The Nigergate (pronounced “Knee-here-hah-tay”) affair is surely unique in the annals of recent presidential “scandals.” The normal pattern is quite familiar: a piece of wrongdoing (a break-in, false testimony to Congress, sexual misconduct) is followed by denials that rise, perhaps, to the level of a cover-up. If the cover-up allegations take off, we are then told that it is the cover-up, not the original wrongdoing, that is most damning. Indeed, the moralizing politicians and pundits assure us, if the president had only “come clean” at the outset, the whole episode would have blown over.
But consider Nigergate. Here, there was no wrongdoing — just the inclusion in a speech of a true statement that, with better judgment, would probably not have been used. And instead of covering up, the White House quickly agreed that the offending statement should not have been included. Yet the confession of error, far from slowing down the scandal, arguably has fueled it.
Conservatives have been quick to criticize the president for confessing error even though his statement was true. But the White House was simply following the conventional wisdom described above. This may, nonetheless, have been a mistake, inasmuch as the convention in question is probably more spin than wisdom. Still, I tend to believe that President Bush will ultimately be better served by having agreed that the statement should have been excluded. In fact, unless substantial evidence of real deceit emerges, I don’t think the Nigergate affair will have any lasting impact. As Rocket Man has observed, the president’s problems are (1) the loss of American life occurring in Iraq and (2) the failure to find WMD. If these two problems are resolved, the issue of “what the president knew and when he knew it,” will vanish. If they are not resolved, the issue will continue to be cited, but will not make Bush’s position any more precarious.
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