If George W. Bush were a character in a novel or a play, last week might have been the turning point in the narrative. He was shown on film being explicitly warned, just hours before Hurricane Katrina hit, that the levees in New Orleans were vulnerable.
But everyone knows that after the levees broke, he denied having been warned that such a thing was possible. The broadcast of the film amounted to a terrible epiphany: The president seemed caught in a lie. Grave questions had already been raised about his administration's manipulations of the truth, especially in relation to the war in Iraq. Does the truth matter in America any more?
Critics of the president (among whom I must be counted) might come to yet another swift judgment of him, finding further evidence of a disqualifying character flaw. Rumbles about impeachment can be heard, despite the unlikelihood of such an outcome, shy of still-fanciful Democratic victories in the fall elections.
But what if our concern with Bush was embedded in literature, not politics? In that case, the conflict we would care about is not the one between a public figure and his critics, but the struggle inside the man himself. Literature unfolds across an inner landscape, and on that terrain the character flaw is essential.
Indeed, the character flaw of the hero is what enables a reader or playgoer to identify with him, even while passing judgment. Last week's videotape revelation raised public questions about the president's truthfulness, but the private question -- the one a man must face alone, in the crucible of conscience -- is a version of the question we all must ask of ourselves.
Consider the possibilities. The fictional character -- let's call him ''Bush" -- learns that his firm public statement about what he had been told is radically contradicted by incontrovertible evidence. What he told the nation at its moment of crisis was not true, and that contradiction is now exposed.
Learning this, in one narrative line, ''Bush" might feel deeply shamed to have laid bare what he has always known was a lie. The character flaw is deception. But in another narrative line, ''Bush" might be shocked to realize that, in the traumatic moments of the hurricane crisis, he had blocked all memory of the critical briefing. He hadn't consciously lied, but had constructed a new reality tailored to personal and political needs. The character flaw, in this case, is not deception, but self-deception.
Whatever ''Bush" did in the past, however, the drama that matters adheres in what he does now, at the moment of being exposed. Whether ''Bush" is a deceiver or a self-deceiver, the question is: What happens inside him at the terrible moment of judgment? In that instant, will he experience a transformation in awareness, as the truth of his condition shows itself? Or will he descend into a further circle of denial, deepening his predicament?
If this were a novel or a play, we would watch with a certain empathy, alert to revelations of our own inevitable implication in deception and self-deception. None of us is innocent, and it is to wrestle with that fact of our condition that we read books and buy theater tickets.
But the present American story is not a work of literature. From all appearances, the president is not a candidate for the role of ''Bush" because a narrative that unfolds across the terrain of an inner life requires an inner life, and Bush shows no sign of having one.
Even a character flaw presumes a depth of character that the president seems to lack. What interior conflict can there be for a man who attributes all failures, all mistakes, all crimes to those around him, as if he himself (alone of all humans) is blameless? Where there is no capacity for shame, there is none for insight, much less transformation. Without the secret struggle against the self, there can be no drama, only pathos.
As for us, the beholders of this narrative, there can be no suspension of disbelief, no identification, and no recognition of our own fate being rescued by a confrontation with the truth. On the contrary, since this is not literature but life, there is only the increased awareness of the danger into which the world is plunged by having such a hollow creature in the position of ultimate power.