may have been the guy in the hood teetering on
the stool, electrodes clamped to his genitals.
Or smirking Lynndie England and her leash. Maybe
it was the smarmy memos tapped out by soft-fingered
lawyers itching to justify such barbarism. The
grudging, lunatic retreat of the neocons from
their long-standing assertion that Saddam was
in cahoots with Osama didn't hurt. Even the Enron
audiotapes and their celebration of craven sociopathy
likely played a part. As a result of all these
displays and countless smaller ones, you could
feel, a couple of months back, as summer spread
across the country, the ground shifting beneath
your feet. Not unlike that scene in The Day After
Tomorrow, then in theaters, in which the giant
ice shelf splits asunder, this was more a paradigm
shift than anything strictly tectonic. No cataclysmic
ice age, admittedly, yet something was in the
air, and people were inhaling deeply. I began
to get calls from friends whose parents had always
voted Republican, "but not this time." There was
the staid Zbigniew Brzezinski on the staid NewsHour
with Jim Lehrer sneering at the "Orwellian language"
flowing out of the Pentagon. Word spread through
the usual channels that old hands from the days
of Bush the Elder were quietly (but not too quietly)
appalled by his son's misadventure in Iraq. Suddenly,
everywhere you went, a surprising number of folks
seemed to have had just about enough of what the
Bush administration was dishing out. A fresh age
appeared on the horizon, accompanied by the sound
of scales falling from people's eyes. It felt
something like a demonstration of that highest
of American prerogatives and the most deeply cherished
American freedom: dissent.
even my father's funeral contributed. Throughout
that long, stately, overtelevised week in early
June, items would appear in the newspaper discussing
the Republicans' eagerness to capitalize (subtly,
tastefully) on the outpouring of affection for
my father and turn it to Bush's advantage for
the fall election. The familiar "Heir to Reagan"
puffballs were reinflated and loosed over the
proceedings like (subtle, tasteful) Mylar balloons.
Predictably, this backfired. People were treated
to a side-by-side comparison - Ronald W. Reagan
versus George W. Bush - and it's no surprise who
suffered for it. Misty-eyed with nostalgia, people
set aside old political gripes for a few days
and remembered what friend and foe always conceded
to Ronald Reagan: He was damned impressive in
the role of leader of the free world. A sign in
the crowd, spotted during the slow roll to the
Capitol rotunda, seemed to sum up the mood - a
portrait of my father and the words NOW THERE
WAS A PRESIDENT.
comparison underscored something important. And
the guy on the stool, Lynndie, and her grinning
cohorts, they brought the word: The Bush administration
can't be trusted. The parade of Bush officials
before various commissions and committees - Paul
Wolfowitz, who couldn't quite remember how many
young Americans had been sacrificed on the altar
of his ideology; John Ashcroft, lip quivering
as, for a delicious, fleeting moment, it looked
as if Senator Joe Biden might just come over the
table at him - these were a continuing reminder.
The Enron creeps, too - a reminder of how certain
environments and particular habits of mind can
erode common decency. People noticed. A tipping
point had been reached. The issue of credibility
was back on the table. The L-word was in circulation.
Not the tired old bromide liberal. That's so 1988.
No, this time something much more potent: liar.
will stretch the truth. They'll exaggerate their
accomplishments, paper over their gaffes. Spin
has long been the lingua franca of the political
realm. But George W. Bush and his administration
have taken "normal" mendacity to a startling new
level far beyond lies of convenience. On top of
the usual massaging of public perception, they
traffic in big lies, indulge in any number of
symptomatic small lies, and, ultimately, have
come to embody dishonesty itself. They are a lie.
And people, finally, have started catching on.
of this, needless to say, guarantees Bush a one-term
presidency. The far-right wing of the country
- nearly one third of us by some estimates - continues
to regard all who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid
(liberals, rationalists, Europeans, et cetera)
as agents of Satan. Bush could show up on video
canoodling with Paris Hilton and still bank their
vote. Right-wing talking heads continue painting
anyone who fails to genuflect deeply enough as
a "hater," and therefore a nut job, probably a
crypto-Islamist car bomber. But these protestations
have taken on a hysterical, almost comically desperate
tone. It's one thing to get trashed by Michael
Moore. But when Nobel laureates, a vast majority
of the scientific community, and a host of current
and former diplomats, intelligence operatives,
and military officials line up against you, it
becomes increasingly difficult to characterize
the opposition as fringe wackos.
