As we go to press, the Republican Party is gathered just a few miles from our offices to nominate George W. Bush for a second term as president of the United States. Most knowledgeable observers expect the November election to be very close. The nation is divided by region and “culture,” or so the pundits and the polls tell us. On each side of the political divide, partisan support is deep and unflinching. Undecided voters are few, and concentrated in a handful of “swing” states, mostly in the Midwest. Both parties have spent millions to register new voters. Both sides have had little trouble raising unprecedented amounts of money-or spending it.
This portrait of the electorate and the political process is by now all too familiar, even clichéd. Yet it carries an element of dissonance, especially in light of the reputation Americans have for being political pragmatists, not ideologues. Yes, George W. Bush seems to possess personal qualities-piety, sincerity, unpretentiousness, a certain warmth, and sense of humor-that broadly reflect how Americans like to think of themselves. Even when the president’s assertions are contradicted by the evidence, most voters do not seem eager to question Bush’s avowedly lofty motives and explicitly religious demeanor. Yet if Bush remains a friendly and reassuring presence for many, this can hardly disguise his failures in judgment, or his determination to obscure the truth whenever it works to his advantage.
His most conspicuous failure, of course, was in leading this nation into an unnecessary and unjust war in Iraq, based on spurious if not contrived intelligence. The fundamental reasons given for going to war have all proved false. The president was wrong, and in being wrong he has squandered the most potent weapon in the war against terrorism-U.S. credibility. Instead of reassessing his decision, Bush now blithely justifies the war on idealistic and humanitarian grounds. We are making the Middle East safe for democracy, he tells us. Yet reality belies that claim. The poorly planned U.S. occupation of Iraq has gone from illusion and miscalculation to one disaster after another. There is no evidence that the removal of Saddam Hussein-doubtless a good thing in itself-has made this nation safer from terrorist attack. In fact, many of the government’s most experienced antiterrorist experts argue that the invasion of Iraq has advanced rather than forestalled the agenda of Islamic fundamentalists. Nor is there evidence that what the president’s apologists like to call “decisive” action in Iraq has moved the Middle East closer to democracy-let alone stability. It is hard to imagine another leader with President Bush’s record, either in the public or the private sector, who would have a decent chance of holding onto his job. Bush casts himself as the righteous and grimly determined warrior. Yet an examination of the president’s record leading up to and immediately following 9/11 leaves the objective observer with profoundly disturbing questions concerning his attention to warnings about the terrorist threat and his composure and judgment in a crisis.
Much of Bush’s continuing popularity can be attributed to the purposeful, aggressive way in which this administration distorts, manipulates, or ignores the truth. Think of what the president and his administration said about who would benefit from tax cuts, what new prescription-drug benefits would cost; also environmental regulation, the detention of “enemy combatants,” accountability in the Abu Ghraib scandal, and the shameless effort to discredit Senator John Kerry’s Vietnam war record. In every instance, Bush and his surrogates have sought to erase the correspondence between plain language and observed reality. We are repeatedly told, for example, that if we do not fight the “terrorists” in the streets of Najaf and across the Middle East, we would have to fight them in Des Moines. In other words, only endless war will bring about peace.
“Whoever wields power is also able to control language and not only with the prohibitions of censorship but also by changing the meaning of words,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who died last month at ninety-three. Milosz spoke out tirelessly against the assault modern politics makes on our ability to know and to grasp what is real and true. “If among pairs of opposites which we use every day the opposition of life and death has such an importance, no less importance should be ascribed to the oppositions of truth and falsehood, of reality and illusion,” Milosz wrote.
All politicians stretch the truth, tailoring their language out of self interest and to please those whose support they seek. In matters of war and peace, life and death, truth and falsehood, however, a president must place the nation’s interests above his own. He should be able to admit mistakes rather than hiding behind rhetorical evasion and the supposed purity of his intentions. Too often, Bush has proceeded as though his intentions should define reality, and therefore the ends justify the means. This president has shown little patience for being held accountable-as all leaders must be in a democracy-for the unintended consequences of his actions. Nothing should frighten Americans more than George W. Bush’s manifest inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, reality and illusion.
August 31, 2004