In an interview with NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday morning, Bush expressed disgust with some Republicans who were unwilling to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, saying they made him “sick.”
“What’s really troubling is how much misinformation there is and the capacity of people to spread all kinds of untruth,” he said. “And I don’t know what we are going to do about that. I know what I am doing about it. I don’t do Twitter, Facebook or any of that stuff.”
Today’s social media environment did not exist during the Bush years. But Bush and his administration found plenty of ways to spread misinformation and “untruths” nevertheless, most notably while trying to push the country into supporting their invasion of Iraq.
The Bush administration said that Saddam Hussein had a “massive stockpile” of biological weapons, reconstituted a nuclear program and had ties to al Qaeda ― even though officials had intelligence to the contrary and knew those claims were false. They didn’t need social media to get those lies out to the public.
In a speech to Congress making the case for war, Bush infamously pushed false information that Hussein, “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” After this falsehood was rebutted by Ambassador Joe Wilson in a New York Times opinion article, high-ranking Bush administration officials retaliated by exposing Wilson’s then-wife Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, blowing her cover, compromising CIA operations and forcing her retirement.
Bush’s foreign policy team was notorious for pushing misleading and false narratives in the press to advance the administration’s war aims. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice notably declared that war was urgently needed: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
A 2008 report from the Center for Public Integrity identified 935 lies that the Bush administration told in the run-up to the Iraq War.
The Bush administration’s lies were not limited to the selling of the Iraq War. Bush and his administration also lied about the U.S. torture program they initiated, the existence of “black sites” where detainees were tortured, the rendition of detainees to foreign countries that practiced the most barbaric forms of torture, and the mental and physical torture and murder committed by U.S. soldiers and contractors in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. They lied about their wiretapping program. They lied about the safety of the fumes after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and their effect on first responders.
It’s not as though Bush and his advisers were unaware of what they were doing. In 2004, journalist Ron Suskind, in The New York Times Magazine, quoted a conversation he had with an unnamed Bush administration official ― later speculated to be political adviser Karl Rove (although Rove denies this) ― who boasted about the untruths they were spreading:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality ― judiciously, as you will ― we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
This disdain for the “reality-based community” became a meme among liberals opposed to Bush.
Comedian Stephen Colbert launched the first episode of his satirical show “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central in 2005 with a rant in the style of former Fox News opinion host Bill O’Reilly in favor of “truthiness,” the reality that feels true whether it is true or not.
Colbert would go on to lampoon Bush’s penchant for falsehood to his face at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
“Now, I know there are some polls out there saying that this man has a 32% approval rating,” Colbert said. “But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
When viewed from 2021, in the wake of the Trump administration, Colbert’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner routine reads as it could be an eery warning from the future. But Colbert was just commenting on the occupant of the White House at that moment.
Bush’s newfound opposition to untruths is itself a reemergence of his truthiness. He doesn’t feel, in his gut, that he worked to counterbalance the “reality-based community” with falsity, but it was Bush’s mendacious rule that paved the path for Trump’s.
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