This article was adapted from the new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
George W. Bush is a liar. He has lied large and small, directly and by omission. His Iraq lies have loomed largest. In the run-up to the invasion, Bush based his case for war on a variety of unfounded claims that extended far beyond his controversial uranium-from-Niger assertion. He maintained that Saddam Hussein possessed “a massive stockpile” of unconventional weapons and was directly “dealing” with Al Qaeda–two suppositions unsupported then (or now) by the available evidence. He said the International Atomic Energy Agency had produced a report in 1998 noting that Iraq was six months from developing a nuclear weapon; no such report existed (and the IAEA had actually reported then that there was no indication Iraq had the ability to produce weapons-grade material). Bush asserted that Iraq was “harboring a terrorist network, headed by a senior Al Qaeda terrorist planner”; US intelligence officials told reporters this terrorist was operating ouside of Al Qaeda control. And two days before launching the war, Bush said, “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” Yet former deputy CIA director Richard Kerr, who is conducting a review of the prewar intelligence, has said that intelligence was full of qualifiers and caveats, and based on circumstantial and inferential evidence. That is, it was not no-doubt stuff. And after the major fighting was done, Bush declared, “We found the weapons of mass destruction.” But he could only point to two tractor-trailers that the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency had concluded were mobile bioweapons labs. Other experts–including the DIA’s own engineering experts–disagreed with this finding.
But Bush’s truth-defying crusade for war did not mark a shift for him. Throughout his campaign for the presidency and his years in the White House, Bush has mugged the truth in many other areas to advance his agenda. Lying has been one of the essential tools of his presidency. To call the forty-third President of the United States a prevaricator is not an exercise of opinion, not an inflammatory talk-radio device. Rather, it is backed up by an all-too-extensive record of self-serving falsifications. While politicians are often derided as liars, this charge should be particularly stinging for Bush. During the campaign of 2000, he pitched himself as a candidate who could “restore” honor and integrity to an Oval Office stained by the misdeeds and falsehoods of his predecessor. To brand Bush a liar is to negate what he and his supporters declared was his most basic and most important qualification for the job.
His claims about the war in Iraq have led more of his foes and more pundits to accuse him of lying to the public. The list of his misrepresentations, though, is far longer than the lengthy list of dubious statements Bush employed–and keeps on employing–to justify his invasion and occupation of Iraq. Here then is a partial–a quite partial–account of the other lies of George W. Bush.
Bush’s crusade for tax cuts is the domestic policy matter that has spawned the most misrepresentations from his camp. On the 2000 campaign trail, he sold his success as a “tax-cutting person” by hailing cuts he passed in Texas while governor. But Bush did not tell the full story of his 1997 tax plan. His proposal called for cutting property taxes. But what he didn’t mention is that it also included an attempt to boost the sales tax and to implement a new business tax. Nor did he note that his full package had not been accepted by the state legislature. Instead, the lawmakers passed a $1 billion reduction in property taxes. And these tax cuts turned out to be a sham. After they kicked in, school districts across the state boosted local tax rates to compensate for the loss of revenue. A 1999 Dallas Morning News analysis found that “many [taxpayers] are still paying as much as they did in 1997, or more.” Republican Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry called the cuts “rather illusory.”
One of Bush’s biggest tax-cut whoppers came when he stated, during the presidential campaign, “The vast majority of my [proposed] tax cuts go to the bottom end of the spectrum.” That estimate was wildly at odds with analyses of where the money would really go. A report by Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal outfit that specializes in distribution analysis, figured that 42.6 percent of Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax package would end up in the pockets of the top 1 percent of earners. The lowest 60 percent would net 12.6 percent. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, ABC News and NBC News all reported that Bush’s package produced the results CTJ calculated.
To deal with the criticism that his plan was a boon for millionaires, Bush devised an imaginary friend–a mythical single waitress who was supporting two children on an income of $22,000, and he talked about her often. He said he wanted to remove the tax-code barriers that kept this waitress from reaching the middle class, and he insisted that if his tax cuts were passed, “she will pay no income taxes at all.” But when Time asked the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche to analyze precisely how Bush’s waitress-mom would be affected by his tax package, the firm reported that she would not see any benefit because she already had no income-tax liability.
