Can Bush Be Both Ignorant and a Liar?

Yes. There’s no reason for Bush-bashers to choose between the two.

Is President Bush a liar? The New York Times’ David Rosenbaum examined this question with a surfeit of post-Howell-Raines fair-mindedness in the June 22 “Week in Review” section. His bottom line: “[A] review of the president’s public statements found little that could lead to a conclusion that the president actually lied” in two particular instances. The first was when Bush claimed he knew Saddam Hussein to possess large quantities of chemical and biological weapons. The second was when Bush claimed that his tax cut would provide tax relief for everyone who pays income taxes. In both instances, Chatterbox is baffled by Rosenbaum’s doubt.

Let’s address Bush’s tax claim first. Its falsity is not in dispute. Chatterbox has written elsewhere that Bush lied when he said, “My jobs and growth plan would reduce tax rates for everyone who pays income tax.” (The Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center found 8.1 million people who pay taxesbut will receive no tax cuts.) Rosenbaum recognized that Bush’s statement was untrue but expressed doubt that Bush knew it to be untrue. Can a false statement be a lie if the speaker is unaware it is a lie?

That leads us immediately to a second question, one that Rosenbaum dared not address: Why is the speaker unaware that his statement is a lie? In Bush’s case, the answer is painfully obvious. It’s because Bush is a functionally not-bright man. As Chatterbox has explained elsewhere, it’s impossible to tell—and, ultimately, of little interest—whether Bush lacks the necessary mental equipment, or whether he’s simply incurious. The end result is the same. Even Bush’s allies concede that Bush is strikingly ignorant. In the July Vanity Fair, Sam Tanenhaus quoted Richard Perle as saying that when he first met Bush, it was “clear” that “he didn’t know very much.” Perle went on to argue (with what he failed to recognize as condescension) that Bush is an eager pupil. But there isn’t much evidence to support even that.

It’s often said that Bush has the virtue of self-awareness, that he knows what he doesn’t know. That’s probably true. But if it is true, then Bush really oughtn’t to go around making sweeping statements that he hasn’t made any effort to verify. When these statements turn out to be untrue, Bush’s feigned certainty alone justifies calling these statements lies. They may not be the sort of lies a clever person (say, Bill Clinton) would tell. Indeed, many left-of-center commentators (Paul Krugman and Eric Alterman come to mind) refuse to admit that Bush is dumb, presumably because they fear that would make it impossible to hold him accountable for terrible things that he and his administration do. (Many felt the same way about Reagan.) But there’s no reason Bush can’t be thought of as both stupid and a liar. As Slate’s Michael Kinsley has noted, Bush’s lies are typically lies of laziness: “If telling the truth was less bother, [he’d] try that too.”

Saying that Bush lacks much on the ball does not mean that he never lies the way clever people do. Surely, for instance, Bush is aware on some level that it has yet to be proved that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons stashed away prior to the war. In addressing this question, Rosenbaum let Bush off the hook by focusing on what he said before the war began, e.g., “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” Like Rosenbaum, Chatterbox is eager to cut Bush some slack on this, if only because Chatterbox, too, was convinced prior to the war that the presence of biological and chemical weapons had been proved. (Click here and here to read two columns Chatterbox now wishes he’d never written.) But Rosenbaum never considered what Bush said on Polish television after the war ended:

We’ve found the weapons of mass destruction. You know, we found biological laboratories. You remember when Colin Powell stood up in front of the world and he saidIraq has got laboratories, mobile labs to build biological weapons. They’re illegal. They’re against the United Nations’ resolutions and we’ve so far discovered two. And we’ll find more weapons as time goes on.

In fact, it has yet to be proved that the two mobile labs were used (or even designed to be used) to build biological weapons. It isn’t possible that Bush fails to grasp that. So, why did he say something so obviously untrue? Chatterbox posed the question to The Nation’s David Corn, who has written extensively on the question of Bush’s veracity. In Corn’s view, the key to Bush’s lies isn’t necessarily that he doesn’t know any better, but that he doesn’t care. “He mischaracterizes situations to fit his pattern of thinking,” Corn explained. “Does he believe he’s lying? I don’t know.” But “he still should be held accountable, whether he made a mistake of this nature in good faith or in bad faith.” Amen.