From the June 16, 2003, issue of National Review.
There’s an idea gaining momentum among Democrats and pundits on the left: George W. Bush is a bigger liar than Bill Clinton ever was. Writers like Paul Krugman of the New York Times, E. J. Dionne and Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, and Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect have all suggested that Bush has a serious problem with the truth, while others, like The Nation’s Eric Alterman, have said flatly, “President Bush is a liar.” The Post’s Richard Cohen invoked Mary McCarthy’s famous jab at Lillian Hellman — “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’” — before concluding: “The same cannot yet be said about George W. Bush and his administration, but it has not been around as long as Hellman was and is not nearly as creative.” On the web, Bushwatch.com maintains a special “Bush Lies” section, while another site, Dailyhowler.com, keeps up a running commentary on the president’s alleged untruths. And this fall, sometime comedian Al Franken will no doubt be pushing the idea in his book, Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them — A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. In short, accusing the president of lying is a growth industry on the left.
What seems particularly galling to liberal writers is the notion that Bush is getting away with his lies even as his predecessor was flayed for lesser offenses. “If a Democrat, say, Bill Clinton, engaged in Bush-scale dishonesty, the press would be all over him,” Drake Bennett and Heidi Pauken wrote in a recent issue of The American Prospect. “Unless the voters and the press start paying attention, all the president’s lies will have little political consequence — except to certify that we have become something less than a democracy.”
What’s going on here? Certainly George W. Bush, like every other politician, has said things, sometimes in off-the-cuff remarks, that were wrong. But was he lying? Like Bill Clinton? As appealing as the idea may be to the president’s opponents, a look at the record shows that the charges just don’t stand up to scrutiny.
“FACTS ARE MALLEABLE”
One of the most influential articles questioning the president’s credibility appeared last October on the front page of the Washington Post under the headline “For Bush, Facts Are Malleable.” Reporter Dana Milbank wrote that a close look at Bush’s statements on a range of subjects suggested that “a president who won election underscoring Al Gore’s knack for distortions and exaggerations has been guilty of a few himself.” Milbank placed Bush in a tradition of presidents like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, the latter of whom, Milbank said, “fibbed” about his “personal indiscretions.”
Milbank’s case against Bush began with the October 7 address to the nation on the subject of Iraq, in which the president warned that Saddam Hussein had a growing fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could be used, in Bush’s words, “for missions targeting the United States.” That statement, Milbank claimed, was “dubious, if not wrong,” because a CIA report on the unmanned aircraft “said nothing about [their] having sufficient range to threaten the United States.”
But Milbank quoted just a few words of Bush’s speech. A more complete look at the text would have shown that Bush actually said: “We’ve also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical and biological weapons across broad areas. We’re concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States.”
The longer statement puts Bush’s words in a somewhat different light. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer wrote to the Post indicating that Milbank had “wrongly interpret[ed] the president to be saying that Iraq would launch the UAVs from Iraq. The president never suggested that. The threat from UAVs would come from their being launched from a ship or a truck or by their being smuggled into the United States.”
Another Bush statement that Milbank labeled “dubious, if not wrong” was something the president said last September during a news conference with British prime minister Tony Blair. The president “cited a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] saying the Iraqis were ‘six months away from developing a weapon,’” Milbank wrote. But Milbank said the IAEA report, which was issued in 1998, “made no such assertion.”
In response, the White House argued that the president had simply misspoken. “It was in fact the International Institute for Strategic Studies [IISS] that issued the report concluding that Iraq could develop nuclear weapons in as few as six months,” Fleischer wrote. “The source may be different, but the underlying fact remains the same.” And in fact, the IISS had finished a report, which was released the Monday after Bush’s Saturday statement, which said Iraq could “assemble nuclear weapons within months if fissile material from foreign sources were obtained.”
And even the IAEA report cited by Milbank was far less conclusive than he implied. The Post quoted a portion of the report that said the IAEA “has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-usable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material.” But Milbank did not quote the next portion of the report, which began, “At the same time, the IAEA points out the limitations inherent in a countrywide verification process and consequently its inability to guarantee that all readily concealable items have been found.” The IAEA said that inspectors were not allowed to visit new weapons sites, and as a result, “the level of assurance the IAEA can give that prohibited activities are not taking place in Iraq is significantly reduced.”
On the economy, Milbank took Bush to task for urging Congress to pass a terrorism insurance bill. “There’s over $15 billion of construction projects which are on hold,” Bush said in a speech last October, “which aren’t going forward — which means there’s over 300,000 jobs that would be in place, or soon to be in place, that aren’t in place.” Milbank complained that the $15 billion figure was not a government estimate but had instead been produced by the Real Estate Roundtable, which favored terrorism insurance and had come up with that number through an “unscientific survey” of its members. The figure of 300,000 jobs, Milbank wrote, was also suspect, but he offered no evidence that either figure was actually incorrect. The White House stood its ground; an official told ABCNews.com’s “The Note” that the jobs figure was “vetted and approved by the president’s economic team.”
