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When Presidents lie : a history of official deception and its consequences /
Eric Alterman.
imprint
New York : Viking, 2004.
description
ix, 447 p.
ISBN
0670032093 (alk. paper)
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
New York : Viking, 2004.
isbn
0670032093 (alk. paper)
general note
Includes index.
catalogue key
5283944
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Eric Alterman is Professor of English at Brooklyn College of City University of New York.
Excerpts
Excerpt from Book
I. Introduction On Lies, Personal and Presidential Report: Presidents Washington Through Bush May Have Lied About Key Matters?The Onion (2002) During the final days of the Clinton presidency, Tracfone, a prepaid cellular phone service, began running a TV ad with some familiar footage of recent American presidents. First up was Richard Nixon insisting that he was not a crook. Next came former president Bush asking his fellow Republicans to read his lips, and promising ?No new taxes.' Finally, the screen cut to Bill Clinton waving his finger at a television camera and sternly proclaiming that he ?did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.' The spot ended with the advertiser claiming, ?Talk is cheap.' Almost immediately Tracfone received what it termed a ?cease-and-desist letter? from the White House. The problem was not that President Clinton took offense at the claim that he was? like all modern presidents'not to be trusted to tell the truth. Rather, the White House lawyers explained that the presidency had a long-standing policy ?prohibiting the use of the president's name, likeness, words or activities in any advertising or commercial promotion.' The accusation of presidential lying, well, no one could really argue with that.In American politics today, the ability to lie convincingly has come to be considered an almost prima facie qualification for holding high office. Many of the lies that officials tell are obviously harmless. Audiences demand to be flattered and politicians feel compelled to oblige. The denizens of every locality expect a visiting politician to sing the praises of the ?beauty? and ?energy? of their fair city. The members of every interest group count on being told that their issue is ?vital? and that the senator, congressman, or president who is making an appearance could not be more ?delighted to be here among such good friends.' With a few exceptions, when any American politician publishes a campaign autobiography, he is accepted as its author merely for the sake of convenience. When New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wished to mock George W. Bush's policies toward China, she noted, ?W. devoted only one paragraph of his autobiography to his six-week trip to China after college to visit his parents when his father was envoy to Beijing. He wrote nothing about Chinese culture. He merely noted that the Chinese dressed alike'drab'and rode bikes that looked alike.'1 But Dowd knew as well as anyone in Washington that the president did not ?write? his autobiography, a job that was delegated to adviser Karen Hughes, and it is far from clear that he even read it. Yet the lie is passed over for the sake of the larger point she seeks to make, and no one even thinks to raise this issue.2 In this regard, the campaign autobiography is similar to the ritual that takes place whenever a U.S. politician sees his name floated as a potential president or even vice president. The candidate is expected to respond that he has no interest in leaving his current position, for admitting the truth of his ambition would mark him as woefully inexperienced and probably disqualify him for the office. So the candidate lies, the media dutifully report his position, everyone even remotely connected to the story understands the fiction, and we all get on with our lives. The editors of the satirical newspaper The Onion take the media's ?shock? at the revelations of presidential deception to its logical conclusion with a breathless report of George Washington's cherry tree fable: ?Evidence suggests, however, that the entire tale may have been bogus from the start. This is doubly damning to the presidency's reputation, for it is not merely a lie, but a lie about not telling lies.'3This is not to argue that all lies are equal. Of course some lies retain the power to shock. But as we will see in the forthcoming pages, this is less and less true of those told b
First Chapter
I.
Introduction


On Lies, Personal and Presidential
Report: Presidents Washington Through Bush May Have Lied About Key Matters—The Onion (2002)

During the final days of the Clinton presidency, Tracfone, a prepaid cellular phone service, began running a TV ad with some familiar footage of recent American presidents. First up was Richard Nixon insisting that he was not a crook. Next came former president Bush asking his fellow Republicans to read his lips, and promising “No new taxes.” Finally, the screen cut to Bill Clinton waving his finger at a television camera and sternly proclaiming that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” The spot ended with the advertiser claiming, “Talk is cheap.” Almost immediately Tracfone received what it termed a “cease-and-desist letter” from the White House. The problem was not that President Clinton took offense at the claim that he was— like all modern presidents—not to be trusted to tell the truth. Rather, the White House lawyers explained that the presidency had a long-standing policy “prohibiting the use of the president’s name, likeness, words or activities in any advertising or commercial promotion.” The accusation of presidential lying, well, no one could really argue with that.

In American politics today, the ability to lie convincingly has come to be considered an almost prima facie qualification for holding high office. Many of the lies that officials tell are obviously harmless. Audiences demand to be flattered and politicians feel compelled to oblige. The denizens of every locality expect a visiting politician to sing the praises of the “beauty” and “energy” of their fair city. The members of every interest group count on being told that their issue is “vital” and that the senator, congressman, or president who is making an appearance could not be more “delighted to be here among such good friends.” With a few exceptions, when any American politician publishes a campaign autobiography, he is accepted as its author merely for the sake of convenience. When New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wished to mock George W. Bush’s policies toward China, she noted, “W. devoted only one paragraph of his autobiography to his six-week trip to China after college to visit his parents when his father was envoy to Beijing. He wrote nothing about Chinese culture. He merely noted that the Chinese dressed alike—‘drab’—and rode bikes that looked alike.”1 But Dowd knew as well as anyone in Washington that the president did not “write” his autobiography, a job that was delegated to adviser Karen Hughes, and it is far from clear that he even read it. Yet the lie is passed over for the sake of the larger point she seeks to make, and no one even thinks to raise this issue.2 In this regard, the campaign autobiography is similar to the ritual that takes place whenever a U.S. politician sees his name floated as a potential president or even vice president. The candidate is expected to respond that he has no interest in leaving his current position, for admitting the truth of his ambition would mark him as woefully inexperienced and probably disqualify him for the office. So the candidate lies, the media dutifully report his position, everyone even remotely connected to the story understands the fiction, and we all get on with our lives. The editors of the satirical newspaper The Onion take the media’s “shock” at the revelations of presidential deception to its logical conclusion with a breathless report of George Washington’s cherry tree fable: “Evidence suggests, however, that the entire tale may have been bogus from the start. This is doubly damning to the presidency’s reputation, for it is not merely a lie, but a lie about not telling lies.”3

This is not to argue that all lies are equal. Of course some lies retain the power to shock. But as we will see in the forthcoming pages, this is less and less true of those told by any president. As The Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler noted with euphemistic delicacy in May 2004, regarding President Bush’s case for war, “Almost everything we were told before the war, other than that Saddam Hussein is bad, has turned out, so far, not to be the case: the weapons of mass destruction, the imagery of nuclear mushroom clouds, the links between al Qaeda and Hussein, the welcome, the resistance, the costs, the numbers of troops needed. All of these factors were presented by the administration with what now seems, at best, to have been a false sense of certainty.”4 And yet, when the media discovered they had been actively and repeatedly misled by members of the Bush administration on the crucial matter of whether to take the nation into its first “preemptive” war, the reaction was one of combined almost blasé denial and excuse. Whatever one thinks of the coverage of the overall argument for war, it is curious in the extreme to note that virtually every major news media outlet devoted more attention to the lies and dissimulations of one New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair, than to those of the president and vice president of the United States regarding Iraq.5 The enormous reaction to the Blair story, which included lengthy soul-searching articles based on massive internal investigations and resulted in the forced resignations of the top two editors at the Times, dwarfed any discussion of whether the president and his advisers had been honest in their arguments for war. Given that these two deceptions took place virtually simultaneously, they demonstrate that while some forms of deliberate deception remain intolerable in public life, those of the U.S. commander in chief are not among them.

