Let’s not be naïve. Presidents, like diplomats, at times go forth and lie for their country. But when they use lies, repeated over and over, to deceive their own people, democracy is at risk.

America recently went through a week of celebration of the life of Ronald Reagan–a celebration that itself was a kind of lie, since it left out any mention of Reagan’s own lies during the Iran/contra crisis, which was a grave assault on the Constitution.

Now another ex-President, Bill Clinton, is back in the limelight flogging his bestselling book. Like Reagan, Clinton also misled the nation. But he was lying not on matters of war and peace, or subverting the Constitution, but about a private sexual affair–after being pursued by fanatical right-wing Republicans led by Kenneth Starr. (We don’t condone Clinton’s lies, but we found much more troubling his inaction on Rwanda, his unwillingness to stem increases in corporate power over the public sphere and his signature on the punitive GOP welfare “reform” bill.)

Also in the news, and more significant, have been the lies the Bush Administration fashioned to sell the invasion of Iraq. The lies about the (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction and the (nonexistent) Iraqi nuclear threat have pretty well been exposed. Now the lies coming to light are about the (unproven) cooperation between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. A 9/11 commission staff report asserts that there is no evidence of a “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and Al Qaeda that might have justified a pre-emptive war. Here, as with their other Iraq fictions, Administration officials used deceptive claims and innuendo that could not be easily disproved. They made sure their phrasing created enough wiggle room that they could pretend they’d never meant to imply what they clearly meant to imply.

But there is little doubt that when George W. Bush claimed in September 2002, “You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror,” he was trying to mislead Americans into supporting a war on Iraq. He was also misleading us with his repeated references to Saddam’s teaming up “with Al Qaeda-type organizations” and his warning that Saddam planned to employ Al Qaeda as a “forward army” against the West. Small wonder that Americans are now catching on to these and other dishonest claims. The latest ABC/Washington Post poll shows that 52 percent of Americans say the Iraq war wasn’t worth fighting. Approval of Bush’s campaign against terrorism has plunged twenty-nine points, and John Kerry is running neck and neck with Bush on who can be trusted to fight terrorism.

Again, when Vice President Cheney, on CNBC’s Capital Report, denied three times that he had claimed there was a meeting in Prague in April 2001 between 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and the head of Iraqi intelligence, he was unambiguously lying. The transcript of NBC’s December 9, 2001, Meet the Press broadcast has Cheney making exactly that false claim. It was certainly not his first lie to justify the Administration’s Iraq adventure, but it is impressive for its brazenness. The transcript of the program was available to anyone who cared to look.

So there are lies and there are lies. Reagan’s lies are now largely a matter for the historians (who must be given full access to his archive to expose them). Bill Clinton suffered the ultimate disgrace and apologized to the American people for lying to them.

The only expiation for George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s lies is their removal from office in November.