by Paul Waldman
May 20, 2015

None of the conservatives running for president want to be associated with the last Republican president — not even his brother (for whom stepping away is rather complicated). After all, George W. Bush left office with an approval rating hovering in the low 30s, and his grandest project was the gigantic catastrophe of the Iraq War, which we’re still dealing with and still debating. If you’re a Republican right now you’re no doubt wishing we could talk about something else, but failing that, you’d like the issue framed in a particular way: The war was an honest mistake, nobody lied to the public, and anything bad that’s happening now is Barack Obama’s fault.

For the moment I want to focus on the part about the lies. I’ve found over the years that conservatives who supported the war get particularly angry at the assertion that Bush lied us into war. No, they’ll insist, it wasn’t his fault: There was mistaken intelligence, he took that intelligence in good faith, and presented what he believed to be true at the time. It’s the George Costanza defense: It’s not a lie if you believe it.

Here’s the problem, though. It might be possible, with some incredibly narrow definition of the word “lie,” to say that Bush told only a few outright lies on Iraq. Most of what he said in order to sell the public on the war could be said to have some basis in something somebody thought or something somebody alleged (Bush was slightly more careful than Dick Cheney, who lied without hesitation or remorse). But if we reduce the question of Bush’s guilt and responsibility to how many lies we can count, we miss the bigger picture.

What the Bush administration launched in 2002 and 2003 may have been the most comprehensive, sophisticated, and misleading campaign of government propaganda in American history. Spend too much time in the weeds, and you risk missing the hysterical tenor of the whole campaign.

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