Official Deception - when presidents lie

Eric Alterman | Posted on 04/01/07

Lies, like the poor and taxes, will apparently always be with us. Parents warn children against lying; most people know that lying is “wrong,” but most people do it anyway. And that includes presidents of the United States. From George Washington to George W. Bush, some have kept secrets, others have obfuscated, others have told outright whoppers. Democrats, Republicans, Federalists, Whigs: they all are guilty of this sin.

But is it a sin?

Lying is much more complicated than it looks, both morally and practically. We are all aware, as Michel de Montaigne observed, that “[t]he opposite of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field.” Postmodernism has called into question our ability to know the “truth” of any situation at any time, much less to accurately describe it. As Friedrich Nietzsche asks, “Do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” Our religious traditions teach that many great men have lied. Jacob lies to steal his father’s blessing away from Esau. Peter denies three times before the cock crows that he is one of Jesus’s disciples.

Much of one’s social life is lubricated by a host of apparently (and often genuinely) harmless lies. 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. 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? In The Adventures of Huckleberr¥ Finn, two slave-catchers, looking for Jim, call out to him from the shore, demanding to know if anyone is on the raft with Huck, and, if so, whether the person is black or white. “White,” Huck says. 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?

People lie, nobly, to protect loved ones. But they also lie, ignobly, in the course of doing business. In a lengthy examination of the role of truth and lies in the entertainment industry published in 2001, the late Los Angeles Times writer David Shaw reported, “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.” In June 2001, a Newsweek reporter who had noticed that a number of Sony Pictures Entertainment productions were receiving consistently enthusiastic blurbs from a film critic named David Manning, of the Ridgefield Press, a small Connecticut weekly, discovered that Manning didn’t exist; he and his blurbs had been created by Sony’s marketing team. 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.)

In a society like this, how to judge politicians? How to judge the most exalted of all politicians, our presidents, who are public servants but are also privy to secrets that the public absolutely must not know? It’s a difficult question, but before we can find an answer, we must at least face the facts head on: presidents lie.

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Many factors tend to interfere with a contemporary American president’s 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 and 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.” 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.


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. 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. 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 if it were 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 asked, could citizens either “check or encourage what they were not permitted to see?” 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 that, 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 almost always continue to lie to us, 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 Bush tried to undo the damage by saying, “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 about 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.

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 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 embarrassing explanation and it permits them to cut corners with no questions being asked.”

Secrecy and lying are occasionally unavoidable in wartime, which is one reason politicians tend to be more warlike than most situations would justify. It frees them from the constraint of telling the truth or even being questioned about it. But leaving aside that significant but important exception, 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, as commander in chief under authority of Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, 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 judicial 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 the citizens be compromised. But there is a line between refusing to divulge information and deliberate deception.

Keeping a secret is not the same as telling a lie, just as refusing to 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 George 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.”

This was antidemocratic behavior on Washington’s part, 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 that were meant to mislead unsuspecting readers regarding the nature of South America’s revolutions.

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 in 1848, as a nearly anonymous congressman, 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 the alleged attack had taken place. Polk did not respond. 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; it was then that lying and its attendant dangers became a continuous feature of the nation’s political and cultural life.

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The president present at the creation of this new nation was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who successfully led America into war by, to a considerable degree, 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.” 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. During the 1940 election campaign, Roosevelt repeatedly assured Americans, as Lyndon Johnson would do twenty-four years later, 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.” 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 Roosevelt 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 that the ship had provoked the submarine, Roosevelt used the incident to step up U.S. participation in the undeclared war against Germany in the North Atlantic. Senator J. William Fulbright would later remark, in speaking of Lyndon Johnson’s disastrous decision to mislead the nation about the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 1964, which led to direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese civil war, 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.”

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. This principle, later 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.”

The era’s Magna Carta would prove to be an internal bureaucratic report of April 1950 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 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.”

In 1795, James Madison had warned that “[n]o 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 leadership 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 he 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.”

