By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Michael E. Miller
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.
Bush, long the devoted team player, was anxious to move beyond serving others and break out on his own, confident that the transition from the deputy ranks to the executive suite would be one more of degree than of kind. The presidency was simply the next logical step. Bush's family had moved in official and social Washington for decades. Like his father, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, George, the ambitious son of the Eastern Establishment, was accustomed to the trappings of power and of wealth. "A president we won't have to train" was his 1980 campaign slogan.
As he had done in his past campaigns for the House and Senate, Bush positioned himself in the presidential pack as a conservative. Although he and Ronald Reagan, his chief rival, shared general notions about conservative issues such as defense, market economics, and a restricted welfare state, Bush's brand of conservatism, with its decidedly Eastern-seaboard smell, was very different from his rival's. Down to the soles of his wing tips, Bush was a blue-blood conservative. Bush's conservatism embodied the timeworn association of Republican politics with old wealth. This exclusive brand of Republicanism was captured in Bush's persona as the rugged outdoorsman, speeding along in a powerboat on choppy waters, or fishing in a worn cap and T-shirt. There are, after all, two kinds of rugged: those who are -- lumberjacks, farmers -- and those who can afford to be. One is a necessity, a means of life. The other is a diversion, a means of entertainment. Bush's donned ruggedness spoke to the security of his station in the hierarchy.
Reagan's supply-side "populism," on the other hand, sought -- at least rhetorically -- to break down the barriers that made Republican politics the provenance of the wealthy. With its elusive lexicon of self-financing, revenue-neutral tax cuts, and sexy Laffer Curves, Reaganomics beckoned to the uninitiated, leading them from the dreaded Carter malaise with the promise that under Reagan everyone could afford to be a Republican.
Bush ridiculed the supply siders. "A 30 percent tax cut?" went one of his stump speeches, "God, that's great politics. People stand up and cheer. But I don't believe you can do it." Throughout the campaign, Bush assailed Reagan's supply-side theories, ridiculing them as "economic madness." Then one day in April 1980, Bush let loose with what would be the most memorable line of the campaign. Reagan's supply-side theories were "voodoo economics," he declared. They were words that would later haunt him.
If Bush was traditionally conservative on economic issues, he was less so on others. This put him further at odds with Reagan, who dogmatically adhered to conservative standards. Bush supported ERA, for example; Reagan steadfastly opposed it. Reagan wanted abortion outlawed with a constitutional amendment; Bush supported Roe v. Wade. (Bush had long been favorable to abortion rights. As a member of Congress in the Sixties, before the Roe decision, he was an avid booster of Planned Parenthood. In a 1988 article in the LA Weekly, David Corn noted that Democratic Rep. Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on which Bush held a seat, nicknamed Bush "Rubbers," because of his support of family planning. Seizing upon Bush's House record, Lloyd Bentsen had attempted to paint Bush as a liberal in his Texas race for the Senate against Bush in 1970.)
Had he won the nomination and beaten Carter at the polls, Bush would likely have settled into a presidency of noblesse oblige, one in which a tacit acknowledgement of the responsibility of inherited wealth nudged him to take the nation's troubles seriously, a presidency in which budgets were supposed to be balanced and abortion rights were assumed. The posturing and rhetoric of sharp political ideology, so evident in Ronald Reagan's politics, would have played little part in a Bush presidency. He was by upbringing and education the pragmatist to Reagan's evangelist. Where Reagan saw the world strictly in black and white, Bush, with his Yale degree and U.N.-CIA-RNC resume, couldn't deny the shades of gray that cluttered the political landscape, making it difficult for him to see clear to the other side. As Bush would admit repeatedly, he had trouble with that "vision thing."
Tapped by his former opponent to round out the Republican ticket in the summer of 1980, however, he soon was back in the familiar role of obedient underling. Bush was transformed overnight into a faithful and fervent adherent to Reagan's new borrow-and-spend conservatism. In anticipation of his ascendancy to the vice presidency, what previously was "economics madness" to Bush suddenly became "good common sense." Hallelujah. Bush was born again, a supply sider.
