When Presidents Fib

Little lies matter, too.

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John Snow leaving the Treasury Department was an open secret for many months. Thereseemed no end to the list of names floated as possible replacements. First it was going to be Chief of Staff Andy Card, then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, then Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, and then former Commerce Secretary Don Evans. The manager at my Starbucks may have gotten feelers. When the president was asked at his press conference last week whether he had any indication Snow intended to leave, I thought he might say, “Is he still in my Cabinet?”

We now know that would have been a reasonable answer. Four days earlier, Hank Paulson had agreed to replace Snow. Bush also could have simply said yes, because as Snow later put it, Bush knew for some time that he was thinking of doing so. Instead, the president answered in a way that was not—to use a White House term—reality-based. “Has he given you any indication he intends to leave his job any time soon?” Bush was asked. The president responded: “No, he has not talked to me about resignation. I think he’s doing a fine job.”

The New York Times called this answer “artful.” That’s not the word I’d use. Artful should be reserved for things that hide the truth but don’t deceive. A hat is artful. A toupee is a lie. Bush’s answer was toupee-like. Even if it was technically true that Bush had not talked to Snow about “resignation,” the president knew his confected statement was deceptive. I’m reluctant to call it a lie, but the president abused our trust.

We allow presidents a measure of obfuscation because in public they must give nuanced answers in some sensitive areas like national security. On personnel matters like this one, the public’s right to know is not done grave harm when a president is less than candid. Bush is also protected by a less-honorable Washington tradition: the departure fiction where even if someone has been fired, he is described as having gone at his own behest, often to spend more time with his family.

Such wiggle-room prerogatives allow the president to duck many questions, as he has in the past. When the press has tried to ask about his flexibility on a particular piece of legislation, he has refused to speculate about what compromise he might accept, saying, “I won’t negotiate with myself.” When reporters try to get him to make news, he regularly refuses to “play that Washington” game. Richard Keil of Bloomberg was certainly trying to get Bush to play a round of that game by asking him to talk about Snow’s intentions. But when asked in March about staff changes and calls from outside his administration for a shakeup, the president was careful to give nothing away without fibbing. “I’m not going to announce it right now,” he said. “Look, they’ve got some ideas that I like and some I don’t like. Put it that way.”

These are unhelpful answers but they’re not deceitful. There are times when administration officials have told me the back story behind a non-answer and it all makes sense. In this case, though, the president jumped over the menu of bland dodges available to him and picked the least truthful statement short of “Secretary Snow is staying.” When asked about this answer yesterday, press spokesman Tony Snow explained that the president didn’t misspeak. He was worried about spooking financial markets and wanted Paulson’s background checks to go through before he announced the change. The president was also likely being sensitive about John Snow, who has been a dead man walking for so many months. Bush wanted to give him a proper send-off. But those motivations don’t explain why the president avoided the gentle euphemism and instead reached out to mislead. Snow ultimately fell back on the Clinton defense. “It was very carefully worded,” he said of the president’s answer. That’s not encouraging. When a person hears a question, dissects it, and fashions an answer on the spot that deceives, it suggests a lot of practice and comfort with fibbing. This is a problem area for Bush: Fifty-six percent of the country does not find him trustworthy, according to recent polls.

In Washington, we often say politicians are “misleading.” That’s the kind of thinking President Bush usually resists. He often talks about his Midland, Texas, heritage when he wants to convey his moral compass. There, a man’s word is sealed with his handshake. In Midland, they would have called what Bush said about John Snow a lie.