As he sold his tax cuts from the White House, Bush maintained in 2001 that with his plan, “the greatest percentage of tax relief goes to the people at the bottom end of the ladder.” This was trickery–technically true only because low-income earners pay so little income tax to begin with. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put it, “a two-parent family of four with income of $26,000 would indeed have its income taxes eliminated under the Bush plan, which is being portrayed as a 100 percent reduction in taxes.” But here was the punch line: The family owed only $20 in income taxes under the existing law. Its overall tax bill (including payroll and excise taxes), though, was $2,500. So that twenty bucks represented less than 1 percent of its tax burden. Bush’s “greatest percentage” line was meaningless in the real world, where people paid their bills with money, not percentages.
Bush also claimed his tax plan–by eliminating the estate tax, at a cost of $300 billion–would “keep family farms in the family.” But, as the New York Times reported, farm-industry experts could not point to a single case of a family losing a farm because of estate taxes. Asked about this, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, “If you abolish the death tax, people won’t have to hire all those planners to help them keep the land that’s rightfully theirs.” Caught in a $300 billion lie, the White House was now saying the reason to abolish the tax–a move that would be a blessing to the richest 2 percent of Americans–was to spare farmers the pain in the ass of estate planning. Bush’s lies did not hinder him. They helped him win the first tax-cut fight–and, then, the tax-cut battle of 2003. When his second set of supersized tax cuts was assailed for being tilted toward the rich, he claimed, “Ninety-two million Americans will keep an average of $1,083 more of their own money.” The Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute found that, contrary to Bush’s assertion, nearly 80 percent of tax filers would receive less than $1,083, and almost half would pocket less than $100. The truly average taxpayers–those in the middle of the income range–would receive $265. Bush was using the word “average” in a flimflam fashion. To concoct the misleading $1,083 figure, the Administration took the large dollar amounts high-income taxpayers would receive and added that to the modest, small or nonexistent reductions other taxpayers would get–and then used this total to calculate an average gain. His claim was akin to saying that if a street had nine households led by unemployed individuals but one with an earner making a million dollars, the average income of the families on the block would be $100,000. The radical Wall Street Journal reported, “Overall, the gains from the taxes are weighted toward upper-income taxpayers.”
One of Bush’s first PR slip-ups as President came when his EPA announced that it would withdraw a new standard for arsenic in drinking water that had been developed during the Clinton years. Bush defended this move by claiming that the new standard had been irresponsibly rushed through: “At the very last minute my predecessor made a decision, and we pulled back his decision so that we can make a decision based upon sound science and what’s realistic.” And his EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, said the standard had not been based on the “best available science.” This was a harsh charge. And untrue.
The new arsenic standard was no quickie job unattached to reasonable scientific findings. The EPA had worked for a decade on establishing the new, 10-parts-per-billion standard. Congress had directed the agency to establish a new standard, and it had authorized $2.5 million a year for studies from 1997 through 2000. A 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) had concluded that the existing 50-ppb standard “could easily” result in a 1-in-100 cancer risk and had recommended that acceptable levels be lowered “as promptly as possible.” EPA policy-makers had thought that a 3-ppb standard would have been justified by the science, yet they took cost considerations into account and went for the less stringent 10 ppb.
Bush’s arsenic move appeared to have been based upon a political calculation–even though Bush, as a candidate, had said he would not decide key policy matters on the basis of politics. But in his book The Right Man, David Frum, a former Bush economic speechwriter, reported that Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political adviser, had “pressed for reversal” of the arsenic standard in an attempt to win votes in New Mexico, one of a few states that have high naturally occurring levels of arsenic and that would face higher costs in meeting the new standard.
Several months after the EPA suspended the standard, a new NAS study concluded that the 10-ppb standard was indeed scientifically justified and possibly not tight enough. After that, the Administration decided that the original 10 ppb was exactly the right level for a workable rule, even though the latest in “best available science” now suggested that the 10-ppb level might not adequately safeguard water drinkers.
