When we were in college, the woman who would eventually become my wife once asked whether I'd rather be thought of as evil or stupid.
"Evil," I said without missing a beat. Since we weren't dating at the time, I suspected nothing heavier than an honest inquiry into the state of my moral compass.
When you're a male college student in your early 20s, obtuseness, even if you're born with it, is considered a greater moral flaw than binge drinking, serial dating or cheating on final exams.
Even if you're guilty of uttering racist or homophobic remarks during late-night bull sessions in the dorms, there's still the possibility of redemption. For all its distasteful implications, prejudice remains firmly ensconced on the evil side of the moral divide, despite attempts to reclassify it as ignorance.
Eventually, people outgrow their hubris. Nuance and humility supplant dogmatism as virtues to live by. If we're lucky, we're able to admit to ourselves and others that we don't know everything, and that we may be ignorant about most things. As we grow older, most of us bristle at being considered evil.
There is one notable exception, though.
While watching President Bush's news conference yesterday, I was struck by his unwavering support for policies that have proven to be unmitigated disasters for the United States.
When asked by a reporter why Americans should consider the Bush White House a credible source about al-Qaida's plots, given its lousy track record on intelligence, Mr. Bush answered with a tautology: "I'm credible because I read the intelligence."
It was a moment that crystallized everything wrong about the Bush administration -- from its overweening arrogance to its inflexibility in the face of mounting failure.
Though his news conference was a grim and listless performance, Mr. Bush stuck to the script and dutifully recited every talking point drilled into him by his subordinates -- all the while smirking like a man who would do anything to avoid the indignity of being thought an idiot.
That's when it occurred to me that George W. Bush is still at a stage of life where being considered evil by his interlocutors is preferable to being thought stupid.
How else does one explain Mr. Bush's insistence on resisting a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq?
As cruel as April was in terms of the death count of American soldiers, May is on its way to matching it.
The logic of Mr. Bush's and Gen. David Petraeus' surge strategy is grounded in a willingness to throw fresh bodies into securing the mirage of a stable Iraqi democracy.
"It could make August a tough month," the president said, acknowledging what is likely to occur once all American troops are on the ground in Iraq, "because what they're going to try to do is kill as many people as they can to influence the debate at home. Don't you find that interesting? I do. They recognize that the death of innocent people could shake our will."
Far be it from Mr. Bush to have his will shaken one iota by the futility of a strategy resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, the political destabilization of the region and a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that will last another thousand years.
More than 3,400 U.S. troops have lost their lives and many thousands more have suffered debilitating injuries that have left them either mentally or physically scarred.
With $300 billion already down a rat hole and another $120 billion in the pipeline thanks to the Democrats' tendency to blink under pressure, this insanity will go on until more principled congressional leadership musters the courage to pull the plug on the greatest foreign policy debacle in American history.
"They are a threat to your children," the president said, cynically gesturing to a reporter who pressed him, "and whoever is in the Oval Office better understand that and take measures to protect the American people."
Only in the topsy-turvy world of the Bush White House could any effort to end a stupid and immoral war be considered anything but an attempt to protect the American people.
Mr. Bush spent part of the news conference trying to remove a splotch of bird droppings deposited on his sleeve by a sparrow -- a final sign that the mandate of heaven he once took for granted had been withdrawn.
When the definitive history of this war is written and a full account has been taken of its spillage of blood, its rituals of mutilation and its mindless embrace of death, Mr. Bush may be the first president to be regarded by future generations as both evil and stupid.
Tony Norman can be reached at: email@example.com or 412-263-1631.