Pants on Fire?

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

October 27, 2004

Whenever I say that President Bush isn't a liar, Democrats hurl thunderbolts at me. And when I say Mr. Bush isn't truthful, Republicans erupt like Mount St. Helens.

So what do I mean?

Let me offer an example - not from Iraq but from Mr. Bush's autobiography. In it, he tells a charming little story involving his daughters in 1988, on the eve of the presidential debate between his father and Michael Dukakis:

"One night, Laura and I were out of town campaigning, and Barbara and Jenna spent the night at the vice presidential mansion. Dad had spent the day preparing for a debate with Michael Dukakis. Unfortunately, Barbara lost her sleeping companion, Spikey, her favorite stuffed dog. She complained loudly that she could not sleep without Spikey, so 'Gampy,' better known as Vice President Bush, spent much of the night before his debate searching the house and grounds of the vice presidential residence, flashlight in hand, on a mission to find Spikey. Finally, he did, and Barbara slept soundly. I don't know if my dad ever went to sleep that night."

It's a heartwarming tale of family values. And while it's not malicious enough to count as a lie, it's laced with falsehoods.

We know that because Mr. Bush's mother wrote about the same incident much earlier, in 1990, in "Millie's Book," nominally written by her dog. For starters, the episode occurred when the girls were five and a half, in 1987, a year before the presidential debate.

What's more, "Millie's Book" says that Spikey was a cat, not a dog. And instead of searching all night and finally finding Spikey, Vice President Bush gave up, grumbling: "I have work to do. What am I doing searching for a stuffed animal outdoors in the dark?" Anyway, little Barbara had already fallen asleep with another stuffed animal. Spikey turned up the next day behind the curtains.

(I can hear some of you protesting: "You're gonna take a dog's word over our president's?" Well, frankly, no one has ever impugned Millie's word. And Millie has witnesses. The first President Bush and his wife, Barbara, later confirmed to me through a spokesman that they did not believe that Spikey had been lost on the eve of a presidential debate.)

The current president's hyped version of the incident reflects his casual relationship with truth. Like President Ronald Reagan, reality to him is not about facts, but about higher meta-truths: Mom and Dad are loving grandparents, Saddam Hussein is an evil man, and so on. To clarify those overarching realities, Mr. Bush harnesses "facts," both true and false.

We all do this to some extent, of course, discounting data points that don't fit our preconceptions. My Times colleague John Tierney wrote a few days ago of a new report suggesting, based on their scores on military intelligence tests taken in the 1960's, that Mr. Bush had an I.Q. in the 95th percentile of the population and that John Kerry's was in the 91st percentile. Yet most liberals have not revised their view that Mr. Bush is a nitwit.

In fact, I'm convinced that Mr. Bush is not only smarter, but also a better man than his critics believe. Most important, he's not a panderer. While Mr. Kerry zigs and zags on trade and Middle East policy, Mr. Bush has a core of values and provides genuine leadership (typically, I believe, in the wrong direction, by trying to reshape America and the world according to a far-right agenda).

One example is Mr. Bush's determination since 9/11 to add to the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, even though this pushes up gasoline prices. Mr. Bush's approach is foolish economically, and it is crazy politically. Yet his grim willingness to raise gas prices during his re-election campaign underscores a solidity of character and convictions.

But that's also the problem with his administration: his convictions are so solid that they're inflexible and utterly impervious to reality. When Mr. Bush pumped up the intelligence on Iraqi W.M.D., his exaggerations reflected the overriding truth as he saw it - that Saddam Hussein was a menace. I think Mr. Bush considered himself truthful, even when he wasn't factual.

If Mr. Bush were a private citizen, I would admire his tenacity, just as I respect Barry Goldwater, Red Sox fans and Flat-Earthers. But for a president, I wish we had a clear-eyed thinker who understood the difference between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, or between a stuffed dog and a stuffed cat.