White House Whoppers

Articles from 1872 to the present shed light on a longstanding presidential tradition of playing fast and loose with the truth.

As the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate and the Democrats prepare to take over Congress, it is clear that this administration’s credibility is under heavy scrutiny. A year ago, Stephen Colbert coined a term, “truthiness” to describe Bush’s proclivity for telling the American people what feels  like the truth, rather than verified facts. Now, with his article, “Truth in the White House,” Carl Cannon puts Bush’s complex tango with the truth into historical context, taking a look back at presidential lies throughout history. Cannon, however, is not the first Atlantic writer to consider a president’s uneasy relationship to “the facts.” A look through the magazine’s archives makes clear that parsing presidential assertions into clear-cut categories of True versus False is not always the most illuminating way to proceed. A lie, we might rather say, is only one method—albeit a time-honored one—of playing fast and loose with the truth.

In 1872, an anonymously written piece entitled “Politics” focused on one much-favored alternative to lying: deploying political tautologies so obvious and mind-numbingly uncontroversial, that one manages to avoid saying anything at all—thereby diverting attention from one’s real position. Reviewing a recent speech by Ulysses Grant, the author wrote:

To the rule that Presidential messages are usually excellent studies in the art of saying nothing unforeseen or unexpected we have not found the late message of General Grant an exception. Every one is in favor of amnesty; so is the President…Nobody doubts the necessity of a reduction of taxation; neither does the President….nothing puzzles the country at large so much as the question of free-trade and protection; it is exactly so with the President.

Grant’s statements are nothing but the truth, but they aren’t the whole truth. As the author pointed out, “though the President’s enemies say that he is still intent upon his scheme for the annexation of San Domingo, the message indicates nothing of the kind.” Nor in this case does Grant’s avoidance of any trace of controversy mean that he has expunged the dark stain of prevarication. Although the same enemies of the President “maintain also that he cares nothing for a reformed civil service,” the address “says the exact reverse.” What would a political speech be, after all, without at least one outright lie?

Grant is certainly not the only president to combine lies with lesser forms of not-quite-truth. In his article, Carl Cannon touches on a lie JFK told about his health—a denial that he had Addison’s disease. In his 2002 article “The Medical Ordeals of JFK,” Robert Dallek showed how this particular lie was in fact just one small part of a careful orchestration of additional lies, strategic omissions, and misrepresentations. The Kennedy administration had gone out of its way, Dallek made clear, to paint a picture of a robust president. And sometimes a picture, as everybody knows, is worth a thousand false words.

From the archives:

Interviews: "Darker Than We Want to Know" (January 8, 1998)

Seymour Hersh discusses his controversial best seller The Dark Side of Camelot and why most historians of John F. Kennedy's presidency have been wrong.

Dallek’s article catalogued, in gruesome detail, JFK’s lifelong health problems, which included—in addition to Addison’s disease—colitis, osteoporosis, urinary tract problems, and constant, severe back pain. JFK essentially classified all information regarding his health top secret, and relied on a cocktail of drugs and steroid injections to keep him functioning. The cover-up of his health issues involved both outright lying and strategic omissions. But more complicated from a moral standpoint was the spin that surrounded him. Surely Kennedy’s P.R. people were not lying, to take one example, when they touted his service in WWII, even if they said nothing about the health problems he suffered in the Navy. Dallek argued that Kennedy’s silent suffering made him more courageous. Whether or not one buys that, however, there is no doubt that JFK’s assault on the truth—or at least on the likelihood that voters might become aware of it—was prolonged and many-faceted.

Certain statements by some presidents have become infamous examples of dishonesty. Nixon’s declaration, “I am not a crook,” comes to mind. But these statements, if anything, only help to demarcate the line between truth and fiction. It is more interesting to consider how presidents have obscured or muddied that line. Nixon did his fair share of that, as well. In a 1973 article “The President and the Press,” David Wise detailed the ways in which Nixon manipulated the press in order to manipulate the truth.

One of the press’s jobs, of course, is to make sure that a president is being honest and forthcoming, and to fill in the gaps when he doesn’t. Nixon tried to prevent the press from doing so. Wise quoted Tom Wicker, then associate editor and columnist for the New York Times:

We feel the general pressure…No administration in history has turned loose as high an official as the Vice President to level a constant fusillade of criticism at the press. The Pentagon Papers case [in which Nixon had attempted to prevent the Times and the Washington Post from publishing an internal report on America’s involvement in Vietnam] was pressure of the most immense kind…There is a constant pattern of pressure intended to inhibit us.

