No truth, no consequences

John Steinberg - Raw Story Columnist
Published: March 13, 2006

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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 psychological answer.

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.'"

In a recent interview, he explained:

"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 @

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