Fantastic Job, Mr. President

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

There is something refreshing about George Stephanopoulos. After George Bush announced that he was firing Don Rumsfeld, Stephanopoulos -- on the air at the time -- actually seemed shocked that just a week earlier the president had said he would do no such thing. Stephanopoulos not only suggested that the president had lied but that he was wrong to have done so. In Georgetown, where the ABC newsman lives, such innocence must be considered quaint.

Washington's easy acceptance of lying, especially presidential lying, is beyond lamentable. It has cost the country plenty, including, of late, a war in a godforsaken place, which we are losing and are fighting for reasons that we no longer remember or that even matter. (Democracy? Weapons of mass destruction? A link to terrorism? Aw, forget it.) In the most recent case, Bush not only lied but compounded the lie by lying about why he lied in the first place.

Less than a week before the election, Bush told three wire service reporters that Rummy was his man -- now and until the end of his term. He said Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney were doing "fantastic" jobs, which was so clearly not the case that one of the reporters, Terence Hunt of the Associated Press, pressed the president further.

"You see them staying with you until the end?"

"I do," Bush replied.

What Bush did not say was that at that very moment he was casting about for a Rumsfeld replacement and that Robert M. Gates, a former CIA director, was being considered for the job. By the end of that week, Gates had been summoned to Bush's Texas ranch, where, clearly, he passed presidential muster. The appointment was announced by Bush at a news conference the day after the election. The president had his excuses ready. He lied for the sake of the troops.

Bush, you see, had made a decision. The president said he "wasn't going to be talking about hypothetical troop levels or changes in command structure coming down the stretch" of the congressional campaign. As is his wont, he used the word "decision" in a Billy Grahamish sort of way, as if it had not originated in his own brain but came from what Hebrew National, the maker of franks, sausages and lunchmeats, calls "a higher authority."

In fact -- and this is a fact -- the lie about Rumsfeld was consistent with the White House's political line that everything is just hunky-dory in Iraq and that only Democrats and advocates of same-sex marriage could think otherwise. It would have been inconsistent with the political line for Bush to have admitted doubts about Rumsfeld. It had nothing to do with the troops, who really don't give a damn who the SecDef is, since he is junior to their second lieutenant as far as they are concerned.

In this way, Bush lied about the lie and then, as has become customary, draped an American flag over it: the troops, the troops. Actually, if he cared so much for the troops he would have gotten rid of Rumsfeld months ago.

It has now been a week, and the president's lie has been forgotten . . . or excused . . . or minimized. This is the way it is in Washington, a town run by politicians who routinely lie in their political commercials back home (this is the lesson of the last campaign) and then think, somehow, that they can recover their virtue by recrossing the Potomac. Deep down, they know they lack the moral standing even to feign shock. For instance, the maker of the spot used against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is briefly condemned (but secretly admired) when, at the very least, he should have had his citizenship revoked.

So it was downright exhilarating to see Stephanopoulos express shock at Bush's lie, and it would be equally exhilarating if the new Democratic majorities evinced a similar moral indignation. Instead of reassuring the administration's serial fibbers that they will not be required to answer for their statements about Iraq, they should instead be vowing to take apart the ship of state plank by plank until they find the rot -- not impeachment, mind you, just accountability.

This is not a matter of vengeance or, God forfend, politics, but of restoring the people's faith in their government. How dare these people lie to you and me and send Americans to die in Iraq for reasons that turned out to be wholly nonexistent? One way to return to the truth is to find the liars. I ask this not for myself but -- and I mean it -- for the troops.

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