Just as quickly, the vice presidential candidate became an opponent of ERA and adopted a new position on abortion: Life began at conception and fetuses were endowed with inalienable rights.
To be sure, Bush wasn't the first politician to throw his politics to the wind at the prospect of becoming vice president. It's in the job description. As Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon seethed in silence. Lyndon Johnson kept his bombastic, confrontational style in check as mild-mannered John F. Kennedy's number two. In 1988 Bush's old rival Lloyd Bentsen would subordinate his pro-contra politics to Michael Dukakis's criticisms of the Reagan administration's intervention in Nicaragua.
Yet Bush, unlike other vice-presidential hopefuls before him, didn't simply muzzle his own views and publicly support the platform. Having cast his lot with Reagan, he would now deny that he had ever been anything but a Reaganite.
Bush traveled the country hawking his newfound pro-life stance. "I oppose abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake," Bush would write in his 1987 campaign biography, Looking Forward. It was at least conceivably true. Perhaps Bush had undergone a sudden change of heart. After all, scores of politicians have. But in the next sentence, Bush attempted to wipe away his years as a pro-choicer, writing that in 1980 "Reagan and I both disapproved of the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade; we agreed that some form of constitutional amendment was needed to overturn the decision."(Emphasis added.)
He next set out to vanquish the specter of "voodoo economics," which, a year after the Reagan-Bush inauguration, still tagged behind Bush in the corridors of the White House and kept him on the outs with Reagan's suspicious inner circle. Reagan's tax cuts had given birth to mounting deficits, discomfiting reminders of Bush's campaign slur. Even Reagan's once feverishly devout budget director, David Stockman, admitted to William Greider in an infamous December 1981 Atlantic article that "none of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers." If privately Bush felt vindicated by the fiscal havoc the administration was wreaking, he didn't let on.
Determined to put the ghost of those damnable little words to rest, Bush called upon his contacts at the networks -- including a nephew at NBC News -- to see if the tape of him saying "voodoo economics" existed, according to the Nation's Christopher Hitchens. They told him it did not.
Thrilled by this discovery, on February 9, 1982, Bush set out to put an end to the matter. "What I said back then -- well, it's hard to find," he told a crowd in Houston. "Number one, I didn't say it. Every network has searched for it and none can find it. So I never said it."
It was a page right out of Franklin Roosevelt's book. Like Bush, Roosevelt had also made a memorable speech about the economy that he came to regret. In 1932, at the height of the presidential campaign, he railed against excess government spending and large federal debts before a crowd in Pittsburgh. Four years later, beset by an enormous bureaucracy and a looming debt of his own, Roosevelt was again scheduled to speak in Pittsburgh. In The Age of Roosevelt, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recounts the story. Roosevelt ordered his speech writer to come up with a speech that would give "a good and convincing explanation" of what he'd meant in 1932. "Mr. President," the aide returned, "the only thing you can say about the 1932 speech is to deny categorically that you made it."
Bush had no luck with his own denial. The vice president's speech made the nightly news across the country. As it turned out, NBC did indeed have a copy of Bush invoking "voodoo," and paired it on the screen with his denial.
Far from humiliated, however, Bush came away from the debacle unscathed. Yes, he had been caught in midlie before the entire country. Yet no one cared. Bush had learned from long experience that the national memory was short, and poor. Nixon, his first mentor, had been a worthy teacher of the power -- and ultimately the limitations -- of the political lie.
Nixon's fall, however, had lowered the electorate's threshold of tolerance for outright lies, and candidate Jimmy Carter was quick to capitalize on the new disenchantment. A pinion of his 1976 presidential campaign was the bodacious promise, "I will never lie to you; I will never mislead you." And the people believed. But double-digit inflation, gas lines, and stagflation only prepared the country for a new kind of liar in Ronald Reagan, who vowed balanced budgets, full employment, and tax cuts. Bush knew that by echoing Reagan, what he said, too, would be believed, that his lies could pass as truth. All that was required to erase and replace his past was that he repeat the new version often enough, and with confidence.
