How Bush could save his presidency -- and why he won't

The president needs to apologize for Iraq -- but he's constitutionally incapable of admitting he was wrong.

Published October 15, 2003 7:10PM (EDT)

The lesson of every presidential scandal in modern American history is that it's the coverup, not the crime, that kills you. Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Iran-contra, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky -- each president might have avoided disgrace if only he had promptly admitted his misdeeds so the country could forgive him and move on. Instead, each man dragged his drama out by telling lies that invited first disbelief, then ridicule, and eventually demands for censure.

George W. Bush is now on the verge of making the same mistake. Like Clinton, Reagan and Nixon before him, Bush's problem is that he has lied to the American people, and the question hanging over the future of his presidency is whether he will have to fess up.

Clinton and Reagan did. Reagan salvaged his presidency by giving a nationally televised Oval Office speech admitting that "my heart still tells me we didn't trade arms for hostages, but the facts show otherwise." Clinton avoided removal from office by confessing during a prime-time television speech to an "inappropriate" relationship with Lewinsky (Clinton's apology was so lame and late, however, that he still had to endure the humiliation of impeachment). Consummate politicians, both Reagan and Clinton chose to endure the temporary shame of apology in order to keep their job as the most powerful man on earth.

But George W. Bush is unlikely to swallow his pride, and that's what will bring him down. Bush seems temperamentally more akin to Richard Nixon, who held to his increasingly dubious protestations of innocence until the bitter end of Watergate and was duly driven from office. Bush is now tempting the same fate.

The events of last week make it clear that Bush is committed to emulating Nixon's approach of sticking to your story no matter what. First, Bush demonstrated that he felt zero urgency about finding and punishing whoever in his administration illegally leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. "I don't know if we'll ever found out who did it," the president blithely remarked about a felony offense that has outraged conservative Republicans as much as it has Democrats. Then, Bush joined with administration officials in launching a new propaganda campaign about Iraq whose underlying motto seems to be, Tell the same lies as before, only louder.

Vice President Dick Cheney in particular refused to cede an inch to the administration's critics, insisting repeatedly in a speech to the right-wing Heritage Foundation that the available evidence on Iraq proves that the administration was right and its critics were wrong. To support his case, Cheney cited the recent report by David Kay, the administration's handpicked inspector of potential weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But Cheney's characterizations of the Kay report were so blatantly at odds with what Kay actually wrote that the Washington Post felt obliged to follow each of the vice president's assertions with a paragraph of rebuttal based on the report's actual text. And, proving that the White House learned nothing from how its retaliation against Joseph Wilson has backfired, Cheney went out of his way to question both the judgment and the loyalty of anyone who disagreed with the administration's rush to war.

Outrageous as Cheney's pronouncements are, Bush's opponents should welcome them, because this type of clumsy crisis management will only dig the White House into deeper trouble. It's an occupational hazard of liars that they come to believe their lies and therefore find it difficult to recognize the objective reality. The problem now facing Bush is that the propaganda he and his aides used to sell the Iraq war is coming back to haunt them. Yet the White House's vaunted political and media operations are not handling the challenge very well because their ideology blinds them to what's actually going on.

Bush led the United States into war on the basis of assertions that are increasingly being revealed to have been exaggerated, misleading or outright deceptive. Scores of American soldiers are dying every month in this war, scores more are being wounded, and tens of thousands more are being kept in Iraq many months longer than they or their loved ones anticipated, straining personal lives, harming careers, and angering the military families who tend to rank among Bush's core supporters. The percentage of Americans who tell pollsters the war was worth fighting has fallen from 75 percent in April to 50 percent now.

The Bush administration blames everyone but itself for these failures. When Americans hear news reports about inspector Kay's failure to find weapons of mass destruction, or about the gargantuan $87 billion price tag for postwar Iraq, and above all about the continuing unrest and loss of American life in Iraq, Bush and his aides complain that the "filter" of the supposedly liberal media is shutting out the many positive developments supposedly taking place inside Iraq. But people outside the Bush team see these same developments as evidence that the administration overstated the case for war and wrongly promised a quick and easy victory. Thus a crucial threshold has been passed in the evolution of this scandal: Not only did the president and his aides lie, but more and more Americans, both in Washington and across the country, are realizing that they lied.

For the first time since Bush took office, the past few weeks have brought a continuing drumbeat of critical news coverage rather than just the occasional negative story. Mainstream U.S. journalists who served as the administration's cheerleaders throughout the post-Sept. 11 period, and especially during the combat phase of the Iraq war, have at last begun to focus on the same inconsistencies and shortcomings that foreign news organizations have been publicizing for months. And the drumbeat of bad news at home will grow louder if the Plame affair gives rise to congressional and other official investigations of wrongdoing, because those investigations will provide the occasion and political space for journalists to keep pushing. (One myth of Watergate is that Nixon was driven from office by a vigilant press that wouldn't stop digging. But as Washington Post assistant managing editor Robert Kaiser later explained, "Woodward and Bernstein would have died on the vine were it not for the official investigations they set off.")

