Untruth and Consequences

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

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Click here to listen to Bill Clinton apologizing for conveying a “false impression” about the Lewinsky affair.

It has been said about several recent U.S. presidents that they seem to believe what they are saying, even if what they are saying is not true. This explanation is offered as exculpation, as if presidents are Method actors who deserve credit for their “character motivation.” Something like admiration was present in Bob Kerrey’s description of Bill Clinton as “an unusually good liar.”

Franklin Roosevelt practiced plausible deniability about his own declining health by ignoring his doctors. That’s a profound kind of denial. Ronald Reagan was trained as a dramatic actor in a medium where shortcuts are taken with facts in order, supposedly, to get at a larger truth. Reagan’s methods were internalized by aides who never set foot on a studio lot. In his memoir A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years With Ronald Reagan, Mike Deaver claims that he never once heard Reagan tell a lie, and that he believes it would have been “impossible” for Reagan to do so. “Throughout the entire Iran Contra affair, Reagan believed what he did was right,” Deaver wrote, “and that he was telling the truth to the American people.”

George W. Bush’s aides say similar things about him. Perhaps surprisingly, some of Bush’s harshest critics do as well. David Corn, author of The Lies of George W. Bush, is a longtime acquaintance of mine, and I asked him to consider the following premises:

a) That Bush considers himself a truth teller.

b) That although statements made by Bush as president have proven to be untrue, Bush generally believed they were true when he made them.

c) That even when Bush’s words have been at odds with the facts, you could hook him up to a polygraph machine; he’d still tell you he was telling the truth—and he’d pass.

To me, Corn’s book reads like an anti-Bush polemic, especially when it calls the president’s veracity into question over issues that seem more about Bush’s conservative governance. (Appointing John Ashcroft attorney general, for instance, made a “lie” of Bush’s inaugural call for civility and national unity—under the theory that Ashcroft’s archconservatism undermined any chance of détente with the Democrats.) Corn is scrupulous about the facts, however, and except for offering the caveat that Bush, like other politicians, has “stretched the truth” to help sell key policies of his presidency, Corn didn’t much quarrel with the three postulates.

“So your question is, is it still lying anyway?” Corn said. “What Bush does is that he displays a kind of willful disregard for the truth, which is the moral equivalent of lying. He doesn’t do any due diligence with the facts. Even if you believed something was true [at] the time you said it, it becomes a lie when you don’t act on new information—or correct yourself when you’ve been proven wrong.”

Whatever the president’s original sincerity about his reasons for invading Iraq, he has never to this day really acknowledged his rhetorical excess. Two nights before launching the invasion, he gave this rationale: “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” In his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, Bush had told the nation that U.S. intelligence agencies estimated that Saddam Hussein possessed more than 30,000 munitions capable of being armed with chemical agents, and that inspectors had turned up only sixteen of them. In May, two months into the invasion, Bush proclaimed simply: “We have found the weapons of mass destruction.”

What the U.S. Army has unearthed in Iraq in three years are 500 rockets and artillery shells armed with mustard gas or the sarin nerve agent, some of them in degraded condition, buried in scattered bunkers around the country. The Army has found no evidence of an up-and-running Iraqi nuclear-weapons program. In State of Denial, Woodward quotes a December 11, 2003, recorded exchange between him and Bush in which it took the president five minutes and eighteen seconds to acknowledge the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

Confronted later with their statements, Bush and other top officials in his government tend simply to reiterate them. Other times, they’ve simply denied making these statements, even though they are on film. For instance, when Bush was asked in May 2002 about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, he replied: “I don’t know where he is. I repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him.” Yet on October 13, 2004, during Bush’s third and final debate with John Kerry, the following exchange took place:

Kerry: “Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, ‘Where is Osama bin Laden?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t really think about him very much. I’m not that concerned.’”

Bush: “Gosh, I just don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden. It’s kind of one of those exaggerations.”

In an ABC interview two weeks before the 2006 midterms, George Stephanopoulos asked Bush where the compromise might be on Iraq between the dueling political buzz phrases stay the course and cut and run. Bush’s response: “Well, hey, listen, we’ve never been ‘stay the course,’ George …” Liberal bloggers quickly posted on YouTube a hilarious montage of Bush using that exact phrase repeatedly. “The president of the United States is not a fact-checker,” White House communications director Dan Bartlett blurted out at a July 18, 2003, briefing about what the president knew, and when he knew it, regarding British intelligence reports of Saddam Hussein’s agents prowling around Africa in search of enriched uranium.

No one expects him to be. What they do expect is that a president who takes the nation to war knows what he’s talking about when he enumerates the reasons for that war. Which raises the central question about George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House: Even giving him the benefit of the doubt on honesty, why doesn’t the nation’s first-ever M.B.A. president demonstrate a better command of the facts?

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