His political past sent down the memory hole, Bush emerged six years later as Reagan's heir apparent. As he accepted the Republican nomination, the nominee gently tugged at our legs with words that foreshadowed lies to come: "Now I may not be the most eloquent...but there's nothing self-conscious about my love of country," Bush intoned. "I believe public service is honorable. And every time I hear that someone has breached the public trust it breaks my heart."
Even as he wooed the nation with those cloying lines, he sought to slip free of their meaning. As he demonstrated by his bobbing and weaving on the role he played in the Iran-contra scandal, the moralist-candidate wasn't about to die of heartbreak.
From the day the scandal broke on November 25, 1986, Bush, like Reagan, denied having any knowledge of the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the contras. Yet the vice president went further than that. Bush alleged he was so far out of the decision-making loop that he wasn't even directly aware that arms were being sold to Iran at all. "I sensed that we were sending arms," he said in January 1988. "And I sensed that we were trying to get hostages out. But not arms for hostages."
In Looking Forward, that veritable trove of fabrications, Bush wrote that he hadn't become aware of the details until two months after the scandal was uncovered:
"My first real chance to see the picture as a whole didn't come until December 1986, when Dave Durenberger, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, briefed me on his committee's preliminary investigation of the affair.
"What Dave had to say left me with the feeling, expressed to my chief of staff, Craig Fuller, that I'd been deliberately excluded from key meetings involving details of the Iran operation."
At first blush, Bush's claim of ignorance didn't seem entirely preposterous. As vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman had been kept in the dark about the building of the atomic bomb. He didn't find out about the Manhattan Project until after he took over as president.
But, as historian Theodore Draper details in his exhaustive book on the scandal, A Very Thin Line, "At the time [Bush's autobiography] was written, the congressional hearings had not yet taken place and much of the documentary material had not been released. As a result of the voluminous material now available, we know that Bush could not have failed to know a great deal about the problems and pitfalls, because he was usually present...at the...morning briefings of Ronald Reagan." Despite his denials, White House records show that Bush was indeed present at a high-level meeting in January 1986, where the deal was discussed, and at another meeting in July 1986 in Jerusalem.
Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who also attended the meetings, concurs. In Fighting for Peace, Weinberger writes that "[Bush] was present at some of the meetings I attended." And in a secret White House memo released on December 17, 1987, Reagan's National Security Adviser John Poindexter, who was also at the meetings, informed his predecessor, James McFarlane, that Bush was in fact very favorable toward an arms for hostages deal: "VP...solid in taking the position that we have to try," the memo read.
At the same time that Bush was scrambling to cover his role in the Iran-contra affair, he was working vigorously to deny his part in yet another foreign-policy debacle, this one involving Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. As part of Reagan's war on drugs, the U.S. indicted Noriega on drug trafficking and money laundering charges in February 1988. The indictment came as no surprise. Noriega had been suspected of laundering drug money as early as 1972, when he was working as an informant on Latin American affairs for the CIA, reports Elaine Shannon in Desperados, her 1988 book on the drug trade.
This raised the question of what Bush, who was director of the CIA during the early Seventies and who had met with Noriega, had known about Noriega's drug activities. Bush denied knowing anything at all, adopting the formula that served him through Iran-contra. He claimed that the first time he'd heard about Noriega's drug dealings was after Noriega was brought up on charges in 1988. Even more than Bush's denials about Iran-contra, though, this claim of ignorance stretched credulity to the breaking point. For even if, while CIA director, Bush hadn't known about Noriega's activities, he must have learned about them ten years later as vice president. In 1983 Bush had met with Noriega for a second time, and Bush would later head up Reagan's South Florida Drug Force, which was investigating the Panamanian drug connection.
Bush remained firm: "Nobody with any sense of decency in the political arena has alleged I have [had any previous knowledge]," he said on May 8, 1988.
"If they say it's true, let's see your evidence."
