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Bush thrown curve over his straight talk

Poll suggests backers unsold on GOP policy question his honesty

WASHINGTON -- An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week indicated that 41 percent of Americans, the fewest ever, find President Bush to be honest and straightforward. The poll was taken just before it became widely known that Bush's aide Karl Rove had helped reveal the identity of a CIA operative, so the distrust probably relates to the president himself.

People were polled from July 8 to 11, when the president was continuing his efforts to build support for the Iraq war by emphasizing that ''the world's terrorists" were congregating there. It was a simple pitch, clear and forceful, and typical of Bush's straight-talking style. But like some of the president's other declarations, it did not fully jibe with the intelligence -- in this case, studies showing that most fighters streaming into Iraq were not among ''the world's terrorists" before the war.

Bush's statement was true enough that his supporters never doubted his accuracy. It was also untrue enough that his opponents instantly felt he was lying. But until recently there was always a group in the middle, wavering on the war and on Republican policies generally, that gave Bush high points for honesty. That group seems to be changing its mind about Bush's straight talk.

If so, it marks the realization that yet another seemingly successful presidential style of communicating serves to obscure as much as it reveals. From Dwight Eisenhower's friendly but foggy nonanswers, to Ronald Reagan's memorable but misleading anecdotes, to Bill Clinton's logical but carefully couched disclaimers, the American public has been coming to grips with presidential obfuscation for decades.

It is a particular comedown for Bush, since his seemingly straight, simple honesty --coming on the heels of Clinton's much more complicated, emotive style -- was key to his appeal.

By the third presidential debate in 2000, Bush was already earning a reputation for answering questions with an impressive directness. ''I support a patient's bill of rights, and I want all people covered," Bush said in response to a criticism from Vice President Al Gore.

Gore, dragging a reputation for over-attention to bureaucratic details, chimed in: ''I referred to the Dingell-Norwood bill. It's the bipartisan bill that's in Congress . . . And I specifically would like to know whether Governor Bush will support the Dingell-Norwood bill, which is the one pending."

Harping on the Dingell-Norwood bill made Gore look like a scold, even if those familiar with the issue felt that the Dingell-Norwood plan was, indeed, most people's idea of a patient's bill of rights and that Bush did not support it. He preferred a watered-down plan that was more palatable to health maintenance organizations.

Bush could have said, ''I favor the concept of a patient's bill of rights, but fear that the plan moving through Congress would lead to unnecessary medical procedures and unmerited lawsuits." But that answer would have put him on the wrong side of a popular issue. And its nuances would not have been understandable to those who listen to public policy only casually, out of a corner of an ear while flipping channels or through a few overheard remarks in the company cafeteria.

As president, Bush has made policy statements that have often seemed to be aimed at just such casual listeners who might relate to a simple statement of values or priorities. With memories of Clinton's twisting discourses in their minds, the public seemed to appreciate Bush's directness for a long time. But now, people seem to have decided that just because Bush's statements are clear and direct, this does not make them more truthful.

When, in 2003, Bush spoke of Saddam Hussein's ''support for terrorists," he must have known that many people assumed he meant those who attacked the United States; later, when pressed, he acknowledged that there was no link between Hussein and the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Now, when he declares ''we went to war because we were attacked," many more people wonder whether this is really true.

Last week, the White House and the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, were struggling to come up with a bill that would enable Bush and his congressional allies to keep saying they support stem cell research, even though they do not favor the type of stem cell research that most researchers -- and most of the public -- want.

With a more skeptical audience, Bush will not have as easy a time as he did in the 2000 debates making people believe he supports something he does not. But people learned to decode the messages of Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton -- and decided they liked those presidents anyway.

Bush can only hope for the same.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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