anyone really favor an administration that so
shamelessly lies? One that so tenaciously clings
to secrecy, not to protect the American people,
but to protect itself? That so willfully misrepresents
its true aims and so knowingly misleads the people
from whom it derives its power? I simply cannot
think so. And to come to the same conclusion does
not make you guilty of swallowing some liberal
critique of the Bush presidency, because that's
not what this is. This is the critique of a person
who thinks that lying at the top levels of his
government is abhorrent. Call it the honest guy's
critique of George W. Bush.
most egregious examples OF distortion and misdirection
- which the administration even now cannot bring
itself to repudiate - involve our putative "War
on Terror" and our subsequent foray into Iraq.
his campaign for the presidency, Mr. Bush pledged
a more "humble" foreign policy. "I would take
the use of force very seriously," he said. "I
would be guarded in my approach." Other countries
would resent us "if we're an arrogant nation."
He sniffed at the notion of "nation building."
"Our military is meant to fight and win wars.
. . . And when it gets overextended, morale drops."
International cooperation and consensus building
would be the cornerstone of a Bush administration's
approach to the larger world. Given candidate
Bush's remarks, it was hard to imagine him, as
president, flipping a stiff middle finger at the
world and charging off adventuring in the Middle
didn't 9/11 reshuffle the deck, changing everything?
Didn't Mr. Bush, on September 12, 2001, awaken
to the fresh realization that bad guys in charge
of Islamic nations constitute an entirely new
and grave threat to us and have to be ruthlessly
confronted lest they threaten the American homeland
again? Wasn't Saddam Hussein rushed to the front
of the line because he was complicit with the
hijackers and in some measure responsible for
the atrocities in Washington, D. C., and at the
tip of Manhattan?
Bush's former Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill,
and his onetime "terror czar," Richard A. Clarke,
have made clear, the president, with the enthusiastic
encouragement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
and Paul Wolfowitz, was contemplating action against
Iraq from day one. "From the start, we were building
the case against Hussein and looking at how we
could take him out," O'Neill said. All they needed
was an excuse. Clarke got the same impression
from within the White House. Afghanistan had to
be dealt with first; that's where the actual perpetrators
were, after all. But the Taliban was a mere appetizer;
Saddam was the entrée. (Or who knows? The soup
course?) It was simply a matter of convincing
the American public (and our representatives)
that war was justified.
real - but elusive - prime mover behind the 9/11
attacks, Osama bin Laden, was quickly relegated
to a back burner (a staff member at Fox News -
the cable-TV outlet of the Bush White House -
told me a year ago that mere mention of bin Laden's
name was forbidden within the company, lest we
be reminded that the actual bad guy remained at
large) while Saddam's Iraq became International
Enemy Number One. Just like that, a country whose
economy had been reduced to shambles by international
sanctions, whose military was less than half the
size it had been when the U. S. Army rolled over
it during the first Gulf war, that had extensive
no-flight zones imposed on it in the north and
south as well as constant aerial and satellite
surveillance, and whose lethal weapons and capacity
to produce such weapons had been destroyed or
seriously degraded by UN inspection teams became,
in Mr. Bush's words, "a threat of unique urgency"
to the most powerful nation on earth.
but terrifying scenarios were introduced: Unmanned
aircraft, drones, had been built for missions
targeting the U. S., Bush told the nation. "We
don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,"
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice deadpanned
to CNN. And, Bush maintained, "Iraq could decide
on any given day to provide a biological or chemical
weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists."
We "know" Iraq possesses such weapons, Rumsfeld
and Vice-President Cheney assured us. We even
"know" where they are hidden. After several months
of this mumbo jumbo, 70 percent of Americans had
embraced the fantasy that Saddam destroyed the
World Trade Center.
these assertions have proved to be baseless and,
we've since discovered, were regarded with skepticism
by experts at the time they were made. But contrary
opinions were derided, ignored, or covered up
in the rush to war. Even as of this writing, Dick
Cheney clings to his mad assertion that Saddam
was somehow at the nexus of a worldwide terror
then there was Abu Ghraib. Our "war president"
may have been justified in his assumption that
Americans are a warrior people. He pushed the
envelope in thinking we'd be content as an occupying
power, but he was sadly mistaken if he thought
that ordinary Americans would tolerate an image
of themselves as torturers. To be fair, the torture
was meant to be secret. So were the memos justifying
such treatment that had floated around the White
House, Pentagon, and Justice Department for more
than a year before the first photos came to light.
