Stop me if you've heard this already. But there are people out there - honest, decent, sincere people and deranged moonbats, too - who think that George W. Bush lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. No, seriously, it's true. "Bush lied, people died" is one of their catchier slogans.
Now, I'm not one of these people, but let's assume they're right.
What if Bush did lie, big time? What, exactly, would that mean? If you listen to Bush's critics, serious and moonbat alike, the answer is obvious: He'd be a criminal warmonger, a failed president and - most certainly - impeachment fodder. Even Bush's defenders agree that if Bush lied, it would be a grave sin. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently accused Harry Reid & Co. of becoming "Clare Boothe Luce Democrats" for even suggesting that Bush would deceive the public. Luce, a Republican, had insisted that FDR "lied us into war." And this, the Journal editorialized, was a "slander" many paranoid Republicans took to their graves.
My friends at the Journal are right to suggest that some Bush critics are paranoids, but here's the thing: Luce wasn't slandering Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, the evidence that FDR lied is far greater than the evidence that Bush did.
Charles Beard, arguably the most influential historian of the 20th century - and a very liberal progressive - dedicated the last years of his life to writing about FDR's lies and "Caesarism." Richard Hofstadter, another of the great liberal historians (and a sharp critic of Beard's), also conceded FDR's "undeniably devious leadership" in the months and years before the war. Hofstadter, like countless other historians, had to agree that FDR's diplomacy and politics were designed to push the United States through a "back door into war."
Roosevelt won his unprecedented third election on the vow that he wouldn't send American boys to war: "While I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." This was almost surely a lie.
"Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor," writes the historian Thomas A. Bailey. "He was faced with a terrible dilemma. If he let the people slumber in a fog of isolationism, they might fall prey to Hitler. If he came out unequivocally for intervention, he would be defeated" in the 1940 election. This view was seconded by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in a rave review of Bailey's book in 1949. Schlesinger now spends his time lending gravitas to the moonbattier "Bush lied" table-thumpers at Arianna Huffington's Web site.
Just three days before Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 4, 1941, the Chicago Tribune and Washington Star-Ledger broke the story that FDR had already drafted a plan for war with Germany, a plan that entailed a 10-million-man army invading Germany by the middle of 1943. Democrats and Republicans alike saw this as further proof that FDR had been lying all along. Some suggest that a U.S.-flagged schooner sent into Japanese waters that same day was intended to provoke a fight. Roosevelt got Pearl Harbor instead, which was a surprise but nonetheless "rescued" the president, in Hofstadter's words, from the "dilemma" of needing to start a war the American people opposed.
Does this make FDR a bad president? No. While I have my problems with FDR, most historians are right to be forgiving of deceit in a just cause. World War II needed to be fought, and FDR saw this sooner than others.
Even the most cursory reading of any presidential biography will tell you that statesmanship requires occasional duplicity. If great foreign policy could be conducted Boy Scout-style - "I will never tell a lie" - foreign policy would be easy (and Jimmy Carter would be hailed as the American Bismarck). This isn't to say that the public's trust should be breached lightly, but there are other competing goods involved in any complex situation.
Now, you might say that Iraq was no WWII, Saddam was no Hitler, and 9/11 was no Pearl Harbor. Those are all fair arguments with varying degrees of merit. But WWII wasn't "the good war" in our hearts until after Pearl Harbor and even until after the Holocaust, and a lot of Hollywood burnishing.
The Bush Doctrine is not chiefly about WMD and never was. Like FDR's vision, it balances democracy, security and morality. Still, the media and anti-Bush partisans have been bizarrely unmoved by the revelations of Hussein's killing fields, his torture chambers for tots, and democracy's tangible progress in the Middle East.
If Bush succeeds - still a big if - the painful irony for Bush's critics is that he will go down in history as a great president, even if he lied, while they will take their paranoia to their graves.