Monday, April 10, 2006

What does "explain" mean?

Arlen Specter has called on Bush to explain his role in the leaking of information to reporters.

What a refreshing concept: when asked about something, give a direct answer.

But that's not really how the Bush administration has operated. Bill Clinton famously disputed the meaning of the word "is". But that was in court. In the world outside the courtroom, Bush has gone far beyond Clinton in refusing to answer questions, or providing carefully parsed but misleading answers, or changing the subject.

Some examples:

• Providing misleading cost estimates for the Medicare drug benefit;

• Using discredited intelligence in the run-up to Iraq;

• The campaign to paint Iraq as an urgent threat and somehow connected to 9/11;

• Saying Congress had access to the same intelligence, when in fact they didn't;

• Defending the Patriot Act extension by saying the searches all require warrants, while running a secret warrantless eavesdropping operation;

• The recent British memo showing Bush was determined to invade Iraq regardless of what inspectors found;

• Saying he would fire anyone found leaking secrets, when he knew full well who was doing the leaking because he had authorized it;

And so on.

An illustrative if otherwise unimportant example was Bush's silence, during the campaign, on his military service record.

Bush supporters argue, correctly, that Bush wasn't running on his military service and so did not need to talk about it. But given the security focus of the campaign and the questions swirling around John Kerry's service, it was reasonable for the media to ask about Bush's service so one could compare the two.

Me, I couldn't have cared less what he did while in the service. That was 30 years ago, in a different time, and he was a different person then. If he spent all of Vietnam high as a kite in an opium den, it wouldn't have mattered to me at all.

In response to questions, Bush released some of his military records. But those records raised more questions. And Bush's response to that? Silence. Complete silence.

This led to the odd spectacle of Bush supporters arguing about what the records did or didn't prove, as if they were dissecting the Kennedy assassination. Except that Bush was very much alive, and could have cleared up the controversy in minutes by simply stating what had happened back then.

But he didn't. And he got hammered for it. Which I found very interesting. It led to three possible conclusions:

1. He truly couldn't remember what he had done;
2. He remembers, and the truth would have done more political damage than stonewalling;
3. He has a reflexive "none of your business" attitude on some things.

The logical conclusion at the time was that he had something to hide. But now I wonder if it simply reflects a character flaw -- an "it's only illegal if you get caught" mindset that rejects the notion of public oversight of his activities. That would certainly explain a lot, including the irritated and occasionally whiny tone he often adopts when forced to explain himself.

So I think Specter's plea will fall on deaf ears. This administration is the most secretive in recent memory, and doesn't believe it needs to explain itself. So its supporters will continue to argue about what Bush did and didn't know, while the man himself sits silently on the sideline, refusing to speak.

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