Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Column 4: The First Debate - Facts vs. Denial

Facts vs. Denial
By Ed Gurowitz

I’d been hoping that Thursday night would mark a decisive moment in the 2004 campaign – leave us with the issue all but decided a month before the actual election.

Not this year. With only about a 10% swing vote, a dramatic shift is unlikely. At the same time, my assessment of the debate is that, while neither candidate knocked it out of the park, President Bush mostly hit singles and committed errors, while Senator Kerry hit doubles and triples and committed fewer and less serious errors.

One thing that did become clear, I think, is the difference between these candidates at a fundamental level. President Bush is basing his campaign on his personal values – what he would call steadfastness, loyalty, and character. Senator Kerry is basing his campaign on what he calls “the facts on the ground” as the most important basis on which to determine actions and strategies.

I hold the values of steadfastness, loyalty, and character in the highest esteem, but all of my training and business experience tells me that facts must be given primacy in determining important courses of action. Without a clear, undistorted relationship to the facts, values and conclusions will be tainted by factors such as ego, wishes, and hopes, and this contamination of reality by personal psychology can have tragic consequences.

President Bush seems to ignore critically important facts, even facts he has previously acknowledged. While he harps on what he call’s Senator Kerry’s inconsistency, he now denies facts he previously stated. He continues to insist that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Quaeda, that there is a true coalition fighting in Iraq. All the evidence, including that from Bush’s own sources, states unequivocally that there were no WMD’s and none on the horizon, that there was no Hussein/Bin Laden connection and the President has said both things publicly.The so-called coalition is paper-thin, with the lion’s share of coalition forces coming from the US forces. Of the 30 allied forces, only six have 1,000 or more troops in Iraq, and the Bush Administration is struggling to keep more countries from dropping out of the coalition. Yet President Bush called Senator Kerry’s bringing these facts up “denigrating our allies’ contribution.”

Confronted with these and other facts in the debate, President Bush repeatedly deflected the argument to try to argue on ground that was comfortable for him. Asked by the moderator if the war in Iraq has been worth the cost of over 1,000 American lives, he cited a conversation with a war widow and used his (and our) compassion for her loss to show that we are of nobler character than the enemy. True, but in no way a response to the question.

Bush continually (eleven times) referred to the war as “hard work,” implying that to recognize that the work was based on errors and misjudgments would be dereliction of duty – again and again he stated or implied that pointing out facts that he considers unfavorable or accepting bad news is a moral failure and that the Commander in Chief can’t do that, that the troops would not follow if he did – yet the troops know the facts first hand – how confident can the be in a Commander in Chief who is apparently comfortably in denial?

As a psychologist I learned to keep a close eye on the line between commitment and conviction on the one hand and pathological rigidity on the other, and on people’s having a healthy relationship to reality versus denial and distortion. If President Bush is not lying, if he believes that what he says is true, then I have to believe that his commitment to his beliefs and convictions is seriously distorting his relationship with reality.

The issues of this campaign are not issues of character - both candidates are men of good character. The key issues revolve around who can navigate the ship of state through today’s dangerous waters, and in my view that requires a very clear grasp of the facts, something that Thursday night’s debate indicates George W. Bush does not possess. Ideology and unthinking tenacity will not return the United States to world leadership.

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