One of the more unusual places I have visited in my travels
is Rotorua, on the north island of New Zealand. The area
sits directly over the Pacific ring of fire, which
manifests in this spot with geothermal activity in the form
of hot mineral springs, geysers, and bubbling mud. When I
first arrived near sunset, the stench of sulfur in the air
was overpowering. Yet by the time I awoke the next
morning, my brain had somehow accepted the smell of decay
as part of the normal background, and I no longer noticed
it at all.
Though I have not personally visited such a place here in
the United States, I am certain they exist. Such as, for
example, the Bush Administration. A newcomer would likely
be quickly overcome by the lies that spew forth
continuously like the malodorous emanations from a Rotorua
geyser. The fact that so many in Washington seem to
continue to live with the pervasive stench supports the
notion that people can get used to just about anything.
How else can we explain the reaction to the latest chapter
in the book of Republican Revelations? The recently
surfaced video that that shows unequivocally that George
Bush was warned of the likelihood of the failure of New
Orleans' levees just days before it happened ought to
unleash a hurricane of criticism.
Its appearance at this late date ought to embarrass the
hell out of our watchdogs in the mainstream media, given
that the incriminating tape sat since September, like the
Purloined Letter, in their own tape libraries.
It ought to be Rodney King-like in the way it confirms what
a whopper Dubya told when he said "I don't think anybody
anticipated the breach of the levees." The zombified
mainstream media seem to have missed the point yet again, of course. But Bush's plummeting poll numbers seem to
suggest that Americans are slowly developing the same kind
of filtration system that evolved in Soviet citizens fed a
steady diet of Pravda and Izvestia.
Finally, the video ought to motivate us to ask an important
question: why did Bush lie? Bill Clinton, considered the
archetype of mendacity by the far right, lied carefully,
and only when cornered (and only about things that were
none of our business, but put that aside). When Bush lied
about the levees, there was simply no compelling need for
him to do so. He was just freelancing. That fact goes a
long way toward explaining why Bush's handlers try to keep
their charge from deviating from his script. But the
question remains: why did he do it? Why did he feel the
need to volunteer that excuse when there was no Ken Starr
sniffing his crotch? He knew it was false. And he knew
there was a record out there that could contradict him.
I think that's a psychological question, with a
First, I think we have to set the table by acknowledging
the reason most of us don't lie the way Chicagoans are
reputed to vote (that is, early and often). The reason most
of us outgrew such easy lying as small children is not
unlike the reason we outgrew bedwetting and temper tantrums
in public places: each of them had negative consequences
that included discomfort and shame.
As has been chronicled ad infinitum, Dubya's life has been
incredibly deficient in the corrective and formative
effects of negative consequences. His presidency has been a
microcosm of that fact, and its sequelae.
Journalism professor Mark Danner has written of our current
state of frozen scandal --
"so-called scandals, that is, in which we have
revelation but not a true investigation or punishment:
scandals we are forced to live with. A story is told
the first time but hardly acknowledged …, largely
because the broader story the government is telling
drowns it out. When the story is later confirmed by
official documents, (such as) the Downing Street
memorandum, the documents are largely dismissed
because they contain 'nothing new.'"
"Before, you had, as Step 1, revelation of wrongdoing
by the press, usually with the help of leaks from
within an administration. Step 2 would be an
investigation which the courts, often allied with
Congress, would conduct, usually in public, that would
give you an official version of events. We saw this
with Watergate, Iran-Contra and others. And finally,
Step 3 would be expiation -- the courts, Congress,
impose punishment which allows society to return to
some kind of state of grace in which the notion is,
Look, we've corrected the wrongdoing, we can now go
on. With this administration, we've got revelation of
torture, of illegal eavesdropping, of domestic spying,
of all kinds of abuses when it comes to arrest of
domestic aliens, of inflated and false weapons of mass
destruction claims before the war; of cronyism and
corruption in Iraq on a vast scale. You could go on.
But no official investigation follows."
This disconnect has been true of the litany of Bush
scandals, but such isolation from consequences has been the
hallmark of George Bush's life. From his avoidance of the
draft, to his escape from the obligations that he accepted
as the price of that avoidance, to his knock-free string of
business failures at ever-higher levels, George W. Bush has
simply never had to suffer for, or even admit, any of his
mistakes. And without consequences, truth is also scarce.
Think about it: if you never, at any point in your
upbringing, had to pay a price for lying, how strong would
your commitment to the truth be?
I don't think Bush's easy, habitual prevarication makes him
a compulsive liar. I suspect it is simply the product of an
immature mind unconcerned with the difference between truth
and fiction. He approaches communication much like your
average five-year-old – right and wrong have no meaning
beyond what he wants or seeks to avoid in the moment.
Presidents seem to embody the tenor of their time – the
optimism of Kennedy's Camelot, the diminution of Jimmy
Carter's cardigan, the blind indifference of Reagan's
shining city on a hill. Whether they reflected their
circumstances, or created them, I cannot say. Did George
Bush's sense of personal immunity break the larger system,
or did he become president because the system has
deteriorated to the point that it no longer punishes
transgressors? I think Bill Clinton's odyssey allows us to
dismiss the latter. In fact, one could argue that if Bush's
frozen scandals are the omega of accountability, the
Clinton saga – his slow, endless turning on a Republican
spit over Whitewater, followed by impeachment for lying
about a blowjob – is the alpha. Bill Clinton was held
accountable out of all proportion to his crimes; Bush
floats effortlessly past a litany of epic failure after
heinous transgression. And so America has become a nation
characterized by its President's profound character
disorder, in which the difference between truth and fiction
is without consequence.
John Steinberg is a Senior Recidivist with the Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy
and a Pony. He bloviates regularly @ www.bluememe.blogspot.com.