The neocons no doubt appreciate that few of us
have the stones to practice the New Warfare. Could
you slip a pair of women's panties over the head
of a naked, cowering stranger while forcing him
to masturbate? What would you say while sodomizing
him with a toilet plunger? Is keeping someone
awake till he hallucinates inhumane treatment
or merely "sleep management"?
of us know the answers to these questions, so
it was incumbent upon the administration to pretend
that Abu Ghraib was an aberration, not policy.
Investigations, we were assured, were already
under way; relevant bureaucracies would offer
unstinting cooperation; the handful of miscreants
would be sternly disciplined. After all, they
didn't "represent the best of what America's all
about." As anyone who'd watched the proceedings
of the 9/11 Commission could have predicted, what
followed was the usual administration strategy
of stonewalling, obstruction, and obfuscation.
The appointment of investigators was stalled;
documents were withheld, including the full report
by Major General Antonio Taguba, who headed the
Army's primary investigation into the abuses at
Abu Ghraib. A favorite moment for many featured
John McCain growing apoplectic as Donald Rumsfeld
and an entire table full of army brass proved
unable to answer the simple question Who was in
charge at Abu Ghraib?
Bush administration no doubt had its real reasons
for invading and occupying Iraq. They've simply
chosen not to share them with the American public.
They sought justification for ignoring the Geneva
Convention and other statutes prohibiting torture
and inhumane treatment of prisoners but were loath
to acknowledge as much. They may have ideas worth
discussing, but they don't welcome the rest of
us in the conversation. They don't trust us because
they don't dare expose their true agendas to the
light of day. There is a surreal quality to all
this: Occupation is liberation; Iraq is sovereign,
but we're in control; Saddam is in Iraqi custody,
but we've got him; we'll get out as soon as an
elected Iraqi government asks us, but we'll be
there for years to come. Which is what we counted
on in the first place, only with rose petals and
Möbius reality finds its domestic analogue in
the perversely cynical "Clear Skies" and "Healthy
Forests" sloganeering at Bush's EPA and in the
administration's irresponsible tax cutting and
other fiscal shenanigans. But the Bush administration
has always worn strangely tinted shades, and you
wonder to what extent Mr. Bush himself lives in
a world of his own imagining.
chances are your America and George W. Bush's
America are not the same place. If you are dead
center on the earning scale in real-world twenty-first-century
America, you make a bit less than $32,000 a year,
and $32,000 is not a sum that Mr. Bush has ever
associated with getting by in his world. Bush,
who has always managed to fail upwards in his
various careers, has never had a job the way you
have a job - where not showing up one morning
gets you fired, costing you your health benefits.
He may find it difficult to relate personally
to any of the nearly two million citizens who've
lost their jobs under his administration, the
first administration since Herbert Hoover's to
post a net loss of jobs. Mr. Bush has never had
to worry that he couldn't afford the best available
health care for his children. For him, forty-three
million people without health insurance may be
no more than a politically inconvenient abstraction.
When Mr. Bush talks about the economy, he is not
talking about your economy. His economy is filled
with pals called Kenny-boy who fly around in their
own airplanes. In Bush's economy, his world, friends
relocate offshore to avoid paying taxes. Taxes
are for chumps like you. You are not a friend.
You're the help. When the party Mr. Bush is hosting
in his world ends, you'll be left picking shrimp
toast out of the carpet.
administrations will dissemble, distort, or outright
lie when their backs are against the wall, when
honesty begins to look like political suicide.
But this administration seems to lie reflexively,
as if it were simply the easiest option for busy
folks with a lot on their minds. While the big
lies are more damning and of immeasurably greater
import to the nation, it is the small, unnecessary
prevarications that may be diagnostic. Who lies
when they don't have to? When the simple truth,
though perhaps embarrassing in the short run,
is nevertheless in one's long-term self-interest?
Why would a president whose calling card is his
alleged rock-solid integrity waste his chief asset
for penny-ante stakes? Habit, perhaps. Or an inability
to admit even small mistakes.
Bush's tendency to meander beyond the bounds of
truth was evident during the 2000 campaign but
was largely ignored by the mainstream media. His
untruths simply didn't fit the agreed-upon narrative.
