Letters to the editor

All The Presidents’ Lies

I appreciate the kind words Carl M. Cannon had to say (“Untruth and Consequences,” January/February Atlantic) about my intellectual honesty and the arguments in my book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, but I’m afraid we differ on what it was I was trying to say. Cannon writes that I argue, “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.”

In fact, I don’t have a problem with most genuine wartime lies. I accept the fact that troop movements and the like must be protected even at the cost of explicit and purposeful presidential dishonesty. What I object to is the manipulation of the threat of war—or a state of affairs depicted to be one of perpetual war—to defend lies that are, in fact, unrelated. In the case of Yalta, for instance, I do not object to the secrecy—and the lies necessary to protect the secrecy—of the Far Eastern agreement, when the Allies were readying an invasion of Japan and did not want to alert the enemy to the possibility of Soviet participation.

What I argue is that Franklin D. Roose­velt did himself, his party, and his country no favors in presenting his agreement with our wartime ally in Eastern Europe as something that it clearly wasn’t. The war, in that case, was an excuse for FDR to avoid telling the country that he was actually forced to make concessions to Soviet interests in Poland and elsewhere that were inconsistent with his rhetoric.

Similarly, John F. Kennedy lied about the solution to the Cuban missile crisis after the threat of war had already passed. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, like George W. Bush, lied to the nation in order to try to get us into war. Bush convinced the nation that an imminent threat to our security existed when, in reality, it did not; there was only the president’s ambition to act without the inconvenience of a properly informed public discourse about his intentions. In each case, reality demanded its tribute.

Eric Alterman
New York, N.Y.

In Carl Cannon’s otherwise terrific “Untruth and Consequences,” the author misstates the record after Franklin Roose­velt made his famous 1932 campaign pledge in Pitts­burgh to balance the budget and cut spending by 25 percent. As I explain in The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Roosevelt actually fulfilled this promise at first, balancing the budget and cutting spending by 31 percent. But he quickly pioneered “off-budget” emergency spending and ran up the deficit, which is why his speechwriter jokingly advised him in 1936, “Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh.”

Jonathan Alter
Montclair, N.J.

Carl Cannon lists three popular theories to explain George W. Bush’s behavior. A fourth theory, one that explains far more of Bush’s conduct, comes from a quote attributed to Jeb Bush in Ron Suskind’s The One-Percent Doctrine. Jeb is quoted as saying that his brother George seems to genuinely enjoy forcing other people to knuckle under. In other words, he’s a bully. He doesn’t really care whether he’s right or wrong; in fact, he might find it more fun to be wrong and still force everyone to kowtow.

This theory would explain such strange presidential behavior as resubmitting court nominations that he knows the Democrats won’t support; breaking the law on domestic surveillance when he could have easily gotten approval from the FISA Court; and insisting on a troop escalation right after the American voters, his generals, and many Republicans told him that the war had become unwinnable. This theory also explains the president’s refusal to read opinion columns and editorials—because that would mean letting someone else tell him how to think.

Ed Gogek
Prescott, Ariz.

Carl Cannon rightly emphasizes that “a majority of Americans believed Bush ‘deliberately misled the American public’ about whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.” Unmentioned was a more serious and far-reaching deception: Bush’s successful attempt to convince Americans that the regime of Saddam Hussein bore responsibility for the attacks of September 11, 2001. Bush may have never stated directly that Iraq was the main instigator of 9/11, but he repeatedly juxtaposed comments about 9/11 and Iraq in such a way that millions of Americans came to believe that Iraq was the main force behind the 9/11 tragedy. More than 40 percent of Americans believed at one point that Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” in the September 11 massacre, and a Zogby poll last year found that 85 percent of GIs surveyed in Iraq believed the U.S. mission is mainly “to retaliate for Saddam’s role” in 9/11.

Gilbert Herod
Indianapolis, Ind.

Carl M. Cannon replies:

I have no quibble with Jonathan Alter on his point about Franklin Roosevelt. It’s possible, however, that Eric Alterman misunderstood me, or perhaps under­estimates the full implication of his own insightful argument. I didn’t intend to characterize his contention as being that a president who misinforms the enemy about “troop movements” is the same as one who misleads his own people about the rationale for entering a war. But it does seem that an examination of wartime presidents—and if the Cold War is included, then we are talking about every president from FDR to George W. Bush—demonstrates the inherent tension between the truth- telling required of the elected leader of a democratic society and the secrecy required of a commander in chief.

