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.

By Abigail Cutler

In recent weeks, many have argued that Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon—while widely unpopular at the time—was a prescient decision that ultimately saved the country from years of divisiveness and suffering. Nonetheless, thirty years later, Nixon’s infamous lies continue to plague the country, having set the ultimate bar for presidential dishonesty. Only one president since Nixon has come close to reaching Tricky Dick depths, but the personal nature of Bill Clinton’s prevarications inspired the Senate to acquit him of all impeachment charges. In the twenty-first century, serious accusations are again on the fly, this time against George W. Bush, whose justifications for taking the nation to war in Iraq have proven baseless.

While the country appears more polarized than ever before, presidential lying is nothing new, argues Carl M. Cannon in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. After reviewing a litany of untruths – large and small – perpetrated by American presidents through the years, the White House reporter decided to step back and examine the nature of the relationship between truth and the presidency. “Can presidents be truly effective without lying,” Cannon asks, “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?”

Cannon reminds us that, unlike men, not all lies are created equal. As scholars and philosophers have argued for centuries, some untruths are more immoral than others. Is a president who lies to the nation about his health as guilty as one who participates in criminal behavior by stealing documents from his opposition? Is he as guilty as a president who makes a seemingly harmless exaggeration on the campaign trail in order to bond with voters? Is there any such thing as a “harmless” lie in the first place?

Philosopher Sissela Bok, Cannon points out, might say no. Bok, the author of the recently reissued 1978 book, Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life, would contend that even lies considered relatively harmless or socially acceptable are detrimental because of the collective social costs of lying. These costs—which manifest themselves as an ever greater cultural disregard for truth-telling—are especially problematic when it comes to politics and, as journalist Eric Alterman argues, even more harmful during times of war. As accusations go, the current commander in chief isn’t doing much to bolster the nation’s trust; moreover, many of the repercussions of his deceptions—or, as Cannon suggests, self-deceptions—are not reversible. What consequences will the nation suffer from this presidency?

Combining research, personal experience, and self-reflection, Cannon considers how George W. Bush differs from his predecessors—none of whom were 100 percent truthful during their presidencies—and how the public will judge him in years to come:

Bush’s place in history…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 whether he recognized what the truth actually was.

Carl Cannon is the White House correspondent for National Journal. A veteran political journalist, he has covered every presidential campaign and political convention since 1984. He lives in Arlington, Virginia, with family. We spoke on December 19th.

—Abigail Cutler


Where did the idea for this piece come from?

I think everyone grows up with an interest in presidents—and this question of whether they’re truthful tends to come up. You know, “Is the president lying?” When I was a kid, Nixon was not an admired figure in our household. Actually, I don’t ever remember not knowing the phrase “Tricky Dick.” When I was in high school, Vietnam was going on, and this concept of people going to war and men being killed because of lies was something that constantly permeated our lives. The suspect relationship between presidents and the truth is an issue that’s been around for as long as I can remember.

Was “presidential lying” part of the lexicon back then? Did it begin with Nixon?

You know the old line, “How do you know when the president’s lying? His lips are moving”? I remember that comment being made about Lyndon Johnson. And it had been applied to various people before him, too. It seems like it’s been around forever.

So when did the work on this piece begin?

I started covering the White House when Bill Clinton was in his second month of office—so, March 1993. I had already covered the campaign. Clinton used to rip off all these corkers! You know, “I’m the greatest person to do X, Y, and Z”; or, “Al Gore’s the greatest vice president ever.” It was a form of bragging that goes along with campaigning, and as a reporter you learned to take it with a grain of salt. But some of those lies…

My absolute favorite presidential lie (which is on the cutting room floor of this piece) was told by Reagan in 1980. At the time, I wanted to be a journalist—not like my father who covered the president. I wanted to be Jimmy Breslin or Mike Royko. I was going to cover murders and hang out with hookers and cops in bars and write Big City columns. But I remember thinking at the time how interesting the 1980 campaign was—and I remember Reagan telling this ethnic joke. I don’t remember the joke very well—it’s not very funny. It involves a Polish guy and an Italian guy and there’s some sort of cock fight, or roosters—anyway, I can’t remember the joke but I do remember the punch line: “How do you know the guy was Italian? Because the duck wins.” Well. Eventually Reagan’s confronted with this. I think he told the joke in Connecticut but don’t hold me to that—

In public?

—well, I think it was a fundraiser, but regardless, it got out somehow. Anyway, Governor Reagan just flat out denied ever having said it—ever having made an ethnic joke. Well, there was no YouTube back then, of course, but there happened to be a rolling camera in the room and sure enough, he had said it. So his second line of defense was, “Okay, I told this ethnic joke—but only as an example of a joke you shouldn’t tell.”