Given that we have become accustomed to a culture in which everyday political lies are taken for granted, it is nevertheless remarkable to what degree presidential lies have shaped our postwar history. Yet the consequences of these lies have received precious little attention. True, the Washington establishment became unmoored over Bill Clinton’s dishonesty about his adulterous relationship with Monica Lewinsky, but nearly all felt compelled to justify this position with the qualification that his statements had been made “under oath,” to distinguish them from garden-variety presidential lies.6

The question of presidential dishonesty was also addressed with surprising vigor during the 2000 election. Vice President Gore’s campaign was consistently challenged by the media for his alleged inability to control his falsehoods. Most of these controversies centered on claims by Gore that reporters deemed to be exaggerations of his political accomplishments; stories in which he slightly embellished or misremembered a few details. In contrast, George W. Bush, who was widely understood to have trumped Gore on the “character” issue—according to both polls and media coverage—was caught in a falsehood about his arrest record, as well as any number of deliberately misleading statements about his record in Texas as well as his previous experiences in private business and in the Texas National Guard. Yet George Bush’s dishonesty never rose to the level of a major issue in the election, due to the fact that it did not comport with the larger story that the media had chosen to tell about each candidate. In this version, Gore’s “lies” were emblematic of his alleged discomfort with his own persona; of his inability to relate to people as a “real person” rather than a constantly calculating politician. George W. Bush’s falsehoods, however, were understood to be unrelated to any particular election narrative, and hence were ignored or excused regardless of their potential significance for his presidency. As ABC News’s Cokie Roberts explained, in defense of herself and her colleagues, Bush’s deceptions were not part of “the storyline...in Bush’s case, you know he’s just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator.”7

In other words, lies were only important insofar as they signaled “character” problems with a candidate. If the candidate did not have a recognized “character issue,” he was, according to these odd rules of the game, free to lie.8 Bush would take considerable advantage of this paradox once president, as well, as will be discussed in the conclusion of this book. For now, our point of departure must be to recognize that we presently operate under an unstated assumption that a certain amount of lying to the public by our presidents and other politicians has become a given in U.S. politics. In this context, the substantive issue becomes which kinds of lies are forgivable—or even admirable—and which lies are not.

In When Presidents Lie, I propose to reopen this debate by examining the lasting consequences of presidential lies. I do not do so from the perspective of a moralist. While the moral consequences of lying are certainly a worthy subject for a book, they are not the subject of this one. Parents have been warning children against lying for millennia, with merely mixed success at best. Most people, like most presidents, know that lying is “wrong,” but most people do it anyway. The argument has certainly failed to convince most postwar U.S. presidents. My hope is that the consequential arguments in this book will prove more convincing than the morality- based ones have been in the past.

This book is a detailed examination of four key presidential lies: Franklin Roosevelt and the Yalta accords, John Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lyndon Johnson and the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Ronald Reagan and Central America in the 1980s. In each case, the president told a clear and unambiguous falsehood to the country and to Congress regarding a crucial question of war and peace. This is not to say that the presidents in question told only lies. In some cases they may have repeated facts that they mistakenly believed to be true, but continued to repeat them even as they later learned of their falsity. For instance, Lyndon Johnson clearly became convinced that U.S. forces had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964. In his case, the lying did not really begin in earnest until he and his advisers were informed of the truth a few days later. Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt no doubt believed some of the false assurances they offered up in defense of their respective policies, but not the ones upon which this book focuses.

We are all aware that, as Michel de Montaigne stated, “The opposite of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field.”9 Meanwhile, the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James, John Dewey, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault—to say nothing of those of Sigmund Freud—have done much to call into question our ability to know the “truth” of any situation at any time, much less to accurately describe it.10 As Friedrich Nietzsche asks, “Do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?”11 But the fundamental question of the usefulness of language itself in replicating the truth remains outside the scope of this study and could not possibly be done justice in the context of the issues I seek to address.12 It is my intention in this study to deal with lies, knowingly told. I have chosen lies relating to matters of war and peace in part because I consider that to be the arena for the most sacred and demanding of presidential duties, as military matters are where presidential words carry the greatest power, being largely hidden from citizens to a degree that, say, economic or environmental conditions cannot be. Presidential speechwriter Theodore Sorensen has observed, for instance, “The final difference in [President] Kennedy’s treatment of foreign and domestic affairs was the relative influence of congressional and public opinion. His foreign policy actions were still constrained within bounds set by those forces, but they operated more indirectly than directly and his own powers of initiative and decision were much wider.”13

In none of these cases do I take the president or his advisers to task for the morality or even the hypocrisy of their lies. I take hypocrisy to be a given in the practice of politics, rather like money, ego, avarice, and the occasional sex scandal or act of public-minded self-sacrifice. And while some of these lies may have been more or less “immoral” than others, such distinctions in this case miss the point, as I focus exclusively on the real-life consequences of the lies, in terms of both the policies the presidents pursued and the debased discourse they inspired. Hence, I have not gone back to any of the living principals and invited them to offer retroactive excuses, apologies, or defenses. Motives and mea culpas are not at issue here, as my proof can be found exclusively in the historical record: in this case, in the public discourse of the nation and in its government’s actions at home and abroad. By investigating the long-term effects of the lies in question to determine their practical consequences for the president himself, his party, and the country at large, I argue that in each case, these lies returned to haunt their tellers (or in the cases of FDR and JFK, whose presidencies were cut short by death, their successors), destroying the very policy that the lie had originally been told to support. Without exception, each of the presidents (or his successor) paid an extremely high price for his lies. So, too, did the nation to whose leadership he was entrusted.

