When presidential words don't line up

After half a term free of scandal, Bush's questionable statement joins a long compendium of famous fibs

"Report: Presidents Washington through Bush may have lied about key matters." This story last year in The Onion newspaper works because, like all good satire, it plays on an element of truth. American presidents through the ages have lied to and misled the public about matters great and small, from secret involvement in war to issues of health and marital infidelity.

So where does George W. Bush's questionable statement in January's State of the Union address - that Saddam Hussein had "recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" - fit in the pantheon of presidential prevarication? [The original version mischaracterized the story with a headline that referred to "Bush's lie," which implies conscious intent, something that has not been established and was not asserted in the story. Also, the story itself has been clarified by referring to Bush's "questionable statement" instead of his "false claim."]

Considered narrowly, the furor over President Bush's statement appears to some as a tempest in a teapot. The claim, now disavowed by the Bush administration, including its intelligence advisers, was only one point in a multifaceted case for going to war. Bush aides also note that the president can't personally fact-check everything that his army of aides includes in speeches, While wishing aloud they'd left that sentence out, they still point to the allegation's technical accuracy: that the information came from British intelligence. The British have yet to disavow it.

"It's a half-truth; it's not Joe McCarthy, who said he saw all those communists at the State Department," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar.

Still, note Mr. Hess and presidential historians, the importance of the seemingly minor uranium allegation rests in its larger context: Four months after the US and its allies invaded Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction or elements of a reconstituted weapons program have been discovered there. Deposed President Hussein remains at large. American soldiers are dying every day, and there appears to be no exit strategy.

The significance of this one statement "very much now depends on what happens in the future," says historian Robert Dallek. "If we had won the Vietnam War, this issue of the Gulf of Tonkin wouldn't resonate the way it does," he adds, referring to President Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War based on unsubstantiated reports of attacks on American ships. Whether or not certain attacks in the area actually occurred is still a matter of dispute.

President Franklin Roosevelt certainly lied as he sent the nation into an undeclared naval war against Germany before the US officially joined World War II. But history reflects kindly upon Roosevelt, because he was on the winning side.

For Bush, honesty and morality were pillars of his presidential campaign, following on the truth-challenged years of the Clinton-Gore presidency, which saw Clinton impeached for lying under oath about sex and Vice President Gore dogged by allegations about illegal fundraising. Bush, in contrast, was marketed as the born-again Christian who had worked all the irresponsible tendencies out of his system by the time he was 40.

Indeed, 2 1/2 years in, the Bush II administration has remained notably scandal-free, at least in the eyes of the public. Questions about Vice President Cheney's tenure at the oil-equipment corporation Halliburton remain before the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the legal battle over Cheney's goal of keeping documents secret from his energy task force remains in court. In the runup to the Iraq war, Cheney has also garnered attention for his visits to the CIA, raising allegations that US intelligence was manipulated.

Recent polls show declines in support for Bush's handling of the Iraq war; according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 40 percent of Americans say the war with Iraq was not worth fighting, up from 27 percent in late April. Overall, though, Bush's approval ratings remain in the 60 percent range, and so the flap over the alleged African uranium, known as yellowcake, hasn't appeared to damage him seriously, at least so far.

The story, some analysts note, has played on the front pages longer than might be expected, because it's summer and there's less competing news. Also, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to Washington Thursday to address a joint session of Congress has given the story legs, as do the statements of increasingly emboldened Democrats in an encroaching election season. The cost of the Iraq war, which is fueling a record budget deficit, and charges that the administration hasn't sought adequate help in Iraq from allies, are also giving the Bush White House a bad week.

One thing is certain: The administration isn't interested in using the excuse of "all presidents lie" - even if, as George Washington University historian Leo Ribuffo likes to say, "presidents have lied about foreign policy so often that it's almost a common-law right."

Still, adds Professor Ribuffo, that doesn't minimize the potential seriousness of Bush's misstatement. "This is not on a par with the Eisenhower administration saying that the US was not involved in the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953 or the Guatemalan government in 1954," says Ribuffo. "But if it's not a 10 on a 10-point scale, that's no reason not to be concerned."

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