While generally acknowledged to be lacking in
experience, depth, and other qualifications typically
considered useful in a leader of the free world,
Bush was portrayed as a decent fellow nonetheless,
one whose straightforwardness was a given. None
of that "what the meaning of is is" business for
him. And, God knows, no furtive, taxpayer-funded
fellatio sessions with the interns. Al Gore, on
the other hand, was depicted as a dubious self-reinventor,
stained like a certain blue dress by Bill Clinton's
prurient transgressions. He would spend valuable
weeks explaining away statements - "I invented
the Internet" - that he never made in the first
place. All this left the coast pretty clear for
typical of the 2000 campaign: While debating Al
Gore, Bush tells two obvious - if not exactly
earth-shattering - lies and is not challenged.
First, he claims to have supported a patient's
bill of rights while governor of Texas. This is
untrue. He, in fact, vigorously resisted such
a measure, only reluctantly bowing to political
reality and allowing it to become law without
his signature. Second, he announces that Gore
has outspent him during the campaign. The opposite
is true: Bush has outspent Gore. These misstatements
are briefly acknowledged in major press outlets,
which then quickly return to the more germane
issues of Gore's pancake makeup and whether a
certain feminist author has counseled him to be
more of an "alpha male."
gotten away with such witless falsities, perhaps
Mr. Bush and his team felt somehow above day-to-day
truth. In any case, once ensconced in the White
House, they picked up where they left off.
the immediate aftermath and confusion of 9/11,
Bush, who on that day was in Sarasota, Florida,
conducting an emergency reading of "The Pet Goat,"
was whisked off to Nebraska aboard Air Force One.
While this may have been entirely sensible under
the chaotic circumstances - for all anyone knew
at the time, Washington might still have been
under attack - the appearance was, shall we say,
less than gallant. So a story was concocted: There
had been a threat to Air Force One that necessitated
the evasive maneuver. Bush's chief political advisor,
Karl Rove, cited "specific" and "credible" evidence
to that effect. The story quickly unraveled. In
truth, there was no such threat.
there was Bush's now infamous photo-op landing
aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent
speech in front of a large banner emblazoned MISSION
ACCOMPLISHED. The banner, which loomed in the
background as Bush addressed the crew, became
problematic as it grew clear that the mission
in Iraq - whatever that may have been - was far
from accomplished. "Major combat operations,"
as Bush put it, may have technically ended, but
young Americans were still dying almost daily.
So the White House dealt with the questionable
banner in a manner befitting a president pledged
to "responsibility and accountability": It blamed
the sailors. No surprise, a bit of digging by
journalists revealed the banner and its premature
triumphalism to be the work of the White House
serious by an order of magnitude was the administration's
dishonesty concerning pre-9/11 terror warnings.
As questions first arose about the country's lack
of preparedness in the face of terrorist assault,
Condoleezza Rice was dispatched to the pundit
arenas to assure the nation that "no one could
have imagined terrorists using aircraft as weapons."
In fact, terrorism experts had warned repeatedly
of just such a calamity. In June 2001, CIA director
George Tenet sent Rice an intelligence report
warning that "it is highly likely that a significant
Al Qaeda attack is in the near future, within
several weeks." Two intelligence briefings given
to Bush in the summer of 2001 specifically connected
Al Qaeda to the imminent danger of hijacked planes
being used as weapons. According to The New York
Times, after the second of these briefings, titled
"Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside United
States," was delivered to the president at his
ranch in Crawford, Texas, in August, Bush "broke
off from work early and spent most of the day
fishing." This was the briefing Dr. Rice dismissed
as "historical" in her testimony before the 9/11
odd is that none of these lies were worth the
breath expended in the telling. If only for self-serving
political reasons, honesty was the way to go.
The flight of Air Force One could easily have
been explained in terms of security precautions
taken in the confusion of momentous events. As
for the carrier landing, someone should have fallen
on his or her sword at the first hint of trouble:
We told the president he needed to do it; he likes
that stuff and was gung-ho; we figured, What the
hell?; it was a mistake. The banner? We thought
the sailors would appreciate it. In retrospect,
also a mistake. Yup, we sure feel dumb now. Owning
up to the 9/11 warnings would have entailed more
than simple embarrassment. But done forthrightly
and immediately, an honest reckoning would have
earned the Bush team some respect once the dust
settled. Instead, by needlessly tap-dancing, Bush's
White House squandered vital credibility, turning
even relatively minor gaffes into telling examples
of its tendency to distort and evade the truth.
image is everything in this White House, and the
image of George Bush as a noble and infallible
warrior in the service of his nation must be fanatically
maintained, because behind the image lies . .
nothing? As Jonathan Alter of Newsweek has pointed
out, Bush has "never fully inhabited" the presidency.