Nixon’s administration attacked network news in general and Dan Rather, the anchorman of CBS, in particular. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s “chief assistant for domestic affairs,” even encouraged the president of CBS news to give Rather “a year’s vacation.” Three of Nixon’s top aides told Rather to tone down his rigorous criticism of the Administration. Then, when another CBS newsman, Daniel Schorr, exposed a Nixon lie about supporting parochial schools, the administration opened an FBI investigation on Schorr. Despite his hostility to television news, Nixon did welcome television coverage of his speeches. “At every opportunity,” wrote Wise, “Nixon solemnly addresses the nation” on TV. “It is this concept of television-as-conduit that has won Nixon’s praise, not television as a form of electronic journalism.” Thus Nixon exploited the media to broadcast his version of the truth, at the same time discouraging the media from vetting, qualifying, or contradicting him. “By applying constant pressure, in ways seen and unseen,” concluded Wise, “the leaders of the government have attempted to shape the news to resemble the images seen through the prism of their own power.”

If one president other than Nixon will be remembered for being less than aboveboard, it may be Bill Clinton (though our current president seems to be applying for membership in that club). Christopher Hitchens, in his book review of Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars (“Thinking Like an Apparatchik,” July/August 2003), shed light on yet another method by which presidents can mislead without lying: sinking the truth in a sea of literalisms and circumlocutions. “I always thought that it was very clever of Clinton,” wrote Hitchens, “to make a mystery where none existed about when, and even where, he had touched Monica Lewinsky. Since his denial was made partly under oath, and involved a legalistic definition even of certain orifices and appendages, it necessitated a minute inquiry.” Clinton fortified himself in an equivocation, taking refuge in the space between the commonly understood meaning of “sex” and a legalistic definition. “It comes down to this:” wrote Hitchens, “Clinton asserts…that he was innocent of perjury because although he did ejaculate in the intimate presence of Monical Lewinsky, she derived no pleasure or excitement from the moment.”

Last to be considered is George W. Bush, who seems to have employed, and perhaps improved upon, every available means of obfuscating the truth. In “Spies, Lies, and Weapons: What Went Wrong” (January/February 2004), Kenneth Pollack chronicled the lead-up to the second Iraq War. On the one hand, the intelligence community had overestimated Iraq’s “WMD capability.” On the other hand, the Bush administration had mishandled what information was available.

The problem began long before the Administration’s public campaign for war. Bush and his aides pressured the intelligence community to tell them what they wanted to hear. “Many Administration officials,” wrote Pollack,

reacted strongly, negatively, and aggressively when presented with information or analysis that contradicted what they already believed about Iraq. Many of these officials believed that Saddam…was an imminent danger to the United States because of his perceived possession of weapons of mass destruction and support of terrorism…They believed that the Agency, not the Administration, was biased, and that they were acting simply to correct that bias.

The Administration “also took some actions that arguably crossed the line between…oversight of the intelligence community and an attempt to manipulate intelligence.” They set up their own office in the Pentagon and “‘cherry-picked’ the intelligence they passed on, selecting reports that supported the Administration’s pre-existing position and ignoring all the rest,” even when intelligence officers considered those reports to be “unreliable or downright false.”

But the truth was distorted at every link in the chain. While publicly campaigning for war, Bush officials “were guilty not of lying but of creative omission. They discussed only those elements of intelligence estimates that served their cause.” Pollack continued: “time after time senior Administration officials discussed only the worst-case, and least likely, scenario.” Still, if the administration officials were successful, their success seems due, in large part, to the fact that they convinced themselves. Bush’s top aides manipulated the public’s understanding of the truth by manipulating their own.

Finally, in a humorous review of 2004 stump speeches, P.J. O’Rourke wrote that “The relationship of political speaking to truth is complex, although not close.” He conceded, however, that “candidates do not tell outright lies. Except when they do.”

Carl Cannon, quoting Winston Churchill, offers one explanation for the ongoing prevalence of presidential lying: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” But perhaps the truth of the matter—if there can be said to be any—is less noble: in politics, the lie is so precious that she must always be attended by a bodyguard of half-truths.

David Busis