So in one example, Milbank apparently misinterpreted the president’s remarks about UAVs. In another, he hit Bush for a misstatement on Iraqi arms, while failing to tell readers that the IAEA report in question was nowhere near as definitive as he suggested. And in the third example, he criticized Bush for citing statistics — surely a time-honored political practice — that Milbank found wanting, although without any proof that they were wrong. Milbank filled out his article with a couple of other examples, one a Bush statement about a union dispute in which the meaning of the president’s words was debatable, and another Bush statement about an Iraqi defector and an al-Qaeda leader in which Bush “omitted qualifiers that make the accusations seem less convincing.” And that was it. One might reasonably ask whether any of those cases represented examples of presidential lying in the tradition of Nixon and Clinton.
ANOTHER LITTLE LIE?
In mid May, Post columnist E. J. Dionne picked up Milbank’s theme: “Bush and his White House say whatever is necessary, even if they have to admit later that what they said the first time wasn’t exactly true.” Exhibit A in Dionne’s account was the president’s May 1 flight to the USS Abraham Lincoln for a speech announcing the official end of hostilities in Iraq. The White House, Dionne noted, had originally said Bush would fly to the carrier in an S3B Viking jet because the ship was hundreds of miles off shore, too far to travel by helicopter. But when the president actually left, the carrier was about 30 miles from shore, close enough for a routine chopper flight. Nevertheless, the president took the jet for a dramatic landing on the Lincoln. “Now that’s very interesting,” Dionne concluded. “You can be absolutely sure that if an Al Gore White House had comparably misled citizens about the reason for a presidential made-for-television visit to an aircraft carrier, Gore would have been pilloried for engaging in yet another ‘little lie.’”
It was an argument heard over and over around Washington, especially from Democratic lawmakers. But a close look at events suggests there was, in fact, no lie — big or little — in the Lincoln affair.
When the White House first announced the speech, Fleischer told reporters the president would be going to the Abraham Lincoln in a jet because the carrier would be far off the California coast. But as the day approached, it appeared that no one in the press office had any precise idea of exactly where the carrier would be. On the day of the event, reporters traveling to San Diego aboard Air Force One asked Fleischer how far off shore the Abraham Lincoln was. “I don’t have accurate information on it,” Fleischer answered. “I’ve been asking for it. I don’t have it yet.”
While most of the press corps reported on events from San Diego, a small pool of reporters flew to the Abraham Lincoln. As those reporters were getting ready to leave, they asked the pilots how far they would be going, and were told the ship was about 30 miles offshore. Once on board, the pool reporters sent back word that the Abraham Lincoln was well within range of the presidential helicopter. Navy officials explained that because of good weather, the ship had made faster-than-expected progress and was thus closer to shore than originally planned. The news appeared in some press accounts the next day, with the Associated Press quoting Fleischer as saying that the president “could have helicoptered, but the plan was already in place. Plus, he wanted to see a landing the way aviators see a landing.”
The issue did not stir much controversy until the next week, when Democrats claimed that the White House had lied about the distance to the carrier so the president could star in a photo-op for his 2004 reelection campaign. At the regular White House briefing on May 6, a reporter brought up Fleischer’s original statement that the ship would be hundreds of miles offshore. “Were you misled?” the reporter asked.
“No,” said Fleischer. “The original planning was exactly as I said.” Fleischer explained that the president still wanted to take the jet, even after it became clear that the ship was close enough for a helicopter ride. “The president wanted to land on it, on an aircraft that would allow him to see an aircraft landing the same way that the pilots saw an aircraft landing. And that’s why, once the initial decision was made to fly out on the Viking, even when a helicopter option became doable, the president decided instead he wanted to still take the Viking.”
Was the story a lie? It appears not. In the days leading up to the flight, Fleischer seemed unsure of how far the carrier would be from shore. On the day of the landing, when reporters learned the actual distance, he quickly conceded that the president could have taken a helicopter but had wanted to fly in the jet — a statement that jibed with statements Fleischer had made earlier that the president had been looking forward to the flight for quite some time.
Moreover, the incident raises the question of why Fleischer would tell a lie that reporters would be able to discover almost immediately — well before the president’s speech. “It would have been foolish from a political standpoint to utter an easily checkable falsehood,” says one White House reporter. Adds another journalist on the beat: “If you put the pieces together, I think basically what you had was they designed the trip to allow the president to take the jet, and I think what happened was that the ship had good weather and came in too quickly.” Which is what the White House said.
WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION?
To the president’s opponents, the mother of all Bush “lies” is the administration’s case for going to war in Iraq, specifically the president’s claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. “So whose books were more cooked — Enron’s accounts of its financial doings or the administration’s prewar reports on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?” asked Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect, in a column published in the Washington Post. The administration’s position, Meyerson concluded, was “as phony a casus belli as the destruction of the Maine in Havana Harbor.”