So that became my favorite lie and after that I just started collecting them. I became this amateur collector of presidential lies.

You covered Clinton’s presidency. Putting aside Monica Lewinsky for the moment, was President Clinton straightforward with the public?

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t easy to cover Bill Clinton. For a lot of reasons. For one, covering his speeches isn’t as simple as covering another president’s speeches because his quotes aren’t that good. He’s articulate, but he’s not eloquent and he reminds you of the difference between the two. I’d come back from an event and think, “Boy! That event was great! Clinton was great, the audience was great…” But then I’d look back to my notebook and realize, “Well, there’s not much there, not much usable.”

But the second thing had to do with his bragging. He was always bragging. Sure, these guys have to brag in order to get elected, but Clinton went way beyond. He was always the biggest, the best, the first—even if he wasn’t. And that’s the clincher: a lot of the stuff he said wasn’t right. So I’d end up thinking—I gotta write this speech and it’s hard enough to convey how electric the atmosphere was, what he was really getting across, why people like him, why even when he gives kind of a nerdy, wonkish answer he’s actually making news because he’s the man with the plan. So you want to write about all that. But on the other hand, all these whoppers have just poured out of his mouth on the record…

Would you typically realize right away that these things were lies or would you only realize it later when going over the transcripts? Did it force you to fact-check the transcripts?

That’s the test. Arguably, every one of his speeches should have been fact-checked. I never heard him speak in public without saying two or three things that were abject bullshit. But reporting that isn’t your only job. You’re also covering the president. And Clinton was always making news—making policy, making things happen. Suddenly his policies started to work. That was the real news.

Would I realize the lies were lies right away? Well, when Clinton told The Des Moines Register he was the first president to know anything about farming, I remember listening along and then suddenly thinking, Wait a minute. What could Clinton possibly know about farming? And then quite quickly I remembered that George Washington practically invented the mule, and that there are still Thomas Jefferson varietals of wine around, and how Hoover—whose home state Clinton was in at the time!—saved millions of people from starvation because he knew so much about agriculture distribution. It was a stunning, audacious claim. So I wrote it up.

Was Clinton embarrassed by being called out on this stuff?

I had some run-ins with his staff. There was one story in particular that he loved to tell about cop-killer bullets. Of course, there was no such thing as a cop-killer bullet in 1996. But he would give these speeches proclaiming, “I’m against cop-killer bullets. We gotta stop the manufacture of cop-killer bullets.” What he was apparently referring to were those Teflon-coated bullets used in handguns that could penetrate a bulletproof vest. And he’d come out with these lines like “I never saw a deer in a Kevlar vest.” And I would think, What the hell is he talking about? What are cop-killer bullets?

Finally, Clinton went a little too far for me and I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. He held an event in Chicago with a woman whose husband had been a cop killed on duty. And he made an example out of the guy saying, “We gotta get these cop-killer bullets off the street. This woman’s husband died.” Well, in actuality, the police officer was shot and he did die, but when I finally got the coroner on the phone and asked him about the cop-killer bullet, the coroner seemed stumped. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, wasn’t he shot in the chest?” and the guy said “Well, yeah…” and I said, “Was he wearing a Kevlar vest?” and he said, “Yeah…” and so I asked, “Well? What about this cop-killer bullet?” and the guy said, “No bullet penetrated that vest.” I said, “Oh, well, what happened?” and he explained that he suspected the bullet had either entered through the sleeve or—and he requested I not quote him—it was a hot day and he had unzipped the vest.

So, I wrote this story up in the Baltimore Sun debunking the cop-killer bullet myth, all the while thinking it wasn’t such a big deal. I mean, Clinton’s heart had been in the right place after all. But the story somehow took off and the administration started taking some heat for Clinton’s exaggerations. I remember press secretary Mike McCurry coming up to me on the train to the Chicago convention—and he just starts yelling at me, “All right, enough already about the cop-killer bullet! I’ve told him [Clinton] five times that the story isn’t right, but he doesn’t care that he’s wrong!”

This was a lot like Reagan, who, when corrected by his staff, would just look at them like they were daft. Reagan stuck to telling his stories his way. Of course, now having said all that, those years seemed like a more innocent time.

Because we weren’t at war?

