WASHINGTON -- President Bush has a huge credibility gap stemming from his exaggerated rhetoric that led the United States to attack Iraq.
The Bush hype recalls the Lyndon B. Johnson era when LBJ's misleading statements and deceptions led us deeper into the disastrous Vietnam War.
Johnson later acknowledged that public mistrust had doomed his chances for re-election in 1968. Trust and truth still go a long way with the American people when it comes to war and peace.
To rally public support for an unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bush laid it on with a shovel. There were scary warnings of an imminent, direct threat that Saddam Hussein would use nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction against us.
Throughout the buildup for war, Bush and his aides repeatedly claimed that there was a link between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorists.
So far, after almost four months of U.S. occupation of Iraq, none of those contentions has panned out.
The Iraqis deployed none of those feared weapons when U.S. forces invaded on March 20, despite warnings that had led many U.S. military men and women to spend uncomfortable hours decked out in protective moon suits.
Likewise, the occupation has failed to turn up evidence of a link between Saddam and al-Qaida.
This hasn't stopped the White House message machine. White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters again last week that the weapons will be discovered and that they were a "grave threat" to the United States and the rest of the world.
The administration should learn that mere repetition of a claim doesn't make it true.
As late as March 16, Vice President Dick Cheney said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" that "we believe (Saddam Hussein) has reconstituted nuclear weapons."
Now we're trying to sort out the welter of mea culpas from administration officials about who was responsible for the bogus uranium report in the president's State of the Union address. That speech contained the famous 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." It turned out that this segment was based on a crude forgery.
When the details of this flub started tumbling out, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, blamed the CIA. This led CIA director George Tenet to take the blame with a deep public grovel.
Later, Tenet apparently nudged the White House to reveal it had received two CIA memos last October and a warning again in January, all cautioning that the uranium report was dubious.
This time, Rice's assistant, Stephen Hadley, stepped forward to accept blame for not deleting the erroneous sentence from the address.
A defensive White House seems eager to change the subject. McClellan insists that the Iraqi invasion "should be seen through the prism of the war on terrorism."
Cheney said Thursday that failure to act would have been "irresponsible in the extreme" and would have endangered the United States.
In a Rose Garden speech last week, Bush pointed to the big picture, saying "a free, democratic, peaceful Iraq will not threaten America or our friends with illegal weapons" and "will not be a training ground for terrorists...."
After a five-day tour of Iraq, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a super hawk, came home last week and dismissed questions about the missing weapons, saying it was a question for the intelligence agencies. "I am not concerned about weapons of mass destruction," he said. "I am concerned about getting Iraq on its feet."
Sorry, Wolfowitz, you can't have it both ways. You were an architect in the trumped-up strategy that deceived the American people, causing them to believe the weapons endangered their lives. On those fears, we went to war.
The term "credibility gap" was coined in the Johnson era and popularized by Washington Post reporter Murray Marder. It symbolized the contrast between LBJ's rosy statements about the cost and progress of the war, with the more realistic news dispatches from Vietnam.
Although the Bush administration credibility gap looks more like the Grand Canyon, don't expect the president to take the responsibility for any false claims.
The week before last, he dodged the question on whether he would assume responsibility for the misleading allegations. In response, he continued to insist Iraq had sought a nuclear weapons program. "I take responsibility for dealing with that threat," he said sternly.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
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