Ed Gogek engages in psychoanalysis of the current president, diagnosing him as a “bully,” but I’m too old-school for that type of dissection and prefer to stick to facts. Gilbert Herod asserts in his otherwise complimentary missive that I should have taken the current president to task for public-opinion polls showing how many Americans conflate the Iraq War and the events of September 11, 2001. Perhaps he’s right: Bush doesn’t directly blame Saddam Hussein for the 9/11 attacks, but his rhetoric is slyly aimed at attracting the support of those who do. On the other hand, Bush’s critics in the Democratic Party have played the same game—selectively quoting the president to make him seem cynical or dishonest in this area. Most of this strikes me as the normal give-and-take of political discourse. In the end, Americans are responsible for their own opinions. I wouldn’t, for instance, blame LBJ or Richard Nixon for the disquieting fact that millions of Americans believe the U.S. moon landing was faked—even though the disillusionment that set in during the 1970s was partly a product of Vietnam and Watergate.

Beyond Partisanship?

I was disappointed in Joshua Green’s lack of skepticism concerning Unity08 (“Surprise Party,” January/February Atlantic). For one thing, many issues are so complex and difficult that a simple “video answer” from a candidate is not sufficient—particularly Iraq, a situation for which the Unity08 members, according to their own Web site, have no plan and no solution. Soldiers are dying for an unnecessary war built on deceptions, yet what is Unity08’s top priority? Lobbying reform.

Moreover, there are already at least two third parties—the Greens and the Libertarians—that have committed, over the past several decades, to building genuine alternatives. Regardless of what one thinks of these parties, they have taken clear stances and have clear philosophies. By contrast, Unity08 members have nothing in common; we don’t know where they stand on most issues, because there is no platform. Apparently one will magically appear in 2008, after the candidate is chosen. If a candidate is chosen. Maybe.

It’s a clever choice on the part of the Unity08 founders: Take no stance on difficult issues, and more people will sign up. It’s likely, though, that as soon as Unity08 selects a candidate, at least a third (if not more) of the “partys” support will disappear overnight, because of the candidate’s stance on issues like gay-and-lesbian rights, abortion, Iraq, the minimum wage, environmental law, and so on. Some might say this proves the Unity founders’ point about excess partisanship. I say, rather, that it’s the attempt of a group of has-beens to make themselves relevant again by deceiving people.

Greg Machlin
Iowa City, Iowa

School Choice

A charter-school proponent contends that the changes in New Orleans’s schools (“Reading, Writing, Resurrection,” January/February Atlantic) are “the biggest experiment in a system of schools of choice we’ve ever seen,” and for the United States, that may be true. But in the early 1990s, New Zealand, under a program called Tomorrow’s Schools, abolished attendance zones and allowed parents to apply to any school, anywhere in the country. Once students were admitted, tuition, in the form of quasi-vouchers, followed them to their schools of choice, including parochial schools.

Initial enthusiasm turned to disillusionment, however, when the best schools quickly filled up and began turning away hard-to-teach students. Those rejected—disproportionately poor and minority—were forced by default to return to their schools of origin, which became significantly more polarized along ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

The Glamour of Flight

Virginia Postrel makes some interesting observations about passenger flight, past and present (“Up, Up, and Away,” January/February Atlantic), but she misses some of the qualities that made flying “glamorous” in the golden age.

Danger, both the sense and the reality of it, was part of the glamour. This was still a time when even the best planes sometimes fell out of the sky. The largest airliners in those days were tiny, compared with modern jets. The reciprocating engines that powered these birds were as reliable as anyone could make them, but every now and then one of the thousands of banging, slapping, jiggling parts broke down.

Those airliners did not fly very high, either. The maximum ceiling of the DC-6 was 25,000 feet, and the plane usually cruised at a much lower altitude. One of my most vivid memories is of flying—en route from Lima, Peru, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—not over but alongside the towering peaks of the Andes. You did not fly above the weather; you flew through it—and sometimes the weather won.

Even the act of taking off in those days added to the sense of adventure, mystery, and danger. The cabin door closed, and the engines coughed and choked themselves to life. The pilot cranked up the rpm, the engines roared defiance at the sky, and the craft itself quivered and strained against the brakes. Finally the pilot released the brakes, the plane lumbered down the strip, and then it groaned its way into the air.

Now that, my friend, was glamour.

