the president refuses to go back and correct his rhetorical mistakes—to level with the American people about where and why he was wrong—they falter or fall back on platitudes. Queried about Bush’s failure to cite what he had ever done wrong, Fleischer answers: “It’s the foolish politician who looks backwards and wallows in his difficulties. A good politician looks forward. It’s the difference between a pessimist and an optimist, between a loser and a winner, between Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.” In his 2006 State of the Union address, the president voiced the same sentiment in addressing his Iraq War critics: “Hindsight alone is not wisdom,” he said, “and second-guessing is not a strategy.”

But optimism, while more appealing than its opposite number, is not a strategy, any more than hindsight. And it has the added drawback of not offering any Plan B. Regarding the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Gerson said that the White House staff itself was never told what went wrong. “As opposed to being deceptive, when those weapons were not found I think people were shocked,” he said. “I mean, it was beyond belief.”

Now that the midterm elections are over, some speculate that the administration will be more candid and less dogmatic about Iraq. Yet some results of this administration’s self-deception are not reversible. While researching Fiasco, Thomas Ricks spoke to numerous battlefield commanders in Iraq who left thousands of tons of conventional weapons undisturbed as they raced toward Baghdad in the first heady days of the invasion. They didn’t have enough troops to guard these caches of weapons, and they didn’t dare destroy them, believing as they did that underneath might lie highly dangerous stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. “So the bunkers were often bypassed and left undisturbed by an invasion force that was already stretched thin,” Ricks wrote. “And the insurgents were able to arm themselves at leisure.”

Multimedia:

Click here to listen to Harry S. Truman calling the city of Hiroshoma a “military base.”

Of course, posterity rewards success, not truth. If D-Day had failed, FDR likely would have been remembered not as a heroic wartime president but as a tragic figure whose self-serving deceptions about his own health prolonged a savage war and jeopardized victory. And if Japan had not surrendered even after atomic bombs were dropped on the civilian populations of two of its cities, Truman might be recalled as a butcher. Conversely, if U.S. forces had found the fabled weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would Bush’s integrity be under question? Probably not. For presidents, consequences matter more than truth. Bush almost certainly understands this; it may inform his oft-expressed hope of being judged positively in the long sweep of history. Yet today he remains reluctant to reckon not only with his statements but also with their results. President Kennedy may have lied to the public about why the Russians removed their missiles from Cuba, but he knew the truth of the situation well enough to negotiate the compromise that led to their removal. Bush, on the other hand, seems unwilling to recognize that the reality of the situation in Iraq does not conform to his vision of it. The most dangerous lies a president can tell, it would seem, are the lies he tells himself.

Carl M. Cannon is White House correspondent for National Journal.
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