It’s hard to say that the lie hurt Ike in any way, politically, and from the standpoint of personal political consequences, the act of purposeful deception by an American president depends almost entirely on the context in which it occurs. Nixon was destroyed by it, Reagan weakened by it, and Clinton almost undone by it. Just about the only safe prediction a politician can make before telling a lie or authorizing one to be told in his name is that he or she will not be able to predict its ultimate consequences. Of course Clinton lied about a private matter and one that no president before had ever faced. It doesn’t require an abundance of empathy to feel that perhaps we unfairly changed the rules on him in the middle of the game.

To the relief of many made uncomfortable by the complicated moral questions raised by a president who lied about what most people consider to be a private, moral sphere, Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, returned the presidency to the tradition of presidential deception relating to key matters of state, particularly those of war and peace. Bush may have claimed as a candidate that he would “tell the American people the truth,” but as president, he has appeared remarkably unconcerned with the question of whether he even appears to be speaking truthfully. As the liberal commentator Michael Kinsley would observe early in the administration’s tenure, “Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven’t bothered. If telling the truth was less bother, they’d try that, too. The characteristic Bush II form of dishonesty is to construct an alternative reality on some topic and to regard anyone who objects to it as a sniveling dweeb obsessed with ‘nuance,’ which the president of this class, I mean of the United States, has more important things to do than worry about.” A Bush press aide, in response to a string of revelations of Bush’s falsehoods about the reasons for invading Iraq, put it another way: “The President of the United States is not a fact-checker.”

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There are several reasons to worry about presidential lying. Obviously, Mill’s point still holds: A democratic people cannot sensibly be depended upon to choose their leaders if forced to do so on the basis of false information. No one would pay for a Mercedes and expect to see a Volks­wagen delivered the next day. How, then, can we choose a president or a senator or a representative if we cannot be allowed to judge his actual actions in office? Too many lies eat away at the foundation of our discourse, making any kind of political negotiation all but impossible. Why do a deal with anyone whose word is not his bond – unless you can coerce him to follow through? And if you need to rely on coercion, then what’s the point of the negotiation in the first place?

The primary reason for a president to resist lying, however, is a pragmatic one: reality cannot be lied away. It will demand its tribute, even if the president’s opponents, and the frequently toothless watchdogs of the mainstream media, do not.

And toothless they are. As the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Brad­lee observes, “Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print this version of Nixon’s first comments on Watergate, for instance: ‘The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night, and for that reason he would be unable to comment on the bizarre burglary. That is a lie.’” Part of the explanation for this is deference to the office and the belief that the American public will not accept a mere reporter’s calling the president a liar. Another factor is the insular nature of Washington’s insider culture – a society in which it is considered a graver matter to call another person a liar than it is to actually be one. And, finally, with the rise of the Republican far right, many ideologically driven reporters view their allegiance to the cause of their allies as trumping that of their journalistic responsibilities. The journalist Robert Novak has admitted to me that during the Iran-Contra crisis that he did not mind at all being the conduit of official lies so long as they served the ideological causes in which he believed. In that particular case, Novak was explaining that he “admired” then-Reagan and now-Bush official Elliott Abrams for lying to him on his television program in order to hide the U.S. government’s role in support of the Contras. (Abrams was convicted of perjury but pardoned by President George H. W. Bush and hired and promoted by his son.)

Such deference – to say nothing of the ideological self-censorship – is not only not in the interest of the nation, it is a disservice to the president as well. Presidents do themselves no favors when they tell significant lies to the nation, and journalists do no favors to either party when they let those lies pass without comment. As Bradlee observes, “Just think for a minute how history might have changed if Americans had known then that their leaders felt the [Vietnam] war was going to hell in a handbasket? In the next seven years, thousands of American lives and more thousands of Asian lives would have been saved. The country might never have lost faith in its leaders.” The virtue of truth in the American presidency had, for all practical purposes, become entirely operational. Whether its citizens were aware of it or not, the presidency now operated in a “post-truth” political environment. American presidents could no longer depend on the press – its powers and responsibilities enshrined in the First Amendment – to keep them honest. And the resulting death and destruction; the inexorable catastrophe we are currently experiencing in Iraq; and Bush’s inability to secure the trust of more than a small minority of Americans are just some examples of the price that reality is demanding in return.