The Hardest Word

“We have screwed up. Not a little, but a lot. . . . If we have to give an account to the country of what we have done in four years, what are we going to say?”

I wish I could gleefully report that the words quoted above had been spoken by an American politician, preferably at a large public gathering with lots of media. But, alas, they were pronounced by a foreign politician with an unpronounceable surname: Ferenc Gyurcsany, the prime minister of Hungary. For those readers who don’t follow Hungarian politics on a daily basis, he also said that “we lied, morning, noon and night” and conceded that his country had stayed afloat during his government’s first term thanks to “divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy and hundreds of tricks.”

Gyurcsany made these refreshingly frank comments during a private meeting. They were taped, and leaked. He now says he spoke that way to impress upon his colleagues the urgent need for radical economic reform in Hungary, by which he means higher taxes (his party had promised lower taxes) and tighter budgets (his party had promised few cuts). Shakily, he’s sticking to that line.

It won’t be easy. In Budapest, his comments sparked several nights of riots, some 250 injuries and daily demonstrations. Hungary’s currency and credit rating took sudden dives. The opposition is calling for his resignation. Inexplicably, Gyurcsany still managed to show up late last week at a conference on European Union reform in Berlin, where I watched him make an emotional and not entirely comprehensible speech. He warned, among other things, of “radical nationalism,” by which he presumably meant all of those people angry at him for “screwing up.” He looked close to tears.

The lesson here is clear: Prime ministers, presidents and other sundry statesmen beware. In democratic politics you get in trouble not for what you do but for what you say — particularly if it’s true.

I should point out here that the Hungarian case is unusual, since the prime minister was admitting not only to mistakes but also to deliberate deception — a double whammy. But it’s true, too, that plenty of other politicians around the world have lost elections, support and power for telling a difficult truth. Let’s be blunter: In America, no one gets elected dogcatcher if he talks about reform, sacrifice or lower living standards — let alone confesses to serious mistakes. This is not because such candidates are liars, though some of them may be. It is because the public doesn’t like talk of reform, sacrifice and lower living standards. We don’t tolerate negative politicians. We don’t reelect them.

All of which brings me, unavoidably, to the Bush administration and Iraq. Last week another leak revealed that at least some part of the American intelligence apparatus now believes that the war in Iraq has led to an increase in radical Islam, a strengthening of the international terrorist network, and a higher threat of attacks on America and Americans. If this is true, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, it means that the president and the defense secretary have been told by some of their own intelligence officers that the bungling of the war in Iraq was a grave mistake.

But I’m not holding my breath in anticipation of hearing that analysis from the president or the defense secretary or anyone else close to the White House. And — without getting into the ins and outs of who said what to whom, what might have been done differently or what the future policy in Iraq might be — maybe none of us should be surprised. It’s all very well to call for apologies or admissions of wrongdoing or acknowledgment of failure. Yet if the president really were to publicly declare that “we have screwed up,” he would inspire, if not riots, then jeering and sneering all around. If Donald Rumsfeld were to state that all of his Iraq-is-a-success talk was wrong, and that “we lied, morning, noon and night,” I’m not sure anyone would like him any better for it, either.

It’s too bad: If we could openly analyze what went wrong in Iraq without constant administration spinning, we might avoid similar disasters in the future. If we could openly speculate about the new threats created there, without the director of intelligence complaining that we’d misinterpreted the leak, we’d be in a better position to fight them. But confession of mistakes is, in a way, the last taboo. Nowadays you’re allowed to cry if you’re a politician, and you’re allowed to admit you need counseling. You aren’t allowed to say your policies were wrong. In our political culture, just as in Hungary’s, the admission of error is always called a sign of weakness.

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