SYNOPSIS: Britons are holding their own Tony Blair accountable for misleading them into war in Iraq, but Bush, with an obsequious U.S. press corps, has done far worse to the U.S. yet somehow avoided the serious political consequences that he deserves
Two leaders politicized intelligence to sell a war. But while one has suffered a catastrophic loss of public trust, the other hasn't, at least not yet.
Are Tony Blair's troubles the shape of things to come for George Bush? Or does the aftermath of the Iraq war show, once again, that we are two nations divided by a common language?
In Britain the news remains dominated by the death of Dr. David Kelly, a W.M.D. specialist who became a pawn in a vicious war between the Blair government and the BBC over claims of politicized intelligence. According to news reports, someone in the Blair government leaked Dr. Kelly's name as the likely source of a critical BBC report, apparently provoking his suicide.
The government's aim seems to have been to discredit the BBC. After attributing the report to Dr. Kelly, officials questioned whether the BBC had accurately reported what Dr. Kelly said. They also suggested that he was at too low a level to know how intelligence on Iraqi weapons had been put together.
But this attack has backfired badly. The broadcaster apparently has evidence, including a tape, that Dr. Kelly made the key allegations it reported. Moreover, Dr. Kelly was, in fact, in a position to know what he claimed. More information may emerge as a judicial inquiry proceeds, but at this point the BBC seems largely in the clear, while the government looks like a villain.
The failure to find weapons of mass destruction, followed by the Kelly affair, has severely damaged Tony Blair's standing. Two-thirds of the British public thinks that Mr. Blair misled his nation into war (though only a minority believes he did so "knowingly"). Only 37 percent thinks he is doing a good job. For the first time since Mr. Blair took office in 1997, the hapless Tories are leading in the polls.
And it's not just Iraq. Clare Short, who resigned as secretary for international development over the Iraq war, says that Mr. Blair is "obsessed with spin" — and many Britons seem to share her view. In June only 36 percent of the public described Mr. Blair as "trustworthy," versus 54 percent who called him "untrustworthy."
Now the Bush administration was at least as guilty of hyping the case for war. It was a campaign not so much of outright falsehoods — though there were some of those — as of exaggeration and insinuation. Here's what the public thought it heard: Last month, 71 percent of those polled thought the administration had implied that Saddam Hussein had been involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
And when it comes to domestic spin, Mr. Blair isn't remotely in Mr. Bush's league. Whether pretending that the war on terror — not tax cuts, which have cost the Treasury three times as much — is responsible for record deficits, or that those hugely elitist tax cuts are targeted on working families or that opening up wilderness areas to loggers is a fire-prevention plan, Mr. Bush has taken misrepresentation of his own policies to a level never before seen in America.
But while Mr. Bush's poll numbers have fallen back to prewar levels, he hasn't suffered a Blair-like collapse. Why?
One answer, surely, is the kid-gloves treatment Mr. Bush has always received from the news media, a treatment that became downright fawning after Sept. 11. There was a reason Mr. Blair's people made such a furious attack on the ever-skeptical BBC.
Another answer may be that in modern America, style trumps substance. Here's what Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, said in a speech last week: "To gauge just how out of touch the Democrat leadership is on the war on terror, just close your eyes and try to imagine Ted Kennedy landing that Navy jet on the deck of that aircraft carrier." To say the obvious, that remark reveals a powerful contempt for the public: Mr. DeLay apparently believes that the nation will trust a man, independent of the facts, because he looks good dressed up as a pilot. But it's possible that he's right.
What must worry the Bush administration, however, is a third possibility: that the American people gave Mr. Bush their trust because in the aftermath of Sept. 11, they desperately wanted to believe the best about their president. If that's all it was, Mr. Bush will eventually face a terrible reckoning.
Originally published in The New York Times, 7.29.03