Untruth and Consequences

From Washington to FDR to Nixon, presidents have always lied. Here’s what makes George W. Bush different.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: Presidential Lying

Listen to clips of six presidents stretching the truth.
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In 1944, Harry Truman was asked by his friend and Senate colleague Owen Brewster what Franklin Roosevelt was really like. Truman hadn’t gotten to know his running mate very well, but the Democratic vice-presidential nominee had spent enough time around FDR to provide a succinct answer.

“He lies,” Truman replied.

At that point, the most consequential issue the president was untruthful about was his health. Roosevelt was failing rapidly, as his physicians knew, and as those around the White House could not help but notice. With the Allies opening a second front in Europe and island-hopping across the Pacific, the commander in chief was working at most four hours a day, and sometimes as little as one or two. On March 28 that year, Dr. Howard G. Bruenn, Roosevelt’s cardiologist, had given his diagnosis: hypertension, hypertensive heart disease, cardiac failure, and acute bronchitis. The president’s condition, Bruenn later explained to Jan Kenneth Herman, editor of Navy Medicine, was “god-awful.”

The American public, and the world, received a far different image: that of a jaunty, robust president preparing to crush Hitler and the Japanese empire while cruising to an unprecedented fourth term. Truman quickly became complicit in this deception. The Missouri senator—considered then and now a straight shooter—went to lunch at the White House on August 18 and told reporters afterward that Roosevelt “looked fine and ate a bigger lunch than I did.”

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But Truman provided a different account in the privacy of his Senate office. “I had no idea he was in such feeble condition,” he confided to his military aide Harry Vaughan, noting that when the president poured cream into his coffee, more went into the saucer than into the cup. Winston Churchill had seen with his own eyes evidence of FDR’s physical decline the year before, in 1943, but raised no objection to the American administration’s deception—Roosevelt was too important to the war effort. That same year, at a conference in Tehran in which the Allies discussed opening new fronts against Nazi Germany, Churchill stressed the need to keep the Allies’ plans secret. To Joseph Stalin, he said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

“Churchill’s line is par for the course in wartime, when you have to keep your secrets to yourself,” Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, told me this summer when we discussed the morality, and the utility, of shading the truth in the White House. “Presidents lie for all kinds of reasons,” he added. “Richard Nixon lied because he was trying to save his presidency, which was imperiled by his misdeeds. Franklin Delano Roosevelt misled the country over things like Lend-Lease in order to advance a policy he thought would save the world, but which he knew would be difficult to sell politically. Honesty doesn’t necessarily make for an effective presidency … What the public has to judge is whether [presidents] are lying for the good of the country—or for their own good.”

Wilentz’s interest in this question is not entirely academic. In December 1998, he spoke passionately before the House Judiciary Committee against the articles of impeachment leveled against President Clinton, the most serious of which was lying under oath. Wilentz argued that Clinton’s transgressions, stemming as they did from personal—not official—conduct, simply were not what the Founders envisioned when they gave Congress the remedy of impeachment. “As a historian,” he told Congress, “it is clear to me the impeachment of President Clinton would do greater damage … to those institutions and to the rule of law, much greater damage, than the crimes of which President Clinton has been accused.” Clinton initially staked his political survival on proving his veracity. When that was found wanting, his advocates successfully argued that perjury was too grave a charge to apply to purely private behavior.

In his second term, George W. Bush faces a credibility crisis of his own. And while the current president may not share his predecessor’s earthy predilections, he also doesn’t have the same excuse, a wish to protect his private life. Bush is accused of equivocating not about his personal life but about one of the most fundamental public-policy decisions a democracy can confront: the decision to take the nation to war.


Click here to listen to George W. Bush describing Iraq's “illegal weapons programs.”

For the past year and a half, a majority of Americans have expressed doubts that the president’s reasons for ordering the military to invade Iraq were those he articulated publicly. An April 2005 Gallup Poll found that a majority of Americans believed Bush “deliberately misled the American public” about whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. In May 2006, 46 percent of respondents in an ABC News/Washington Post survey said they believed that the Bush administration had said “what it believed to be true” in making its case for Iraq, while 52 percent said that it had “intentionally misled the American public.”

Bush loyalists have blamed the media for such perceptions, but even allowing for a heavy dose of anti-Bush feeling on the part of the networks, news outlets, and publishing houses, much of the American public has altered its opinion regarding the veracity of the man in the Oval Office. Bush’s place in history, however, 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 by whether he recognized what the truth actually was.

Why do presidents lie? Do they lie more than most people? Are lies of omission essentially the same as lies of commission? What about presidents who convince themselves of things that are untrue—who are, we would say, “in denial”? Is this tantamount to lying? Can presidents be truly effective without lying—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?

The first question might be the easiest to answer: presidents lie because they are human.

“Everybody lies,” says Charles Ford, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the author of a book about the psychology of deceit. “It is part of human nature, ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. However, some people lie compulsively, often when the truth would serve them better.”


Click here to listen to George H. W. Bush promising “no new taxes.”

Admonitions against lying are as old as Western civilization itself, but the Ninth Commandment was applied to the presidency by the first presidential biographer—a parson named Mason Locke Weems, who not only launched the cult of the president-as-truth-teller but did so retroactively with that famous, but unverifiable, cherry-tree story. Ever since, historical revisionism notwithstanding, American schoolchildren have been raised on the standard of a U.S. president who didn’t lie—couldn’t lie—even as a six-year-old boy. Abraham Lincoln was said to have walked miles as an Illinois store clerk to return a few cents’ change. His “Honest Abe” nickname, which predated his presidency, was an advantage that his opponent Stephen Douglas tried to erase by calling him “two-faced.” (Lincoln’s response: “I leave it to [my audience]. If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”) Mark Twain deadpanned that Americans held their presidents to a standard few mortals could meet. “I am different from [George] Washington,” he would say. “I have a higher and grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won’t.”

Presidents prevaricate for the reasons other people do: pathology, politeness, paternalism, convenience, shame, self-promotion, insecurity, ego, narcissism, and even, on occasion, to further a noble goal. Presidents also have burdens not felt by most of us—keeping the nation safe, for one. High-level statecraft requires a talent for telling divergent groups of people what they want to hear. This is not the best recipe for truth telling, particularly in times of war or national peril.

All lies, unlike all men, are not created equal. Philosophers from Aristotle to Niebuhr have made moral distinctions among falsehoods, whether “white lies” told for social convenience or to spare feelings, “excuses” that are only half true but that rationalize our own behavior, lies told during a crisis, lies told to liars, paternalistic lies told to protect those we care about, and lies told for the social good—also known as “noble lies.” The presidential scholar Richard Norton Smith points out that Thomas Jefferson’s own interpretation of the Constitution’s limits on presidential power probably didn’t allow for the Louisiana Purchase. Yet in office, having sworn to uphold that Constitution, Jefferson couldn’t resist stretching the words and doubling America’s size for a few million dollars. “And talk about a turnaround—it was Nixon who went to China,” Smith added. “It’s often the flip-flop, in pursuit of interests that transcend ideological consistency, that puts a president on Mount Rushmore.”

Nor does the innocent social lie told by presidents—or on a president’s behalf—usually get a president in trouble. Asked for President Reagan’s reaction after winning a hard-fought 1981 vote in Congress authorizing the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, the White House aide Michael Deaver told reporters the president exclaimed, “Thank God!” What Reagan actually said, according to someone in the room, was, “I feel like I’ve just crapped a pineapple.”

The first cousin of the white lie is the idle boast—not quite so harmless, but not nefarious, either. The unkindest way of looking at the bio-lie is to say that presidents (and presidential candidates) tend to be braggarts. More charitably, one could conclude that the job description seems to demand some fiddling with one’s pedigree or accomplishments as a way to bond with voters—to tell them, in effect, “I’m one of you.” In 1840, William Henry Harrison campaigned as a rustic born in a log cabin and indulged crowds with Indian war whoops at his rallies. In reality, the Whig nominee was the scion of an elite colonial family (his father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a three-term governor of Virginia); a professional soldier, Harrison read the classics and enjoyed fine living.

That kind of personal embellishment was also at work when John F. Kennedy, courting the elites as well as the masses, told Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey that he could read 1,200 words a minute (a figure JFK pulled out of the air); when Lyndon Johnson exclaimed to U.S. troops in Korea that his great-great-grandfather “died at the Alamo” (a great-great-uncle fought at San Jacinto, but wasn’t killed); when Bill Clinton claimed he’d heard about the Iowa caucuses “since I was a little boy” (they didn’t begin until he was in graduate school); and when Al Gore told a labor crowd that his mother used to lull him to sleep when he was a baby with “Look for the Union Label” (a ditty written in 1975, when Gore was twenty-seven years old). One bizarre whopper: Ronald Reagan told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, in separate Oval Office visits, that as a young soldier in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, he had filmed the liberation of Nazi death camps; Reagan never served in Europe at all, though his work involved handling footage shot by military cameramen and war correspondents. Covering the White House for the past dozen years, I’ve become something of a connoisseur of the presidential boast. My favorite was when Clinton told The Des Moines Register editorial board that he was the only president who knew anything about agriculture before coming to office—skipping over actual farmers like Washington, Jefferson, Truman, and Jimmy Carter, as well as the Iowa farm boy Herbert Hoover.

George W. Bush does this sort of thing, too. During a January 2002 visit to West Virginia, the president kibitzed with Bob Kiss, the Democratic speaker of that state’s legislature, over something they had in common: twins. “I’ve been to war,” Bush said. “I’ve raised twins. If I had a choice, I’d rather go to war.” It was a funny line, except that Bush did have a choice to serve in a war—in Vietnam—and didn’t.

As candidates seek to woo voters with promises of good things to come, truth is often the first thing jettisoned on the campaign trail. This phenomenon is not new. In the closing days of the 1932 campaign, Franklin Roosevelt promised a crowd in Pittsburgh that he’d balance the federal budget while cutting “government operations” by 25 percent. Wisely, he attempted neither, but four years later as he prepared for another campaign trip to western Pennsylvania, he asked his speechwriter Sam Rosenman what he should say if his earlier vow came up. “Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh,” Rosenman replied.

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Carl M. Cannon is White House correspondent for National Journal.

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