When Presidents Lie
Presidential dishonesty, like so many things in life, is not what it used to be. Before the 1960s, few could even imagine that a President would deliberately mislead them on matters so fundamental as war and peace. When the evidence of presidential lying grew so enormous the phenomenon could no longer be avoided, its revelation helped force both Lyndon Johnson and his successor, Richard Nixon, out of the office. LBJ's false assurances regarding the second Tonkin Gulf incident, and their later exposure, would prove a significant factor in his own political demise, the destruction and repudiation of his party, and the ambitious Texan's personal humiliation and disgrace. Much the same can be said about his successor, the no less ambitious or dishonest Nixon. He, too, paid for his deceptions with his presidency, his reputation and a degrading defeat for his party in the following presidential election.
But by the time of the Iran/contra scandal in the mid-1980s--little more than a decade after Nixon's public disgrace--lying to the public had become an entirely mundane matter, one that could be easily justified on behalf of a larger cause. During the planning of the secret weapons sales to Iran, Reagan Cabinet officials, as well as the President himself, had warned of dire consequences should the public become aware of their plans: George Shultz argued during the crucial meetings that Reagan was committing "impeachable offenses," while Reagan himself predicted that if there was a leak to the media, "We'll all be hanging by our thumbs in front of the White House." But while the revelation did convulse the nation's political system for a year or so, it turned out that the President and his men had overestimated the cost of being proven liars as well as suppliers of weapons to terrorists. Presidents Reagan and Bush remained nationally admired and, to many people, beloved figures. The events of Iran/contra barely rated a mention in the media during the weeklong celebration of Reagan's life following his June 2004 death. Former President Jimmy Carter, who earned a reputation for being painfully honest in public life, meanwhile, is considered a kind of political misfit within these same media circles, in which many seem more comfortable with a politician who ignores painful truths than one who confronts them.
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. Bill Clinton was impeached for his decision to "lie" under oath about adultery--a choice that, fortunately for many of his predecessors in office, no previous President had ever faced. In Clinton's case, his most vociferous critics succeeded largely in galvanizing the country on the President's behalf and in making themselves appear ridiculous. At the moment the conservative quest to remove Clinton from office reached its zenith--the day of his impeachment--the President's approval rating rose to a remarkable 68 percent. Still, lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, both to the nation and to the grand jury, was the most costly mistake Clinton ever made, including having the affair itself; it was a betrayal of both his closest supporters and many of his own most deeply held personal and political aspirations.
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 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 effectively declared his right to mislead whenever it suited his purpose. We have no need here to rehearse the many costly untruths that led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq, as well as almost every significant policy initiative of the Bush Administration, nor their costs. As Michael Kinsley sagely observed 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.'"
Why do American Presidents feel compelled to deceive Congress, the media and the country about their most significant decisions? Perhaps the most elegant defense for such behavior can be found in the arguments of a mentor of a number of the planners of President Bush's war in Iraq. Abram Shulsky, who headed the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, whose work was used to override professional CIA analyses in favor of war, was, like the war's primary intellectual inspiration, Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, as well as many other neoconservatives, an admirer of the late political philosopher and refugee from Nazi Germany Leo Strauss, who died in 1973. Together with Gary Schmitt, who heads the Project for a New American Century--the Washington think tank where the war strategy was originally conceived--Shulsky wrote an essay published in 1999 titled "Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (by Which We Do Not Mean Nous)." In it, the authors argue that Strauss's idea of hidden meaning "alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception." Joseph Cropsey, a close friend and colleague of Strauss's at the University of Chicago, as well as the editor of his work, explains that in Straussian thought, a degree of public deception is considered absolutely necessary. "That people in government have to be discreet in what they say publicly is so obvious--'If I tell you the truth I can't but help the enemy.'"
However high-minded, the argument does not really convince. With few exceptions, Presidents lie largely not for the reasons above but for reasons of political convenience. The decisions to lie were bred of a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the practice of American democracy. American Presidents have no choice but to practice the diplomacy of Great Power politics, but American citizens have rarely if ever been asked to understand the world in those terms. As the dissident Kennedy-Johnson aide George Ball observed in 1967, "We have used the vocabulary and syntax of Wilsonian Universalism while actively practicing the politics of alliances and spheres of influence and it is now time that we stopped confusing ourselves with our political hyperbole." The result, more often than not, is that when deals must be struck and compromises made on behalf of large purposes, Presidents tend to prefer deception over education.