W's Reality Gap
Mark Green, AlterNet
W's Reality Gap
Sat Feb 21 10:14:05 2004

W's Reality Gap

By Mark Green, AlterNet
February 20, 2004

George W. Bush is different, very different. Other presidents have
misled, deceived, even lied. When Ike was asked his worst mistake, he
candidly said, "The lie we told [about the U-2]." LBJ and the Gulf of
Tonkin were examples of both deception and self-deception.

The problem today is not simply that "Bush is a liar." While only he
knows whether he's intentionally saying untrue things, it is a provable
fact that he says untrue things, again and again, on issues large and
small, day in and day out. The problem is not "16 words" in last year's
State of the Union but 160,000 words on stem cells, global warming, the
"death tax," the Iraq-9/11 connection and the Saddam-al Qaeda
connection, the rise of deficits, cuts to Americorps, the air in
downtown Manhattan after 9/11. On and on. It is beyond controversy that
W "has such a high regard for the truth," as Lincoln said of a rival,
"that he uses it sparingly."

Why this penchant for falsehoods?

First, George W. Bush begins any policy consideration with three
fundamental questions: What does the religious right want? What does big
business want? What do the neo-conservatives want? If he has stood up to
any of these core supporters in the past three years, examples don't
come readily to mind. Convinced by political advisor Karl Rove that the
way to a second term is to "activate the base," his policy process is
more catechismic than empiric - instead of facts leading to conclusions,
conclusions lead to "facts."

Second, he is openly uninterested in learning and reading - the Bushes
"aren't serious, studious readers" he has said, also admitting that he
now reads headlines, not articles. The point is not that he's stupid,
only that he knew less about policy and the world as a presidential
candidate than the average graduate student in government. Lacking
Eisenhower's worldliness or JFK's intellect, however, Bush is prone to
grab onto a politically useful intellectual framework like a life
preserver and then not let go - whether it's Myron Magnet's sour
interpretation of the 60s in "The Dream and the Nightmare" or Paul
Wolfowitz's Pollyannaish analysis of the likely consequences of an
American invasion of Iraq.

The result: the most radical, messianic and misleading presidency of
modern times. Frankly, no one else comes close. It has gotten to the
point that President Bush appears to believe that he can do almost
anything if he says the opposite: hence "no child left behind," "clean
skies law," "healthy forests," and "love the poor" are mantras repeated
in the hope that he can bend reality to his will. Arthur Miller calls it
"the power of audacity."

Bush himself in the past has aptly called the first Tuesday in November
"Reality Day" because talk ends when there's a real result. So what
happens on presidential "reality days" when the results are the opposite
of his wishful assertions - when we find neither WMD nor cheering crowds
in Iraq, when a surplus of $5 trillion becomes a deficit of $4 trillion,
when there are so few stem cell lines for scientific research that
scientists leave for London, when the ice caps melt due to global
warming, when a Supreme Court of largely Republican appointees rules
that affirmative action is not "quotas" but desirable - and when the
populations of even our allies regard us as a "bungling bully" (in the
phrase of the Financial Times).

When Presidents Reagan and Bush 41 were shown how their pie-in-the-sky
economics were producing ruinous deficits, they enacted tax hikes to
begin to correct the economy. Not Bush 43. Hearing only applause as he
shuttles between his financial base to military bases - W retreats into
messianic incompetence. "We don't second guess out of the White House,"
he announces, confusing stubbornness for strength; and he tells the G-8
leaders in 2001, "Look, I know what I believe and what I believe is

Whenever President Bush is now confronted with an unacceptable reality,
he either changes the subject - is steroid use really more important
than the environment? - or expresses confidence in his certainty. "I'm
absolutely confident that..." he'll say, as if the issue is his
determination rather than his conclusion. One is reminded of Igor in
Young Frankenstein, who when asked about the foot-high hump on his back
blithely answers, "What hump?"

This is not just a credibility gap but a reality gap. An empirically
challenged and uninformed leader in denial and governing on a (right)
wing and a prayer, however, is a big problem. What if Bush were
president during the missiles of October - would he have been able to
avoid a nuclear war? That he squandered a quarter trillion dollars and
4,000 American casualties attacking Iraq because al Qaeda in Afghanistan
attacked us is not encouraging.

Just when they're needed, the usual mechanisms to bring a president to
his senses are badly malfunctioning. A Congress of the same party now
almost never holds adversarial hearings or holds him accountable, unlike
how the Republican Congress treated Clinton. And with noteworthy
exceptions, most of the media essentially gave him a pass on his
eyebrow-raising military and business histories. The early and
continuing storyline was that he was a charming guy who made up funny
names for reporters and was no pompous prevaricator like his 2000
opponent. It was strange that, until the Niger-uranium fabrication, the
media wrote far more about the spectacular deceptions of Jayson Blair
than the more consequential deceptions of George W. Bush.

Of course, adding to his immunity is the understandable impulse to rally
around a president during a crisis - a crisis the president regularly
stokes as in his recent "State of Baghdad address" to the Congress. Or
as commentator E.J. Dionne put it, W's slogan might as well be "the only
thing we have to fear is the loss of fear itself."

So it comes down to November 2. If the public rewards W with a second
term - and with no re-election contest to impose any possible moderating
influence - then W's far-right impulses will be vindicated and
corroborated. On that "reality day," which will prevail - Bush's
certainty or our reality?

Mark Green, president of the New Democracy Project, is the author, with
Eric Alterman, of The Book On Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America
(Viking 2004).

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