You Can Make It With Plato
Bush's difficult relationship with reality.
On Meet the Press, Bush handled questions about his service in the National Guard during Vietnam the same way. Russert reminded Bush, "The Boston Globe and the Associated Press have gone through some of their records and said there's no evidence that you reported to duty in Alabama during the summer and fall of 1972." Bush replied, "Yeah, they're just wrong. There may be no evidence, but I did report. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been honorably discharged." That's the Bush syllogism: The evidence says one thing; the conclusion says another; therefore, the evidence is false.
Why did Americans elect a president who thinks this way? Because they wanted a leader different from Bill Clinton. They liked some things about Clinton, but they were sick of his dishonesty in the Monica Lewinsky affair and his constant shifting in the political winds. Bush promised that he would say what he believed and stick to it.
On Iraq, Bush fulfilled both promises. "What I do want to share with you is my sentiment at the time," he told Russert. "There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America." Note Bush's emphasis on his subjective reality: "my sentiment," "no doubt in my mind." When Russert asked Bush about his unpopularity abroad, Bush answered, "I'm not going to change, see? I'm not trying to accommodate. I won't change my philosophy or my point of view. I believe I owe it to the American people to say what I'm going to do and do it, and to speak as clearly as I can, try to articulate as best I can why I make decisions I make. But I'm not going to change because of polls. That's just not my nature."
No, it isn't. Bush isn't Clinton. He doesn't change his mind for anything, whether it's polls or facts. And he always tells the truth about what's in his mind, whether or not what's in his mind corresponds to what's in the visible world.
What are the consequences of such a Platonic presidency? The immediate risk is the replacement of Saddam with a more dangerous fundamentalist regime. Bush is certain this won't happen. "They're not going to develop that, because right here in the Oval Office, I sat down with Mr. Pachachi and Chalabi and al-Hakim, people from different parts of [Iraq] that have made the firm commitment that they want a constitution eventually written that recognizes minority rights and freedom of religion," Bush told Russert. "I said [to Mr. al-Hakim], 'You know, I'm a Methodist. What are my chances of success in your country and your vision?' And he said, 'It's going to be a free society where you can worship freely.' "
There you have it: The regime will be pluralistic, because Bush believes it, because nice men came to the Oval Office and told him so.
Beyond Iraq, the risk is that the rest of the world won't believe anything the U.S. government says. Bush explained to Russert that he invaded Iraq in part because "when the United States says there will be serious consequences" and those consequences don't follow, "people look at us and say, 'They don't mean what they say.' " True enough. But meaning what you say won't get other nations to join you in policing the world, if what you think and say bears no relationship to reality.
The punch line is that Bush accomplished exactly what he set out to do in this interview: He showed you how his mind works. Republicans used to observe derisively that Clinton had a difficult relationship with the truth. Bush has a difficult relationship with the truth, too. It's just a different—and perhaps more grave—kind of difficulty.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph on Slate's home page from Meet the Press by NBC/Agence France-Presse.