The New York Times had given him the evidence. On May 7, 1988, the newspaper reported that Ambassador to Panama Everett Briggs met with Bush in December 1985 and discussed Noriega's drug trafficking. In the weeks preceding the meeting, Briggs said he had sent several cables to Bush on the same issue. Bush said there were no such cables "that I can remember," and claimed that Briggs and he hadn't discussed Noriega's drug activities during their meeting. (Months later Briggs would recant, saying he couldn't remember ever having discussed it with Bush.)
In sworn testimony later that month, however, Bush's National Security Adviser Donald Gregg, who was also at the meeting, said that he had left the meeting "with the sense that Noriega was a growing problem, politically, militarily, and possibly in the drug area." And on July 14, 1988, Bush's former chief of staff, retired Admiral Dan Murphy, told a Senate subcommittee that Bush had in fact been informed in "face to face" briefings with the CIA that Noriega was laundering drug money.
As he had in 1980, Bush vigorously lied to whitewash his history. And once again, he was rewarded by the voters. Bush swept into the Oval Office on a crest of promises and assurances.
Hollow promises, that is, and false assurances. Now, 30 months after he stood on the Capitol steps and vowed to "faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States" (and, in a way, he's doing just that), what of those stern and lofty campaign pledges?
"I am not going to raise taxes, period," Bush the candidate declared repeatedly during the campaign. This wasn't a "goal," like his plan to make SDI operational by 1994; or a "target," like his program to make American students the best in the world. There is a difference. Those kinds of promises essentially tell us what a candidate would like to do, if only he could. Bush's pledge against tax increases, on the other hand, was what Bush promised he would do (or in this case, not do): Bush said he absolutely would not -- Read My Lips, solemn as Olympus -- would not, not, not! raise taxes, goddamnit. "I've taken a pledge to the American people, and I'm going to keep it: no new taxes!" It was the defining feature of his campaign, the very focus of his bid for office.
And it was a lie from the start. We all knew it. We all knew better than to believe it. But because he said it often enough, and confidently enough, enough of us still bought it. Bush's inevitable reversal on taxes in June 1990 gave away more than his political cynicism, though. It showed him up as a false convert to the supply side, a betrayer of the faith that gave him succor. A real Reaganite would have promised no new taxes and have bankrupted the country with deficits rather than raise them.
Bush also lied about another often repeated vow from the campaign trail, his promise of "no net loss to wetlands." During the campaign, it was the centerpiece of his "environmental president" spiel. Solemnly, Bush pledged to work personally with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the wetlands from developers, the oil industry, and farmers.
Bush imposed a deadline of December 15, 1990, for the development of a wetlands protection plan. But when the oil lobby and other groups that had contributed large sums to his campaign protested the proposal, Bush caved in, granting them a one-month extension for further negotiations. On January 13, 1991, a few days shy of the deadline, the oil lobbyists protested again. And again Bush gave in to the pressure. A month later an agreement was finally worked out. But this time Bush backed down, saying that the plan was too strict; he wanted a weaker version instead. For five months the wetlands agreement languished, until mid-August, when, surprise, the Bush administration backed down again and Bush announced a new plan. Bush's new definition of a "wetland" is so narrow, however, that one-third of the 100 million acres of wetlands now protected under law -- lands that during the campaign Bush demanded be safeguarded -- will be eligible for development. The president who wondered aloud why American students are second to last in world math scores then hailed his plan, which will result in a 33.3 percent net wetland loss, as a "significant step" for the protection of undeveloped land.
Next, candidate Bush slogged through the murky swamp of government ethics, decrying lax standards and pledging to "simplify and improve the current government ethics code to make it clear and understandable. The standards of conduct will be based on common sense. None will be hypertechnical." Bush also demanded that these tough new ethics laws would "provide for civil as well as enhanced criminal sanctions."
In April White House Chief of Staff John Sununu gave Bush the perfect opportunity to test the new ethics rules. The dozens of personal trips Sununu took aboard air force jets were clearly and understandably (and obviously and flagrantly) in breach. Sununu, arrogant as ever, was unrepentant. Which sanctions would he get, plain old civil or those nasty enhanced criminal ones? Neither. Bush retaliated with a punishment not included in the original code: high praise. Slapping his chief of staff on the back, Bush declared that Sununu "has my full confidence." When Sununu added insult to injury two months later by taking a White House limousine to a New York stamp auction, Bush doubled the punishment, saying that he thought Sununu was "doing a first-class job."
