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Behind the mask 

Last Thursday's Bush-Kerry show wasn't a debate, of course. And from the outset, I was cross that the media bought into the restrictions about format, camera angle, and the like. Since when do credible journalists agree to that kind of censorship?

            Still, it was an enlightening night. And I'm more worried than ever about the possibility of Bush being re-elected.

            It was good that Kerry did well, and it's good that he has apparently drawn even in the polls again. But Bush just becomes scarier and scarier. There was the strangeness of his answer about the invasion of Iraq, arguing that "the enemy attacked us" when all along he has insisted that we invaded Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein from attacking us. And when Kerry reminded him that it was Osama bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein, who attacked us, there was Bush's weird response: "I know Osama bin Laden attacked us." Oh, Lordy.

            There was Bush's recitation of his campaign themes, over and over and over, a tactic that has moved beyond tiring into absolute spookiness. It's almost as if he's a doll containing half a dozen little recorded, sing-song messages. Pull the cord, and he mouths the words.

            And most serious: The little sing-song messages are flat wrong. The world is not safer today. Saddam Hussein was not a direct threat to the United States. We are not doing well in Iraq. The facts have been documented in report after report after report. But the Consistent Bush stays on message.

            In the debate, and outside, Bush and his officials repeat the fabrications, certain that Americans will swallow anything if it's repeated often enough.

            Confronted with facts they don't like, they flick them away or bury them. Last month, the New York Times reported that intelligence officials told Bush that things were very, very bad in Iraq. At best, they said, the situation would continue to be tenuous. At worst: civil war.

            That's a direct contradiction of what the administration has said. But when he was asked about the report, Bush, true to character, said the CIA was "just guessing."

            Sunday's New York Times had yet another damning article, tracking the period leading up to the war. The administration told the American public, and the United Nations, that it had "irrefutable evidence" that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons and could have a bomb --- soon. The evidence: Iraq had bought thousands of aluminum tubes that the administration said were "only suited for nuclear weapons programs."

            That "evidence" --- the only evidence the administration offered --- has now been discredited. Nuclear weapons experts say the tubes were not suitable for nuclear weapons development --- "the wrong size --- too narrow, too heavy, too long," experts had concluded. And in fact, they were "a perfect match" with tubes Iraq had used for conventional-weapons rockets, which we knew it had.

            It's bad enough to know that the administration's case for war hinged on bad information. Worse is learning that while the administration was proclaiming confidence in the information, dispute was raging among the people charged with verifying its accuracy. And that dispute --- a "holy war," one Congressional investigator told the Times --- had been raging for a year.

            No matter. Questioned Sunday by George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stuck to the message. She had known there was a dispute. She just didn't know (and apparently didn't bother to ask) what the dispute was all about. And she insisted that the "intelligence community assessment as a whole" was that the aluminum tubes were "likely and certainly suitable" for a nuclear-weapons program.

            This is simply the latest indictment of this ideology-driven presidency. George Bush and the members of his administration are crafting their message, and the nation's actions, to suit their beliefs.

            All this underscores the obvious: The most critical issue in this most critical election is who should be trusted to lead the country. Whose administration --- whose vice president, whose advisers --- can we trust?

            In Friday night's debate Bush will, no doubt, improve on his body language, watch his grimaces, act less surly and defensive. But that changes nothing. The differences between John Kerry and George Bush are not just differences in debate performance. They are not even just differences in policy, philosophy, and vision.

            This administration can not be trusted to tell Americans the truth. Its ideology is everything.

            That is a dangerous thing. And no amount of debate prep, after-debate spin, or masterful TV ads can mask that danger.

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