12/07/2007 05:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush the Bluffer

Lurking from the digitized shadows, I've noticed--hard to miss it--a recurring theme among many Huffpost commentaries in recent days: lying. In the last few days many prominent bloggers on this site (David Bromwich, Jon Soltz, Robert Scheer, Byron Williams, Sherman Yellen, Benjamin Barber, and Bob Cesca) have called out President Bush on his now-exposed lies about Iran's nuclear potential for triggering WWIII, as evidenced by the release of the recent NIE assessment.

I must say that I completely share my learned colleagues' indignation and outrage. Before that, last week, several bloggers similarly condemned Karl Rove's and Bill Clinton's revisionist lies about Iraq.

This flurry of attention to lying set me to thinking: What exactly are we condemning when we denounce President Bush for his mendacity? It can't just be a nagging character flaw that bugs us. Nor are we political infants or innocents: We don't believe in the adage, Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus (without truth, let the world perish). Surely we recognize that organized lying, even by democratically elected leaders, is often put to strategic purposes of which many of us would certainly approve, were we in a position where the duplicity weren't necessary. Elected officials need to lie sometimes, and do--so what's the surprise, and what, exactly, is the rub?

I turned to Hannah Arendt's 1967 essay, "Truth and Politics." I won't recount here all of the twists and turns of Arendt's complicated views on the vexed relationship between truth-telling and politics, but a few of her thoughts seem to pertain to our current dilemma. On my reading, nothing much about Bush's prevarications would have shocked her:

Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician's or the demagogue's but also of the statesman's trade.

But she probes beyond this commonplace. Does the rough-and-tumble of politics inherently and almost invariably require a compromise, even a sacrifice, of the virtues of truth-telling? Should we simply accept that the messiness and contestability of contemporary politics leave little room for Principled Pollyannas who refuse to engage in any kind of feigning, fibbing, and fakery?

While Arendt concedes that truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, she distinguishes between the "traditional lie" in politics versus a new condition of lying in the modern world. "The traditional lie" in politics "concerned only particulars and was never meant to deceive literally everybody; it was directed at the enemy and was meant to deceive only him." But we now find ourselves surrounded by those who lie about all of reality, to friend and foe alike, and who even start to believe their own fabrications. Arendt's analysis seems remarkably prescient about Rove's and Bush's mythomania:

We must now turn our attention to the relatively recent phenomenon of mass manipulation of fact and opinion as it has become evident in the rewriting of history, in image-making, and in actual government policy.

Some bloggers have lately speculated about whether Bush "believes" his own statements about Iran's nuclear threat. Some have concluded that Bush is lying outright; others think his "convictions" crowd out any countervailing strands of conscience. Same question with Rove: His lies have become so brazen, and he's sticking with them. Has he actually convinced himself in recent days that Congress was originally responsible for rushing the Executive Branch into the Iraq War? Arendt has the following to say about Bush's and Rove's common ability to perpetuate, with absolutely straight faces, what seem to be cold-blooded falsehoods:

Why has self-deception become an indispensable tool in the trade of image-making, and why should it be worse, for the world as well as for the liar himself, if he is deceived by his own lies than if he merely deceives others? What better moral excuse could a liar offer than that his aversion to lying was so great that he had to convince himself before he could lie to others, that, like Antonio in The Tempest, he had to make "a sinner of his memory, To credit his own lie"? And, finally and perhaps most disturbingly, if the modern political lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture--the making of another reality, as it were, into which they will fit without seam, crack, or fissure, exactly as the facts fitted into their own original context--what prevents these new stories, images, and non-facts from becoming an adequate substitute for reality and factuality?

Arendt ends her essay by resisting the cynical view that the political realm must inevitably degenerate into "a battlefield of partial, conflicting interests, where nothing counted but pleasure and profit, partisanship, and the lust for dominion." The problem with modern political liars, she says, is that "all these lies, whether their authors know it or not, harbor an element of violence; organized lying always tends to destroy whatever it has decided to negate." The key difference between "the traditional lie" in politics and "the modern lie," she adds, "will more often than not amount to the difference between hiding and destroying."

Bottom line: When George Bush saber rattles about Iran's threat as leading us into World War III, we need to bear in mind that his reckless words are not just false or self-deluded pronouncements but are themselves acts of violence and destruction.