As president, it seems, Bush has abandoned his old vice-presidential habit of lying to us occasionally, favoring instead a new practice of lying to us constantly. It is barely an exaggeration to say that virtually every major undertaking of the Bush presidency has been advanced behind a dust-cloud of falsehoods and doublespeak.
The early reversals and denials of his vice presidency, it turned out, were excellent preparation for the kind of richly layered deception Bush crafted in the days and weeks following the Chinese government's massacre of democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in June 1989. In his dealings with China, the president revealed himself to be every bit as treacherous as Deng Xiao Ping. In the days following the crackdown, Bush publicly condemned the murders. He announced that all diplomatic "exchanges" between the two countries would be cut off until the Chinese eased restrictions on democratic reforms.
And yet over the July 4 weekend a month later, in violation of his own policy, Bush secretly dispatched National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Beijing with a cake and champagne to assure Deng that the ambassador-turned-president was still his pal.
CNN broke the story about the secret meeting in late December of that year. In a written statement through his press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, Bush defended the exchange, claiming that the purpose of the meeting had been "to personally underscore the United States' shock and concern about the violence," and to "impress upon the Chinese government the seriousness with which this incident was viewed in the United States."
Like his supposed ban on exchanges, this also was a lie.
Perhaps unwittingly, Bush revealed at a press conference two days later that the meeting had indeed been intended to soothe Deng. Scowcroft and Eagleburger, the president admitted, were instructed to "see what we can do, make a representation of how strongly we feel about the human-rights abuse, but see what it's going to take to move forward."
Such a meeting, however, would have been explicitly prohibited by the president's ban on diplomatic contacts with China, and Bush knew it. So in order to extricate himself from the problem, the president simply denied ever having made such a policy. He claimed that the press (along with the rest of the country, apparently) had misunderstood him the first time. All diplomatic exchanges weren't to be prohibited, he corrected. "I said high-level exchanges." But even if that were true -- and it wasn't -- even if the president had meant that only high-level exchanges were prohibited, what was a meeting between the president's national security adviser, his senior State Department diplomat, and the leaders of a foreign nation, if not "high level"?
Bush displayed equal bravado a year later in the interminable march to war with Saddam Hussein. The president lied repeatedly at every stage of the escalating conflict.
In the days following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last August, Bush announced his support for economic sanctions against Saddam (who, just months before, the administration had dubbed "a man we can work with"). "The United Nations sanctions are in effect and have been working remarkably well, even on a voluntary basis," the president said. "The basic elements of our strategy are now in place. And where do we want to go? Well, our intention, and indeed the intention of almost every country in the world, is to persuade Iraq to withdraw....And, of course, we seek to achieve these goals without further violence."
A month later, on September 11, Bush repeated his belief in sanctions: "Let no one doubt our staying power....Three regional leaders I spoke with just yesterday told me that these sanctions are working. Iraq is feeling the heat."
And again on October 19: "I think the bottom line is he can't prevail. So we're going to stay with this, stay the course and send a strong moral message out there and a simple one: One big country can't bully its neighbor and take it over."
In October, with the congressional midterm elections approaching, the Bush administration announced that because sanctions would be slow to work, the armed forces would begin to rotate the troops, who were beginning to grow weary in the Saudi Arabian desert.
No date was given for the start of the rotation. Were Saddam Hussein an astute observer of American politics, he would have recognized Bush's pledge to begin rotating the troops as the final steps to war. In December, with the midterm elections out of the way, Bush abandoned his pre-election pledge to begin rotating the 230,000 defensive troops of "Operation Desert Shield." Instead, he ordered 200,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia for the upcoming Operation Desert Storm. Bush suddenly decided that sanctions and moral messages weren't enough. He wanted to fight. Bush's new line was that war was the only answer.