We weren’t, though we could have been, I guess. Osama bin Laden had already issued a fatwa by 1996. But we at least thought we were living in a more peaceful time. Anyway, when George W. took office and started coming out with all his own exaggerations and fibs and lies, I realized I was going to have to do a piece that looked at these kinds of things in a more serious light.

What’s your own definition of lying? Has it changed throughout the process of researching or writing this piece?

Well, the word seems easy to define but it isn’t. I have an eleven-year-old now. She can’t possibly still believe in Santa Claus but she says she does. I assume she’s testing us. And I don’t know if we’re flunking or passing, but I’m keeping the myth going. She may just think I’m an idiot, for all I know. But issues of truth come up every day. What does the guy do who goes somewhere after work and ends up somewhere he shouldn’t? What’s he supposed to do? Go home and blurt it out to his wife? These are very profound questions. These presidents with their lives in a fish bowl—I actually feel for them. Sissela Bok says a lie means saying something you know to be wrong but saying it anyway. But when it comes to public policy, it’s just not that simple.

Is it ever acceptable for a president to lie?

Well, I happen to think that when it comes to one’s personal life, certain things can be kept from the public. I think Hillary coined the notion of the “Zone of Privacy.” It’s a pretty good concept. Public figures seem not to enjoy it very often, but I definitely believe in it. There are things that happen in private life—in the bedroom, for instance—that I don’t think anyone would want displayed on the front page of The New York Times. Every word uttered, every garment donned, every acceptance or refusal. Why should presidents have to put up with that?

There is also a big difference between wartime and peacetime. Americans have always given presidents a lot of leeway during periods of war and for the most obvious reasons. That famous quote of Churchill’s—“Truth is so precious she must always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”—attests to the importance of keeping some things secret. Churchill said that to Stalin in Tehran to emphasize how important it was to keep the details of Operation Overlord a secret. Many thousands of people would have been killed had Hitler known where they were going. Well, everybody seems to appreciate the importance of that lie—even Eric Alterman, author of the book When Presidents Lie. Even our first honest president, George Washington, had to keep certain things a secret. He authorized a number of lies by running a string of spies during the Revolutionary War.

Wouldn’t that make him a liar?

I suspect it does! But then again, he did that in the context of war. To my knowledge, Alterman is the first person to argue that the minute a president starts lying in wartime—even if the lies are to shroud the details of an important operation—he sets himself up to lie about other things, like the reasons for going to war. Alterman challenges the conventional wisdom that if lying is ever acceptable, it’s acceptable in wartime, and he argues that it is during periods of war when it is most important for a president to speak the truth. That struck me as a very compelling idea and I think it needs to be taken seriously.

Can you elaborate on the consequences of lying during wartime?

Well, Alterman argues that FDR’s dishonesty over Yalta set off the Cold War on a more confrontational footing than necessary. The suspicions he planted in the American public’s mind fueled the animosity for decades, which led to things like the Gary Powers incident, which Eisenhower then believed he must lie about, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which Kennedy created a whole fiction about how tough he was. And then Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency and thought he had to be as tough as Bobby would have been had he won. Not all of Alterman’s arguments match up perfectly, but I like the general idea.

I didn’t get into this in the piece, but one could actually argue that what really spurred this chain reaction were the lies told about Roosevelt’s health. Had the American people known Roosevelt was dying, Yalta might never have happened; he might not have been reelected in 1944. There’s danger in criticizing the sainted Roosevelt, of course, but journalists have over time become a lot more interested in presidents’ health. And they should be. So while I won’t associate myself with every point Eric Alterman makes in the book, I do think he’s raised an issue that we can’t ignore given what’s happened during this presidency.

Where does George W. Bush fit into this tradition? Is his disregard for the truth worse than that displayed by presidents who preceded him?

Well, that’s the money question, isn’t it? I guess I have two answers, which may sound like a cop-out, but at least each has the virtue of being somewhat brief. First: I came to no firm conclusion about where Bush fits into the tradition of presidential lying, so I wrote what I knew—trusting the readers would sort it out for themselves so long as I gave them enough facts and context to do that. My second, less diplomatic, response is this:  I think George W. Bush is essentially a truthful person. He’s often blunt to the point of nearly being tactless. But sometimes his certitude in the rightness of his motives—and I don’t question his motives—slops over into certitude that his judgment is right, which is an entirely different question. That word you used—it’s in my story as well—“disregard” is key. If a president doesn’t show a proper regard for the facts (and, admittedly, the facts are ever-changing) he ends up being less than fully honest with himself, and therefore less than fully honest with the American people. There are cases in which this might be worse than lying. Some of the people I quote in my article make that argument about Bush’s presidency, and I don’t disagree with them.

