Presidential Lies

Carl M. Cannon, the author of "Untruth and Consequences," talks about the lies our presidents tell us—and the ones they tell themselves.
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In recent weeks, many have argued that Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon—while widely unpopular at the time—was a prescient decision that ultimately saved the country from years of divisiveness and suffering. Nonetheless, thirty years later, Nixon’s infamous lies continue to plague the country, having set the ultimate bar for presidential dishonesty. Only one president since Nixon has come close to reaching Tricky Dick depths, but the personal nature of Bill Clinton’s prevarications inspired the Senate to acquit him of all impeachment charges. In the twenty-first century, serious accusations are again on the fly, this time against George W. Bush, whose justifications for taking the nation to war in Iraq have proven baseless.

While the country appears more polarized than ever before, presidential lying is nothing new, argues Carl M. Cannon in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. After reviewing a litany of untruths – large and small – perpetrated by American presidents through the years, the White House reporter decided to step back and examine the nature of the relationship between truth and the presidency. “Can presidents be truly effective without lying,” Cannon asks, “or are there times when they simply must engage in deception? If so, when? And how is the public to know whether presidents are abusing that prerogative?”

Cannon reminds us that, unlike men, not all lies are created equal. As scholars and philosophers have argued for centuries, some untruths are more immoral than others. Is a president who lies to the nation about his health as guilty as one who participates in criminal behavior by stealing documents from his opposition? Is he as guilty as a president who makes a seemingly harmless exaggeration on the campaign trail in order to bond with voters? Is there any such thing as a “harmless” lie in the first place?

Philosopher Sissela Bok, Cannon points out, might say no. Bok, the author of the recently reissued 1978 book, Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life, would contend that even lies considered relatively harmless or socially acceptable are detrimental because of the collective social costs of lying. These costs—which manifest themselves as an ever greater cultural disregard for truth-telling—are especially problematic when it comes to politics and, as journalist Eric Alterman argues, even more harmful during times of war. As accusations go, the current commander in chief isn’t doing much to bolster the nation’s trust; moreover, many of the repercussions of his deceptions—or, as Cannon suggests, self-deceptions—are not reversible. What consequences will the nation suffer from this presidency?

Combining research, personal experience, and self-reflection, Cannon considers how George W. Bush differs from his predecessors—none of whom were 100 percent truthful during their presidencies—and how the public will judge him in years to come:

Bush’s place in history…will depend not on whether he lied to the American people—every president, arguably, has succumbed to that temptation—but how he lied, what consequences his lying unleashed, and how he ultimately responded to them. Put bluntly, posterity will judge the current president not so much by whether he told the truth but whether he recognized what the truth actually was.

Carl Cannon is the White House correspondent for National Journal. A veteran political journalist, he has covered every presidential campaign and political convention since 1984. He lives in Arlington, Virginia, with family. We spoke on December 19th.

—Abigail Cutler


Where did the idea for this piece come from?

I think everyone grows up with an interest in presidents—and this question of whether they’re truthful tends to come up. You know, “Is the president lying?” When I was a kid, Nixon was not an admired figure in our household. Actually, I don’t ever remember not knowing the phrase “Tricky Dick.” When I was in high school, Vietnam was going on, and this concept of people going to war and men being killed because of lies was something that constantly permeated our lives. The suspect relationship between presidents and the truth is an issue that’s been around for as long as I can remember.

Was “presidential lying” part of the lexicon back then? Did it begin with Nixon?

You know the old line, “How do you know when the president’s lying? His lips are moving”? I remember that comment being made about Lyndon Johnson. And it had been applied to various people before him, too. It seems like it’s been around forever.

So when did the work on this piece begin?

I started covering the White House when Bill Clinton was in his second month of office—so, March 1993. I had already covered the campaign. Clinton used to rip off all these corkers! You know, “I’m the greatest person to do X, Y, and Z”; or, “Al Gore’s the greatest vice president ever.” It was a form of bragging that goes along with campaigning, and as a reporter you learned to take it with a grain of salt. But some of those lies…

My absolute favorite presidential lie (which is on the cutting room floor of this piece) was told by Reagan in 1980. At the time, I wanted to be a journalist—not like my father who covered the president. I wanted to be Jimmy Breslin or Mike Royko. I was going to cover murders and hang out with hookers and cops in bars and write Big City columns. But I remember thinking at the time how interesting the 1980 campaign was—and I remember Reagan telling this ethnic joke. I don’t remember the joke very well—it’s not very funny. It involves a Polish guy and an Italian guy and there’s some sort of cock fight, or roosters—anyway, I can’t remember the joke but I do remember the punch line: “How do you know the guy was Italian? Because the duck wins.” Well. Eventually Reagan’s confronted with this. I think he told the joke in Connecticut but don’t hold me to that—

In public?

—well, I think it was a fundraiser, but regardless, it got out somehow. Anyway, Governor Reagan just flat out denied ever having said it—ever having made an ethnic joke. Well, there was no YouTube back then, of course, but there happened to be a rolling camera in the room and sure enough, he had said it. So his second line of defense was, “Okay, I told this ethnic joke—but only as an example of a joke you shouldn’t tell.”

So that became my favorite lie and after that I just started collecting them. I became this amateur collector of presidential lies.

You covered Clinton’s presidency. Putting aside Monica Lewinsky for the moment, was President Clinton straightforward with the public?

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t easy to cover Bill Clinton. For a lot of reasons. For one, covering his speeches isn’t as simple as covering another president’s speeches because his quotes aren’t that good. He’s articulate, but he’s not eloquent and he reminds you of the difference between the two. I’d come back from an event and think, “Boy! That event was great! Clinton was great, the audience was great…” But then I’d look back to my notebook and realize, “Well, there’s not much there, not much usable.”

But the second thing had to do with his bragging. He was always bragging. Sure, these guys have to brag in order to get elected, but Clinton went way beyond. He was always the biggest, the best, the first—even if he wasn’t. And that’s the clincher: a lot of the stuff he said wasn’t right. So I’d end up thinking—I gotta write this speech and it’s hard enough to convey how electric the atmosphere was, what he was really getting across, why people like him, why even when he gives kind of a nerdy, wonkish answer he’s actually making news because he’s the man with the plan. So you want to write about all that. But on the other hand, all these whoppers have just poured out of his mouth on the record…

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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