WASHINGTON -- While the world continues to parse President Bush's 16 little words in his State of the Union message on Iraq's alleged try to buy nuclear fuel in Africa, it seems to have ignored his latest contribution to, as he likes to say, "revisionist history."
In an exchange with reporters the other day after the White House visit of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the president offered this to explain why he invaded Iraq:
"The fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region."
What? Unless memory fails, Mr. Hussein did let the weapons inspectors in, and they had to be withdrawn for their own safety when Mr. Bush decided to bypass them and the U.N. Security Council and proceed with his invasion of Iraq.
Surprisingly, neither The New York Times nor many other newspapers paid any attention to this colossal misstatement. The Washington Post, in a Page One story focusing on the faulty intelligence controversy, did note that Mr. Bush had said he had given the Iraqi dictator "a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in."
But the Post story merely observed that "the president's assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to the war this spring: Hussein had, in fact, admitted the inspectors and Bush had opposed extending their work because he did not believe them effective."
At the regular White House press briefing the next day, the presidential press secretary, Scott McClellan, was asked why Mr. Bush had said what he did -- a patently false reconstruction of what had happened, in justification of going to war.
Mr. McClellan put this evasive spin on Mr. Bush's clear words: "Yes, I think he was referring to the fact that Saddam Hussein had a long history of deceiving inspectors. Saddam Hussein was not complying with [U.N.] Resolution 1441, and he was doing everything he could to thwart the inspectors and keep them from doing their job. So that's what he was referring to."
A reporter later asked Mr. McClellan whether he was "clarifying" what Mr. Bush had said "or conceding that he misspoke." Mr. McClellan repeated his answer. Well, a reporter said, "people misspeak all the time. It's possible that he did misspeak." McClellan replied: "It's what I've said. I've addressed this two or three times now."
This is the attitude at the Bush White House when the head man makes a totally erroneous statement on how the war began. Does he really believe what he said? If he misspoke, why not just say so? In any event, the handling doesn't bode well for the chances of getting a credible answer from this president and his minions about this critical question.
In the same comment, Mr. Bush again said the question was whether Mr. Hussein had "a weapons program." But that was not the question at the time. It was not whether he ever had one. It was whether he had actual weapons in a state of readiness to pose that famous "imminent threat" to us and our friends, warranting the pre-emptive use of force.
This is more of the same dissembling that has marked the president's effort to justify first-strike military action from the start. It's not enough for the house flack to come out and "explain" what the president really meant to say.
A president's words carry more weight, and can have a greater influence on world events, not simply on domestic politics, than those of anyone else. The country, and even Mr. Bush's own administration, can't afford more of his careless, or deceptive, comments.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.