Untruth and Consequences

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

How did Bush go in the public eye from truth teller to prevaricator in chief? He has now been pilloried, after all, not just by outspoken liberals—in books like David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush and Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, in documentaries like Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and on countless Web sites—but also by an increasingly hostile mainstream media, including top national newspapers, The New Yorker, and this magazine, as well as high-profile books on the Iraq War like Thomas E. Ricks’s Fiasco, Peter W. Galbraith’s The End of Iraq, and State of Denial, the third volume in Bob Woodward’s trilogy about this administration.

The critique that Bush isn’t honest with the American people confounds many of those who have worked most closely with him. That includes two aides whose opinions and integrity I greatly respect: Michael J. Gerson, Bush’s former chief speechwriter, who describes the president as a “compulsive truth teller,” a man so guileless that he can’t hide his boredom when making speeches he doesn’t want to give; and Peter Wehner, director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, who argues that the notion Bush “lied” about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is absurd on its face—and that those accusing Bush of dishonesty are the ones deeply mistaken.

Yet Bush has gradually built a record of partial truths, half-truths, and untruths. Several cases in point:

■ In his 2006 State of the Union address, Bush cited Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of “the great story of our time”—the advance of freedom. He proclaimed that the number of democracies in the world had increased from about two dozen at the end of 1945 to 122 today, but he didn’t mention that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan was counted as such by the organization whose statistics he was touting.

■ The president also asserted, accurately, that the U.S. economy had gained 4.6 million new jobs in the previous two and a half years, but he failed to note that it had lost 2.6 million jobs in his first two and a half years.

■ In March 2003, Bush insisted that it was “a matter of fact” that the coalition he cobbled together for the invasion of Iraq included more nations than the alliance assembled by his father in 1991. In Fiasco, Ricks deconstructs this argument by pointing out that most of George W. Bush’s partnering nations (with the notable exception of the British) were a reluctant bunch. The Poles fought, but resented being there. The Italians wouldn’t get out of their vehicles on patrols. The Japanese wouldn’t patrol at all and, in fact, wouldn’t even guard their own perimeters—Dutch troops did it for them.

■ In June 2004, when asked about Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who’d done so much to encourage the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but who had fallen out of favor with U.S. military leaders, Bush acted as if he barely knew the man’s name. “Chalabi? My meetings with him were very brief,” Bush said. “I think I met with him at the State of the Union and just kind of working through the rope line, and he might have come with a group of leaders. But I haven’t had any extensive conversations with him.” Perhaps. But Chalabi wasn’t confined behind a rope line at the 2004 State of the Union address. He was listed by the White House as a “special guest” of first lady Laura Bush and seated directly behind her.

■ After the Democrats’ victories in the 2006 midterm elections, the president allowed that “Democrats are going to support our troops just like Republicans will” and that the Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid “care about the security of this country, like I do.” Those gracious statements were at odds with his campaign rhetoric from just days before, when he had said, regarding Iraq, that if the Democrats’ vision were to prevail, “the terrorists win and America loses.” On November 8 at the White House, Bush suggested that it was the campaign talk that was disingenuous. But maybe it was the other way around—that Bush meant what he said in Texas, and was only being politic in the East Room.

■ At the same press conference, Bush essentially admitted he’d lied to three White House correspondents who had asked him in an Oval Office interview the week before whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was staying on. The president had assured the three reporters that Rumsfeld was remaining. Now, standing in the East Room, Bush was revealing the details of a different reality: he’d decided before the election to sack his Pentagon chief, and when asked the question, he was already focused on Rumsfeld’s likely replacement. Bush provided dueling explanations: First, he maintained that he didn’t “want to inject a major decision about this war” into the waning days of a campaign. Then he immediately added the more Clintonesque explanation that his answer hadn’t really been dishonest, because he hadn’t yet had his “final” conversation with Rumsfeld, and hadn’t interviewed Robert Gates in person.

