03/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Psychotic Reaction

"Doubt is to certainty as neurosis is to psychosis. The neurotic is in doubt and has fears about persons and things; the psychotic has convictions and makes claims about them. In short, the neurotic has problems, the psychotic has solutions."
-- Thomas S. Szasz

I once worked for a brilliant, charming guy who made me think I was crazy. In truth, I was a garden-variety neurotic and I soon found out that, as a colleague observed, my boss was a psychotic masquerading as a neurotic.

I'd been on the job a few months, and, with the holiday season approaching, my boss gave me a budget and asked me to handle staff bonuses, Christmas cards and the like. (In ancient times, when companies made profits, some sent out Christmas cards and threw holiday parties. Sometimes, top management even provided year-end bonuses to employees other than themselves.)

Handing out the bonuses was a thrill, though one staffer stopped speaking to me because she got less than her supervisor. But the long hangover began right after New Year's, when my boss stormed into my office, livid about how much we'd spent. Thinking it had to be a misunderstanding, I reminded him of his approval of the expenditure. He looked me in the eye and shot back, with breath-taking certainty, "Mike, that flat-out never happened."

His response was so categorical, I felt I must have been the one who screwed up; but I also knew that taking care of a project exactly as your supervisor instructs is the very definition of not screwing up. Hence the crazy-making.

There was no point in trying to prove I was right; part of my employer's diabolical adroitness lay in the way he could parse words to counter even the most damning evidence. (Think Bill Clinton, another clever and charming authority figure, and his dissection of the meaning of "is.")

It was only after I'd left that job and my boss's power was gone that I grokked that, like O.J. and Ronald Reagan, he believed his own self-serving narrative. (As opposed to, say, Richard Nixon or John Edwards, who consciously lied through their teeth until, and even after, they got caught).

Now that Bush/Cheney have lost their power, it's crystal clear that their demented worldview -- reinforced by an intimidated mainstream media -- tested the sanity of the American people. Their litany of lies -- flying in the face of observable facts yet repeated with the same certainty my old boss exhibited -- is comprehensive: conflating Saddam with 9/11, denying torture, insisting Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, "heck of a job, Brownie," assuring us the economy was strong while it tanked, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

Remember Donald Rumsfeld's brain-twister in the run-up to the Iraq invasion? Where was the evidence that Iraq was a threat to American security, he was asked. He famously -- and fatuously -- replied, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Or how about when Dick Cheney tried to link Saddam to Al Qaeda by referring to a meeting in Prague between Mohammed Atta and a Saddam envoy? When it turned out there was no such meeting and no Saddam/9/11 connection, Cheney -- splitting both hairs and infinitives -- one-upped my old boss, claiming the non-existent meeting "has never been proven to not have happened."

These and other absurdities were repeated by the Bushies so often that a 2006 Harris poll revealed that sixty-four percent of Americans believed that Saddam had "strong links to al Qaeda."

Barack Obama is no psychotic. (He might not even be neurotic, which is kind of a scary thought in itself.) Though things look good so far, how candid the new administration will be with the press and the public is unknowable. (Note to Rumsfeld: That's a known unknowable as opposed to an unknown unknowable or an unknown knowable or a known knowable. I think that covers it.)

Our new President is an inspirational figure, but he never would have been elected if he weren't also a pragmatist. At times, he'll decide the ends justify the means and behave accordingly. He'll shade his answers to tough questions to support his views, as we all do. And the media need to be as tough and skeptical with this administration as they were cowed by Bush/Cheney.

Millions of us held our breath throughout the campaign, hoping Barack would win while dreading something might go wrong. For some it's still hard to believe we have a new leader. But we do, and for the moment, at least, we can sigh with relief, confident that he and his team won't make us feel crazy by insisting that something we just saw with our own eyes "flat-out never happened."