An Address Worthy of Enron

By Richard Cohen

Thursday, January 22, 2004; Page A25

In the gallery at President Bush's State of the Union address the other night I saw Tom Brady, the quarterback for the New England Patriots; Adnan Pachachi, the current head of the Iraqi Governing Council; and a bunch of other people -- all there to personify something Bush was saying. When he got to Iraq, I had my own man for the gallery. I pictured a smiling Ken Lay.

The former Enron chairman presided over a company that was going under while continuing to report a nifty profit. Whether Lay knew what was going on we have yet to learn. But the fact remains that he officiated over a sham, giving investors an accounting that was not at all true.

It was the same Tuesday night with Bush when it came to the war in Iraq. In last year's address, he was quite specific about the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein's regime. He talked about "a serious and mounting threat to our country." He cited an Iraqi nuclear weapons program, a biological weapons program, a chemical weapons program and, of course, links to Sept. 11 and al Qaeda. "Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda," Bush told the nation and the world.

None of that has turned out to be true. Maybe that's because the intelligence services indulged in what Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, calls "groupthink." Or maybe White House aides and the Pentagon, intent on war no matter what, hyped the findings. Whatever the case, I find it hard to believe that Bush purposely lied to the nation.

But this year's State of the Union address, while not quite a lie, was clearly deceptive. I didn't feel Bush had an obligation to tick off everything that had gone wrong about Iraq, but I didn't expect him to pretend that somehow the WMD allegations had been substantiated. He cited the report of chief weapons inspector David Kay as if it vindicated the original charges, when in fact it did not. And then, in a rhetorical sleight of hand, he talked as if the aim of the war had been simply to remove a thug from office -- when that was always supposed to be a byproduct.

The trouble is that just about everything Bush said a year ago has turned out not to be true. Yet Bush not only whistled past that particular graveyard, he acted as if he had been right all along. "Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day," he said. Yes, and Enron would still be reporting earnings.

After last year's State of the Union, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal whom conservatives most like to hate, said he was unconvinced. He said he wanted Bush to "come back to Congress and present convincing evidence of an imminent threat before we send troops to war in Iraq." For that remark, both courageous and prescient, Kennedy was ruthlessly Murdoched by right-wing media. It was considered more mushy thinking by a mushy liberal -- a redundancy on talk radio and Fox TV.

I cheer the removal of Hussein. I think, as Bush has argued, that the use of American force has (temporarily) had a salutary effect in the Middle East. Iran has welcomed U.N. nuclear inspectors, and Libya has done the same -- although Moammar Gaddafi was already showing signs of accommodation in admitting responsibility for various terrorist acts, including the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland. No doubt, force can add emphasis to diplomacy.

But within the Bush White House lies an ugly beast that never gets acknowledged: The administration misled the American people, either purposely or out of incompetence. This is not a minor matter, because war, with all its unforeseen consequences, is not itself a minor matter -- nor is the loss of some 500 American lives. Hussein is gone, and that is all well and good, but gone too is the confidence of the American people that this administration levels with them. Bush certainly did not do that Tuesday night.

This State of the Union address was as rhetorically flat as it was intellectually dishonest -- a political pitch designed to obscure uncomfortable facts and to solidify the conservative Republican base. Thus we got Bush's pledge to support the institution of marriage (think Britney Spears) and to ban gays from enjoying it (think Britney Spears again) and the promise to trifle with the Constitution so that love will not, as we are told, triumph. For each and every pledge there was someone in the gallery, but for Iraq you had to use your imagination.

It was a beaming Ken Lay. Take a bow, Ken.