GEORGE W. BUSH and his supporters are past masters at impugning the reputations and patriotism of opponents, no matter how unimpeachable their reputations might be.
It was therefore amusing to watch the White House switch into reverse after Representative Jean Schmidt of Ohio lectured her congressional colleague, retired Marine Colonel John Murtha of Pennsylvania, about how ''cowards cut and run, Marines never do." White House spokesman Scott McClellan compared Murtha to the lefty filmmaker Michael Moore after Murtha suggested a six-month timetable pulling troops out of Iraq. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said that war critics would ''prefer that the United States surrender to terrorists who would harm innocent Americans," and, as usual, Vice President Cheney played the heavy.
When asked about Cheney's criticism, Murtha, a combat veteran, said: ''I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war and then don't like suggestions about what needs to be done." Murtha was referring to the fact that Cheney, who had ''other priorities" than fighting for his country, sought and received five deferments during the Vietnam War.
Then it dawned on the White House that, with the president's approval ratings in the cellar, perhaps it was not a good idea to launch personal attacks on such a man as Murtha, who has spent his congressional career backing and helping the military.
So, overnight, the rhetoric changed. From Bush in Asia to Cheney in Washington, Murtha became an honorable American -- misguided, perhaps, but no longer a coward or someone who wanted to have terrorists harm Americans. Schmidt, who appears not to have known who Murtha was, sort of apologized and had her remarks struck from the Congressional Record.
Letting up on Murtha didn't mean letting up on war critics, however. Cheney said that senators who suggested that he and the administration had manipulated prewar intelligence to fit their preconceived decision to invade Iraq were making ''one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city." This by the man who went back to the CIA again and again, leaning on them to find evidence to support an invasion of Iraq; this by an administration that spread a net of misinformation about Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda links, a charge that the CIA refused to confirm but that Cheney kept making anyway.
Yet for all of that, lying about WMD is too strong a word to use. It isn't that the administration knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The point is that the administration wanted to invade Iraq anyway, and WMD were only the most acceptable excuse. As antiterrorism expert Richard Clarke noticed right after 9/11, the Bush team was determined to use that national tragedy to push their Iraq agenda. Rumsfeld is quoted as saying after 9/11 that it would be better to start with bombing Iraq -- which had nothing to do with 9/11 -- rather than Afghanistan, in which Al Qaeda dwelt.
I am sure that the Bush administration thought there would be at least some weapons of mass destruction lying around in Iraq to justify its war. Indeed, it seemed reasonable that there might be and surprising that there were none. But weapons of mass destruction were the excuse, not the reason, for the war, and that was the deception perpetuated on the American people. The real reason was to get rid of a potential problem even if there was no immediate danger, control an oil-rich country that could be made friendly to Israel, and promulgate neoconservative theories about the transformational powers of democracy in the Middle East -- none of which would have been acceptable to Congress or the people as a cause for war.
And so by accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, as the old song goes, they manipulated the available intelligence. Uninterested in anything that didn't support their Iraq plans, the Bush team ran through all the intelligence yellow lights, and some red ones, in order to sell their war. Bush's statement that Congress saw the same intelligence as he did is most certainly not true.
One longs for the straightforward arm-twisting of Lyndon Johnson in support of his lost war. When Idaho Senator Frank Church advocated negotiating with Hanoi, LBJ asked him whom he had consulted. When Church answered ''Walter Lippmann," the distinguished columnist, LBJ said: ''All right, Frank, next time you want a dam for Idaho you go talk to Walter Lippmann."
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.