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Pitts column: President cried wolf too often

Memo to the next president:
There’s an old fable I’m sure you know. It’s usually credited to Aesop and the version I found online at storyarts.org, goes like this:
“There once was a shepherd boy who was bored as he sat on the hillside watching the village sheep. To amuse himself he took a great breath and sang out, ‘Wolf! Wolf! The Wolf is chasing the sheep!'”
“The villagers came running up the hill to help the boy drive the wolf away. But when they arrived at the top of the hill, they found no wolf. The boy laughed at the sight of their angry faces.”
“‘Don’t cry “wolf,” shepherd boy,’ said the villagers, ‘when there’s no wolf!’ They went grumbling back down the hill.”
“Later, the boy sang out again, ‘Wolf! Wolf! The wolf is chasing the sheep!’ To his naughty delight, he watched the villagers run up the hill to help him drive the wolf away.”
“When the villagers saw no wolf they sternly said, ‘Save your frightened song for when there is really something wrong! Don’t cry “wolf” when there is NO wolf!'”
“But the boy just grinned and watched them go grumbling down the hill once more.”
“You know what happened next. A real wolf slunk out of the woods and the boy cried frantically for help, but the villagers ignored him. At sunset, they realized he hadn’t come home and wondered why.”
While millions of schoolchildren have absorbed the moral of that story, the man you seek to replace was apparently not one of them. Which has led over the last week to a standoff that once would have been difficult to conceive: the president sounding the alarm, declaring the emergency, warning of apocalyptic fiscal consequences if immediate action (defined as a $700 billion Wall Street bailout) is not taken, and lawmakers of both parties ignoring him, making clear that they would act on their timetable, not his.
As Rep. Joe Barton put it, “Just because God created the world in seven days doesn’t mean we have to pass this bill in seven days.” Barton, let the record show, is a Republican. From Texas.
After almost eight years, then, it has come to this: not even his own believe him. And he has only himself to blame. As the crisis we face is caused by the profligate way Wall Street has handled money, so President Bush’s inability to rally the nation is caused by the profligate way he has handled credibility. Now, like the shepherd boy, he sees the wolf for real and tries to sound the alarm. Unfortunately, like that boy, his believability is spent, his integrity overdrawn, his credibility bankrupt.
No one can be surprised. Not after the way Team Bush fudged facts and faked urgency, invoked mushroom clouds and conflated a connection to Sept. 11 that did not exist, in order to stampede the nation into invading Iraq. Not after the way it censored science and politicized truth on every subject from abortion to global warming to education to health. Not after the way it buffaloed its way through whenever reality threatened to intrude, shouldered it aside with a win-at-all-costs brazenness that seemed to ask ó apologies to Groucho Marx ó “Who are you gonna believe, us, or your lying eyes?” Not after it elevated blame shifting and responsibility avoidance to the level of art. And not after the way it was abetted and supported in all this by a corps of sycophantic true believers for whom no lie was ever too big, no intellectual disconnect ever too wide, a cult of personality that could see no flaw in, nor countenance any criticism of, the great and powerful Bush.
Now even they have fled, as evidenced by the president’s subterranean poll numbers and near invisibility at his own party’s convention. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to pick up the pieces and pay the bill. And to hope that, at the very least, the moral of the story that so profoundly escaped your predecessor is not lost on you:
Guard your credibility. You never know when you might need it.
– – –
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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