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?
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.”
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.
“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?