On Lying

In an essay written in 2000 for a small Jewish magazine called OLAM, Seymour Hersh, the great investigative reporter, attempts to draw a connection between lying to one’s family and lying to one’s nation:

I grew up with the notion of presidential good—in the belief that the men running our nation were honorable and trustworthy. FDR was a god and Harry Truman became one. The authority of the president and my father were commingled in my mind. I still remember with reddening shame the white lie I told my father as a teenager about a small dent I’d put in his car. I was caught, of course, and lied as long as I could. It was more than just being caught—there was a sense that I’d failed a crucial test of citizenship or manhood. Lying to Dad today can lead to betrayal of state tomorrow.14

Hersh laments the fact that “The children, and parents, of today have a different view of their leaders, and they’re not wrong. Presidents don’t tell the truth, and their national security advisers can no longer distinguish their propaganda from their reality.” But instead of distinguishing between these lies, or drawing on the lessons of his own brilliant career in exposing different types of government deception, Hersh falls back on the same lessons he learned as a child, when he believed that FDR and Harry Truman were divinely inspired truth tellers:

We, as parents and children, still understand—as my father did—that our personal and family life must revolve around integrity and trust. We don’t lie to our children and they are expected to tell us the truth—when it matters. So here’s the idea. We have these men—these presidents and national security advisers, these Nixons and Kissingers and Clintons—who have the right to take our children and train them in the art of killing and being killed, in the name of America, and we don’t hold them to the same standards we insist upon in our family life. We don’t accept that they stop the lies and propaganda. We accept without complaint the fact that our leaders tell lies and put personal needs above those of the citizenry. It’s a necessary cost of the commonweal, we say. We shrug our shoulders, or make feeble jokes about a president who fabricates an enemy attack, as in the Gulf of Tonkin, or undermines the sanctity of the electoral process as in Watergate, or wags his finger in our face as he misrepresents his abusive relationship with an intern.15

In the course of this book, I hope to demonstrate that such views, even when expressed by so famously a tough-minded individual as Seymour Hersh, are simultaneously naive and ahistorical with regard to America’s past presidents and their unwillingness to lie. Lying is actually a far more complicated business than most of us, Mr. Hersh included, appear willing to admit.

Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament demonstrate considerable ambivalence when it comes to lying, offering evidence that its consequences, both moral and temporal, are entirely situational. While the Israelites are commanded not to bear “false witness,” any number of cases can be found in the Five Books of Moses in which the authors appear to genuinely approve of lying, so long as it helps to ensure the survival of the Israelites. The best known of these takes place in Genesis (27:12), when Jacob deliberately deceives his father into giving him his blessing (and inheritance) rather than his brother Esau. Jacob appropriates his father’s blessing and is the better for it, but other examples abound.16 In Exodus (1:20), the Egyptian midwives ordered to kill the Israelites’ first-born sons explain that they cannot do so because the Israelite women are “livelier” than their Egyptian counterparts and deliver their babies before the midwives arrive. This deception is also explicitly approved. “Therefore God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and waxed very mightily.” In Judges (4:23), the wife of Heber the Kenite deceives the captain of the army of Jabin, king of Canaan, for the purpose of killing him, much to the apparent delight of the story’s author.

The New Testament judges lying more harshly, but again with important exceptions. John (8:44) identifies Satan as the father of all lies. In Acts (5:5), Ananias is struck dead for allegedly lying to the Holy Ghost about his willingness to lay all his possessions at the feet of Peter and John. But in what is perhaps the best-known deception of all the Gospels, when Peter, in order to protect his life, denies three times before the cock crows that he is one of Jesus’ disciples, he is left by God to punish himself.17

Early Christian writers betray similar ambivalence. In “Against Lying,” Augustine categorizes eight different kinds of lies according to their respective degrees of sinfulness. All are to be avoided if possible, but given the hierarchy he creates, it is clear that some of them are less likely to be avoided than others.18 Similarly, Aquinas distinguishes between categories, with some lies leading only to venial sin and others to mortal sin. The former are told “for the sake of our neighbor’s good” or “where some little pleasure is intended,” while the latter are told to injure others. Moreover, Aquinas continues, while lying is not allowed even in the case of preventing someone from harm, “to conceal the truth prudently by means of an evasion” is, on occasion, permitted.19

Though we may try to teach our children that lying is always wrong, few of us actually believe this to be the case ourselves. Lying, with “all things being equal,” is probably wrong, we can agree, but “all things” are never equal. Much of our social life is lubricated by a host of apparently (and often genuinely) harmless lies, whether for reasons of tact or manners. Any number of daily occurrences inspire the telling of inconsequential lies in which the act of dishonesty is not merely morally justifiable, but close to a moral imperative.20 Who among us would wish to condemn Tom Sawyer for lying when he takes responsibility for Becky Thatcher’s accidental tearing of a special page from her teacher’s book, and accepts the whipping in her stead? Her father, a judge, terms this to be “a noble, a generous, and magnanimous lie...a lie that was worthy to hold up its head and march down through history breast to breast with George Washington’s lauded Truth about the hatchet!” On a more elevated plane, consider the case of Huck Finn on his raft, going down the Mississippi accompanied by his friend, the escaped Negro slave Jim. Jim tells young Huck that he plans to steal his family from the woman who owns them. Huck is conflicted: slaves are property, and the woman who owns Jim’s family “never did [Huck] no harm.” And just as Huck is wrestling with this dilemma, two slave-catchers, looking for Jim, call out to him from shore, demanding to know if anyone is on the raft with Huck, and if so, is it a black or white person? “White,” Huck heroically lies. Who would dare advise the hero to betray his friend by replying “black,” thereby ensuring a life of misery and human degradation for him and his family?

In his short treatise “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives,” Immanuel Kant takes the rather extreme position that “Truthfulness in statements that one cannot avoid is a human being’s duty to everyone, however great the disadvantage to him or another that may result from it.” Kant holds this duty to be unconditional, a “sacred command of reason,” and “not to be restricted by any conveniences.” His French contemporary Benjamin Constant argued that Kant’s principle, “if taken unconditionally and singly, [would] make any society impossible.” He pursues Kant’s own example of “whether it is a crime to lie to a murderer who asked us whether a friend of ours whom he is pursuing has taken refuge in our house.” Constant takes the answer to be self-evident. To tell the truth in such a case is to aid in the commission of an evil deed and to put one’s friend’s life at risk. The relative injustice of telling a potential murderer a deliberate untruth obviously pales in comparison. But Kant refuses to grant Constant’s point. He insists that “if you have, by a lie, prevented someone just now bent on murder from committing the deed, then you are legally accountable for all the consequences that might arise from it. But if you had kept strictly to your word, the public justice could hold nothing against you, whatever the unforeseen consequences might be.” For Kant, truth telling is ultimately “a rule that by its essence does not admit of exceptions.”21

It is unlikely that anyone, Kant himself included, would actually go as far as he advises to avoid telling a deliberate untruth. But in practice, most of us do not go far at all to avoid falsehoods. Hannah Arendt notes that while factual accounts are rarely compellingly true on their perceived merits, owing to the contingency and unpredictability of real life, lies often are. They are frequently more appealing—and even more plausible-sounding—than reality to the teller, because the liar has the crucial advantage of knowing in advance his perceptions and desires of his audience.22

