Once upon a time, only people with bad manners took note of the fact that George W. Bush was an inveterate liar. One such person, pundit Michael Kinsley, observed back in April 2002, “Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother.” Back then it was undeniable but all but unsayable in the mainstream media. Even when addressing himself to the very topic of Bush’s myriad lies six months later, Washington Post scribe Dana Milbank combed his thesaurus and came up with “embroidering,” “taken some flights of fancy,” “taken some liberties,” “omitted qualifiers,” etc. But even this artful linguistic circumlocution so infuriated Karl Rove & Co. that the White House pressured the Post to reassign the reporter. When asked to comment on an incontrovertible, unarguable, prime-time presidential lie–Bush publicly claimed that Iraq would not allow inspections, when in fact the UN inspectors had to be kicked out for his war to begin–on CNN’s Reliable Sources program, Milbank said, “I think what people basically decided was this is just the President being the President.” What, after all, is the big deal about lying about why you started a war?
Bush had been lying right from the start, of course, but just for fun, one assumes, he recently decided to double-down on his bet. On the day after the election, Bush explained to the media that the discrepancy between his insistence just a few days earlier to reporters that Donald Rumsfeld would stay in his job come hell or high water while, in fact, he had already started the process to replace Rumsfeld with Robert Gates could be explained by… well, heck, Bush just felt like lying about it. His exact words: “I didn’t want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign. And so the only way to answer that question, and to get you on to another question, was to give you that answer.”
Bush’s bald admission proved a breathtaking break with presidential precedent. After all, presidential lying is nothing new, but on virtually every occasion I studied for my book on the topic, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, presidential lies were said to rest, somehow, on national security needs. (The obvious exception was Bill Clinton’s blowjob lie, which he attributed–compellingly in my view–to his constitutional right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment.)
Given Rumsfeld’s portfolio, Bush could easily have gone the “national security” route. The lefty blogosphere would have grumbled, as would a few liberal pundits, but the news pages and the Sunday shows would have swallowed hard and moved on. And on cable and talk-radio, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly would have used words like “traitor” and “pro-terrorist” for anyone who didn’t. (Presumably, the old Andrew Sullivan would have called for jailing the current one.)
But because Bush couldn’t be bothered to pretend this time, he created a conundrum for much of the media. The press claims all kinds of special privileges for itself–legal, financial and ethical–based almost exclusively on its constitutionally protected role as the watchdog of the rulers for the ruled. Democratic theory requires that citizens choose their leaders on the basis of true information about their preferences and performances, and the very raison d’être of the political press is to provide it. But if those leaders are free to lie–and the press plays along with those lies–then democracy itself is undermined. How many members of Bush’s base, one wonders, roused themselves to run to the polls on November 7 because, well, “say what you will about Bush, at least he promised to stick by that Rumsfeld fellow.” A day later their democratic decisions would seem a cruel joke.
What’s more, now that Bush has come out and all but said, “I lie because I feel like it,” nothing he says can be taken on faith. Some will no doubt resist this. Having been deprived of the “It’s not a lie if the liar believes his own lie” argument that had previously proven so popular, This Week‘s George Will excused Bush on the grounds of his apparent imbecility. “The English language is not always the President’s friend,” Will explained, as if Bush had been reared speaking Sanskrit. But this dog is not likely to remain in the media’s hunting party for long. Bush’s revealed contempt–both for the truth and for the reporters whose job it is to find it–has created a kind of existential crisis for reporters and their bosses: “If the President is willing to call himself a liar, how can we go on pretending it isn’t so?” And yet, if they remain unfree to call the President a liar, well… you get the point.
So far, nobody in the MSM really has a handle on the issue. The Washington Post, to its credit, ran five separate news stories that touched on the lie–two online and three in the paper. (This was originally misreported in the liberal blogosphere, which charged the paper with changing the wording of its stories to protect the President from his lie. In fact, the Post merely printed multiple stories with differing descriptions of the lie, with no subsequent changes in any of them.) All were reasonably straightforward, deploying phrases like “appeared to mislead,” which is as close as the paper’s editors can bring themselves to calling a lie a lie. Unfortunately, the only story devoted exclusively to the lie itself was by Howard Kurtz, who could think only to ask if Bush’s lie about Rumsfeld was “on par with President Bill Clinton’s hair-splitting defense in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation that ‘it all depends on what the definition of is is.'” The New York Times barely touched on the question–treating the decision to replace Rumsfeld as a typical Washington soap opera. Save for the occasional op-ed, the issue soon disappeared under an avalanche of stories about Nasty Nancy Pelosi (the new Wicked Witch of the West in Morton Kondracke’s phrasing) and “maverick” John McCain, the MSM’s President-in-Waiting. We were back to business as usual in George Bush’s America.