As the Plamegate imbroglio festers, the question finally
on many lips and a growing number of newspaper headlines
is, “What did the President know, and when did
he know it?” An important question, to be sure,
but I would like to suggest another, perhaps more revealing
question: how did he know it?
The White House is not
in any hurry to tell us how much Bush knew or when he
knew it. But I think we can intuit a great deal about
how. Almost a year ago, Scott McClellan told us that
“The president knows that Karl Rove wasn't involved,”
but the White House has refused to elaborate. I doubt
that McClellan was freelancing here: Bush may well have
told him exactly that – no more and no less.
My internal Venn diagram of the sets “Bush speaks”
and “Bush lies” has the two circles overlapping
almost completely. Paradoxically, I suspect that, at
least in the wiggle-the-polygraph sense, he might actually
be telling the truth this time. Because, without getting
into a "depends-on-what-your-definition-of -'is'-is"
discussion, I would not be surprised if Bush actually
believes he does know it -- not in the way most of us
would recognize, but as he defines knowing. And that
distinction takes us to a deeper question, and the very
heart of the danger George Bush represents.
Post-Enlightenment folks tend to think of knowledge
as an empirical thing: knowledge is the product of evidence
that comports with a theory or world view. As such,
we seek data, and when the data are inconclusive or
inconsistent with expectation, we admit that we don’t
That, I submit, is not what George Bush means when
he says he knows something. He knew Karl Rove was innocent
in the same way he knew that there were WMDs in Iraq,
and that Osama got birthday cards from Saddam. More
to the point, he knew it the way he knew
God wanted him to be president.
In other words, he knows Rove is blameless in the way
he knows his religious beliefs are true—based
not upon a survey of facts, evidence and expertise,
but upon an inventory of only the desolate, monochromatic
landscape of his own interior.
Bush knows Rove is innocent because that is what Bush’s
heart tells him; his brain is incapable of grasping
the resulting circularity. This kind of knowledge, so
widely and deeply embraced by his supporters, was the
basis for Bush’s elevation to the White House.
It explains his intransigent stance on Social Security,
on John Bolton, and virtually everything else he has
wrought since; the light of reason is not allowed to
reach the dark place where Bush holds his beliefs.
The strength, and the weakness, of such a closed, tautological
system is that it is entirely immune to refutation by
fact or logic. It is a strength, at least in the short
term, because a black and white world view is seductive,
and when packaged with blanket statements that also
obviate the need for accepting responsibility, they
are virtual opiates. Hoi polloi are comforted when medicated
by pseudo-intellectuals with such circular, hand-washing
nonsense as “The terrorists hate us for who we
are, not what we do” and “The killers are
killers because they want to kill, not because the coalition
invaded Iraq, or Afghanistan, or because there are bases
in Saudi Arabia, or because Israel will not retreat
to the 1967 borders.” But with time, such insularity
becomes weakness. As time and events inevitably increase
the distance between rigid belief and reality, the necessary
suspension of disbelief becomes ever more difficult.
Galileo’s work outlived the Inquisition; Reagan
traded arms for hostages although “in his heart”
he thought otherwise; Iraq spirals further into Hell
despite the spin of a hundred Panglosses. History unfolds
heedless of the illusions of its spectators and even,
to a large extent, of its participants.
So our President knows Karl Rove is innocent of any
wrongdoing, no matter what facts may bubble up from
the tar pit he nurtured but cannot acknowledge. Because
Bush cannot recognize the incompatibility between his
knowledge and the facts that refute it, he cannot resolve
that contradiction. Thus it falls to Patrick Fitzgerald
to resolve it for him.
As the Plamegate case goes forward, and the evidence
against Rove in the real world mounts, it is likely
that Bush will, to his ruin, continue to cling to his
belief even as the tsunami of contrary facts engulfs
him. If we are lucky, those who are so blind that shall
not see will decide that following Bush lemming-like
into that abyss might not be such a good idea after
all. And maybe, just maybe, after the deluge we will
finally have a meaningful confrontation between the
"reality-based community" in which facts matter
and actions have consequences, and the fairy-tale world
where Neocons and fundamentalists know things because,
well, just because.