When Presidents Lie

When Presidents Lie

Official dishonesty is never worthwhile.


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.

In a series of visionary works published in the early 1920s Walter Lippmann examined what he believed to be the necessary preconditions for the operation of a successful democratic republic–a competent, civic-minded citizenry with access to relevant details of public policy. He argued that the entire notion is dangerously utopian and ought to be shelved. At the heart of republican theory, in Lippmann’s view, stood the “omnicompetent” citizen. “It was believed that if only he could be taught more facts, if only he would take more interest, if only he would listen to more lectures and read more reports, he would gradually be trained to direct public affairs.” Unfortunately, Lippmann concluded, “the whole assumption is false.” In truth, Lippmann argued, “public opinion” is shaped in response to people’s “maps” or “images” of the world, and not to the world itself.

Mass political consciousness does not pertain to the actual environment but to an intermediary “pseudo-environment.” To complicate matters, this pseudo-environment is further corrupted by the manner in which it is perceived. Citizens have only limited time and attention to devote to issues of public concern. News is designed for mass consumption; hence, the media must employ a relatively simple vocabulary and linear story line to discuss highly complex and decidedly nonlinear situations. The competition for readership (and advertising dollars) drives the press to present news reports in ways that sensationalize and oversimplify, while more significant information goes unreported and unremarked upon. Given both the economic and professional limitations of the practice of journalism, Lippmann argued, news “comes [to us] helter-skelter.” This is fine for a baseball box score, a transatlantic flight or the death of a monarch. But where the picture is more nuanced, “as for example, in the matter of a success of a policy or the social conditions among a foreign people–where the real answer is neither yes nor no, but subtle and a matter of balanced evidence,” then journalism “causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding and even misinterpretation.” Here Lippmann was identifying a problem that has since increased in both time and scope, as media sensationalism and public apathy have increased exponentially since the publication of his prophetic work.

Lippmann’s pseudo-environment is not composed only of the information we receive; it consists, in equal measure, of what Lippmann terms “the pictures in our heads.” Voters react to the news through the lens of a personal history containing certain stereotypes, predispositions and emotional associations that determine their interpretations. We emphasize that which confirms our original beliefs and disregard or denigrate what might contradict them. Lippmann compares the average citizen to a blind 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.” As a result, Lippmann lamented, democracy, in modern society, operates for only “a very small percentage of those who are theoretically supposed to govern.” No one expects steelworkers, musicians or bankers to understand physics, Lippmann believed, so why should they be expected to understand politics?

John Dewey replied to Lippmann in the May 3, 1922, New Republic and later in an important though tendentiously written work, The Public and Its Problems, published in 1927. Dewey conceded that voters were not “omnicompetent”–that is, “competent to frame policies, to judge their results, competent to know…what is for his own good,” and he passionately shared his republican hope that government could be formed to inspire generosity and civic-mindedness in the citizenry. But he disagreed with Lippmann’s sanguine trust in the beneficence of elites. “A class of experts,” he argued, “is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all.” An expert shoemaker may know best how to fix a shoe, but only its wearer knows where it hurts. “Democracy must begin at home…and its home is in the neighborly community.” Unfortunately, Dewey noted, “indifference is the evidence of current apathy, and apathy is testimony to the fact the public is so bewildered that it cannot find itself.”

Taken together, these analyses provide at least a partial explanation for the constancy of presidential deception in American political life. On the one hand, Americans carry an unrealistic picture of the world “in their heads”–one based on their faith in their own divine direction, disinterested altruism and democratic bona fides rather than the realities of politics, force and diplomacy. But education has never lived up to Dewey’s hopes, so Lippman’s critique of the inherent inability of democracy to cope with complexity remains salient. These failures, moreover, are exaggerated in the American case by a particular distaste for the practice of power politics and media that have insufficient incentive to provide the basics of civic literacy to their audience. Even those Presidents with the best of intentions come to view deception as an unavoidable consequence of a system that simply cannot integrate the unpleasant realities of international diplomacy.

However preferable it might be to tell the truth, the short-term costs of lying, given that the culture seems to expect it, are negligible. And as Friedrich Nietzsche instructed, these temptations are virtually impossible to resist. While people may desire “the agreeable life-preserving consequences of truth, [they are] indifferent to pure knowledge, which has no consequences, [and are] even hostile to possibly damaging and destructive truths.” The long-term costs of lying–at least at the moment the lie is being told–are almost always invisible. The ultimate costs for this easy calculation, however, are considerable, not only to the nation and to the cause of democracy but also to the aspirations and legacies of the Presidents themselves.

Whether this situation is remediable depends on one of two possibilities: Either future Presidents become convinced that the long-term cost of deception outweighs its short-term benefits, or the public matures to the point of seeking to educate itself about the need for complicated arrangements in international politics that do not comport with the nation’s caricatured notion of itself as an innocent and benevolent force throughout the world. The obvious solution would be to convince US Presidents of the value of substituting a long-term strategic vision in place of their present-minded, short-term tactical views. But “nothing in politics is more difficult than taking the long view,” notes the reporter Ronald Brownstein. “For politicians, distant gain is rarely a persuasive reason to endure immediate pain. Political scientists would say the system has a bias toward the present over the future. Parents might say politicians behave like perpetual teenagers. The problem, for politicians as much as teenagers, is that the future has a pesky habit of arriving.”

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.

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.

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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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