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ELLEN GOODMAN

The president who can't be mistaken

NOW THAT her 15 minutes of fame are over, may I tip my hat to Linda Grabel? It isn't easy to give the president of the United States a pop quiz. But at the second debate, the 63-year-old legal secretary asked: "Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision and what you did to correct it."

By now it's well known that the president couldn't come up with a single mistake except, shucks, maybe an appointment or two. The question, as he restated it, was, "Did you make a mistake going into Iraq?" And his answer was: "Absolutely not."

Was anyone really surprised? George W. Bush is now officially The Man Who Wouldn't Ask Directions. This candidate doesn't do windows or introspection. He's running on an alchemy platform as the politician who transforms inflexibility into strength.

But if the personal is, as they say, political, this "unmistakable" policy isn't merely a matter of psychology. It's also a matter of strategy.

Remember when the president stuck his toe into the cold water of reality and acknowledged a "miscalculation" in Iraq and then promptly withdrew. The only miscalculation, he averred, was how fast the troops would win the ground war.

Remember when he added a regret to his stump speech? "We didn't find the stockpiles we all thought were there." By Columbus Day that admission was on the cutting room floor.

The savvy folks at Bush Central have bet the ranch on the belief that more than 50 percent of the voters do not want to hear that Iraq was a disastrous mistake. They've bet the White House on the very real and powerful pull of denial.

This is how the facts line up on one side of the divide. We were led into war on the grounds that Saddam's Iraq was an imminent danger. It wasn't. We invaded to preempt the use of weapons of mass destruction. There weren't any. We were told that we'd be greeted with flowers and candies. We were not told we'd also be greeted with chaos and suicide bombers.

The man who was developing nuclear weapons is now described as the man who wanted such a program. The reason for the war has morphed from a need to defend ourselves to a desire to liberate Iraqis. The front line in the war on terror is now the breeding ground for more terrorists.

On the other side of the divide is a simple narrative line: Voting for George Bush means never having to say you're sorry.

I don't say this glibly. Or lightly. We have to acknowledge the appeal of this mistake-proof world.

After all, the reality of the Iraq occupation raises questions that are by no means easy to answer. How do we tell the family of a dead or wounded soldier that their loss was a tragic mistake? How, as Bush asks continually, do you lead a war once you have acknowledged that it was the "wrong war, wrong time, wrong place"?

We cannot -- as was famously said of Vietnam -- declare victory and leave. It's much easier to believe that this was the right war, the right time, the right place. It's much easier to believe that we are people who do the right thing.

Denial is powerful precisely because it's so comforting. The refusal to admit being wrong is not just an attempt to avoid punishment as if we were children caught with our hands in the cookie jar. It's also a desire to protect our self-image -- indeed, our nation's identity. The president has linked America's innocence to his own.

At the same debate another Missouri woman reminded Bush of our diminished standing in the world. How would he repair our relations? He answered by saying: "We got a great country. I love our values. And I recognize I've made some decisions that have caused people to not understand the great values of this country." It was all their misunderstanding. He did no wrong.

At times the debate about the of Iraq sounds like the foreign policy equivalent of the culture wars. It's a debate between science and faith. Kerry asks Americans to look at the evidence. Bush asks people to believe.

There was a second part to Linda Grabel's question that got much less notice. She didn't just ask about the times the president was wrong, she also asked "what you did to correct it." There can be no corrections without any mistakes. Just more of the same.

Another Missourian, Mark Twain, is credited with saying that denial -- da Nile -- is not just a river in Egypt. This election year it runs through the heartland.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com. 

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