Bush and Reality

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 5, 2004

For 90 minutes, at least, democracy seemed to be working. The two men in dark suits took their places at the lecterns. The analysts, the handlers, the spinmeisters and the hangers-on had been cleared out of the way. With no commercial interruptions, more than 60 million Americans got a rare, unedited, close-up look at the candidates in one of the most important presidential elections in the nation's history.

John Kerry got the better of President Bush in last Thursday's debate in Coral Gables, Fla. The president seemed listless, defensive and not particularly well prepared. His facial expressions and body language at times were odd. Some of his strongest supporters were dismayed by his performance, and polls are showing they had reason to be concerned.

There undoubtedly were many reasons for Mr. Bush's lackluster effort. But I think there was one factor, above all, that undermined the president in last week's debate, and will continue to plague him throughout the campaign. And that was his problematic relationship with reality.

Mr. Bush is a man who will frequently tell you - and may even believe - that up is down, or square is round, when logic and all the available evidence say otherwise. During the debate, this was most clearly displayed when, in response to a question about the war in Iraq, Mr. Bush told the moderator, Jim Lehrer, "The enemy attacked us, Jim, and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people, to do everything I can to protect us."

Moments later Senator Kerry clarified, for the audience and the president, just who had attacked the United States. "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us," said Mr. Kerry. "Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us."

Given a chance to respond, Mr. Bush flashed an unappreciative look at Senator Kerry and said, "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us - I know that."

With no weapons of mass destruction to exhibit, and no link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, Mr. Bush has nevertheless tried to portray the war in Iraq as not only the right thing to do but as largely successful. The increasing violence and chaos suggest otherwise. Even as the presidential debate was being conducted, details were coming in about car bombings earlier in the day in Baghdad that killed dozens of Iraqis, including at least 34 children.

The children were not in school because the turmoil had prevented the opening of schools.

The political problem for Mr. Bush is that while he is offering a rosy picture of events in Iraq - perhaps because he believes it, or because he wants to bolster American morale - voters are increasingly seeing the bitter, tragic reality of those events. A president can stay out of step with reality only so long. Eventually there's a political price to pay. Lyndon Johnson's deceit with regard to Vietnam, for example, has never been forgiven.

The president likes to tell us that "freedom is winning" in Iraq, that democracy is on the march. But Americans are coming to realize that Iraq is, in fact, a country in agony, beset by bombings, firefights, kidnappings, beheadings and myriad other forms of mayhem. The president may think that freedom is winning, but television viewers in the U.S. could see images over the weekend of distraught Iraqis pulling the bodies of small children from smoking rubble - a tragic but perfect metaphor for a policy in ruins.

Mr. Bush got his big bounce in the public opinion polls from the Swift boat nonsense and the mocking, nonstop criticism of Senator Kerry at the Republican National Convention. Those were distractions from the real world. But reality cannot be kept at bay indefinitely. Readers of The Washington Post got a disturbing dose of it yesterday from a front-page article about the strain being put on the overloaded systems of veterans' disability benefits and health care by the thousands of American troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical injuries and mental health problems.

The article noted that "President Bush's budget for 2005 calls for cutting the Department of Veterans Affairs staff that handles benefits claims."

A staff sergeant who was paralyzed in a mortar attack near Baghdad was quoted as saying: "I love the military; that was my life. But I don't believe they're taking care of me now."

The real world is President Bush's Achilles' heel. He can't keep his distance from it forever.