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.

Where does George W. Bush fit into this tradition? Is his disregard for the truth worse than that displayed by presidents who preceded him?

Well, that’s the money question, isn’t it? I guess I have two answers, which may sound like a cop-out, but at least each has the virtue of being somewhat brief. First: I came to no firm conclusion about where Bush fits into the tradition of presidential lying, so I wrote what I knew—trusting the readers would sort it out for themselves so long as I gave them enough facts and context to do that. My second, less diplomatic, response is this:  I think George W. Bush is essentially a truthful person. He’s often blunt to the point of nearly being tactless. But sometimes his certitude in the rightness of his motives—and I don’t question his motives—slops over into certitude that his judgment is right, which is an entirely different question. That word you used—it’s in my story as well—“disregard” is key. If a president doesn’t show a proper regard for the facts (and, admittedly, the facts are ever-changing) he ends up being less than fully honest with himself, and therefore less than fully honest with the American people. There are cases in which this might be worse than lying. Some of the people I quote in my article make that argument about Bush’s presidency, and I don’t disagree with them.

In the piece, you cite Sissela Bok who concedes that all lies aren’t created equal but argues that society ought to admonish all types of lying (especially by presidents) because together they contribute to “a general disregard for truth-telling.” Your response to that—that you believe it’s in the public’s interest to “live in the real world”—is interesting. Don’t you think the slippery slope argument is sufficient reason for the public to reprove even the smallest fibs?

We have to tolerate the little lies because they’re the oil that keeps human civilization going. Someone once said that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. I have a friend who prides himself on truth-telling in an absolutist way. He and Sissela Bok would get along great. His girlfriend once accused him of thinking of something else while they were making love. It happened to be true, so he owned up to it. I said he was stupid for doing so and he countered that he wanted the relationship to be based on trust. I posited, well, okay, What if you’re at someone’s house for dinner and the hostess says, ‘I have this new eggplant soufflé that I’d like you to try. It’s a new recipe—let me know what you think.’ It ends up being the worst thing you’ve ever tasted in your life. You try sneaking it under the table to the dog who won’t touch it, you push it around on your plate which only gets you so far, you hide some in your napkin and some in your pocket, but at the end of the evening, she’s bound to ask, ‘Well? What did you think?’ And you have two choices: you can say, ‘That’s the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. My wife and I are going to have to stop at McDonalds on the way home, but we had a good time anyway.’ Or you could say instead, ‘Very interesting. I always appreciate an opportunity to expand my horizons,’ throw in a couple of white lies here and there, and get out in good order. The answer in this case is clear, isn’t it? Even my friend admitted that we sometimes have to shade the truth to spare people’s feelings.

Presidents, of course, have to worry about a lot more than just hurting a friend’s feelings. They have to get disparate groups of people to do things and convince those groups that they want to be cooperating. That’s practicing politics, isn’t it? If you want to be a purist, you probably shouldn’t cover the White House.

Or be a politician.

Right.

Well that begs an interesting question. Back in 1995, you were quoted saying the following about President Clinton: "This president salts his remarks with so many inventions, half-truths and self-serving exaggerations that reporters who cover him often have to choose between truth-squadding every speech or ignoring his fibs." Who is complicit in presidential lying? Can we hold the presidents’ spokesmen accountable for these lies? Or the media?

The real textbook case is the U2 spy plane incident. Eisenhower never lied. He was actually a very blunt-spoken person. But the lies were told in his name, and he didn’t stop them. So he was complicit. I think there is a difference between a president lying directly and an aide lying for him. It’s also easier to punish a lying aide than a president. You can get rid of him.

Theoretically, we should be able to get rid of a lying president, too. We impeached Clinton for lying about his personal life—couldn’t we impeach Bush for much worse?

What’s worse: lying over a war or lying over sexual fidelity? I think to ask that question is to answer it—if it’s meant to be answered at all. I mean, it’s really meant to shame idiots who pushed for Bill Clinton’s impeachment. But I covered that trial and Clinton ultimately wasn’t blameless. He sort of played chicken with the process. He didn’t really think you could impeach someone over something like that so he pushed and pushed and pushed—

Until he got trapped for perjury.

Right. But he trapped himself. Edward Bennett Williams—a great Washington lawyer who used to own the Redskins—once said about George Allen, Sr., whom he had hired to be his coach, “I gave him an unlimited expense account, and he exceeded it.” That’s basically what Clinton did with this impeachment thing—he had unlimited leeway and he exceeded it. I felt that every person involved in the thing was sort of trapped in a play that they didn’t want to be in—Henry Hyde, Clinton, the media. That was unfortunate, but Clinton wasn’t blameless.

Fast forward to eight years later and now we have Democrats who want to impeach Bush. But the lies involved aren’t so clearly lies. Are they lies or half-truths? Their nature is much murkier, though the stakes are so much higher and the potential damage so much greater. I think people are weighing that right now and asking themselves, “Can we impeach him anyway?”

If the implications of Bush’s half-truths are clearly so much worse than Clinton’s, what’s the question?

The implications are worse but the lies aren’t as straightforward. The statements are less clear—it’s much harder to put your finger on the lie. To this day, Bush thinks of himself as a truth-teller.

Do you think he really believes that about himself?

It seems he does. Whereas I don’t think Clinton believed deep down that the lies he was telling the public about Lewinsky were actually true. I think he believed he was trapped into lying. A cheating husband has to lie—that’s part of the transaction. If you can’t lie about it, you shouldn’t cheat. He’d already cheated so he had to lie.

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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