Friday, October 29, 2004

Liar in Chief

Happened to catch Nick Kristoff's bizarre ramble in the NYT the other day, in which he makes the argument that even though Bush lies, they're not really that important:
The current president's hyped version of the incident reflects his casual relationship with truth. Like President Ronald Reagan, reality to him is not about facts, but about higher meta-truths: Mom and Dad are loving grandparents, Saddam Hussein is an evil man, and so on. To clarify those overarching realities, Mr. Bush harnesses "facts," both true and false.

We all do this to some extent, of course, discounting data points that don't fit our preconceptions. My Times colleague John Tierney wrote a few days ago of a new report suggesting, based on their scores on military intelligence tests taken in the 1960's, that Mr. Bush had an I.Q. in the 95th percentile of the population and that John Kerry's was in the 91st percentile. Yet most liberals have not revised their view that Mr. Bush is a nitwit.

In fact, I'm convinced that Mr. Bush is not only smarter, but also a better man than his critics believe. Most important, he's not a panderer. While Mr. Kerry zigs and zags on trade and Middle East policy, Mr. Bush has a core of values and provides genuine leadership (typically, I believe, in the wrong direction, by trying to reshape America and the world according to a far-right agenda).

As Bob Somerby pointed out:
But note how weak Kristof's reasoning is. He builds an entire column about Bush's honesty around this one silly, trivial incident. And he doesn't seem to have tried to determine whether Bush even knew that his story was semi-false.

What's especially noteworthy is that Kristoff hasn't even bothered to look at cases where Bush's "casual relationship with the truth" has had a role in making some of the most colossally incompetent decisions in presidential history. Instead of examining a trivial incident like this one, Kristoff should have examined one of Bush's lies with greater consequence -- say, the WMD "threat" posed by Saddam Hussein.

Or how about the "trifecta" joke? I wrote about it some time back:
Bush has now been telling the same, spectacularly tasteless joke to a variety of mostly Republican audiences as part of his stock stump speech for the better part of four months now. This is its basic telling:

"You know, when I was running for President, in Chicago, somebody said, would you ever have deficit spending? I said, only if we were at war, or only if we had a recession, or only if we had a national emergency. Never did I dream we’d get the trifecta."

According to the transcripts, this joke usually elicits laughter from the mostly GOP crowds to whom Bush tells it.

So far, Bush has told the joke on the record at least 14 times. It originated, evidently, as an anecdote he told to business leaders Oct. 3, 2001, when he explained his three-part reasoning for going into deficit spending.

However, the real problem with the joke is that it is a complete falsehood.

Bush never told any audience, or any reporter, in Chicago that he could foresee three conditions under which deficit spending might be necessary. In fact, throughout the entire campaign, Bush had been insistent that budget surpluses would continue, and only once does he appear to have told any public audience at any time that deficit spending might become necessary -- a Sept. 22, 2000 interview with Paula Zahn, in which he defended his tax cuts even in the face of a "short-term deficit." The only other times that Bush ever seems to have brought up the subject of deficit spending were those when he accused Al Gore of planning to resume the practice.

When reporters have sought the original remarks, the White House press office has been unable to come up with any evidence that Bush ever made the remarks that he claims. ...

This joke, of course, had it all: the pandering, the brazen falsity, and its use to deflect blame on a matter of great national import -- a veritable trifecta itself of reasons why it should have rung a few bells on Kristoff's outrage-o-meter. Guess he just wasn't keeping track of that one.

The real problem with non-thinking like Kristoff's is that it excuses the inexcusable. Bush lies, as he did in both these cases, because it's a way to manipulate others, including patsies like Nick Kristoff. And he does it without much conscience.

That strikes me as a serious character flaw that plays out in his policy choices. It obviously lends itself to a mindset in which the man only wants to hear what he wants to hear. Bush seems above all to be a guy who insists on creating his own truth (one of "history's actors," as it were); if the facts on the ground stand in his way, well, damn the facts.

That isn't providing genuine leadership -- that's a kind of megalomania. It certainly isn't, shall we say, reality-based. And this "casual relationship with the truth" isn't just a tic; it's bound to affect his judgment negatively.

In fact, that lack of judgment manifested itself in important ways: in the failure to heed the pre-Sept. 11 terrorist-attack warnings and being, essentially, asleep at the wheel when it came to terrorism on Sept. 10; and then by going to war in Iraq under what proved to be false pretenses; and most of all, his failure (despite multiple warnings) to adequately prepare or plan for an extended occupation coupled with a violent insurgency, not to mention providing enough troops to secure all the former Iraqi weapons sites.

How has Bush answered the justifiable criticism for these massive blunders? By questioning the patriotism of his opponents, of course.

But then, what else could we expect from someone with such a casual relationship with the truth?

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