When Presidents Lie | The Nation


When Presidents Lie

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If history teaches us anything, it is that Presidents cannot lie about major political events that have potentially serious ramifications--particularly those relating to war and peace--with impunity. 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 caused by actions initially taken by the government itself.

This article is adapted from When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, by arrangement with Viking Penguin. Copyright © 2004 by Eric Alterman. Click here for more info and to purchase copies.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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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.

Had FDR told the truth about Yalta to the country, it is far more likely that the United States would have participated in the creation of the kind of world community he envisioned when he made his secret agreements. John Kennedy's deception about the nature of the deal to which he agreed to insure the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba also proved enormously detrimental to his hope of creating a lasting, stable peace in the context of cold war competition. Lyndon Johnson destroyed not only his ambitious hopes to create a "Great Society" but also his own presidency and most of his political reason for being. And Ronald Reagan, through his lies about Central America, created a dynamic through which his advisers believed they had a right to initiate a secret, illegal foreign and military policy whose aims were almost perfectly contradictory to the President's stated aims in such crucial areas as dealing with governments deemed to be terrorist.

Under President George W. Bush, Americans entered an era of politics in which the value of truth, for all practical purposes, became entirely contingent. 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. The death, destruction and general chaos that seemed ready to explode on a daily basis in Iraq following the US invasion seemed to be just one price that "reality" was demanding in return.

Presidents, Bush included, speak rhetorically of their commitment to tell the American people the truth no matter what. This is, of course, nonsense. The Bush Justice Department has even gone before the Supreme Court to argue its right "to give out false information...incomplete information and even misinformation" whenever it deems this necessary. This claim goes well beyond even the famous formulation that Arthur Sylvester, then a Defense Department official, offered on behalf of President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis: "It's inherent in [the] government's right, if necessary, to lie to save itself."

In a better world, future Presidents would learn the obvious lessons from the experiences of their predecessors: Protect legitimate secrets by refusing to answer certain questions, certainly. Put the best face on your own actions and those of the politicians you support, of course. Create a zone of privacy for yourself and your family that is declared off-limits to all public inquiry. But do not, under any circumstances, lie.

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