The arsenic screw-up was one of the few lies for which Bush took a hit. On the matter of global warming, he managed to lie his way through a controversy more deftly. Months into his presidency, Bush declared that he was opposed to the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 global warming accord. To defend his retreat from the treaty, he cited “the incomplete state of scientific knowledge.” This was a misleading argument, for the scientific consensus was rather firm. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body of thousands of scientists assembled by the UN and the World Meteorological Organization, held that global temperatures were dramatically on the rise and that this increase was, to an unspecified degree, a result of human-induced emissions.
In early June 2001 the NAS released a report Bush had requested, and it concluded global warming was under way and “most likely due to human activities.” Rather than accept the analysis it had commissioned, the Bush White House countered with duplicity. Press secretary Fleischer maintained that the report “concludes that the Earth is warming. But it is inconclusive on why–whether it’s man-made causes or whether it’s natural causes.” That was not spinning. That was prevaricating. The study blamed “human activities” while noting that “natural variability” might be a contributing factor too.
Still, the Bush White House wanted to make it seem as if Bush did take the issue seriously. So on June 11, he delivered a speech on global warming and pledged to craft an alternative to Kyoto that would “reduce” emissions. The following February he unveiled his plan. “Our immediate goal,” Bush said, “is to reduce America’s greenhouse-gas emissions relative to the size of our economy.”
Relative to the size of our economy? This was a ruse. Since the US economy is generally growing, this meant emissions could continue to rise, as long as the rate of increase was below the rate of economic growth. The other industrialized nations, with the Kyoto accord, were calling for reductions below 1990 levels. Bush was pushing for slower increases above 2000 levels. Bush’s promise to lower emissions had turned out to be no more than hot air.
As many Americans and others yearned to make sense of the evil attacks of September 11, Bush elected to share with the public a deceptively simplistic explanation of this catastrophe. Repeatedly, he said that the United States had been struck because of its love of freedom. “America was targeted for attack,” he maintained, “because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” This was shallow analysis, a comic-book interpretation of the event that covered up complexities and denied Americans information crucial for developing a full understanding of the attacks. In the view Bush furnished, Osama bin Laden was a would-be conqueror of the world, a man motivated solely by irrational evil, who killed for the purpose of destroying freedom.
But as the State Department’s own terrorism experts–as well as nongovernment experts–noted, bin Laden was motivated by a specific geostrategic and theological aim: to chase the United States out of the Middle East in order to ease the way for a fundamentalist takeover of the region. Peter Bergen, a former CNN producer and the first journalist to arrange a television interview with bin Laden, observes in his book Holy War, Inc., “What [bin Laden] condemns the United States for is simple: its policies in the Middle East.” Rather than acknowledge the realities of bin Laden’s war on America, Bush attempted to create and perpetuate a war-on-freedom myth.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush was disingenuous on other fronts. Days after the attack, he asserted, “No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft–fly US aircraft–into buildings full of innocent people.” His aides echoed this sentiment for months. They were wrong. Such a scenario had been imagined and feared by terrorism experts. And plots of this sort had previously been uncovered and thwarted by security services in other nations–in operations known to US officials. According to the 9/11 inquiry conducted by the House and Senate intelligence committees, the US intelligence establishment had received numerous reports that bin Laden and other terrorists were interested in mounting 9/11-like strikes against the United States.
Fourteen months after the attack, Bush said, “We must uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September the 11th.” But his actions belied this rhetoric. His White House refused to turn over information to the intelligence committees about a pre-9/11 intelligence briefing he had had seen, and the Bush Administration would not allow the committees to tell the public what intelligence warnings Bush had received before September 11. More famously, Bush would not declassify the twenty-seven-page portion of the committees’ final report that concerned connections between the 9/11 hijackers and Saudi Arabia. And following September 11, Bush repeatedly maintained that his Administration was doing everything possible to secure the nation. But that was not true. The Administration did not move–and has not moved–quickly to address gaping security concerns, including vulnerabilities at chemical plants and ports and a huge shortfall in resources for first responders [see Corn, “Homeland Insecurity,” September 22].
