Untruth and Consequences

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

Rosenman’s quip is still funny. One could, of course, huffily demand absolute fealty to the truth, but one could also live in the real world and find comforting reassurance that neither a president nor his wordsmiths believe all their own public relations. We still should make distinctions. Some falsehoods—like many campaign lies—are relatively harmless; they may soil an opponent’s résumé or polish one’s own, but their consequences are slight. Deceptions to promote or protect a policy or presidential action—call them governing lies—are more consequential, and it is by their consequences that they should be judged, as the American public harshly judged the lies told about the Vietnam War and about Watergate. Over the course of a tumultuous decade, those consequences included not just the ignominious end of an unpopular war and the fall of a president but a profound change in how much deceit the public—and the media—would tolerate from the Oval Office.

Even before those twin traumas came to a head, the American public’s trust in its leaders had frayed. David Wise, a former White House correspondent turned investigative reporter, tapped into widespread public disgust in his catalog of presidential untruths, The Politics of Lying, published in 1973. “By 1972 the politics of lying had changed the politics of America,” he wrote. “In place of trust, there was widespread mistrust; in place of confidence, there was disbelief and doubt in the system and its leaders.” Still to come were Watergate and the release of White House tapes on which Lyndon Johnson blurts out to Robert McNamara that he knows that the reason used to justify the massive buildup of troops in Vietnam—the supposed attack on U.S. Navy ships by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin—was fiction. By 1975, the year Saigon fell, 69 percent of Americans answered affirmatively to a poll question asking whether “over the last ten years this country’s leaders have consistently lied to the people.”

That widespread erosion of trust also prompted Sissela Bok, the daughter of the famed Nobel laureates Gunnar and Alva Myrdal and a professor, at the time, of philosophy and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, to write Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life—a touchstone, since its 1978 publication, for those seeking to examine the morality and the social costs of lying. Bok argued that while there are rare occasions when a lie may be justified, these falsehoods (which range from harmless social lies to extreme scenarios like telling a would-be murderer you don’t know where to find an intended victim) had contributed to a general disregard for truth telling. Bok’s book, which sprang out of her own research on the ethics of administering medical placebos, did not focus on lying politicians, though they pop up here and there. But her deep concern about the decline of trust, and her call for political, corporate, and educational institutions to take the lead in demanding and rewarding truthfulness, resonated with the public.

Multimedia:

Click here to listen to Richard Nixon denying Watergate “insinuations and allegations.”

Presidential candidates, even those with reputations for evasiveness, reacted to the growing focus on honesty the way you might expect: they accused their opponents of lying, while promising not to lie themselves. Richard Nixon had been elected president in 1968 after positioning himself as the peace candidate. As the phrase credibility gap gained currency in the context of Johnson’s lies about the Vietnam War, the incoming White House communications director, Herbert Klein, vowed, “Truth will become the hallmark of the Nixon administration.” But by the time Nixon left the White House,a new catchphrase had entered the lexicon: What did the president know, and when did he know it? Upon being sworn in to succeed Nixon, Gerald Ford pronounced truth “the glue that holds government together.” Jimmy Carter went Ford one better, in his unequivocal promise to the American people: “I will never tell a lie. I will never make a misleading statement. I will never betray the confidence any of you has in me.”

By many measures, the Carter administration was more open, transparent, and truthful than many of its predecessors—and successors as well. But Carter’s monastic vow of absolute truthfulness also generated its own blowback, most memorably Steven Brill’s stinging piece “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies.” One example: “If you ever have any questions or advice for me,” Carter told audiences, “just put Jimmy Carter, Plains, Georgia, on the envelope … I open every letter myself, and read them all.” This was an impossibility: the mail was forwarded, as it had to be, to Carter’s campaign headquarters in Atlanta.

Such campaign exaggerations aside, Carter’s commitment to truth telling did not wear well. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” wrote T. S. Eliot, and after four years of Carter, the American electorate was no exception. Carter’s revelatory form of communication (admitting to Playboy that he “looked on a lot of women with lust,” for example, or bemoaning a national “crisis of confidence”) was a poor substitute in voters’ minds for executive-branch competence, or for leadership that could make Americans feel good about themselves. As Western Illinois University history professor George Hopkins sees it, all presidents lie for the simple reason that if they didn’t, we wouldn’t elect them. “So the problem is not them, it’s us,” Hopkins told me recently. “We should look in the mirror.”

Thus, Carter was involuntarily retired by Reagan, who berated Carter for distorting his record but had a tendency himself to stretch the truth if it made for a good yarn. Witness a favorite Reagan story about his role in a football game in high school in which, he claimed, players for a rival school, Mendota, complained to the referees that Reagan, playing for Dixon High, had committed a penalty that was not called. The refs supposedly asked him about it. “I told the truth,” Reagan later said. “The penalty was ruled, and Dixon lost the game.” My father, the Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, investigated this claim. He discovered that there were no contemporaneous accounts of any such incident, and that Dixon lost to Mendota only once when Reagan was a member of the varsity team—by a score of 24-0. “The ironic point here is that Reagan seems to have told the story to demonstrate how truthful he was,” notes George Mason University political scientist James Pfiffner, who has studied presidential lying. “Yet he was telling an untruth to make the point.”

Multimedia:

Click here to listen to Ronald Reagan acknowledging his Iran-Contra coverup.

More infamously, in November 1986, Reagan told the American people that his administration had not traded weapons “or anything else” to Iran in return for American hostages captured in Lebanon. Three weeks later, in a radio address, the president softened this to “Let me just say it was not my intent to do business with [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, to trade weapons for hostages.” Three months after that, in an Oval Office address, Reagan confessed: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.” Reagan’s presidency was winding down, but the not-yet-begun presidency of George H. W. Bush was already marred by his insistence that he was “out of the loop” on the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh spent all four years of the first Bush presidency examining that alibi. Concluding that it was bogus, Walsh released documents three days before the 1992 election showing that Bush had attended crucial Iran- Contra meetings and approved the plan.

Bill Clinton’s mendacity as president—or, depending on your politics, independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s perjury trap—was the backdrop for the campaign in 2000 to find a new president. Once again, the public was looking for a relatively honest politician. As Sissela Bok wrote in the preface to an updated edition of Lying, released in 1999, “No matter how our own period comes to be judged … what is already certain is that we are all on the receiving end of a great many more lies than in the past.” John McCain dubbed his campaign bus the “Straight Talk Express” and ended rallies by proclaiming that, as president, he would “tell the American people the truth—even if it’s bad news.” In the general election, George W. Bush stressed this theme, too. In his third debate with Al Gore, Bush said the country needed “somebody in office who will tell the truth.” This was not a casual observation; it was a premeditated talking point for the Bush-Cheney campaign that night—and for the rest of the month of October.

By then, the story line of that campaign was framed as Al Gore’s Bill Clinton–style exaggerations versus George W. Bush’s Dan Quayle–style bloopers. Afterward, Bush assumed office with a reputation as a truth teller, even among Americans who didn’t support his policies—or didn’t think he was all that bright. Two months before 9/11, in an Opinion Dynamics poll, 69 percent of Americans—21 percent more than had voted for him—responded that they found Bush, who had campaigned on conservative themes, to be “honest and trustworthy.” Only 20 percent of respondents disagreed with that sentiment.

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