It’s an argument that’s been heard more and more in recent weeks. “Does it matter that we were misled into war?” asked the New York Times’s Paul Krugman. Bush’s statements about weapons of mass destruction were “one of the administration’s Big Lies of the war on Iraq,” wrote The Nation’s David Corn. And Democratic senator Robert Byrd has issued almost daily allegations that Bush lied about Iraq.
Such accusations are risky — after all, the search for Iraqi weapons is ongoing, and any day might bring a significant discovery, or evidence that weapons have been destroyed. Still, for the sake of argument, assume there is no discovery. Does that mean Bush was lying?
In the months leading up to the war, there was a bipartisan consensus that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; the real debate was between those who believed that Saddam would have to be disarmed by force and those who wanted to rely on U.N. inspectors to contain him. The world knew from those inspectors that, when last checked, Iraq had large stores of anthrax and nerve gas. The world also knew that before the first Gulf War, Iraq had an aggressive nuclear-weapons program. Last December, there was general agreement that Iraq’s 12,000-page declaration of its weapons programs was grossly incomplete. And in January of this year, former Clinton administration officials Kenneth Pollack and Martin Indyk wrote in the New York Times that Iraq “must be made to account for the thousands of tons of chemical precursors, the thousands of liters of biological warfare agents, the thousands of missing chemical munitions, the unaccounted-for Scud missiles, and the weaponized VX poison that the United Nations has itself declared missing.”
Such a consensus makes it extremely difficult to argue that the president lied about Iraq and WMD; if the administration’s case was a lie, then everybody, including much of the political opposition, was in on it. Just as importantly, if it turns out that prewar estimates of Iraq’s capabilities were incorrect, the Bush administration can say — truthfully — that it erred on the side of protecting American national security. One could argue that the White House paid insufficient attention to intelligence indicating a threat to American security before September 11. One could also argue that this administration was therefore determined not to underestimate future threats. “What 9/11 did was teach a generation of policymakers to interpret things in an alarmed rather than a relaxed way,” says one former administration official.
Did that make the Iraq campaign a lie? The equivalent of Enron bookkeeping? Only the president’s most fevered enemies would try to make that case.
THE CLINTON STANDARD
In a March 21, 1995, Rose Garden speech on violence against women, President Clinton said, “The FBI estimates that a woman is beaten in this country once every twelve seconds.” The statistic was wrong, and the White House retracted it within hours. There were a few newspaper articles about the numbers, and the story disappeared.
Had Clinton lied? More likely he made a mistake — perhaps an exaggeration to support a political point he wanted to make. But such rhetoric was well within the generally recognized boundaries of political argument, even if the president’s opponents disagreed with it.
If Clinton had limited his transgressions to statements like that, he might be known today as an honest man. Instead, he is remembered for making, at various times, false statements about: Gennifer Flowers, the draft, Travelgate, campaign finance, payoffs to Webster Hubbell, Whitewater, and, most famously, Monica Lewinsky.
Despite that imposing list, Clinton’s defenders argue that he lied about little, personal, unimportant things, while George W. Bush has lied about big, public, important things. “Bush’s lies are the most serious kinds of lies that a public official can be involved in,” says one Democratic strategist. “It’s far more important than committing perjury under oath.”
Yet for all their alleged pettiness, Clinton’s falsehoods led to disastrous consequences. For one thing, they undermined his credibility on critical public matters: Was his August 1998 cruise-missile attack on Sudan and Afghanistan simply a response to terrorism, or was it also a way to divert attention from the Lewinsky scandal? They also mired his administration in a succession of legal and political quagmires, culminating in a federal judge’s decision to hold him in contempt of court for giving “false, misleading, and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process” in the Paula Jones case. In the end, Clinton’s lies led to impeachment and a ruined presidency.
Try as the former president’s defenders might, they simply cannot make a similar case against George W. Bush. Some of their charges, as in the Lincoln incident, are trivial. Others, as with Iraqi weapons, are dead serious, but don’t stand up to even cursory examination. Still others, like the statistics questions, are just political quibbling. (They are part of a grand tradition in which the political parties cite figures to support their economic proposals and denounce the other party’s figures as “lies”; opponents of the president’s tax cuts, in particular The New Republic, have made a habit of that sort of thing.)
Americans seem to understand what’s going on. In spite of all the charges, the president’s approval ratings remain high, and an April Gallup poll found that 73 percent of those surveyed felt that the description “honest and trustworthy” applied to Bush. In the last such poll of Clinton’s presidency, that number was 39 percent.
It is not possible or wise to defend every word George W. Bush says. As the world knows, he can be remarkably inarticulate when speaking off-the-cuff. He sometimes mangles thoughts and misuses statistics in the manner of most politicians. But — outside of the editorial offices of The Nation, The American Prospect, and some quarters of the New York Times and Washington Post — few people believe he is a liar. They’ve seen that in the White House before, and they know better.