The Bush Euphemism Game: When Lies Cannot be Called “Lies”

By Mike Walsh
Written summer 2003

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This country has the willies when it comes to accusing the president of lying, no matter how blatant the lying. Instead, the mainstream media and our politicians give us euphemisms for the accusation, lots and lots of euphemisms. If you listen for the euphemisms, you’ll soon be impressed that we find so many different ways to accuse the president of lying without actually using words such as “lies,” “lying,” or “liar.”

For instance, we read in the media that a blatant lie is a “now-disavowed claim.” We hear of “false” and “farfetched” accusations. Instead of calling Bush a “liar,” the media tells us of “questions about his credibility” and “the flap over Bush’s assertion.”

Intelligence is alternately “discredited,” “dubious,” “disputed,” “tainted,” “flawed,” “suspect,” “questionable,” and “faulty,” as if the intelligence itself is at fault, not those who “manipulated” and “hyped” it. Maybe misplacing the blame makes us feel a little better about the “falsehoods.”

We are told about “misstatements,” “false pretenses,” and “an assertion not approved by the CIA.” We read of “deficiencies,” “distortions,” “questions about prewar intelligence,” and “lapses by President Bush.” What we aren’t told is what actually happened—that for seven months George W. Bush and his gang fed us daily helping of “lies.” Why is everyone so afraid of that word?

Politicians get in the euphemism game as well. Instead of just saying “he lied,” Sen. Carl Levin gets long-winded. “The key question is whether administration officials made a conscious and a very troubling decision to create a false impression about the gravity and imminence of the threat that Iraq posed to America.” Like many others, he’s a nervous and talkative man when it comes to presidential lies.

Sen. Chuck Hagel refers to one of Bush’s lies as “another example of a very serious inconsistency.”

“They hyped it,” Joe Biden said on Meet the Press, which is a gentle way of saying, “They lied out their asses.” Politicians evidently use euphemisms to protect one another, or maybe it’s that they fear retribution from Bush. After all, he’s known for being good at that.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller says that Bush’s statements were “potentially misleading” and wants to know if we were “misled.” Rockefeller is evidently afraid to point out what we all already know, so he phrases the mild accusation as a question. A euphemism inside a euphemism. That earns bonus points, for those of you scoring at home.

Sen. Dick Lugar was evidently in a gentle, euphemistic mood when he said, “The basic assumptions … simply were inadequate to begin with.”

Some politicians get closer to calling the lies “lies.” Al Gore recently told us of a “a systematic effort to manipulate facts.” Sen. John Edwards talked about the “myths perpetrated by the Bush administration.”

Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich states that the Iraq war “was based on falsehood” and talks of “White House deception.” He says that we need congressional hearings “to wash this stain from our national reputation.” He’s hinting at impeachment, and Kucinich gets my vote for that alone, even if he too “euphemisizes.”

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida also comes close to stating the obvious. “You cannot tell me that the vice president didn’t receive the same report that the CIA received, and that the vice president didn’t communicate that report to the president or national security advisers to the president…. So I have to believe that the president knew or should have known that this information had been classified as unreliable by the CIA.” Unfortunately, Graham just couldn’t bring himself to add the obvious—“so Bush is a big, fat, stinking liar!”

The White House flings the euphemisms too. Do they ever. They acknowledged the infamous Iraq/Niger uranium lie by admitting that the claim “did not rise to the level of a presidential address.” That’s first-rate. Apparently, the lie didn’t rise to the vice-president’s level either, because he too has since acknowledged the same “mistake.”

Bush administration officials have since pointed out that since the uranium accusation was attributed to Britain, it was “technically accurate.” In other words, “It’s a lie, we knew it was a lie, but you can’t blame us for stating it.” This takes me back to the good old days of plausible deniability. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a bit misty-eyed.

Bush claims that the controversy itself is “misinformation.” Turn the accusation back on the accusers—a cynical but effective strategy. The idea is to get people to throw up their hands and yell, “They’re all damnable liars!” The Democrats are lumped in with the Republicans, and the fiasco is a wash for the president.

Bush also accuses his accusers not just of lying, but of “revisionist thinking.” Of course, no one is sure who has revised anything except Bush himself. Bush used this as an explanation to confuse the issue until the administration could organize a counterattack. This is actually a diversion, not a euphemism, but they’re fun to catch too.

The closest the Bush administration has come to admitting the patchwork of lies is when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair that the WMD excuse for the war was chosen for “bureaucratic” reasons. That statement is stunning not just for its rare honesty but for its deep, dark cynicism. It’s also a euphemism for, “Yeah, we had Bush lie about WMD, we don’t care what you think, and you can’t do anything about it.” There’s just one problem with that: lying to congress happens to be a felony.

There are some people who are willing to use accurate terms for Bush’s pronouncements, and one of them is Saddam Hussein. In a tape released in mid-July, Saddam said, “What will the liars Bush and Blair tell their people and mankind, what will the chorus of liars that backed them say, and what will they tell the world after they wove a scenario of lies against Iraq’s people and leadership?” The tape goes on and on in a similar vein. Hussein is the first that I know of to publicly call Bush a “liar.” I’m actually a little disappointed. I was hoping to be the first.

There are a few others. For instance, Bush was recently greeted by protesters holding signs with the slogan “He lied. GI died.” The style is terse and awkward, but at least the word choice shows some gumption.

Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter said, “The entire case the Bush administration made against Iraq is a lie.” Of course, Ritter has firsthand experience in Iraq, so he doesn’t need to muck about in euphemisms. And what basis does Bush have for his “misleading assertions”? “Hyped intelligence”? Gee, who should I believe?

If other people can call the lies “lies,” why is it that we can’t? Maybe we just don’t want to believe that the president would repeatedly lie to us. Maybe the country just doesn’t want a repeat of the trauma from the Clinton impeachment. Maybe we don’t mind lies when they’re about Saddam Hussein, the ace of spades in the deck of evil. Or maybe the collective American psyche feels that it’s rude to call the president a bald-faced liar.

Bush’s argument now seems to be, “I may have lied, but the war was legitimate and worthwhile nonetheless.” If that’s true, you’ve got to wonder why he couldn’t have used the truth to make his case originally.

The sad thing is that Bush was rewarded for his lies about Iraq. Bush’s approval ratings went up last fall as he did his lying, saber-rattling, Saddam-threatening thing on a daily basis, and he won an extra half-dozen seats in congress, helping the Republicans re-take control of the Senate. So why should he stop?

One of Bush’s handlers said offhandedly that the president “is not a fact checker.” No, definitely not. Checking facts is not what Bush does. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have much interaction with facts at all. They’re too confusing. They get in the way of narrow-minded decision-making. As Bush himself has said, he’s a “gut player” who relies heavily on instinct and fate.

Of course, “not a fact checker” is just another euphemism for what Bush truly is—a liar. There, I’ve said it, the word we absolutely won’t use, the word that gives us all the willies. It just so happens to be the truth, not a euphemism, and isn’t that nice for a change?


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