It did not start with Iraq. Bush has been lying throughout the presidency. He claimed he had not gotten to know disgraced Enron chief Ken Lay until after the 1994 Texas gubernatorial election. But Lay had been one of Bush’s larger contributors during that election and had–according to Lay himself–been friends with Bush for years before it. In June 2001, Bush said, “We’re not going to deploy a [missile defense] system that doesn’t work.” But then he ordered the deployment of a system that was not yet operational. (A June 2003 General Accounting Office study noted, “Testing to date has provided only limited data for determining whether the system will work as intended.”) His White House claimed that it was necessary to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to “secure America’s energy needs.” But the US Geological Survey noted that the amount of oil that might be found there would cover up to slightly more than two years’ worth of oil consumption. Such a supply would hardly “secure” the nation’s needs.
Speaking for his boss, Fleischer in 2002 said, “the President does, of course, believe that younger workers…are going to receive no money for their Social Security taxes.” No money? That was not so. A projected crunch will hit in four decades or so. But even when this happens, the system will be able to pay an estimated 70 percent of benefits–which is somewhat more than “no money.” When Bush in August 2001 announced he would permit federal funding of stem-cell research only for projects that used existing stem-cell lines–in a move to placate social conservatives, who opposed this sort of research–he said that there were sixty existing lines, and he asserted that his decision “allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem-cell research.” Yet at the time–according to scientific experts in the field and various media reports–there were closer to ten available lines, not nearly enough to support a promising research effort.
Does Bush believe his own untruths? Did he truly consider a WMD-loaded Saddam Hussein an imminent threat to the United States? Or was he knowingly employing dramatic license because he wanted war for other reasons? Did he really think the average middle-class taxpayer would receive $1,083 from his second tax-cut plan? Or did he realize this was a fuzzy number cooked up to make the package seem a better deal than it was for middle- and low-income workers? Did he believe there were enough stem-cell lines to support robust research? Or did he know he had exaggerated the number of lines in order to avoid a politically tough decision?
It’s hard to tell. Bush’s public statements do suggest he is a binary thinker who views the world in black-and-white terms. You’re either for freedom or against it. With the United States or not. Tax cuts are good–always. The more tax cuts the better–always. He’s impatient with nuances. Asked in 1999 to name something he wasn’t good at, Bush replied, “Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something.” Bush likes life to be clear-cut. And perhaps that causes him to either bend the truth or see (and promote) a bent version of reality. Observers can debate whether Bush considers his embellishments and misrepresentations to be the honest-to-God truth or whether he cynically hurls falsehoods to con the public. But believer or deceiver–the result is the same.
With his misrepresentations and false assertions, Bush has dramatically changed the nation and the world. Relying on deceptions, he turned the United States into an occupying power. Using lies, he pushed through tax cuts that will profoundly reshape the US budget for years to come, most likely insuring a long stretch of deficits that will make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for the federal government to fund existing programs or contemplate new ones.
Does Bush lie more than his predecessors, more than his political opponents? That’s irrelevant. He’s guiding the nation during difficult and perhaps perilous times, in which a credible President is much in need. Prosperity or economic decline? War or peace? Security or fear? This country has a lot to deal with. Lies from the White House poison the debates that must occur if Americans are going to confront and overcome the challenges of this century at home and abroad.
Presidential lying, in fact, threatens the country. To render informed and wise choices about the crucial and complicated controversies of the day, people need truthful information. The President is generally in a position to define and dominate a debate more than other political players. And a lie from the White House–or a fib or a misrepresentation or a fudged number–can go a long way toward distorting the national discussion.
Bush campaigned for the presidency as the fellow who would bring honesty back to the White House. During his first full day on the job, while swearing in his White House staff, he reminded his cadre, “On a mantelpiece in this great house is inscribed the prayer of John Adams, that only the wise and honest may rule under this roof.” But Adams’s prayer would once more go unanswered. There has been no restoration of integrity. Bush’s promise was a lie. The future of the United States remains in the hands of a dishonest man.