To satisfy the hallowed journalistic tradition that there must be two sources for almost anything, I offer you Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Candy Crowley of CNN. They both are on record as having George Bush say that he doesn't do nuance. "Joe, I don't do nuance," the president supposedly told the senator. As for Crowley, she heard it this way: "In Texas, we don't do nuance." If these two sources don't suffice, I offer you the 7,932 words that make up the text of the president's interview with Tim Russert. There ain't a nuance anywhere in the whole mess.
At one time, this was bracing. To see things in black and white, to call evil by its proper name, to know your enemy and want him dead, was wonderfully liberating -- especially after years of Clintonian "on the other hands." That was a presidency that knew something -- maybe too much -- about nuance.
No one could ever say that about the Bush administration. Especially after Sept. 11, 2001, the one thing it had was certainty. From the president on down -- Dick Cheney to Donald Rumsfeld to even Colin Powell -- it had a hard-jawed pugnaciousness. It knew what it knew and because of that, on everything from tax cuts to going to war, Congress followed. The uncertain will always follow the certain. It is a rule of life.
But a rereading of the "Meet the Press" transcript suggests that Bush's most critical quality -- certainty -- has oozed from him like helium from a balloon. Here was a man who was continually trying to pump himself up. He used the word "dangerous" over and over again, applying it to Saddam Hussein without ever quite saying why. He repeatedly called the former dictator a "madman," which is to say that he was capable of anything. In fact, though, he was capable of very little and in recent years had attempted almost nothing.
After Bush's "Meet the Press" performance, countless commentators tried to figure out why he had done so poorly. Many of them focused on performance, political artifice -- the part of politics that looks so easy until, as Wes Clark did, you try it for yourself. Yes, Bush did not perform well. But even a brilliant actor needs material.
Others lamented Bush's verbal klutziness. If only he could talk like Tony Blair, one of them sighed. But the reason he cannot talk like Blair is because he doesn't think like Blair. The British prime minister can acknowledge an awkward fact, even a mistake, and keep on going. Bush can only insist that he is right. It doesn't matter that the facts have changed.
This had little to do with speech and a lot to do with thought. Once certainty is snatched from him, he seems in a state of vertigo where he grasps at certain words to steady himself. Dangerous. Madman. But if a madman does not have the weapons you said he did, then he is not dangerous, and if he did not have the weapons then maybe he was not as mad as we thought he was. There is much to ponder here.
Bush, though, will ponder not -- not on Iraq and not on taxes. He believes in minimal taxes, and he believes this no matter what the economic or fiscal conditions -- boom, bust, surplus, deficit. There is no play in the man, no notion that in economics, one size cannot fit all. "I believe that the best way to stimulate economic growth is to let people keep more of their own money," he told Russert. It is that simple.
There is something childlike about the "Meet the Press" transcript. The repetition. The simplistic thinking. "Saddam Hussein was a danger to America," the president said repeatedly. But how? He had no missiles that could reach our shores. He had no nuclear weapons program. He did not play ball with terrorist outfits or, for that matter, they with him. "The man was a threat," Bush said. How? How? How?
"He had a weapon," the president insisted. But he didn't, remember? That was the whole point of David Kay's report. Oh, but Hussein was a madman.
The president does not do nuance -- that we know. But the failure to come up with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is not a nuance. It is a massive reversal of fact, hot turned into cold, tall into short. Bush's inability or refusal to come to grips with the new facts is not the product of a poor performance or an errant tongue, but of a troubling insistence that his beliefs cannot be wrong. That -- nuance be damned -- makes him look like a dope.