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This Is Getting Old, Mr. President

President George W. Bush looked relaxed and confident when he gave his State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 20. His easy delivery, his smiles and engaging glances, radiated security and happiness. He was in command, and the future was his and it was good.

The president was so happy that it seems churlish to point out the shabby deceptions in his speech. For example, his remarks on health care began with congratulations to Congress for “strengthening Medicare.” He noted with obvious pleasure that, “starting this year, seniors can choose to receive a drug discount card, saving them 10 to 25 percent off the retail price of most prescription drugs.”

Actually, seniors have been able to get those cards from pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies for the past few years. What’s new is the government’s endorsement of these private discount plans. But Bush neglected to tell the whole truth—namely, that which drugs are covered and the amount of discount depends on the whim of the pharmaceutical company.

He went on to say that “In January of 2006, seniors can get prescription drug coverage under Medicare.” To be completely truthful, he should have said that in two years Medicare beneficiaries will be able to pay every month for a privately run prescription-drug-coverage insurance policy. The premiums to pay for this private insurance will be deducted from their Social Security checks, and the premiums are expected to rise every year. By the way, these new premiums will be in addition to the premiums seniors already pay for Medicare Part B. The most astonishing part of Bush’s plan to reduce drug costs is the provision that forbids Medicare from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of drugs. Yup.

Despite what the president told us, none of this “strengthens” Medicare. On the contrary, these programs are designed to weaken it. Why in the world would George W. Bush want to strengthen our government health-care system? As he said, lifting his voice for emphasis, “A government-run health care system is the wrong prescription.” At that point, Republicans burst into a thunderous applause that abated only long enough for him to declare that it’s “the system of private medicine that makes America’s health care the best in the world.” No. America’s health-care system isn’t the best in the world—not unless you’re very, very rich or very well insured.

Bush finds it very hard to tell the truth about his foreign affairs, too. Two years ago he had told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was soon to use them against us. Now he said, “We’re seeking all the facts. Already, the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations.” The clumsy phrase about “weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities” is the result of our president trying to twist the truth around to sound like something more to his liking.

Three days after he uttered those purposely confusing words, the author of the Kay Report, David Kay, stepped down as leader of our hunt for banned weapons. “I don’t think they existed,” he said. “What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last (1991) Gulf War, and I don’t think there was a large-scale production program in the ’90s.”

David Kay was the president’s own investigator, and Bush knew what was in the report. So he decided to talk with a forked tongue. He knew that Kay was leaving and he had already chosen Kay’s successor. But, being George W. Bush, he hadn’t expected Kay to volunteer the truth to the press.

Bush won’t tell the truth about his foreign policy, but he won’t stop talking about it either. So we have the sad spectacle of our president again reciting a list of “our partners Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands—(applause)—Norway, El Salvador, and the 17 other countries that have committed troops to Iraq.”

To speak plainly, with rare exceptions, our “partners” had to be bribed or threatened to give minimal token support to a policy which, in their own country, had little popular backing and much opposition. And “committing” troops is quite different from actually having sent them into combat. On the day that Bush spoke, Japan—third on his list of supporters—had an advance party of 35 troops in Iraq. According to the Associated Press, most Japanese oppose the deployment.

During the run-up to the war, the Pentagon and the State Department produced reports for Bush that gave an accurate picture of Iraq’s collapsing oil production and the skimpy revenue it brought in. But he turned around and gave our Congress a wholly different account and he assured us – through the words of Donald Rumsfeld in the Financial Times– “When it comes to reconstruction, before we turn to the American taxpayer, we will turn first to the resources of the Iraqi government and the international community.”

Well, here we are. Military expenses in the Middle East and elsewhere drove up the spending that Congress controls by almost 16 percent in fiscal year 2003. And the president will have to ask for an additional $40 billion or more for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan next year. That will be on top of the $400-billion military budget he will send to Congress in February. Tens of billions here, hundreds of billions there, it adds up.

The U.S. plunged into a record $374 billion budget deficit in fiscal 2003, and the White House has projected the fiscal 2004 deficit could top $500 billion. Add up the accumulated deficits, and you get a total outstanding public debt of more than $7 trillion. In case the typographer gets it wrong, that’s a numeral seven followed by twelve zeros.

It’s easy to find the deceptions and twisted half-truths in Bush’s State of the Union address, but it’s really no fun. He’s the president of the United States, and he’s a liar, and it’s dispiriting.

—Gene Mirabelli

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