George W. Bush is the first president of the United States to oppose truth not only as a pattern of conduct but as a matter of official policy.
Is that putting it too strongly? After all, several presidents have told famous lies — Bill Clinton about having sex with “that woman,” Dwight Eisenhower briefly about U-2 spy flights over the Soviet Union, for example — and George Bush has merely told many, many more lies than other presidents. Should the mere volume of falsehoods furnish the test for the Official Dissembler among American presidents?
Yes, but that’s not the only reason. The Bush administration has gone far beyond the telling of blatant falsehoods itself to an affirmative effort to jail people in the government and the media who try to get the truth to Americans. For that, we have no clear precedent.
Let’s talk about the lying first. Clinton’s famous lie rested on his effort to claim a schoolboy’s definition of sex. Ike’s lie, to which he was almost immediately forced to confess, was an effort to avoid international humiliation.
Bush’s lies were never about merely finessing the truth. They were simple and bald-faced. Let’s forget for the moment the ones that have cost him so much lost confidence, the lies that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and an advanced nuclear-weapons program and that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks. Bush could argue that he actually believed the first to be true even if his intelligence agencies were skeptical and that he never said but only implied that Saddam had anything to do with the terror attacks. He could not be blamed if people read too much into the official propaganda.
But there was no finessing of the truth when on July 14, 2003, four months after the invasion of Iraq and the military’s admission that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no nuclear program, Bush declared that he was forced to go to war because Saddam would not let United Nations weapons inspectors re-enter the country.
“We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in” Bush is still recorded as saying on the White House website. “And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”
The truth was that Saddam had invited the inspectors back in and they were inspecting purported weapons sites when Bush ordered them out so that the invasion could begin.
Could he entirely forget the most defining moment of his presidency, of his life and words the whole world heard? The media played it down as merely another innocent gaffe of a very forgetful man. ABC’s Ted Koppel actually accepted and repeated that defense of the invasion.
We’re not talking about small lies here but the most momentous events of his presidency: the lies that he had given orders that American agents and soldiers were never to torture prisoners, the repeated lie from 2004 forward that every single wiretap conducted under his auspices was done with a court order (thousands, we now know, were done under his specific order that the courts not be consulted), and that no one ever imagined nor was he ever told that the levees at New Orleans might break under the force of hurricane winds and water. For many Americans, the last was the most damning. A video obtained by the Associated Press last month showed the president sitting docilely while he was told the day before the hurricane struck that the levees could be topped and breached and that the city would be flooded.
And Bush was not merely a prevaricator himself but a carrier. Lying was a commonplace strategy throughout the administration. The actuary in Bush’s Medicare administration was threatened with firing if he tried to tell Congress that the president’s budget forecast for his proposed prescription drug program was a fabrication that fell billions of dollars short of Medicare’s actual numbers.
Lest anyone believe that truth is an important commodity in the state of timeless war in which the nation finds itself, the Bush Justice Department has let it be known that government officials and employees — those outside the White House anyway — who leak damaging information to the press and also the reporters who receive it will be prosecuted and jailed. The Justice Department argued in a court brief last month that the Espionage Act of 1917 permits the imprisonment of reporters who publish information that the government classifies.
The CIA director warned employees to have no contact with the media and the agency has been giving lie-detector tests to agents to see if they talk to reporters. Bush said he wanted to nail whoever among the numbers of high administration officials who opposed it happened to tell the New York Times about his illegal orders to wiretap American citizens without a warrant. It doesn’t apply to White House aides who violated the espionage act to disclose the identity of a secret agent whose husband had exposed a Bush lie.
In this administration, truth does have its aberrant uses.