If this isn’t the most-linked article at Blogdex by this time tomorrow, I suspect I’ll have to eat my hat: It’s an alternate history of the Iraq conflict, culled from various proclamations of Bush administration members (I wish it had been annotated). From a purely rhetorical point of view it’s monstrously unfair, but frankly it feels right on target regarding the Bushies’ modus operandi, not simply about the war, but regarding everything.
The Bush administration is really the first presidential administration to wholeheartedly embrace the talk radio concept that truth should not get in the way of the larger picture of absolute victory, however that victory may be defined. Other presidential administrations have lied, of course. They all lie. And some lie really, really big — look at Nixon. But at the very least Nixon and his cronies lied because the alternative was jail time. Members of the Bush administration appear to lie because it doesn’t occur to them that they might simply tell the truth. Or to put it another way, they don’t appear to affirmatively decide to lie; rather they appear to have to affirmatively decide not to lie.
The difference between those two states is both rhetorically and cognitively massive — so massive that one reflexively shies away from considering that one’s leaders actually process information in this way. We assume rhetorical good will in our leaders, even the ones we don’t like. We accept that they are going to spin the truth — that is, find a version of facts which best support their claims and goals — but fundamentally we assume they are starting from a ground state of honesty.
If eventually we decide they are not coming from that ground state, our first assumption is that we are in error — there is information we are lacking or that we are not processing information correctly or at the very least someone has been provided bad information, and they’ll eventually rectify the mistake. We cut our leaders a tremendous amount of slack, because we want to believe them, we want to believe we are being told the truth and we want to believe those we entrust to lead us have enough respect for us as a body politic to default to truth (and don’t think they don’t know it).
But none of this works with the Bushies. They lie so consistently and so often about so many things that eventually you just have to accept the fact that telling the truth is not in their gameplan. Who knows why. Perhaps it is because this is the first president provided his position by the Supreme Court rather than definitively elected by the traditional process. Perhaps knowing that the majority of Americans intended the other guy to be in the White House has freed this administration of a sense of responsibility to all Americans, and allows it to pursue the interests of a distinct minority among us: The wealthy and the evangelically Christian. Perhaps the goal here is simply to grab as much as humanly possible and to hobble the system as completely as possible so that the next administration, one which actually feels obligated to the people and their long-term welfare, has to spend all its time on damage control rather than pursuing the goals which Americans have elected it to perform.
Such is the Bush administration’s alienation from the truth that my first inclination on hearing anything from it regarding policy is that it’s a lie unless specifically proven otherwise. This doesn’t mean I believe that everything that Bush and his administration does is wrong — I’ve consistently said that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, for example. I still believe it, and there are a few other points of policy in which my point of view lines up with the Bush administration (not many, but a few). But even on those goals with which I agree, I assume that the public reasons this administration gives for pursuing them, or the facts it provides to outline its case, are suspect or simply false. At this point, it doesn’t occur to me to assume the Bush people are telling the truth.
This is the fundamental problem with this Bush administration. I dislike a number of its policies, some more intensely than others — but I disliked a number of the policies of the senior Bush administration and still felt, on balance, that the administration members were tolerably honest. You can live with an administration whose goals you oppose if you believe you’re working from the same baseline reality, because then at the very least you can believe it means well — that at the end of the day it honestly believes it’s making a better America for all of us.
This administration is not working from the same baseline reality as I am, or which I suspect most of us are. As a consequence, not only don’t I think this administration believes what its doing is best for most Americans, I sincerely doubt it cares about most Americans at all. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing, a Liberal or Conservative thing. It is a truth or lie thing. This administration doesn’t care to default to the truth. Therefore I cannot believe it is telling the truth. Therefore I cannot trust its motives or its goals.
And I hate that. I don’t mind that I disagree with my government. But I hate that I don’t trust it. I hate the fact that whenever I see my president (because he is my president) I immediately brace myself for a lie. I hate that whenever I see a member of my president’s administration open his or her mouth, I assume what comes out is prevarication. I hate that when I see this administration promote any program or action I happen to agree with, my first inclination is to wince and wonder how its going to be twisted to benefit of a select few and a select few goals, at the expense of the rest of us. I hate that for the first time in my adult life, I believe that my government looks at me — and too many of my fellow citizens — with something akin to contempt, and the intimation that our job is not to be partners in the stewardship of our country but to be ruled.
This is why Bush and his administration has got to go. Replace them with an administration with exactly the same policies if you must — but give that administration a basic sense of accountability to the people of this country and a desire to start from, to begin with, the truth. Before anything else, that’s what I want from my leaders. Without it, the rest of it simply doesn’t matter.