Paul W. Moomaw
Missoula, Mont.

Arguing iTunes

Michael Hirschorn does us a great service by unearthing a handful of interesting, cutting-edge digital-music sites (“The Digital-Music Mosh Pit,” January/February Atlantic). One gets the sense, however, that Hirschorn puts his zeal for what’s new and what’s next ahead of considerations that are more fundamental to music lovers and explorers.

First, Hirschorn seems more enamored with new ways to discover music than with what the product delivered by these new services actually sounds like. To put it bluntly, most of the songs that stream through Pandora and Last.fm suck. I’m sure that has something to do with the iffy provenance of each audio file, and the fact that the bytes are piped through a thicket of intermediary networks, routers, and systems and get squirted out through cheap sound cards cabled to poor-quality speakers. I’m equally sure that, over time, the delivery technology will improve. But, given the inherently poor audio quality of the MP3 format, I wonder how much we can ever really expect.

Second, Hirschorn is unduly hard on iTunes. I guess you could call iTunes a “closed system,” as he does. Except that you can download any track off any RedBook-conforming CD into your iTunes library by clicking a couple of buttons. Except that you can share any protected AAC track you buy from the iTunes Store with anybody, regardless of platform, by burning it to a CD. Except that iTunes gives you an elegant, peerlessly simple way to find, sign up for, and manage podcasts (a communally based technology that is growing faster than a thousand Last .fms). When you actually look at all the ways that iTunes syncs, links, and accommodates old technologies, competing formats, and different platforms, I think it’s quite inaccurate—and a little unfair—to call it “closed.”

Joel MaHarry
Santa Monica, Calif.

Michael Hirschorn replies:

Joel MaHarry makes some good points in his letter, particularly about sound quality. MP3 quality certainly isn’t up to snuff by traditional standards, but one of the implicit trade-offs of the digital era is swapping quality for choice and customization. People seem willing to watch low-quality video on the Web, for example, if they can watch what they want when they want it. Also, for most forms of hip-hop or rock, the difference in quality between a digital track and an album or CD is nugatory. For classical or jazz, I’ve been using the Olive music server, which allows you to digitize your CDs using high-quality “lossless” formats like FLAC.

I do not dispute MaHarry’s argument about the intuitive beauty of the iPod/iTunes system. It is, indeed, a swan among ugly ducklings. But it is also an enemy of choice and discovery, and it places undue burdens on users who want to freely use music they’ve purchased through iTunes. Forcing users to burn music they download from iTunes onto a CD before they can share it with others or load it onto another music platform is hardly a graceful solution. Indeed, critics have argued that Apple put such hurdles in place in order to build a monopoly position in digital music.

However, it’s worth noting that since my column went to press, the labels have dropped a number of hints that they will be releasing more music in the unrestricted MP3 format. And in February, Steve Jobs himself issued a remarkable open letter acknowledging the shortfalls of the closed system and saying that iTunes would sell songs in the unrestricted MP3 format if the labels would make them available.

Debating Starbucks

Virginia Postrel, in her paean “In Praise of Chain Stores” (December Atlantic), makes what she thinks is the bold claim that “stores don’t give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do.” But she neglects to consider that environment—including stores—acts on people. People accustomed to pursuing their needs blindly in big anonymous stores end up looking like anonymous integers in a world market. The chain store leads to the chain person.

Still, Postrel is right about one point: Having Starbucks in every spot of the world makes it easier to move from place to place, as the coffee shop is always “home away from home.” A friend just moved to Paris from New York, knowing nothing about France. It was not too radical a move, she said. They have Starbucks! Was she going to learn the language soon, I asked? Oh no, why would that be necessary?

Karin Badt
Paris, France

Virginia Postrel replies:

Only someone with absolutely no powers of observation would think Paris and New York—or, for that matter, Los Angeles and New York, or Dallas and New York—are the same merely because they both have Starbucks. These days, however, such insensitivity is apparently a mark of the bored sophisticate. In vain, we stubborn Anglo-Saxon empiricists expect evidence for wild claims like “People accustomed to pursuing their needs blindly in big anonymous stores end up looking like anonymous integers in a world market.”

Besides, not every difference is charming; ask anyone who has ever suffered through a painfully slow Parisian grocery-store line. The store is just as anonymous as a Wal-Mart Supercenter, but the cashier is far less efficient and friendly. A little more competition could do wonders for service quality.