Bush apologists can smilingly excuse his malopropisms
and vagueness as the plainspokenness of a man
of action, but watching Bush flounder when attempting
to communicate extemporaneously, one is left with
the impression that he is ineloquent not because
he can't speak but because he doesn't bother to
W. Bush promised to "change the tone in Washington"
and ran for office as a moderate, a "compassionate
conservative," in the focus-group-tested sloganeering
of his campaign. Yet he has governed from the
right wing of his already conservative party,
assiduously tending a "base" that includes, along
with the expected Fortune 500 fat cats, fiscal
evangelicals who talk openly of doing away with
Social Security and Medicare, of shrinking government
to the size where they can, in tax radical Grover
Norquist's phrase, "drown it in the bathtub."
That base also encompasses a healthy share of
anti-choice zealots, homophobic bigots, and assorted
purveyors of junk science. Bush has tossed bones
to all of them - "partial birth" abortion legislation,
the promise of a constitutional amendment banning
marriage between homosexuals, federal roadblocks
to embryonic-stem-cell research, even comments
suggesting presidential doubts about Darwinian
evolution. It's not that Mr. Bush necessarily
shares their worldview; indeed, it's unclear whether
he embraces any coherent philosophy. But this
president, who vowed to eschew politics in favor
of sound policy, panders nonetheless in the interest
of political gain. As John DiIulio, Bush's former
head of the Office of Community and Faith-Based
Initiatives, once told this magazine, "What you've
got is everything - and I mean everything - being
run by the political arm."
was not what the American electorate opted for
when, in 2000, by a slim but decisive margin of
more than half a million votes, they chose...the
other guy. Bush has never had a mandate. Surveys
indicate broad public dissatisfaction with his
domestic priorities. How many people would have
voted for Mr. Bush in the first place had they
understood his eagerness to pass on crushing debt
to our children or seen his true colors regarding
global warming and the environment? Even after
9/11, were people really looking to be dragged
into an optional war under false pretenses?
ever there was a time for uniting and not dividing,
this is it. Instead, Mr. Bush governs as if by
divine right, seeming to actually believe that
a wise God wants him in the White House and that
by constantly evoking the horrible memory of September
11, 2001, he can keep public anxiety stirred up
enough to carry him to another term.
some supporters of Mr. Bush's will believe I harbor
a personal vendetta against the man, some seething
resentment. One conservative commentator, based
on earlier remarks I've made, has already discerned
"jealousy" on my part; after all, Bush, the son
of a former president, now occupies that office
himself, while I, most assuredly, will not. Truth
be told, I have no personal feelings for Bush
at all. I hardly know him, having met him only
twice, briefly and uneventfully - once during
my father's presidency and once during my father's
funeral. I'll acknowledge occasional annoyance
at the pretense that he's somehow a clone of my
father, but far from threatening, I see this more
as silly and pathetic. My father, acting roles
excepted, never pretended to be anyone but himself.
His Republican party, furthermore, seems a far
cry from the current model, with its cringing
obeisance to the religious Right and its kill-anything-that-moves
attack instincts. Believe it or not, I don't look
in the mirror every morning and see my father
looming over my shoulder. I write and speak as
nothing more or less than an American citizen,
one who is plenty angry about the direction our
country is being dragged by the current administration.
We have reached a critical juncture in our nation's
history, one ripe with both danger and possibility.
We need leadership with the wisdom to prudently
confront those dangers and the imagination to
boldly grasp the possibilities. Beyond issues
of fiscal irresponsibility and ill-advised militarism,
there is a question of trust. George W. Bush and
his allies don't trust you and me. Why on earth,
then, should we trust them?
we still live in a democratic republic. The Bush
team cannot expect a cabal of right-wing justices
to once again deliver the White House. Come November
2, we will have a choice: We can embrace a lie,
or we can restore a measure of integrity to our
government. We can choose, as a bumper sticker
I spotted in Seattle put it, SOMEONE ELSE FOR
Posted: August 6, 2004