In October of 1962, upon being caught in a direct and unambiguous lie -- that the Pentagon knew of no offensive weapons in Cuba, when in fact Defense Department officials were debating whether to invade the island in order to remove those very weapons -- Arthur Sylvester, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, made the audacious claim, “It's inherent in [the] government's right, if necessary, to lie to save itself.”
Begging the question of just whom the enemy was, Sylvester added, “News generated by the actions of the government … [are] part of the arsenal of weaponry that a president has.” Like so many before and since, the Kennedy administration seemed to conflate its own political advantage and the public good.
Those of us who have written polemics against one president or another are prone to believe that our target is the worst liar to have ever sat in the Oval Office. This conclusion may come from a detailed examination of a particular president's record, but as often as not it springs from the usually unstated premise that lies in the service of goals with which we disagree are inherently worse than lies told to advance more worthy ends. (Of course, one may also be correct; after all, some president has to be the worst.)
Though he is no stranger to the polemic, Eric Alterman -- a Nation columnist and author of What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News and The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (with Mark Green) -- attempts to sidestep partisan questions in his most recent book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Deception and its Consequences, not only by going after Democratic presidents but by stating outright that his goal is not to “take the president or his advisers to task for the morality or even the hypocrisy of their lies,” but to “focus exclusively on the real-life consequences of the lies, in terms of both the policies the presidents pursued and the debased discourse they inspired.”
Alterman narrows his focus to four cases where the president lied to the country about matters of war and peace: Franklin Delano Roosevelt misrepresenting the Yalta Agreement to hide the fact that he had essentially consented to postwar Soviet domination of Eastern Europe; John F. Kennedy concealing the fact that he had ended the Cuban missile crisis by making a deal with Nikita Khrushchev to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba; Lyndon Johnson using the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which by the most credible accounts never really occurred, to begin the Vietnam War in earnest; and Ronald Reagan misleading the country about the substance of the Iran-Contra affair and his involvement in it.
All lies are, of course, not created equal. Some, like Reagan's, are told to cover up criminal activity that is utterly indefensible once brought to light. Others, like Kennedy's concealment of the deal on the Jupiter missiles in Turkey, hide actions that are eminently reasonable but carry political risks. But Alterman's point is that lies almost inevitably lead to more lies -- “The more a leader lies to his people, the more he must lie to his people” -- and that the consequences for policy prove disastrous. This may be a tad too deterministic; after all, for all we know there may be still-hidden cases in which a president lied, the lie was contained, and everything turned out splendidly. