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.

Many of Bush’s former and current aides also seem to believe Bush is a truth-teller. Do you think that loyalty is genuine?

The people I interviewed for this piece—well, not Ari Fleischer, he’s a professional mouthpiece—including Pete Wehner and Mike Gerson and Mark McKinnon (whom I didn’t end up quoting) are people I’ve known for a long time and really believe in. They are deeply honorable guys. And they believe in Bush and believe in his word and they’re extremely loyal to and supportive of him on this issue.

Is there a chance that those loyalties could shift as the 2008 election season gets going? Will there be an emphasis on the theme of truth-telling again on the campaign trail?

Well, I would think so. Yes.

Inside the GOP?

It doesn’t really work that way. If an issue’s out and the country’s demanded that it be looked at, it’s out there for both parties to address. We tend to turn to the new president for what we didn’t get in the old one. I’m not sure what the storyline will be in ’08—I’m not sure the public will have only one thing on its mind. I would imagine that competence ends up being a big issue. Experience will be a big issue—something that Barack Obama probably doesn’t want to hear. But I don’t think this has crystallized yet. Truth-telling will be one of the issues, no doubt, and the candidates will have to think of a new way to address it. I don’t know if John McCain can use Straight Talk Express again, but it seems to me that he had it right. Straight Talk is right on, isn’t it?

Your father is arguably Reagan’s foremost biographer. Did he play any role throughout the research or writing of this article?

He’s the one who originally told me so many of these stories. Like the Mendota football game story—I read about that along with every other one of his readers. My dad and I are actually working on a book together that compares Reagan to Bush. One of the points of comparison is going to have to be this theme of lying.

What’s the main difference?

Again, Bush’s “lies” are harder to define as such. Bush’s problem, it seems, is more about his inability to really face the facts. I don’t have a good word for it—after all, it took me 8,000 words to get to this point. But I would say Bush’s problem with truth-telling is his inability to face things squarely. To be truthful with himself.

You’ve been covering the White House for more than twenty years. How has this phenomenon influenced your experience as a reporter? Are you more skeptical or cynical than you once were? Does it feel like things are getting worse?

No, not to me. Like I said, Nixon was my introduction to dishonest presidents. It’s not getting worse. If anything, with Nixon as your standard, it’s gotten better. But I’m not cynical by nature. And I really do try not to be too hard on these guys. I have noticed that the public has become way more polarized than it once was. These days it seems people can’t bear to say anything good about a president they didn’t vote for. That wasn’t always the case. I think people used to have more faith in the presidency—regardless of who they had voted for. Ultimately, you hoped that whoever was in the seat did a good job. Now we seem to hope they fall on their face.

Instead of being cynical, journalists ought to be looking for common ground. Leave it to the blogs to fuel the partisan fires. We should be looking for historical examples that cut against our readers’ biases. The truth is that there have been both great and lousy Republican presidents and great and lousy Democratic presidents. And it doesn’t kill me to say so.

Is there anything else you wish you could have included in the piece?

Yeah, one thing. I had this long tangent about the George Washington cherry tree story which had to be cut. Parson Weems wrote about the story but everybody dismisses it. Even at the place where it supposedly happened, the people at the Ferry Farm say, “Oh it was probably apocryphal.” My question is, why? Weems knew Washington, he was alive at the time, there were cherry trees in Ferry Farm, and he claims he has a source. So to me, there’s some evidence that it happened and none to suggest that it didn’t and it certainly fit Washington’s character. So, I guess that’s something I wish I could have included. Admittedly, there wasn’t enough space, and—fine—it didn’t make much of a point. But I believe the cherry tree story.

Would you have admitted to that in the piece?

Sort of. I guess that answers your questions about cynicism. Clearly I’m better described as a sap than a cynic.

Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.
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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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