06/11/2008 03:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lies, Damn Lies, and Misspeaking

Matt Yglesias has a cogent takedown of Fred Hiatt's much remarked-upon piece attacking the notion that "Bush lied" in the runup to the Iraq war. I sort-of agree with Hiatt that the whole "Bush lied" idea is simplistic. But it's all about how you frame the argument. If we take a narrow definition of "lying" as knowingly uttering an untruth, then it's hard to nail Bush, given the predominant opinion of the intelligence community was that Saddam did have various WMD stockpiles somewhere. You might be able to nail Cheney, who said on Meet the Press that "we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." Six months later, Tim Russert got Cheney to walk it back:

MR. RUSSERT: Reconstituted nuclear weapons. You misspoke.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yeah. I did misspeak. I said repeatedly during the show weapons capability. We never had any evidence that he had acquired a nuclear weapon.

Set aside, for the moment, why Russert effectively let this pass the first time, or why he was so accommodating the second. You can see how using the strict definition of lying reduces this question to a set of circular arguments about the degree of dissembling in individual statements, or legalistic shadings of the meaning of "lying." Which, as Yglesias points out, is to ignore what actually happened. What Bush & Co. did was what presidential administrations do all the time in political campaigns and on domestic policy -- take a set of at-best muddled and contradictory information about a problem, then exaggerate and misrepresent it to create the appearance of great urgency. The innovation, such as it was, was to apply these ham-fisted techniques to matters of war and statecraft, with lives and America's strategic interests on the line. That it didn't work out so well is one of the great cautionary tales of our era: there are some lines presidents shouldn't cross in communicating with the masses. To deny this now, as Hiatt does, and instead maintain the Iraq invasion was a reasonable response to the facts as known at the time doesn't make much sense.