Personal relations are characterized by far more lying than many of us are aware of or even recognize as such, as data from such diverse fields as sociology, linguistics, and social psychology have demonstrated. Deborah A. Kashy and Bella M. DePaulo observe, “Lying is a fact of social life rather than an extraordinary or unusual event. People tell lies to accomplish the most basic social interaction goals, such as influencing others, managing impressions and providing reassurance and support.”23 According to one study, most people tell between one and two lies each day, with subjects admitting to lying to between 30 and 38 percent of the people in their lives. (And, of course, they lie to pollsters, too, so these figures themselves may be questionable.) Obviously, different people tell different kinds of lies in different situations. Researchers find that “lies are less often told in the pursuit of such goals as financial gain and material advantage and instead are much more often told in the pursuit of psychic rewards such as esteem, affection and respect.” Men often lie for self-aggrandizement purposes, while women frequently lie to avoid tension and conflict, and to minimize hurt feelings and ill will.24

Lying is likewise considered a normal part of doing business in America in many industries today. In a lengthy examination of the role of truth and lies in the entertainment industry, Los Angeles Times writer David Shaw reported in 2001, “In Hollywood, deception is, for reporters and those who depend on them, a frustrating fact of everyday life. It appears to involve everything from negotiations and job changes to casting, financing and scores from test screenings.” Premiere editor Anne Thompson explains that opening gross figures for a new film are routinely “made up—fabricated—every week.” Movie producers ask reporters to lie for them without shame or compunction. According to Patrick Goldstein, a movie reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, “truth” in the movie business “is what makes a good story, period. They spend their days making it up as they go along; I’d have to be a wacko idealist to expect them to be truthful with me.”25 In June 2001, a Newsweek reporter discovered that a number of Sony Pictures Entertainment productions were receiving consistently enthusiastic blurbs from a nonexistent film critic named “David Manning,” alleged to work for the Ridgefield Press, a small Connecticut weekly.26

Lying also scarcely even raises an eyebrow in the journalistic world of women’s magazines—at least as it pertains to sex. According to the testimony of a group of editors who appeared at a New York City forum on the topic, lying about sex in their magazines’ pages is more common than telling the truth. In one apparently typical tale, a writer named Laurie Abraham, at work on a story for Glamour on “reviving your sex life,” quoted a friend of many years, who told her “that she and her husband—they had been married, like, eight years—had sex five times a week. And so it was edited out and it was actually changed to three times a week!” Why? “Because the editor couldn’t believe that a couple, married for eight years, was having sex five times a week.”27

The difference is really one of degree between these writers and editors and some of the top CEOs of major U.S. corporations when it comes time to report their earnings. Enron and the accounting firm Arthur Andersen became symbols in 2002 for dishonest reporting of sales and profits, but once the great economy boom of the 1990s ended in bust, these practices were revealed to have been extremely widespread among large corporations, their accounting firms, and the analysts upon whom investors relied to assess them. In just one week in the summer of 2002, we saw the results of years of willful media blindness: Arthur Andersen LLP found itself convicted of obstructing justice. Tyco International Ltd.’s chief executive, L. Dennis Kozlowski, was charged with massive tax evasion and accused of making secret pay deals with underlings. Cable giant Adelphia Communications Corp. admitted falsifying numbers and making surreptitious loans to shareholders. Xerox Corp. was forced to pay a $10 million fine for purposely overstating revenues. Merrill Lynch & Co. paid $100 million to settle New York State charges that analysts misled investors. Wal-Mart workers in twenty-eight states joined together to sue the company for demanding that they file false time-clock reports to avoid overtime payments. Three Rite Aid corporation executives were charged with a securities and accounting fraud that led to the largest restatement of earnings ever—or until WorldCom Inc. announced that same week that it was restating earnings by nearly four billion dollars over a period of five quarters, following the discovery of “massive fraud” in its earlier statements. This figure soon grew to more than nine billion.28 Here again, while “creative accounting” or openly practicing massive fraud can lead to jail sentences in a few instances, lying, by itself, appeared to carry little if any professional social stigma in the business world. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford Business School, explains, “Straight-talk is not sought, it is not rewarded, it is not valued” in corporate America. The stock market, and, hence, most corporate executives, preferred “beguiling lies to inconvenient truths.”29

Dishonesty has become so pervasive a part of our public discourse that in some cases, the very same people who pose as defenders of absolute truth feel no compunction about relying on deception to do so. Take the case of ex-Watergate felon Charles Colson, who, following a prison conversion, founded a national prison ministry, authored thirty-eight books—selling over five million copies—along with daily radio commentaries and a regular column in Christianity Today, the nation’s most important evangelical magazine. In the winter of 2002, Colson discussed the case of the popular historian Steven Ambrose, who had been accused of plagiarizing portions of his work. Colson’s column condemned what he termed America’s “post- truth society” in which “even the man on the street sees little wrong with lying.” How ironic, therefore, that although the column appeared beneath Colson’s byline and alongside his photo, the words he claimed as his own were actually the work of one Anne Morse, one of two full-time writers Colson employs, along with various “contract” writers, to churn out his column.30

Colson’s own lack of self-awareness notwithstanding, he makes a valid point. When people talk about lies in American society today, they tend to do so—at least in public—with a degree of naiveté that becomes its own sort of dishonesty. As Louis Menand has observed, “The dissembler is always part of a universe of dissemblers.” And though many of us may hide this awareness even from ourselves, “all adult interactions take for granted a certain degree of insincerity and indirection. There is always a literal meaning, which no one takes completely seriously, and an implied meaning, which is what we respond to even when we pretend to be responding to the literal meaning, [and] a great deal of literature (also a great deal of situation comedy) is built around imaginary cases in which one character misreads another character’s code, or in which someone suffers by insisting on making explicit what the rest of the world knows is better left concealed by euphemism or denial.”31

Menand’s is a relatively straightforward observation, but it has nevertheless gotten lost in the context of contemporary American political debate. During the impeachment crisis of 1998– 99, much of official and semiofficial Washington professed to be exercised about the fact of Bill Clinton’s lying to the nation about his extramarital sex life. While many pundits insisted that the relevant issues were constitutional—regarding the president’s ability to carry out the laws of the land and the sanctity of the grand jury process, etc.—a number of highly regarded commentators chose to interpret the issue starkly in terms of lies and lying. “I’d like to be able to tell my children, ‘You should tell the truth,’” Stuart Taylor of the National Journal said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I’d like to be able to tell them, ‘You should respect the president.’ And I’d like to be able to tell them both things at the same time.” “We have our own set of village rules,” complained David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, who had worked for both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, as well as Clinton, and therefore could not claim to be a stranger to official mendacity. “The deep and searing violation took place when he not only lied to the country, but co-opted his friends and lied to them.”32 Cable talk-show host and former Democratic congressional aide Chris Matthews explained, “Clinton lies knowing that you know he’s lying. It’s brutal and it subjugates the person who’s being lied to. I resent deeply being constantly lied to.”33 Pundit George Will, a frequent apologist for President Reagan’s deceptions, went so far as to insist that the president’s “calculated, sustained lying has involved an extraordinarily corrupting assault on language, which is the uniquely human capacity that makes persuasion, and hence popular government, possible. Hence the obtuseness of those who say Clinton’s behavior is compatible with constitutional principles, presidential duties and republican ethics.”34

