- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

How dare George W. Bush now claim he never said Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the United States.

Listen to this quote from 2002 on the danger posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction:

“I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security.”

Oops. Actually, that wasn’t George W. Bush. It was John F. Kerry explaining why he was going to vote for the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam’s regime in Iraq.

Mr. Kerry now explains he wasn’t really for using force in Iraq. He may have voted for the resolution but he didn’t mean it, not then anyway or maybe not ever. He was just trying to pressure Saddam. (Another term for this approach is bluffing. It has not been known to work very well on dictators, who can smell weakness continents away.)

But that was a different John F. Kerry who voted for war. That one wasn’t the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, a candidate who now has to Energize the Base, which is 2004-ish for stirring up the mob.

In his new incarnation, Mr. Kerry — and many of his fellow Democrats — have taken after the president for saying, well, pretty much what John F. Kerry was saying a year or so ago.

The Big Lie in this rapidly overheating presidential campaign is that George W. Bush claimed Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat.

Also-rans from Wesley Clark to Howard Dean — which pretty much covers the gamut from left to lefter — joined John Kerry in leaving that false impression. Or maybe it was he who joined them. It scarcely matters by now; the claim has become part of the regnant political mythology.

Actually, what George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address last year was just the opposite — that this country dare not wait until a threat is imminent before responding to it, not after what happened September 11, 2001.

But no matter how many times the president’s actual words are dug up and pointed out, they’re not likely to have much effect on those who know what they know, or rather what they what to know, and aren’t about to be confused by mere fact.

Maybe the problem is that, amidst all the sound and fury of a gathering presidential campaign, you have to shout to be heard. So let’s take a look at the president’s words up close, as if they were the first line on an eye chart:

Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late.

— George W. Bush, Jan. 28, 2003

Or to put it another way: “Why is Saddam Hussein attempting to develop nuclear weapons when most nations don’t even try? According to intelligence, Iraq has chemical and biological weapons. … ”

That was John F. Kerry on Oct. 9, 2002, speaking from his vantage point on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Is Mr. Kerry now going to accuse himself of hyping the intelligence reports, misleading the American people and generally taking this country into war under false pretenses?

Before this long, long campaign is over, John Kerry may be running not just against George W. Bush but against his own, earlier self.

And it won’t be just this one stand of the senator’s that will be scrutinized, but his vote for all those other measures he once backed but now attacks — the North American Free Trade Agreement, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act . … Who was that imposter who supported all those measures? Has he morphed into a kind of Howard Dean with a war record and a Brahmin accent?

A presidential election is not just about issues. It’s also about which candidate, for all his stumbles and bumbles, is the more authentic. It may be the one who doesn’t have to explain away earlier positions when they grow inconvenient. George W. Bush may be our second dyslexic president, counting Dwight Eisenhower, but he doesn’t have a long list of roll-call votes for the opposition to mine for inconsistencies.

As this presidential campaign goes on — and on and on — people may start to wonder which is the real John Kerry, and which the constantly updated Web site. This new John Kerry may win the Democratic nomination, but once he gets it, and the general election begins heating up, how is he going to explain the old one?

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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