The American press has turned on Bush not because journalists suddenly swallowed bravery pills but because there is growing, bipartisan criticism of Bush's Iraq policies throughout the American body politic, and the press is reflecting that reality. Contrary to their claims of neutrality and independence, most journalists in Washington function as palace-court stenographers; that is, the tone and content of their coverage reflect the views of the government officials and other elites who run the palace known as official Washington. Reporters frame their stories around quotes from these elites. Thus, when the bulk of official opinion in Washington favors a given policy, there is little critical news coverage of it, because officials are not criticizing it. Conversely, when a significant portion of Washington officialdom is uneasy about a given course of action, critical coverage does arise. The reason that coverage of Bush has become harsher recently is simply that more and more members of the Washington elite are growing uneasy about the human, financial and political costs of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The danger for the White House is that the criticism is coming from across the ideological spectrum. Besides the usual liberal suspects (Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, for example), there are traditional Democratic hawks such as Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the Vietnam vet who recently made headlines by demanding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who upbraided Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz for the Bush administration's attitude of we-know-best-and-everyone-else-should-fall-in-line. Republicans are squawking too, especially about paying $87 billion to reconstruct a country with the second-largest oil reserves in the world.

The Republican grumbling is especially significant. In general, the palace-court nature of the press means that coverage of a given president is only as critical as the opposition party is. Clinton, for example, faced relatively tough coverage because Republicans were always attacking him, while Reagan got relatively friendly coverage because Democrats were afraid to challenge him. But news coverage can tip beyond tough to predatory when key members of a president's own party turn against him, as some Democrats did during the run-up to Clinton's impeachment and some Republicans did to Reagan and Nixon at equivalent moments in their scandals. If the current scattered Republican complaints congeal into something firmer, driven perhaps by the administration's failure to bring the Plame leaker to justice, Bush will be in serious trouble.

But Bush could quiet the storm threatening his presidency easily enough. The solution is straight out of White House Damage Control 101: Go on television and come clean with the American public so you can put the scandal behind you. Bush wouldn't have to come entirely clean -- neither Clinton nor Reagan admitted outright that he lied. But Bush does need to show that he hears the rising criticism, regrets past errors, and plans to work more closely with the rest of the government to fix the situation in Iraq. To be taken seriously, Bush would probably also have to offer up a fall guy for the Plame leak -- a painful step, but necessary to demonstrate that he won't cover up a national-security offense that has angered even conservative Republicans.

In such a speech, Bush could begin by acknowledging that his administration, in its understandable zeal to protect the American homeland from further terrorist attacks, may have overinterpreted some of the intelligence reports available before the Iraq war. "We believed," Bush could say, "that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was working with al-Qaida to threaten the United States, and we had good reason to think so. Some have now questioned our conclusions and suggested that the evidence for them was not airtight. But intelligence gathering is an imperfect science, and in view of the risk Saddam posed, my advisors and I believed it was better to be safe than sorry. If we made mistakes in the process, I regret them. But I give you my word: Any mistakes we made were made in good faith -- not from a desire to deceive but from a determination to protect our great nation. And the results prove our cause was just, for the ending of Saddam's tyrannical rule has made the world safer for everyone."

Critics would surely pick holes in the speech, charging that Bush et al. misinterpreted prewar intelligence deliberately, not accidentally, and would demand that the press, Congress and other investigators pursue the evidence accordingly. But such intellectual objections, though they might triumph on newspaper Op-Ed pages, would not necessarily carry much political weight out in the country or inside the Washington establishment. A speech from the Oval Office functions above all on an emotional level as an exchange between the president and his people. And like it or not, especially in time of war, most Americans tend to give the president the benefit of the doubt; they want him to succeed. This speech wouldn't satisfy Bush's die-hard opponents, but it wouldn't have to; its goal would be to shore up support within the wavering political center that usually determines the course of the nation.

The only other escape for Bush is for a miracle to strike in Iraq -- for that war-torn country to turn quickly into a paradise of peace where Americans are cheered more than cursed and the bill for reconstruction is shared by the very foreign nations Bush insulted during the lead-up to war. But without such a miracle, bipartisan criticism of Bush will surely increase, bringing with it the likelihood of official investigations and an intensification of already critical news coverage. The ultimate result? Bush needn't fear impeachment; Republicans are still too strong and Democrats too timid for that, and besides, barely 12 months remain before Election Day. The more likely outcome is that the continuing drumbeat of bad news will sufficiently tarnish Bush that his popularity will be plummeting even further by next November. Factor in mass discontent with the jobless "economic recovery" Bush has presided over, and the Texan could very well turn out to be a one-term president, provided the Democrats nominate an attractive candidate to run against him.

The wall of lies erected by and around the Bush administration isn't crumbling yet, but it is definitely shaking. Bush could still save himself if he had the guts and humility to admit his mistakes and ask the nation for forgiveness. But that won't happen. Most politicians have a keen survival instinct, but this president is also famous for his stubborn moral certainty. Backing down -- in public, no less -- is for sissies. Jesus Christ may be his favorite philosopher, but Bush seems to have forgotten one of the Good Book's wisest warnings: Pride goeth before the fall.

By Mark Hertsgaard

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George W. Bush Iraq Middle East