In the piece, you cite Sissela Bok who concedes that all lies aren’t created equal but argues that society ought to admonish all types of lying (especially by presidents) because together they contribute to “a general disregard for truth-telling.” Your response to that—that you believe it’s in the public’s interest to “live in the real world”—is interesting. Don’t you think the slippery slope argument is sufficient reason for the public to reprove even the smallest fibs?

We have to tolerate the little lies because they’re the oil that keeps human civilization going. Someone once said that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. I have a friend who prides himself on truth-telling in an absolutist way. He and Sissela Bok would get along great. His girlfriend once accused him of thinking of something else while they were making love. It happened to be true, so he owned up to it. I said he was stupid for doing so and he countered that he wanted the relationship to be based on trust. I posited, well, okay, What if you’re at someone’s house for dinner and the hostess says, ‘I have this new eggplant soufflé that I’d like you to try. It’s a new recipe—let me know what you think.’ It ends up being the worst thing you’ve ever tasted in your life. You try sneaking it under the table to the dog who won’t touch it, you push it around on your plate which only gets you so far, you hide some in your napkin and some in your pocket, but at the end of the evening, she’s bound to ask, ‘Well? What did you think?’ And you have two choices: you can say, ‘That’s the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. My wife and I are going to have to stop at McDonalds on the way home, but we had a good time anyway.’ Or you could say instead, ‘Very interesting. I always appreciate an opportunity to expand my horizons,’ throw in a couple of white lies here and there, and get out in good order. The answer in this case is clear, isn’t it? Even my friend admitted that we sometimes have to shade the truth to spare people’s feelings.

Presidents, of course, have to worry about a lot more than just hurting a friend’s feelings. They have to get disparate groups of people to do things and convince those groups that they want to be cooperating. That’s practicing politics, isn’t it? If you want to be a purist, you probably shouldn’t cover the White House.

Or be a politician.

Right.

Well that begs an interesting question. Back in 1995, you were quoted saying the following about President Clinton: "This president salts his remarks with so many inventions, half-truths and self-serving exaggerations that reporters who cover him often have to choose between truth-squadding every speech or ignoring his fibs." Who is complicit in presidential lying? Can we hold the presidents’ spokesmen accountable for these lies? Or the media?

The real textbook case is the U2 spy plane incident. Eisenhower never lied. He was actually a very blunt-spoken person. But the lies were told in his name, and he didn’t stop them. So he was complicit. I think there is a difference between a president lying directly and an aide lying for him. It’s also easier to punish a lying aide than a president. You can get rid of him.

Theoretically, we should be able to get rid of a lying president, too. We impeached Clinton for lying about his personal life—couldn’t we impeach Bush for much worse?

What’s worse: lying over a war or lying over sexual fidelity? I think to ask that question is to answer it—if it’s meant to be answered at all. I mean, it’s really meant to shame idiots who pushed for Bill Clinton’s impeachment. But I covered that trial and Clinton ultimately wasn’t blameless. He sort of played chicken with the process. He didn’t really think you could impeach someone over something like that so he pushed and pushed and pushed—

Until he got trapped for perjury.

Right. But he trapped himself. Edward Bennett Williams—a great Washington lawyer who used to own the Redskins—once said about George Allen, Sr., whom he had hired to be his coach, “I gave him an unlimited expense account, and he exceeded it.” That’s basically what Clinton did with this impeachment thing—he had unlimited leeway and he exceeded it. I felt that every person involved in the thing was sort of trapped in a play that they didn’t want to be in—Henry Hyde, Clinton, the media. That was unfortunate, but Clinton wasn’t blameless.

Fast forward to eight years later and now we have Democrats who want to impeach Bush. But the lies involved aren’t so clearly lies. Are they lies or half-truths? Their nature is much murkier, though the stakes are so much higher and the potential damage so much greater. I think people are weighing that right now and asking themselves, “Can we impeach him anyway?”

If the implications of Bush’s half-truths are clearly so much worse than Clinton’s, what’s the question?

The implications are worse but the lies aren’t as straightforward. The statements are less clear—it’s much harder to put your finger on the lie. To this day, Bush thinks of himself as a truth-teller.

Do you think he really believes that about himself?

It seems he does. Whereas I don’t think Clinton believed deep down that the lies he was telling the public about Lewinsky were actually true. I think he believed he was trapped into lying. A cheating husband has to lie—that’s part of the transaction. If you can’t lie about it, you shouldn’t cheat. He’d already cheated so he had to lie.

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/01/presidential-lies/305580/