Webs of Illusion

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 12, 2004

It's understood that incumbents campaigning for re-election will spotlight the good news and downplay the bad. The problem for President Bush, with the election just three weeks away, is that the bad news keeps cascading in and there is very little good news to tout.

So the president and his chief supporters have resorted to the odd tactic of claiming that the bad news is good.

The double talk reached a fever pitch last week after the release of two devastating reports - the comprehensive report by Charles Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector, which destroyed any remaining doubts that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; and the Labor Department's dismal employment report for September, which heightened concerns about the strength of the economic recovery and left Mr. Bush with the dubious distinction of being the first president since Herbert Hoover to stand for re-election with fewer people working than at the beginning of his term.

Mr. Bush turned the findings of the Duelfer report upside down and inside out, telling crowds at campaign rallies that it proved Saddam Hussein had been "a gathering threat." It didn't matter that the report, ordered by the president himself, showed just the opposite. The truth would not have been helpful to the president. So with a brazenness and sleight of hand usually associated with three-card-monte players, he pulled a fast one on his cheering listeners.

Vice President Cheney had an equally peculiar response to the report, which said Iraq had destroyed its illicit weapons stockpiles in the early 1990's. Referring to the president's decision to launch the war, Mr. Cheney said, "To delay, defer, wait wasn't an option."

The September jobs report, released on the same day as Mr. Bush's second debate with Senator John Kerry, was deeply disappointing to the White House. Just 96,000 jobs were created, not even enough to keep up with the monthly expansion of the working-age population.

The somber findings forced the president's spin machine into overdrive. Reality, once again, was shoved aside. The administration's upbeat public response to the Labor Department report was described in The Times as follows: "The White House hailed it as evidence of continued employment expansion, saying that it validated Mr. Bush's strategy of pursuing tax cuts to support a recovery from the 2001 economic downturn."

In the president's parallel universe, things are always fine.

Mr. Bush sold his tax cuts as a mighty force for job creation. They weren't. The Times article that reported the sunny White House response to the disappointing job creation figures also said: "In September, an estimated 62.3 percent of the working-age population was employed, two full percentage points below the level at the beginning of the recession in March 2001. That difference represents over 4.5 million people without work."

Hyperbole is part of every politician's portfolio. But on the most serious matters facing the country, Mr. Bush's administration has often gone beyond hyperbole to deliberate misrepresentations that undermine the very idea of an informed electorate. If unpleasant realities are not acknowledged by the officials occupying the highest offices in the land, there is no chance that the full resources of the government and the people will be marshaled to meet those challenges.

The president continues to behave as if he's in denial about the war. Iraq remains a tragic mess and the electorate needs to know that.

In yesterday's Week in Review section, The Times's Dexter Filkins wrote movingly from Baghdad about the reporters trying to cover the war. There's been a relentless expansion, he said, of areas that reporters dare not venture into because they are too dangerous. Most European reporters have left the country, and there are far fewer Americans than just a few months ago.

Forty-six reporters have been killed and Mr. Filkins himself has been attacked by a mob, shot at and detained by the Mahdi Army.

If Mr. Bush has a plan to clean up the mess in Iraq, he should say so. If he has a strategy - besides more tax cuts - to bolster employment in the U.S., he should tell us. If he's in touch with the real world in which these and other very serious problems exist, he might consider letting us know.

Spinning gets old after a while. A president who spends too much time spinning webs of illusion can find himself trapped in them.