America needs a genuinely 'Honest George'

November 02, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

LAST WEEK this column ended with a recollection of the fable about George Washington cutting down his father's cherry tree with a new hatchet, but not being able to lie to his father about it.

"I cannot tell a lie," the father of our nation told his father. One of the first president's nicknames was "Honest George."

Forty-two presidents later, we have yet another George in the White House. I would not call him "Honest George."

And this isn't about cherry trees.

It's about going to war in Iraq for reasons that were not true, those reasons being Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction and his ties to al-Qaida and implicitly the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The mission in Iraq, whatever it is, is most emphatically not accomplished. This week, the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq exceeded the number of dead at the time that Bush stood before a banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln saying it was. No weapons of mass destruction have been found. The only terrorists in Iraq are the ones drawn to oppose the U.S. occupation and its Iraqi supporters.

A jobless recovery

It's about the economy, too. Sure, the 7.2 percent growth rate in the economy in the last quarter was a record-setting high. But millions of people are still out of work and Bush's tax cuts and Iraq war and reparations spending are going to leave a debt to be borne by generations long after he is back in Crawford, Texas, putting together his library. Actually, given the president's aversion to reading, the idea of a W. Bush library seems like a bad joke.

Other examples exist of this George's capacity to stray from the truth, but Iraq and the cut-and-spend economy are enough. Most of the president's critics try to stay away from the "L" word. How about pernicious perfidy? Too harsh? Prevarication doesn't seem harsh enough, especially given the consequences. Heck, let's just say the president either hasn't been telling the truth, or he doesn't know the truth. The contradictions between Bush`s view of how things are going in Iraq and the views of others in his administration, may support the latter.

Adding an oath

Pondering this encirclement of mendacity, which certainly has not been unique to the Bush presidency, I wondered if it would make any sense to require that presidents take an oath to tell the truth when they are sworn in.

The oath isn't long. "I do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and I will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." How about adding to that, "And, on penalty of perjury, I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" It would only take a few seconds longer. Can't fiddle with the oath, you say? Washington added "So help me God" to the end of it and so far as I can determine, every president since him has done the same. If it can be fiddled for the deity, why not for the truth?

If it had been added, Bill Clinton might have been more careful when talking about Monica Lewinsky and his bizarre definition of sex. Ronald Reagan might have been more honest about Iran-Contra. Jimmy Carter would have had to take more seriously his promise never to lie to the American people. (Yes, folks, such a promise actually helped a man become president.) Richard Nixon might not have. ... Sorry, that list's too long. Lyndon Johnson might not have lied about U.S. ships being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin as a cause to escalate the Vietnam war.

Now, I put this idea to a variety of thinkers and to a mind they said the idea was preposterous.

Limits on truth

One high mind, borrowing a phrase from Watergate, called the idea "inoperative."

They all agreed that the president of the United States has to have a way to not tell the truth when national security or diplomatic initiatives are involved.

Dr. Harry Wilson, who teaches a course in public affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., was fairly representative in what he had to say.

"You can make an argument that lying may never be acceptable, but the oath suggested here demands full disclosure, and that is clearly not always in the best interest of the nation," he said. "There is a difference between lying and not telling the whole truth, that is, everything that one knows that is relevant to the subject."

That's an important point, because it has occurred to me that on some of the most important issues in which Bush is suspected of not telling the truth, he actually may not have known he was not telling the truth.

Whether or not it is appropriate to compare Iraq to Vietnam, if Bush isn't being told the truth he would be in a similar position to Lyndon Johnson at the height of the Vietnam War. Johnson lied in part because he was told lies. The similarity ends there.

For one thing, Johnson had been elected in a landslide. Bush did not win the popular vote. Johnson was a voracious reader of the press though he was infuriated by much of what he read. Bush tells us he does not read the press. Bush says he prefers information from "objective sources." And who are these sources? They are "people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."

No, this isn't "Honest George." How about this? "George! Honestly! People are dying out there."

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