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Heart of darkness


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 know.

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.

John Steinberg bloviates regularly @

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