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.

Would you typically realize right away that these things were lies or would you only realize it later when going over the transcripts? Did it force you to fact-check the transcripts?

That’s the test. Arguably, every one of his speeches should have been fact-checked. I never heard him speak in public without saying two or three things that were abject bullshit. But reporting that isn’t your only job. You’re also covering the president. And Clinton was always making news—making policy, making things happen. Suddenly his policies started to work. That was the real news.

Would I realize the lies were lies right away? Well, when Clinton told The Des Moines Register he was the first president to know anything about farming, I remember listening along and then suddenly thinking, Wait a minute. What could Clinton possibly know about farming? And then quite quickly I remembered that George Washington practically invented the mule, and that there are still Thomas Jefferson varietals of wine around, and how Hoover—whose home state Clinton was in at the time!—saved millions of people from starvation because he knew so much about agriculture distribution. It was a stunning, audacious claim. So I wrote it up.

Was Clinton embarrassed by being called out on this stuff?

I had some run-ins with his staff. There was one story in particular that he loved to tell about cop-killer bullets. Of course, there was no such thing as a cop-killer bullet in 1996. But he would give these speeches proclaiming, “I’m against cop-killer bullets. We gotta stop the manufacture of cop-killer bullets.” What he was apparently referring to were those Teflon-coated bullets used in handguns that could penetrate a bulletproof vest. And he’d come out with these lines like “I never saw a deer in a Kevlar vest.” And I would think, What the hell is he talking about? What are cop-killer bullets?

Finally, Clinton went a little too far for me and I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. He held an event in Chicago with a woman whose husband had been a cop killed on duty. And he made an example out of the guy saying, “We gotta get these cop-killer bullets off the street. This woman’s husband died.” Well, in actuality, the police officer was shot and he did die, but when I finally got the coroner on the phone and asked him about the cop-killer bullet, the coroner seemed stumped. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, wasn’t he shot in the chest?” and the guy said “Well, yeah…” and I said, “Was he wearing a Kevlar vest?” and he said, “Yeah…” and so I asked, “Well? What about this cop-killer bullet?” and the guy said, “No bullet penetrated that vest.” I said, “Oh, well, what happened?” and he explained that he suspected the bullet had either entered through the sleeve or—and he requested I not quote him—it was a hot day and he had unzipped the vest.

So, I wrote this story up in the Baltimore Sun debunking the cop-killer bullet myth, all the while thinking it wasn’t such a big deal. I mean, Clinton’s heart had been in the right place after all. But the story somehow took off and the administration started taking some heat for Clinton’s exaggerations. I remember press secretary Mike McCurry coming up to me on the train to the Chicago convention—and he just starts yelling at me, “All right, enough already about the cop-killer bullet! I’ve told him [Clinton] five times that the story isn’t right, but he doesn’t care that he’s wrong!”

This was a lot like Reagan, who, when corrected by his staff, would just look at them like they were daft. Reagan stuck to telling his stories his way. Of course, now having said all that, those years seemed like a more innocent time.

Because we weren’t at war?

We weren’t, though we could have been, I guess. Osama bin Laden had already issued a fatwa by 1996. But we at least thought we were living in a more peaceful time. Anyway, when George W. took office and started coming out with all his own exaggerations and fibs and lies, I realized I was going to have to do a piece that looked at these kinds of things in a more serious light.

What’s your own definition of lying? Has it changed throughout the process of researching or writing this piece?

Well, the word seems easy to define but it isn’t. I have an eleven-year-old now. She can’t possibly still believe in Santa Claus but she says she does. I assume she’s testing us. And I don’t know if we’re flunking or passing, but I’m keeping the myth going. She may just think I’m an idiot, for all I know. But issues of truth come up every day. What does the guy do who goes somewhere after work and ends up somewhere he shouldn’t? What’s he supposed to do? Go home and blurt it out to his wife? These are very profound questions. These presidents with their lives in a fish bowl—I actually feel for them. Sissela Bok says a lie means saying something you know to be wrong but saying it anyway. But when it comes to public policy, it’s just not that simple.

Is it ever acceptable for a president to lie?

Well, I happen to think that when it comes to one’s personal life, certain things can be kept from the public. I think Hillary coined the notion of the “Zone of Privacy.” It’s a pretty good concept. Public figures seem not to enjoy it very often, but I definitely believe in it. There are things that happen in private life—in the bedroom, for instance—that I don’t think anyone would want displayed on the front page of The New York Times. Every word uttered, every garment donned, every acceptance or refusal. Why should presidents have to put up with that?

There is also a big difference between wartime and peacetime. Americans have always given presidents a lot of leeway during periods of war and for the most obvious reasons. That famous quote of Churchill’s—“Truth is so precious she must always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”—attests to the importance of keeping some things secret. Churchill said that to Stalin in Tehran to emphasize how important it was to keep the details of Operation Overlord a secret. Many thousands of people would have been killed had Hitler known where they were going. Well, everybody seems to appreciate the importance of that lie—even Eric Alterman, author of the book When Presidents Lie. Even our first honest president, George Washington, had to keep certain things a secret. He authorized a number of lies by running a string of spies during the Revolutionary War.

Wouldn’t that make him a liar?

I suspect it does! But then again, he did that in the context of war. To my knowledge, Alterman is the first person to argue that the minute a president starts lying in wartime—even if the lies are to shroud the details of an important operation—he sets himself up to lie about other things, like the reasons for going to war. Alterman challenges the conventional wisdom that if lying is ever acceptable, it’s acceptable in wartime, and he argues that it is during periods of war when it is most important for a president to speak the truth. That struck me as a very compelling idea and I think it needs to be taken seriously.

Can you elaborate on the consequences of lying during wartime?

Well, Alterman argues that FDR’s dishonesty over Yalta set off the Cold War on a more confrontational footing than necessary. The suspicions he planted in the American public’s mind fueled the animosity for decades, which led to things like the Gary Powers incident, which Eisenhower then believed he must lie about, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which Kennedy created a whole fiction about how tough he was. And then Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency and thought he had to be as tough as Bobby would have been had he won. Not all of Alterman’s arguments match up perfectly, but I like the general idea.

I didn’t get into this in the piece, but one could actually argue that what really spurred this chain reaction were the lies told about Roosevelt’s health. Had the American people known Roosevelt was dying, Yalta might never have happened; he might not have been reelected in 1944. There’s danger in criticizing the sainted Roosevelt, of course, but journalists have over time become a lot more interested in presidents’ health. And they should be. So while I won’t associate myself with every point Eric Alterman makes in the book, I do think he’s raised an issue that we can’t ignore given what’s happened during this presidency.

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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