The more things change… Roughly ten years ago, I celebrated the criminal indictment of Elliott Abrams for lying to Congress by writing an Op-Ed in the New York Times on the increasing acceptance of official deception. (I was just starting my dissertation on the topic back then.) The piece got bogged down, however, when an editor refused to allow me even to imply that then-President Bush was also lying to the country. I noted that such reticence made the entire exercise feel a bit absurd. He did not dispute this point but explained that Times policy simply would not allow it. I asked for a compromise. I was offered the following: “Either take it out and a million people will read you tomorrow, or leave it in and send it around to your friends.” (It was a better line before e-mail.) Anyway, I took it out, but I think it was the last time I’ve appeared on that page.
President Bush is a liar. There, I said it, but most of the mainstream media won’t. Liberal pundits Michael Kinsley, Paul Krugman and Richard Cohen have addressed the issue on the Op-Ed pages, but almost all news pages and network broadcasts pretend not to notice. In the one significant effort by a national daily to deal with Bush’s consistent pattern of mendacity, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank could not bring himself (or was not allowed) to utter the crucial words. Instead, readers were treated to such complicated linguistic circumlocutions as: Bush’s statements represented “embroidering key assertions” and were clearly “dubious, if not wrong.” The President’s “rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy,” he has “taken some liberties,” “omitted qualifiers” and “simply outpace[d] the facts.” But “Bush lied”? Never.
Ben Bradlee explains, “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 reason is deference to the office and the belief that the American public will not accept a mere reporter calling the President a liar. Part of the reason is the culture of Washington–where it is somehow worse to call a person a liar in public than to be one. A final reason is political. Some reporters are just political activists with columns who prefer useful lies to the truth. For instance, Robert Novak once told me that he “admired” Elliott Abrams for lying to him in a television interview about illegal US acts of war against Nicaragua because he agreed with the cause.
Let us note, moreover, that Bradlee’s observation, offered in 1997, did not apply to President Clinton. Reporters were positively eager to call Clinton a liar, although his lies were about private matters about which many of us, including many reporters, lie all the time. “I’d like to be able to tell my children, ‘You should tell the truth,'” Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal said on 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.” David Gergen, 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 dishonesty, decried what he termed “the deep and searing violation [that] took place when he not only lied to the country, but co-opted his friends and lied to them.” Chris Matthews kvetched, “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.” George Will, a frequent apologist for the lies of Reagan and now Bush, went so far as to insist that Clinton’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.”
George W. Bush does not lie about sex, I suppose–merely about war and peace. Most particularly he has consistently lied about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities as well as its missile-delivery capabilities. Take a look at Milbank’s gingerly worded page-one October 22 Post story if you doubt me. To cite just two particularly egregious examples, Bush tried to frighten Americans by claiming that Iraq possesses a fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used “for missions targeting the United States.” Previously he insisted that a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed the Iraqis to be “six months away from developing a weapon.” Both of these statements are false, but they are working. Nearly three-quarters of Americans surveyed think that Saddam is currently helping Al Qaeda; 71 percent think it is likely he was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.
What I want to know is why this kind of lying is apparently OK. Isn’t it worse to refer “repeatedly to intelligence…that remains largely unverified”–as the Wall Street Journal puts it–in order to trick the nation into war, as Bush and other top US officials have done, than to lie about a blowjob? Isn’t it worse to put “pressure…on the intelligence agencies to deliberately slant estimates,” as USA Today worded its report? Isn’t it more damaging to offer “cooked information,” in the words of the CIA’s former chief of counterterrorism, when you are asking young men and women to die for your lies? Don’t we revile Lyndon Johnson for having done just that with his dishonest Gulf of Tonkin resolution?
Here’s Bradlee again: “Just think for a minute how history might have changed if Americans had known then that their leaders felt the 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.”
Reporters and editors who “protect” their readers and viewers from the truth about Bush’s lies are doing the nation–and ultimately George W. Bush–no favors. Take a look at the names at that long black wall on the Mall. Consider the tragic legacy of LBJ’s failed presidency. Ask yourself just who is being served when the media allow Bush to lie, repeatedly, with impunity, in order to take the nation into war.