I don’t think it’s the most important story of the day by a long stretch, but as the presidential falsehood journal of record I’d be remiss if I didn’t note this in passing. A week before the election, Bush answered questions for a small group of reporters in the Oval Office, in the course of which he was asked about whether he’d given thought to replacing Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Bush replied that Rumsfeld was doing a heck of a job (in effect), and that he would be keeping him in place for the next two years (see Terrence Hunt’s AP story: Bush says Rumsfeld, Cheney should stay).
Fast forward to the press conference shortly after the election, at which Bush announced that Rumsfeld was being replaced, and at which this exchange took place (video and transcript available from Think Progress: Bush admits he lied about Rumsfeld for political purposes):
REPORTER: Last week you told us Secretary Rumsfeld would be staying on. Why is the timing right now, and how much does it have to do with the election results?
BUSH: You and Hunt and Keil came into the Oval Office and asked me to question one week before the campaign. Basically, are you going to do something about Rumsfeld and the Vice President? The reason why is I did not want to make a major decision in the final days of the campaign. The only way to answer that question, and get it on to another question, was to give you that answer. The truth of the matter is as well, that is one reason I gave the answer. The other reason why is I had not had a chance to visit with Bob Gates yet. I had not had my final conversation with Don Rumsfeld yet at that point. I had been talking with Don Rumsfeld over a period of time about fresh perspectives. He likes to call it fresh eyes.
It’s a little tortured to follow Bush’s explanation; watching the video, especially, I’m reminded of certain conversations I’ve had with my daughter in the wake of some action of hers I’m not happy with. But all told, what Bush is clearly saying is, “Yeah, I lied when you asked me that question, because we were in the final days of a campaign, and for political reasons I chose to be dishonest.”
There’s been a fair amount of discussion of this by both righty and lefty (and center-y) folks. Some of the more-interesting commentary I’ve seen is:
- Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post: President’s evasion raises truth issues.
- Glenn Greenwald: Extremely odd behavior from the Washington Post re: the President’s Rumsfeld lie.
- Kevin Drum: Bush’s lie.
Kevin Drum, in particular, thinks this isn’t a big deal. He writes:
But, really, this has gotten way too much attention. There’s a pretty broad-based understanding, after all, that personnel issues are special: you’re expected to deny that anything is going on until the minute you make an official announcement. And there’s really no other way to do things. You can’t refuse to ever comment on your own subordinates, but at the same time you can’t give away future personnel moves by suddenly clamming up about them. The result is a kabuki dance accepted by everyone in which you’re allowed to lie about this stuff until something official happens.
However, this lying is typically a bit more smoothly done. What this kerfuffle really shows is that Bush must have been pretty rattled by the specter of upcoming defeat and then by the massive defeat itself.
I guess I’m mostly with Kevin Drum on this not being some terribly significant example of presidential lying. The most noteworthy part of it, for me, ends up being Bush’s casual “yeah, I lied. What about it?” response, and what that says about his evolving attitude toward his job, the press, and the public.
Some in righty blogistan have complained that if Bush knew he was getting rid of Rumsfeld before the election, he should have said so then, so he could have picked up some votes for being flexible on Iraq, thereby averting at least the loss of the Senate. What this misses, I think, is that Bush is better at doing those sorts of calculations than the average bear. What his response to the reporters hinted at, and what I think the righty complainers are missing, is that Bush’s Iraq policy is such a house of cards at this point that any acknowledgement of error (which is how a pre-election announcement of Rumsfeld’s ouster would have been seen) could have cost Bush many more votes than it gained.
At least, I’m pretty sure that’s how Bush saw it before the election. Now that the election is over, the lie is no longer useful, so out it goes. And if Bush couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to do even a minimal amount of sugar-coating on the about-face, it’s just another indication that for him, this whole Leader of the Free World thing has pretty much stopped being fun.