George W. Bush's memoir, Decision Points, is without doubt a self-serving defense of his presidency and Bush's own words condemn him as a liar but there is another nagging question that surrounds this curious book: Has the U.S. media/political system become so polluted with falsehoods that even people at the top now believe the propaganda?
It is not clear which is the more troubling answer: that Bush and his advisers were bald-faced liars confident that their elite status lets then deceive at will, or that they have wallowed so long in a Washington's hot tub of spin that their brains can no longer separate fact from fiction.
In general, I assume that political leaders know the truth and just believe that the rest of us are easily manipulated by clever propaganda or can be readily bullied into line. As long as the leaders stick to their story (no matter how false it is), they can rely on their Establishment credentials to tough it out against the few skeptics who dare call out the lies.
But there were moments in reading Bush's memoir when I began wondering whether at least for him the other explanation was more plausible, that he was clinically delusional in the sense that he could no longer distinguish between what was real and what had been created by others to appeal to his preconceptions, biases and vanity.
Under this scenario, Bush was the amiable front man who was handled by those around him, by the neoconservatives who wanted to prove their mettle to the Israeli Right with a demonstration of American shock-and-awe against hostile Arabs in Iraq, or by the oil men who saw U.S. military domination of the Middle East as the ticket to trillions of dollars in energy reserves.
These groups grew skilled at baiting Bush with misinformation and exaggeration, knowing what would rile him up and push his buttons. The intellectually lazy but egotistical Bush would then come to think that the plans that they planted in his mind were his and that he was true Decider.
However, there are other indications in the book that Bush was part of this lying clique and that the American people were the targets of the falsehoods. In this scenario, Bush grew so confident before an obsequious Washington press corps that he felt he could lie with impunity and that the capital's pundit class would simply nod in acceptance.
An example that supports the Bush-is-a-deceiver scenario emerged several months after the invasion of Iraq, when it became clear that there were no WMD stockpiles. So, Bush began insisting that Iraq's Saddam Hussein "chose war" by refusing to allow UN weapons inspectors back into his country -- even though the public had seen the inspectors rushing around Iraq in their white vans for months in late 2002 and early 2003.
Nevertheless, at a White House press briefing on July 14, 2003, Bush told reporters: "We gave him [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power."
Facing no contradiction from the obsequious White House press corps, Bush repeated this lie in varied forms until the last days of his presidency.
The only possible defense of Bush's clear-cut lie was that he might have forgotten that Saddam Hussein had allowed the inspectors to return in fall 2002, giving them unfettered access to suspected WMD sites, and that it was Bush who forced them to leave in March 2003.
However, in his memoir, Bush jarringly acknowledges that he was aware that the UN inspectors were roaming around Iraq during the lead-up to the war.
"Some believed we could contain Saddam by keeping the inspectors in Iraq," Bush wrote. "But I didn't see how. If we were to tell Saddam he had another chance -- after declaring this was his last chance -- we would shatter our credibility and embolden him."
Bush also recounts the central role that the reintroduction of the UN inspectors had played in April 2002 when he was convincing British Prime Minister Tony Blair to support "coercive diplomacy" against Iraq. Bush wrote:
"Tony suggested that we seek a UN Security Council resolution that presented Saddam with a clear ultimatum: allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq, or face serious consequences. I didn't have a lot of faith in the UN. The Security Council had passed sixteen resolutions against Saddam to no avail. But I agreed to consider his idea."