2/26/2005

W and the "post-truth" presidency

In The American Prospect, Paul Waldman reviews Eric Alterman's new book, When Presidents Lie, which focuses on four "case studies" of big lies propagated by FDR, LBJ, JFK, and Reagan. W's "post-truth" presidency is a coda to the book, but Waldman argues:
Two things distinguish Bush from his predecessors on the subject of lying. First, Bush’s grandest lies have not been about covering up what has already happened but about persuading the public to go along with what he has decided to do but has yet to implement. Tax cuts, Iraq, now Social Security -- each major policy move has been accompanied by a campaign of deception. Lying is not a defensive reaction to a crisis but a carefully crafted strategy. Second, and perhaps most troubling, is that Bush seems unconcerned about getting caught. Indeed, the administration’s damn-the-torpedoes fearlessness is the source of much of its political success. That it would actually hire, along with a series of other Iran-Contra figures, a perjurer like Elliot Abrams -- who has recently been promoted to deputy national-security adviser in charge of democracy promotion, of all things -- is testimony to its utter audacity. Go ahead, these officials seem to be saying, call us a bunch of liars -- we really don’t care.
One of the common threads running through (Alterman's) history is that in case after case, the press went along with whatever the administration told it. Watergate may have temporarily cured reporters of this credulousness, but the remission lasted only so long. When the history of the Bush administration is written, the abject cowardice of the press in confronting an administration that held it in undisguised contempt and lied in its face will be one of the most depressing chapters. As citizens, we have no defense from official deception but the reporters who are tasked with discovering the truth and holding presidents to account on our behalf. As Alterman writes, if public officials “feel free to lie to the press -- and, by extension, the nation -- with impunity, then democracy becomes pseudo-democracy, as the illusion of accountability replaces the real thing.” Even when they have mustered the courage to point out fabrications in a story buried on page A19, the media’s mighty arrows of truth telling have bounced off this White House like a child’s toy with defective suction cups.
“In each case,” Alterman says about Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan, “the president or his party was made to pay for his deceptions along with the country they so cavalierly misled.” As of yet, not only has neither Bush nor his party paid a price for the lies about Iraq but there is little reason to think they will anytime soon. In no small part, the administration is able to evade consequence for its mendacity because its supporters have adopted a siege mentality, hunkered behind the castle walls of their loyalty to the president. Presented with irrefutable evidence that the war in Iraq was sold on a series of deceptions, many of them simply stick their fingers in their ears and chant, “La la la, I can’t hear you.”
According to the University of Maryland’s Project on International Policy Attitudes, just before the 2004 election, 47 percent of Bush supporters believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and another 26 percent thought it had a major weapons program. Three out of four Bush supporters also thought Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda. These people seem to have resolved the cognitive dissonance created by the collision of the truth with their support of Bush by adopting a new set of “facts” more in line with what their leader had told them.
One trembles to contemplate the lesson of the Bush administration’s deceptions: Admit nothing, even when caught; continue to lie, even after the lie has been exposed; define anyone who questions the lie as an enemy of the nation or, failing that, of “the troops.” If your partisans stand firm (and particularly if your party controls Congress, so no pesky oversight hearings will take place), you can get away with just about anything. As Alterman makes clear, lies have consequences, often in blood. As we hear that forces within the Pentagon are seriously contemplating military action against Iran and Syria, one wonders just what they will tell us to justify the next military adventure. Will we believe them? And will it make a difference?

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