Whether Bush ever intended not to go to war is still an open question, although it seems unlikely. This, however, is certain: repeatedly and publicly during the three-month span between August and December, Bush made the case for sanctions. And yet now, poised on the brink of war, with 10,000 feet of videotape and ten million pages of newsprint to prove otherwise, Bush simply denied ever having favored sanctions: "I've not been one who has been convinced that sanctions alone would bring him to his senses," he claimed on December 4. This means that either Bush was once in favor of sanctions, and now says he wasn't, or that he wasn't ever in favor of sanctions and said he was. One way or another, Bush lied.
Such great pleasure does Bush seem to derive from the telling of lies, both large and small, that when he's not lying to save his neck or advance his career, sometimes he lies just for fun.
At a press conference on February 12, 1990, for example, Bush was asked if he thought the time was right for a meeting between the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France, to discuss the upcoming unification of Germany.
"No, not at this juncture," came the president's reply. "At some point, clearly, the four powers will have to have some say," Bush said, but for now it was up to the Germans.
The next day a conference between the four countries was indeed announced. As it turned out, the meeting had been Bush's idea in the first place. At the same time that Bush had been denying it to the press the day before, Secretary of State James Baker had been arranging the final details. When asked why he had lied the day before, the president could have invoked "national security" or "presidential privilege." Instead he instinctively lied again. "This surprised me," Bush claimed, pretending shock.
No better example of this kind of purely confectionery Bush lie-for-sport exists than the president's fabricated near run-in, as he would have it, with an actual drug dealer.
"This is crack cocaine seized a few days ago by Drug Enforcement Administration agents across the street from the White House," Bush declared in a television address to the nation on September 5, 1989. Ominously, the president held up a clear plastic bag with crack in it. By God, Bush was saying, if you can buy drugs practically on the front lawn of the president's very own house, what borough or burg in the nation can possibly be safe from the infestation?
Days later the Washington Post's Michael Isikoff revealed that the DEA had actually lured an unsuspecting, low-rent dealer to Lafayette Park, just so the president could make his ludicrous claim. Bush could have made his point a thousand different ways. He could have held up crack seized in every major city in the country. He could have held up crack from anywhere in D.C. and said, "Look, even the nation's capital is filled with this evil crack thing." He could have just held up crack, period. The only people he stood to scare anyway were people who'd never seen it before. It would have been easier. It would have been just as effective. And, hang on for this one, it would have been the truth.
But really, what stock does George Bush have in the truth? Never in his political career has anyone given him a reason not to lie. Bush, like any politician, conducts his life by a rather rudimentary code: What profits him most, he does most. What profits him least, he does least. And Bush has profited most from lying. Consider it from his point of view: In 1980 he lied about his stand on abortion; he lied about his opposition to Reaganomics; and he won the vice presidency. In 1988 he lied about his knowledge about arms sales to Iran; he lied about his involvement with Noriega; he made a reckless pledge not to raise taxes; and he was handed the presidency.
Naturally, then, where he must lie to save face or to conceal a blunder, he does so willingly. Where the truth will do nicely, he will sometimes lie anyway.
Thus, the Supreme Court rules that burning the American flag is protected speech under the First Amendment, and Bush rallies behind the decision, saying that as president, it is his duty to uphold the law. One week later he is lobbying angrily against the ruling, demanding a Constitutional amendment to supersede it.
Bush informs the nation one day that we must grant most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status to China, so that we can begin to see signs of democratic reform. That same week he rebukes Cuba, warning Fidel Castro that Cuba will never be granted MFN until he begins to see signs of democratic reform.
Since moving into the Oval Office, lies like these, lies that have maintained soaring deficits, expedited wars, and supported dictators have made Bush the most popular president in history. So why shouldn't he lie, when we have made lying so good for him? Upon taking office, Bush made a tacit agreement with the country. He agreed to lie to us, and we agreed to be lied to. So far both of us have held up our ends of the deal.
Ultimately, any indictment of the president's lies is an indictment of ourselves. In the case of Bush vs. the United States, perhaps it is we who should be jailed.