Different Presidents, Different Lies

The case of Bill Clinton, while perhaps the best publicized of presidential lying in recent times, is also not included here, because it is not relevant to my investigation. In contrast to the tenor of the opinions quoted above, I share with the philosopher Thomas Nagel the belief that lies told in the private realm, by a president or any other public figure, are no one’s business but that of the liar and his intimates. Without such a distinction, Nagel persuasively argues, civilization becomes impossible. “Just as social life would be impossible if we expressed all our lustful, aggressive, greedy, anxious, or self-obsessed feelings in ordinary public encounters,” Nagel argues, “so would inner life be impossible if we tried to become wholly persons whose thoughts, feelings, and private behavior could be safely exposed to public view.”35 To the degree that Clinton lied publicly, in this view, he did so only because he was being pursued by a fanatical group of politicians and ideologues who sought—with the unlimited resources of the Independent Counsel’s office—to make his private life public, something that had happened to no previous president during the nearly 220-year course of the American republic. Clinton lied about his adulterous behavior to spare himself and his family further public humiliation. However objectionable it may be and whatever misjudgments Clinton may have made to land him in so unhappy a quandary, it is hardly comparable to lying about peace treaties or the causes of war. (Richard Nixon and Watergate were also eliminated as a choice for this book in part because those lies and their consequences have already been so thoroughly documented and discussed. Moreover, I attribute Nixon’s lies to his own personal neurosis and criminal character, and hence consider the case to be less instructive than those I’ve included.)

The issue that does concern this book is presidential lying about matters of state that is alleged to be undertaken for the public good. This sort of manipulation of the truth derives from an old and venerable tradition in statecraft, one that can be said to trace its lineage to ancient Athens. Plato defended a false story that he imagined might be told to people in order to persuade the poor to accept less, and hence safeguard social harmony. According to this story, God had mingled gold, silver, iron, and brass in fashioning rulers, auxiliaries, farmers, and craftsmen, intending these groups for separate tasks in a harmonious hierarchy. The lesson for the poor was to accept their lot in life without too much complaint, lest they upset the divine order. Centuries later, Niccolò Machiavelli explained to his would-be princes that lying is necessary in a wise ruler simply because men inevitably lie, and it is better to do the lying than to be the one lied to. “Because men would not observe their faith with you,” you in turn are not bound to “keep faith with them.”36

The right of members of Congress to lie is actually enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Article I, Section 6, states that, with regard to senators and representatives speaking on the floors of their respective bodies, “for Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.” The document’s framers wrote this law to encourage free and open debate among representatives, uninhibited by the threat of lawsuits. Yet the result, as in the case of Senator McCarthy, has been the assertion of the right to lie with impunity.

Even without resort to constitutional complexities, any number of everyday factors tend to interfere with a contemporary American president telling his constituents what he knows to be the unvarnished truth about almost any topic. Among the most prominent is the argument that average citizens are simply too ignorant, busy, or emotionally immature to appreciate the difficult reality that is political decision making. The pundit/public philosopher Walter Lippmann, writing in 1924, famously likened the average citizen in a democracy to a deaf spectator sitting in the back row of a sporting event. “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen; he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”37 Echoing these musings in his 1969 memoir, Present at the Creation, former secretary of state Dean Acheson wrote:

The task of a public officer seeking to explain and gain support for a major policy is not that of the writer of a doctoral thesis. Qualification must give way to simplicity of statement, nicety and nuance to bluntness, almost brutality, in carrying home a point.... In the State Department, we used to discuss how much time that mythical “average American citizen” put in each day listening, reading, and arguing about the world outside his country. Assuming a man or woman with a fair education, a family, and a job in or out of the house, it seemed to us that ten minutes a day would be a high average. If this were anywhere near right, points to be understandable had to be clear. If we did make our points clearer than truth, we did not differ from most other educators and could hardly do otherwise.38

Acheson’s view of the attention span of the average citizen appears optimistic today, given what appears to be a steady decline of Americans’ interest in politics and public policy, coupled with the news media’s increasing focus on tabloid fare and “soft” features.39 Political scientists estimate the percentage of the public that is both interested and knowledgeable about even major foreign policy issues to be in the area of 8 to 20 percent.40 Yet “clearer than truth,” in Acheson’s formulation, is a tricky term. Acheson means it to imply that a president was able to reach a higher level of truth in his public statements by not making a fetish of adhering to what he knew to be accurate—which is another way of excusing a lie. So, too, is the argument, frequently heard in modern times, that the government’s need to act swiftly and in secrecy on matters of diplomacy and national security makes such democratic consultation impossible, even were it feasible given the relative ignorance of the populace.

These questions are significant ones, however, as the foundation of democracy is public trust. “How,” John Stuart Mill quite rightly asks, can citizens either “check or encourage what they were not permitted to see?”41 Without public honesty, the process of voting becomes an exercise in manipulation rather than the expression of the consent of the governed. Many a scholar has persuasively argued that official deception may be convenient, but over time, it undermines the bond of trust between the government and the people that is essential to the functioning of a democracy.

Presidents, too, know that lying to their constituents is “wrong,” both in the strictly moral and philosophical sense and in the damage it causes to the democratic foundation of our political system. Yet they continue because they believe the lies they tell serve their narrow political interest on the matter in question. When, in early 2002, the Pentagon was forced to retract a plan to create an Office of Strategic Influence for the purposes of distributing deliberate misinformation to foreign media, President George W. Bush tried to undo the damage by promising, “We’ll tell the American people the truth.” At the very same moment the controversy was taking place, however, Bush’s solicitor general, Theodore Olson, was filing a friend of the court brief in a lawsuit against former Clinton administration officials whom Jennifer Harbury—a young woman whose husband had been killed in Guatemala by a CIA asset—accused of illegally misleading her about the knowledge they possessed regarding her husband’s killers. Olson’s brief argued, “There are lots of different situations when the government has legitimate reasons to give out false information,” as well as “incomplete information and even misinformation.” (The Supreme Court dismissed the suit and refused to rule on the legality of official lies.)42

Of course, presidential lying is hardly a new concern in American history, particularly where matters of war and peace are concerned. Excessive secrecy, a close cousin of lying and frequently its handmaiden and inspiration, has been a key facet of American governance since literally before the nation’s founding. Reporters were barred from the Constitutional Convention in 1789, and delegates were forbidden to reveal their deliberations. The ultimate success of the endeavor does not obviate the larger problem to which it points. “Concealment,” notes the philosopher Sissela Bok, insulates bureaucracies from “criticism and interference; it allows them to correct mistakes and to reverse direction without costly, often without embarrassing explanation and it permits them to cut corners with no questions being asked.”43

Rare is the leader who does not argue for the necessity of secrecy while conducting sensitive negotiations with either friend or foe. From the earliest days of the republic, the president, under authority of Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution as commander in chief, has restricted the dissemination of information relating to defense and foreign policy. Presidents have passionately argued that they could not preserve the peace nor protect the nation without keeping large portions of the actions of their government secret. This was true in Philadelphia in 1789, and it remains true today. The judiciary branch generally endorses this view, and hence key sections of the very same Constitution that give Americans a right to examine the actions of their leaders have been declared functionally null and void as a result. The need for secrecy in certain situations is a real one, and citizens instinctively understand that no modern state can reveal everything to everyone, lest the safety of those same citizens be compromised. But there is a line between refusing to divulge information and deliberate deception. Politicians cross this line at their own peril.