Presidents have rarely told the full truth in the midst of major military operations, and until Vietnam, Americans tended to cut them slack for the sake of the troops, if nothing else. During World War II, for example, the government launched an elaborate disinformation campaign to mask the details of D-Day—an episode that Sissela Bok cites (as a prime example of a lie commonly thought justifiable and one that was the precise context of Churchill’s line to Stalin about protecting truth with a bodyguard of lies). Similar fabrications would fall under Bok’s definition of “paternalistic lies.” The everyday version would be a parent falsely reassuring a child that Mommy and Daddy are not fighting. Another presidential equivalent would be falsely reassuring the citizenry on issues of national security for their own protection. On December 9, 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt told Americans in a radio address that they were now in the war “all the way,” while promising to share “together the bad news and good news.” But FDR couldn’t quite bring himself to reveal the extent of the losses in Hawaii, saying that he lacked “sufficient information,” which was not exactly true.

Serious commentators on American public life have seldom questioned a president’s right to lie in such circumstances. But they are starting to. Consider the media hand-wringing triggered by President Bush’s surprise trip to Iraq in November 2003, when he and his aides lied about his Thanksgiving plans in an effort to preserve his safety and that of the troops he was to visit. As with the Vietnam War, the course of events in Iraq is prompting a reevaluation of truth telling for its own sake.

In When Presidents Lie, the liberal political journalist Eric Alterman attempts to raise the bar on when a commander in chief can dissemble. He argues that although wartime may be when presidents can get away with lying—and is perhaps even when they most feel the need to lie—recent American history suggests that it is also when the costs of a lie may be too high.

Alterman’s thesis is that the lies told by Roosevelt during World War II, specifically those concerning the promises he made to Stalin at Yalta, helped set in motion the Cold War, and that unrealistic expectations in the West about the future of Eastern Europe fueled Soviet suspicions of America’s motives. These suspicions, he argues, were stoked by Dwight Eisenhower’s public denials about Francis Gary Powers’s disastrous U-2 spy flight over the Soviet Union. The accompanying loss of U.S. credibility helped foment the Cuban missile crisis. In turn, the fiction that John F. Kennedy and his team of White House hagiographers spread about an uncompromising U.S. stance in October 1962 helped beget Vietnam: ever watchful of his political rival Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson felt compelled to embrace the myth of a hard-line response to Communist adventure—never mind the truth that JFK had traded some NATO missiles in Turkey for Nikita Khrushchev’s missiles in Cuba.

Alterman is considered an ideological man, which I am not, but I believe his revisionist argument is worth taking seriously. I say this not only because Alterman had the intellectual honesty to confront the record of liberal Democrats as well as conservative Republicans who have served as wartime commanders in chief, but also because the war in Iraq has shown the peril of taking a president’s assertions at face value—even if that president believes he is telling the truth. But don’t take it from me. Take it from Dwight Eisenhower. After he left office, Ike described the lies his administration had told about the U-2 incident as one of the biggest regrets of his presidency. “I didn’t realize how high a price we were going to have to pay for that lie,” Eisenhower told David Kraslow of Knight Newspapers. “And if I had to do it all over again, we would have kept our mouths shut.”

But presidents have trouble resisting the short-term gain a lie can afford them. It was a Kennedy administration official who claimed the government’s “right … to lie” to the public. He did so in the context of the Cuban missile crisis, which began with a little lie about Kennedy’s health—press secretary Pierre Salinger announced that the president’s trip to Chicago was being cut short because JFK had a cold. Salinger apparently never understood why anyone would question the cover story concocted to get Kennedy back to Washington in October 1962—just as Scott McClellan was taken aback by questions about the White House’s deceptive statements on Bush’s Thanksgiving trip to Iraq. “The trip certainly, I’m sure, gave a morale boost to the troops,” David Wise told a wire-service reporter who asked his opinion. “The question is, should the government engage in lying in order to essentially … protect a photo op? The answer is, no it shouldn’t. It’s a serious business when government lies, and eventually it does hurt a government and a president’s credibility.”

Wise was prescient when he took on presidential honesty in the 1970s, but his expectations are probably too pure. I was president of the White House Correspondents’ Association when Bush and his aides dissembled about the president’s Thanksgiving plans and took only a small White House press pool to Iraq. I registered no protest upon their return. The security pressures must have been extreme, I reasoned. After all, Bush neglected to tell his own parents about the trip, although they were trekking to Crawford, Texas, for the holiday dinner. On the other hand, if going to Iraq was meant to be an evocative symbol, perhaps the ease with which the White House gave everyone the slip was emblematic as well.

Presented by

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

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