Coming as it did from the president's lips, it was a breathtaking statement, even profound; an alluring, round, ripe, perfect little lie: "No," George Bush declared at a July 1 news conference, the day he introduced Clarence Thomas to the nation, Thomas's race was "not a factor" in his nomination to the Supreme Court.

Of course race was "a factor" in Thomas's nomination. The factor, in fact. Thomas's politics may fit the president's ideological leanings; he certainly shares Bush's positions on such touchy issues as affirmative action. But at age 43, with little more than a year on the federal bench, not even Bush can regard Thomas as the most, or even one of the more, distinguished jurists in the country.

The Bush administration hardly veiled its courtship of minorities for the job. In the days before the announcement of Thomas, the other potential nominees leaked to the press were Ninth Circuit Court Judge Ferdinand Fernandez, Fifth Circuit Court Judge Emilio Garza, and Ricardo Hinojosa, a district judge from Texas.

Thomas's nomination, however, presented the president with a dilemma. During the 1988 campaign, Bush had repeatedly criticized affirmative action programs and other minority set-asides -- "quotas," he will only call them -- as discriminatory, and vowed to "be personally involved in protecting the civil rights of all Americans." Just weeks before nominating Thomas, he had denounced the Democrats' 1991 civil rights act as a "quota bill," warning that he would veto any legislation that encouraged employers to consider a person's race in hiring. For him now to come out and admit that, by his own definition, Thomas was a quota candidate would reveal Bush as a hypocrite.

So he lied.
And the delivery! No trace of Nixonian flop sweat on this Republican's brow; no telltale shifting of feet; no halt or stumble of speech (well, no more than usual). The president's eyes were blameless. His face registered shock even at having been asked such a question, so acutely focused were his powers of deception.

Bush's performance was indeed accomplished. Yet it was hardly a singular achievement. Rather it was, one might say, all in a day's work. For time and time again over the years Bush has stood before the microphones, cameras fixed on his face, and lied. Often, when he finds himself in a difficult political position, the first reaction of the president who made the bolstering of ethics his campaign calling card, who vowed that his administration would strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, is to lie.

Bush's lies aren't the sort of petty falsehoods we've come to expect from our elected officials: the enhanced resume, the myth of the self-made man, the humble upbringing -- although he indulges in those, too. He might be forgiven the fiction of his earthy Texas roots, such as they are, planted firmly in Northeastern soil. Neither are Bush's lies in the pratfall manner of Ronald Reagan (another accomplished master of the astonishing misstatement), with his recallable missiles and other fumbled facts. Bush's lies are bald, shocking in their audacity, at times made without so much as a gesture toward concealing them. If Bush makes a speech that later turns out to be a liability, he denies having made it. If a meeting he attended raises questions, he says he wasn't there. When policies of his own invention hamper him, he claims they never existed.

At every crucial moment in his career, Bush has advanced himself by lying when telling the truth might have proved politically risky. The expedient lie has paved Bush's upwardly mobile path, from the 1980 campaign trail, to the vice presidential mansion, to the White House. And at each stop along the way, his deceit has been backed by the full faith and credit of the American people.

George Bush planned to win the White House in 1980 on his political experience. At 54 he had been grooming himself for the presidency all his adult life. Bush spent much of his early career hopping from job to job within the federal government and the Republican Party. As a representative from Texas in the late Sixties, he caught the eye of Richard Nixon, who, by example, would tutor the politically inexperienced Bush in the value of discretionary deceit. In Congress Bush had picked up a reputation as a loyal party man, and after he lost a bid for the Senate in 1970, Nixon named him ambassador to the United Nations. Bush openly coveted a post as assistant secretary of state under Henry Kissinger, writes Sidney Blumenthal in his book Pledging Allegiance. But Nixon had other plans for Bush's next assignment. If Bush would take over as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Nixon promised, there would be a cabinet post waiting for him after the 1974 midterm elections. Bush grudgingly accepted, and wound up steering the party through Nixon's disgrace and downfall. Although he wanted badly for Gerald Ford to appoint him vice president, and thus bring him one step closer to the White House, Ford named him ambassador to China instead. A year later Bush switched jobs again when Ford cast him as director of the CIA. His chain of political appointments ended when Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in 1976.

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