Keeping a secret is not the same as telling a lie, just as refusing a comment is not the same as intentionally misleading. But it takes a brave politician to risk attack for honestly doing the former, when he can just as easily dispose of the problem with an easy resort to the latter. America in its infancy was blessed with the leadership of many such brave leaders whose sense of personal honor and destiny overrode their narrow political self-interest. For instance, in 1795, President Washington refused to supply the House with details of the treaty that his emissary John Jay had negotiated with Great Britain. He demanded that the legislature appropriate funds to carry out its terms, but refused to enumerate them, insisting that his “duty to [his] office forbade it.”44 This was antidemocratic behavior on the part of Washington, but it was admirably honest. If the Congress did not want to appropriate funds for purposes it did not understand, it was free to refuse. Within a generation, however, this dedication to secrecy in the conduct of diplomacy had degenerated into a policy of deliberate dishonesty. During President Monroe’s administration, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams intentionally sent the Senate incomplete sets of documents relating to a set of Central American treaties in order to receive, by subterfuge, its advice and consent. When challenged, he published a series of letters under the pseudonym “Phocion,” to mislead unsuspecting readers regarding the nature of South America’s revolutions.45

These deliberate evasions and dishonest occasions frequently accompanied the conduct of American diplomacy during the nation’s first century, particularly when that diplomacy threatened to spill into war. For instance, the name of Abraham Lincoln first came to public recognition when, as a nearly anonymous congressman in 1848, he rose on the floor of the House to respond to that body’s decision to “recognize” the existence of war with Mexico. In fact, no war with Mexico had existed until President James K. Polk falsely insisted that the southern nation had attacked an American army detachment on American soil. Lincoln demanded to know the precise “spot” upon which this alleged attack had taken place. Polk did not respond.46

The stakes of presidential lies grew immeasurably as the United States began its march toward superpower status. While lying to lure the United States into a war of conquest with Mexico was hardly a trivial presidential action, nor were President McKinley’s exaggerations and misinformation with regard to Spain’s conduct in Cuba that led America to war there a half- century afterward, it was not until after America entered World War II that the nation moved into an era of permanent wartime footing and lying, and its attendant dangers became a continuous feature of the nation’s political and cultural life.

The president present at the creation of this new nation was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who successfully led America into war to a considerable degree by stealth and deception. The president liked to call himself a “juggler,” who “never let my right hand know what my left hand does.” He was perfectly willing, in his own words, to “mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”47 Against the background of the 1937 Neutrality Act, Roosevelt added a “cash and carry” provision to permit England and France to buy American weapons. The president made his case to Congress and the nation in deliberately disingenuous terms, presenting what was really a step toward belligerency as a measure to avoid war. The measure, he assured the country, “offers far greater safeguards than we now possess or have ever possessed to protect American lives and property.” Roosevelt also deployed warships in the Atlantic and the Azores, and landed U.S. troops in Iceland, all the while insisting his primary intention was to keep the nation out of war. Roosevelt, moreover, frequently exaggerated the country’s vulnerability to the American people. He vastly exaggerated the number of aircraft possessed by the Axis powers, as well as their rate of production. In April 1939, he warned the newspaper editors that “the totalitarian nations...have 1,500 planes today. They cannot hop directly across our 3,000 miles but they can do it in three hops...It would take planes based at Yucatan, modern bombing planes about an hour and fifty minutes to smash up New Orleans.” A year later, before the same audience, Roosevelt repeated the point using similar language, though now he claimed that “the European unmentioned country” in question “could put 5,000 bombing planes into Brazil.”48

During the 1940 election campaign, as Lyndon Johnson would do twenty-four years later, Roosevelt repeatedly assured Americans that their sons would not be sent to fight in “foreign wars.” On November 2 he stated flatly, “Your president says this country is not going to war.”49 In early September 1941, however, a U.S. destroyer, the Greer, tracked a German U-boat for three hours and signaled its location to British forces before the sub turned and attacked. It had been issued secret orders to escort British convoys and aid in the effort to sink German submarines. In an eerie foreshadowing of the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Greer escaped unharmed, but FDR used the incident to denounce Germany. “I tell you the blunt fact,” Roosevelt explained, “that this German submarine fired first...without warning and with deliberate desire to sink her.” Without informing Americans how the ship had provoked the submarine, FDR used the alleged incident to step up U.S. participation in the undeclared war against Germany in the North Atlantic. One month later, three U.S. warships were torpedoed and one sunk while on convoy duty in the North Atlantic; 172 men were lost. This enabled FDR to persuade Congress to repeal what remained of the Neutrality Act’s restraint upon his power. In the case of easing America’s reluctant entry into the European war, the president’s guile-filled gamble was rewarded when, following the Japanese attack, Germany declared war on the United States, thereby proffering an engraved invitation into the European conflict. Employing this analogy, Senator J. William Fulbright would later remark that “FDR’s deviousness in a good cause made it much easier for [LBJ] to practice the same kind of deviousness in a bad cause.”50

During the Cold War, presidential deception for security purposes became routinized, defended in elite circles as a distasteful but necessary matter of realpolitik and, frequently, national survival. This was true not only for the men responsible for lying but also for those independent intellectuals and scholars who might be expected to object most vociferously. Thomas A. Bailey, dean of diplomatic historians, argued in 1948, “Because the masses are notoriously short-sighted, and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats, our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-term interests...Deception of the people may in fact become necessary [as]...the price we have to pay for greater physical security.”51 The combined threats of Soviet expansionism and potential nuclear attack, and the requirements for secrecy and vigilance they created, were deemed to be so compelling that Americans simply could no longer enjoy the luxury of leaders telling them the truth, lest this truth be exploited by a perfidious adversary. This principle, late enshrined into law by a series of Supreme Court cases, would be neatly enunciated during the Cuban Missile Crisis by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Arthur Sylvester, who informed Americans, “It’s inherent in [the] government’s right, if necessary, to lie to save itself.”52

The era’s Magna Carta would prove to be an April 1950 internal bureaucratic report to President Truman entitled “NSC-68.” Though the document remained classified until 1975, it functioned within the government as the operational blueprint for the policy of containment, inspired by George Kennan’s theological treatise known as the “Long Telegram,” and published as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” in Foreign Affairs, under the pseudonym “X.” As the end product of extensive interagency negotiation, NSC-68 lacked Kennan’s poetic flair. But its prescriptive elements were clear, present, and dangerous to the norms of constitutional democracy. Believing that the Kremlin leaders were possessed of a “new fanatic faith,” seeking “absolute authority over the rest of the world,” the authors argued that “the integrity of our system will not be jeopardized by any measures, covert or overt, violent or non-violent, which serve the purposes of frustrating the Kremlin design.”53 In 1795, James Madison had warned that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” But in 1962, John Kennedy found himself leading a nation in which “no war has been declared, [but] the danger has never been more clear and its presence has never been more imminent.” As in all wars, truth would necessarily be among the first casualties. The necessity of the noble lie thus became almost an a priori assumption within the American elite during the Cold War, so deeply and widely held was the consensus regarding the threat posed to the United States by global Communism.

