George W. Bush's new memoir, Decision Points , is less a memoir than a testimony to true crime, which is where some U.S. activists, following the lead of British activists' treatment of Tony Blair's memoir, are encouraging booksellers to stock it. As Dan Froomkin's excellent review of the facts-versus-the-lies demonstrates, Bush, whose ideological commitment--while no crime in itself--to spending money we didn't have led to the crises still plaguing the U. S. and world economies, also, with malicious intent and considerable forethought, committed two easily documented crimes during the eight long years of his miserable presidency:
"the two most essential lies -- among the many -- in his new memoir are that he had a legitimate reason to invade Iraq, and that he had a legitimate reason to torture detainees. Neither is remotely true. But Bush must figure that if he keeps making the case for himself -- particularly if it goes largely unrebutted by the traditional media, as it has thus far -- then perhaps he can blunt history's verdict."
What Bush has given us is certainly not new in American politics. As a political scientist once patiently explained to me while I was still fuming over Richard Nixon's lies about Watergate, "there is nothing in the Constitution that says a president has to tell the truth." But at least in Nixon's case, there was some overt accountability for his actions and for his deceit of the American people. By contrast, George W. Bush has quietly exited the stage to count his blessings and further enrich his fortune, surrounded by a coterie of loyal supporters, and ennobled by a new library at Southern Methodist University.
That we know that he is lying and that he continues to get away with his war crimes is behavior unbecoming a democracy. In a country governed by laws, no one should be above the law. And yet, Mr. Bush apparently is.
Douglas Kellner, in a fine scholarly account of "Bushspeak" that led up to the war and torture episodes, concludes: "subsequent events in Iraq deconstructed Bush's discourse and showed the dangers and limitations of the politics of lying and of the spectacle, which can be reversed and undermined by subsequent events." Kellner's was a hopeful verdict. So far I see little "reversal" despite "subsequent events." And that leads to me ask, why is this so?
A liar's narrative works on two related principles. First, the lie itself must be plausible. Bush maintains his "decision" to invade Iraq was based on his "belief" that there were WMDs there. Okay. So even though there is--as there was in the run-up to the war--clear evidence to the contrary, it is hard to argue against a man's beliefs . Particularly when that man is president, has knowledgeable advisors, and claims that he was basing his decision on what he believed was sound intelligence. If I--and perhaps you--didn't know that his advisors were in positions destined to benefit financially from the decision; if the so-called "sound intelligence" was, in fact, disputed publicly by intelligence officers and diplomats far closer to the source; and if Bush himself didn't stand to gain politically from the invasion, well, then maybe the lie would stand the test of plausibility. But it doesn't. Not for me.
The second principle of effective lying is to never admit it was a lie. Foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but in matters of lying it is the best way to get away with a crime. Bush will never admit he was wrong. Neither will Dick Cheney. Nor Donald Rumsfeld. Nor Karl Rove. Certainly not Scooter Libby, who did a jail term for foolish consistency and still isn't talking.
Related to these two principles is a third factor. Not a principle, just a factor. Think of it as an environmental surround. To wit: We live in the most politically divided of American times. From this contentious election cycle with calls for armed insurrection against the Obama administration, death threats made against members of Congress, and assassination attempts of Progressive foundations egged on by talk show hosts, the debate and argumentative run-up to the Civil War looks almost like an exercise in civility. Under these social conditions, any attempt to question a former president about war crimes would be automatically perceived by those in his party as further evidence of a left-wing political conspiracy that only adds fuel to their cause.
Nor would questioning the truthfulness of an ex-president solve the deficit crisis. Or create jobs. Or deal with those every day challenges that define most people's lives. So it is that within this surround we just let it go. Bush gets a pass. Oh, we laugh when the claims he makes are turned into funny lines on Comedy Central. And we express a little righteous indignation when we see, in plain black-and-white newsprint that we hold in our hands or read on our screens, clear evidence of his lies. But in the end, we just don't care enough to do anything about it.
The Republicans and the Teapublicans know that. We looked the other way when Bush was named president after losing the election in 2000, courtesy of his brother who held power in the deciding state. We looked the other way when he invaded Iraq. We looked away when he declared victory and when he ran for reelection and when Katrina turned into disaster. We looked away again when he crashed the economy because of two wars we couldn't pay for, deregulation of banking, and protection of the accumulated wealth of the rich.
We looked away. And we are looking away again. But here's the thing: What crimes, what atrocities, will future politicians commit when the take-away lesson from George W. Bush is that as a nation divided, we no longer have the political will nor the moral authority to demand the truth?