On telling the truth

December 22, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Does the truth matter in politics? The question arises in the cases of two 2004 presidential candidates named Howard Dean and George W. Bush.

The former Vermont governor is currently under heavy fire from his Democratic competitors for various contradictory statements he has largely sought to dismiss. And the president is similarly dismissive with regard to his yet-to-be proved claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction warranting its invasion.

One example from Dr. Dean, on the heels of his statement that the United States is no safer with the capture of Saddam Hussein, was his declaration on a Sunday talk show last year that there was "no question that Saddam Hussein is a threat" to this country. He later denied saying it.

As for President Bush, after repeatedly citing Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction as a prime reason for attacking Iraq when he did, he said in an interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer the other night that he saw no difference between having them and "the possibility" of having them.

In both cases, the candidates at a minimum skirted the truth. But does it matter, or it is only political nitpicking?

Dr. Dean's Democratic opponents, probing for some chink in his campaign armor, are using this and other dodges to argue that he lacks the clear-headedness and the honesty to be president.

It's an allegation that has wounded other presidential candidates in the past.

Most recently, 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore was saddled with the charge of dishonesty for such trivial matters as his offhand claim to have "invented" the Internet, and he lost the election to Mr. Bush.

Dr. Dean's troublesome penchant for acting fast and loose with his words is not uncommon in the world of politics. But if it sticks to him in the public mind, it could cause him difficulty in what up to now has been a smooth ride toward the Democratic nomination.

President Bush's response to Ms. Sawyer on Mr. Hussein having, or only having the possibility of acquiring, weapons of mass destruction - "So what's the difference?" - is much more alarming. It suggests a cavalier attitude toward justifying his war to the American people.

His interviewer had been dogging him on the significance of the weapons not having been found.

Mr. Bush replied, a bit peevishly, it seemed: "Well, you can keep asking the question. And my answer is going to be the same. Saddam was a danger. And the world is better off because we got rid of him."

And later, about the difference between having WMD and only the possibility, the president repeated: "If he were to acquire weapons, he would be the danger ... and so we got rid of him."

The answer was a brush-off of a matter central to the timing of Mr. Bush's invasion, cutting off further U.N. inspections or further efforts to achieve much broader participation of U.N. members. The question lingers: Were the American people misled about why we went to war, and why then?

In 1976, Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, in the wake of the Watergate scandals replete with lies and misrepresentations, fashioned his narrow election victory in part on the strength of his promise that "I'll never lie to you." It was a pledge he didn't always fully keep, but it was perceived incompetence, not dishonesty, that cost him re-election.

While Dr. Dean's verbal dodging could deny him much support in 2004, Mr. Bush's offhanded dismissal of "the difference" in justifying going to war is the more egregious sin. If he really doesn't see it, why bother continuing the search for those weapons? Maybe that's the point, as the world waits, with little confidence, for confirmation.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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