Even so, the idea that a president might tell the nation an outright lie remained a shocking one to many Americans, as President Eisenhower would learn to his considerable chagrin. When, on May 1, 1960, Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev initially disclosed that an American plane had been shot down inside Soviet territory, Eisenhower’s minions were quick to issue denials. The White House stuck to its story that a NASA “weather research plane” on a mission inside Turkey might have accidentally drifted into Soviet territory, and identified the pilot as Francis Gary Powers, a civilian employee of Lockheed. The White House fiction turned out to be Nikita Khrushchev’s cue to disclose to the Supreme Soviet, “Comrades, I must let you in on a secret. When I made my report two days ago, I deliberately refrained from mentioning that we have the remains of the plane—and we also have the pilot, who is quite alive and kicking.” Howls of laughter followed as the premier added that the Soviets had also recovered “a tape recording of the signals of a number of our ground radar stations—incontestable evidence of spying.” Eisenhower admitted to his secretary, “I would like to resign.”54

The president’s staff scrambled to distance him from what was clearly an embarrassing lie. They put out the false cover story that the president had been unaware of the flights—though in fact he had been deeply involved in their planning, including even the targets upon which Powers had been assigned to eavesdrop. Yet Chief of Staff Andrew Goodpaster apparently instructed Secretary of State Christian Herter, the “president wants no specific tie to him of this particular event.”55 While the president professed to “heartily approve” of a proposed congressional investigation of the incident, he privately instructed the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to do whatever necessary to try to thwart it and went so far as to order his Cabinet officers to hide his own involvement even if called upon to testify under oath.

Author James Bamford argues that Christian Herter did lie to the committee, misinforming it that the U-2 flight program had “never come up to the president.” Eisenhower, argues Bamford, was therefore guilty of the subornation of perjury, and Herter of perjury.56 (In 1977, former CIA director Richard Helms would be sentenced to two years in prison for a similar offense.) What’s more, they were committing these crimes not to protect “our intelligence systems,” as the president had instructed the National Security Council, but to protect Eisenhower’s own political standing. Powers had already signed a confession and all of the eavesdropping equipment from the plane was already on display to the public in Moscow’s Gorky Park.57 But an election year was coming up, and the president did not want to take any chances with exposure of the unflattering truth. Though his role in the planning of the flight and the deception that ensued was not revealed until decades after his death, Eisenhower never fully recovered from the humiliation. Two years after he left office, Eisenhower was asked by reporter David Kraslov about his “greatest regret.” The ex-general replied, “The lie we told [about the U-2]. I didn’t realize how high a price we were going to have to pay for that lie.”58

Forty years later, Eisenhower’s concern about his own honor and credibility in the face of having been revealed to be a liar seemed a quaint relic of a bygone era. Americans have since learned of so many lies told to them by their leaders that most have adapted to official falsehood as a way of life. According to a major 1996 survey by The Washington Post, Harvard University, and the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 1964 three in four Americans trusted the federal government all or most of the time, a view shared by barely one-third that number in the later poll. While Americans are often found to be shockingly ignorant regarding the affairs of their government, it is a remarkable discovery of recent research that the more Americans know about their government, the less they trust it. Among those with high levels of knowledge about current issues or politics, 77 percent expressed only some confidence in the federal government, a view shared by 67 percent less-informed respondents.59 And while these numbers briefly improved following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the nation, President Bush’s dissembling with regard to the threat posed to the United States by Iraq during 2002 and early 2003 sent those numbers tumbling down to their preattack levels, and lower.60

The Problem of Feedback

As noted earlier, these conditions constitute a decidedly unhealthy situation for any democratic system. But the quality of the nation’s democracy, like the issue of the morality of lying in general, carries precious little weight when a president or one of his advisers is trying to decide how to avoid telling his constituents an uncomfortable truth. Or, more precisely, whatever weight it does carry derives exclusively from the perception that the president is revealing to the nation a difficult truth as an uncommonly brave and statesmanlike act. In fact, presidents often offer such revelations as substitutes for admitting the more compromising facts that lie buried beneath them.

The pragmatic problem with official lies is their amoeba-like penchant for self-replication. The more a leader lies to his people, the more he must lie to his people. Eventually the lies take on a life of their own and tend to overpower the liar. Lying may appear to work for a president in the short term and, in many cases, it does. But a president ignores the consequences of his deception at his own political peril.

Albert Hirschman has observed that the notion of unintended consequences is as old as the Greek hubris-nemesis sequence. Moreover, he notes, the “reconnaissance and systematic description of...unintended consequences have [ever since the eighteenth century] been a major assignment, if not raison d’être of social science.”61 What social scientists term the “system effects” or “feedback effects”—which are intimately related to what political scientists and, in another context, economists term “path dependency”—of official lying in politics are both enormous and enormously understudied. Robert Jervis writes, “In a system, the chains of consequence extend over time and many areas. The effects of action are always multiple. Doctors call the undesired impact of medications ‘side effects.’ Although the language is misleading, there is no criterion other than our desires, coupled with our expectations, that determines which effects are ‘main’ and which are ‘side’—the point reminds us that disturbing a system will produce several changes.” Jervis deploys a variety of examples from environmental policy to demonstrate an obvious but frequently ignored argument. “Wishing to kill insects, we may put an end to the singing of birds. Wishing to ‘get there’ faster, we insult our lungs with smog. Seeking to protect the environment by developing non-polluting sources of electric power, we build windmills that kill hawks and eagles that fly into the blades; cleaning the water in our harbors allows the growth of mollusks and crustaceans that destroy wooden piers and bulkheads; adding redundant safety equipment makes some accidents less likely but increases the chances of others due to the operators’ greater confidence and the interaction effects among the devices; placing a spy in the adversary’s camp not only gains valuable information but also leaves the actor vulnerable to deception if the spy is discovered; eliminating rinderpest in East Africa paves the way for canine distemper in lions because it permitted the accumulation of cattle, which required dogs to herd them, dogs which provided a steady source for the virus that could spread to lions.”62

In society, as in nature, the failure to appreciate the fact that the behavior of the actors is in part responsible for the environment that will later impinge on them leads observers—and actors as well—to underestimate actors’ influence.63 In terms of the literature of path dependency, we see in a presidential lie the kind of “causal mechanism” that inspires the “inherent logic of events” through which “the impact of decisions [in this case, lies] persists into the present and defines alternatives for the future.”64 In the cases I examine here, the paths set forth by a presidential lie relating to an important matter of state, while inherently unpredictable, are nevertheless predictably uncontrollable and almost always negative.

