President's Evasion Raises Truth Issues

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2006

Did the president of the United States make a rare admission on national television that he had told an untruth?

Or had he merely engaged in a dodge of the sort that is common in politics?

Journalists by nature shy from pinning the "liar" label on any political leader, but President Bush's acknowledgments that he had not been forthcoming about his plans to dump Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have kicked up a fuss at the White House and sparked a debate about the limits of presidential evasion.

Six days before the election, Bush told three wire-service reporters in an interview that Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney were doing "fantastic" jobs.

"You see them staying with you until the end?" asked Terence Hunt of the Associated Press.

"I do," Bush replied.

"So you're expecting Rumsfeld, Secretary Rumsfeld, to stay on the rest of your time here?" asked Steve Holland of Reuters.

"Yes, I am," the president said.

On Wednesday, the day after the election, Bush at a news conference said that "that kind of question, a wise question by a seasoned reporter, is the kind of thing that causes one to either inject major military decisions at the end of a campaign, or not. And I have made the decision that I wasn't going to be talking about hypothetical troop levels or changes in command structure coming down the stretch."

The president added that he had not made a definitive decision because he had not held his "last" conversation with Rumsfeld and had not yet spoken to Robert Gates, his nominee to take over the Pentagon.

Was that on par with President Bill Clinton's hair-splitting defense in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation that "it all depends on what the definition of is is"?

White House press secretary Tony Snow, asked about the matter yesterday, told reporters that "there were conversations going on" with Rumsfeld about quitting at the time of Bush's Nov. 1 interview. Snow said in an interview that Bush was not misleading the wire reporters because "he had not reached a final decision."

"He was not going to use that announcement to try to score political points" and would not be "jerked around into making decisions on the basis of politics," Snow said.

But wasn't saying that Rumsfeld would stay on also a form of scoring political points? Snow said that news organizations were "quibbling" over the wording and that "people understand the practicalities" of the situation.

Presidents' reputations have been tarnished by growing public doubts about their veracity -- Lyndon B. Johnson over Vietnam, Richard M. Nixon over Watergate, Ronald Reagan over the Iran-contra scandal and Clinton over the Lewinsky affair. But every president employs rhetorical devices -- such as refusing to answer hypothetical questions -- when asked about news that he is not ready to announce. Sometimes that can get tricky.

Joe Lockhart, who was Clinton's press secretary from 1998 to 2000, said he was surprised that Bush would "get up and say, 'I didn't tell you that because it wasn't convenient for me to tell the truth.' It's a stunning admission that when something is politically inconvenient, you don't have to be straightforward."

Whereas Clinton was long saddled with an image of being slippery, "Bush came into the White House with the reputation of being a straight shooter and was given the benefit of the doubt," Lockhart said. But after Bush's repeated insistence that things are going well in Iraq and his initial defense of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, Lockhart said, "that's gone."

Ron Nessen, President Gerald Ford's spokesman, said he advised public figures to "always tell the truth," or else "you're going to get caught a lot of the time and have to explain your way out of it, and that hurts your credibility."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said Bush's original answer was "qualitatively different than saying 'I never had sex with that woman,' " as Clinton did about Lewinsky, but still "a knowing falsehood. And it's odd because he could have said it many other ways. One of the ways we judge politicians is how they finesse when they don't want to reveal something, when they want to dodge or weave or even misdirect."

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