In the pages that follow, I plan to elucidate a political dynamic that mimics the natural world described above. A president may create problems that go unremarked upon at the time of the initial lie. Presidents, like the rest of us, almost never consider the system effects of their lies, particularly the “feedback loop” these lies create. But these consequences are considerable, unavoidable, and, in the four case studies I examine, politically fatal. The reasons are simple. In almost all cases, the problem or issue that gives rise to the lie refuses to go away, even while the lie complicates the president’s ability to address it. He must now address not only the problem itself, but also the ancillary problem his lie has created. Karl Kraus once mused, with only slight exaggeration, that many a war has been caused by a diplomat who lied to a journalist and then believed what he read in the newspapers. The tendency for leaders to believe their own propaganda over time is one form of what first CIA agents and, later, political scientists have come to call “blowback.” One feature of blowback is that its effects are almost always portrayed as unprovoked, often inexplicable actions, when in fact they are typically caused by actions initially taken by the government itself.65 The point here is that in telling the truth to the nation, presidents may often have to deal with complex, difficult, and frequently dangerous problems they would no doubt prefer to avoid. But at least these are genuine problems that would have arisen irrespective of the leader’s actions. This is, after all, inherent in the job description. But once a president takes it upon himself to lie to the country about important matters, he necessarily creates an independent dynamic that would not otherwise have come about, and we are all the worse for it.

As I have already stated, this book purposely avoids the two best-known recent cases of presidential lying—those that resulted in the resignation of one president and the impeachment of another—and focuses instead on much more popular presidents. Furthermore, I was far more interested in examining the lies of presidents that I admire (Roosevelt, Kennedy, and, to a lesser degree, Johnson) as well as those who are perceived as heroic figures by so many Americans (Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan) and whose lies, moreover, were, like Lyndon Johnson’s, inextricably tied to what were popularly viewed at the time as their moments of unsurpassed personal popularity and political triumph. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate that presidential deception—and the practic

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2004-08-23:
Mendacity has increasingly become a journalistic touchstone for analyzing America's international relations. Alterman, best known as a columnist for the Nation and author of What Liberal Media?, presents his case for what he calls four key lies U.S. presidents told world citizens during the 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt lied, he says, about the nature of the Yalta accords, creating the matrix for a half-century of anti-Soviet paranoia. John F. Kennedy lied about the compromise that settled the Cuban missile crisis, and kept the Cold War alive by humiliating the U.S.S.R. Lyndon Johnson lied about the second Tonkin Gulf incident, and moved the U.S. down a slippery slope that destroyed his hopes of creating a Great Society. Ronald Reagan lied about his policies in Central America, creating a secret and illegal foreign policy that resulted in "the murder of tens of thousands of innocents." Alterman interprets this pattern as a consequence of mistaken American beliefs: belief in providence watching over the U.S., belief in American moral superiority abroad and belief, unfulfilled, in unyielding commitment to democracy at home all of these things are easy to stump on, but impossible, Alterman argues, to demonstrate. These "delusions" in turn create an unrealistic picture of the world, one immune to education regarding reality. All of this, predictably enough, leads to George W. Bush, whose administration is dismissed as a "post-truth presidency." The American-centered perspective of Alterman's case studies overlooks the many times when the U.S. was outmaneuvered (or deceived) by other players to a point where truth became obscured by means other than executive mendacity. Alterman also allows little room for mistakes or plain incompetence on the part of the administrations in question. But his conceit is otherwise carefully and compellingly executed, and sets the stage for debate. (On sale Sept. 27) Forecast: This book's historical grounding sets it apart from other "Bush lies" books this season; look for excellent coverage and corresponding sales the snappy title guarantees an audience beyond the Nation set. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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Summaries
Main Description
Lying has become pervasive in American life'but what happens when the falsehoods are perpetrated by the Oval Office? As the lies told by our government become more and more intricate, they begin to weave a tapestry of deception that creates problems far larger than those lied about in the first place.Eric Alterman's When Presidents Lieis a compelling historical examination of four specific post-World War II presidential lies whose consequences were greater than could ever have been predicted. FDR told the American people that peace was secure in Europe, setting the stage for McCarthyism and the cold war. John F. Kennedy's unyielding stance during the Cuban missile crisis masked his secret deal with the Soviet Union. Misrepresented aggression at the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese gave LBJ the power to start a war. Finally, Ronald Reagan's Central American wars ended in the ignominy of the Iran-contra scandal. In light of George W. Bush's war in Iraq, which Alterman examines in the book's conclusion, When Presidents Lieis a warning'one more relevant today than ever before'that the only way to prevent these lies is America's collective demand for truth.
Main Description
Lying has become pervasive in American life—but what happens when the falsehoods are perpetrated by the Oval Office? As the lies told by our government become more and more intricate, they begin to weave a tapestry of deception that creates problems far larger than those lied about in the first place. Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lieis a compelling historical examination of four specific post-World War II presidential lies whose consequences were greater than could ever have been predicted. FDR told the American people that peace was secure in Europe, setting the stage for McCarthyism and the cold war. John F. Kennedy’s unyielding stance during the Cuban missile crisis masked his secret deal with the Soviet Union. Misrepresented aggression at the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese gave LBJ the power to start a war. Finally, Ronald Reagan’s Central American wars ended in the ignominy of the Iran-contra scandal. In light of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, which Alterman examines in the book’s conclusion, When Presidents Lieis a warning—one more relevant today than ever before—that the only way to prevent these lies is America’s collective demand for truth.
Main Description
Lying has become pervasive in American life—but what happens when the falsehoods are perpetrated by the Oval Office? As the lies told by our government become more and more intricate, they begin to weave a tapestry of deception that creates problems far larger than those lied about in the first place.Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lieis a compelling historical examination of four specific post-World War II presidential lies whose consequences were greater than could ever have been predicted. FDR told the American people that peace was secure in Europe, setting the stage for McCarthyism and the cold war. John F. Kennedy’s unyielding stance during the Cuban missile crisis masked his secret deal with the Soviet Union. Misrepresented aggression at the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese gave LBJ the power to start a war. Finally, Ronald Reagan’s Central American wars ended in the ignominy of the Iran-contra scandal.In light of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, which Alterman examines in the book’s conclusion, When Presidents Lieis a warning—one more relevant today than ever before—that the only way to prevent these lies is America’s collective demand for truth.
Table of Contents
Introduction: On Lies, Personal and Presidentialp. 1
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and the Yalta Conferencep. 23
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisisp. 90
Lyndon B. Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin Incidentsp. 160
Ronald W. Reagan, Central America, and the Iran-Contra Scandalp. 238
Conclusion: George W. Bush and the Post-Truth Presidencyp. 294
Notesp. 315
Works Citedp. 407
Indexp. 433
About the Authorp. 448
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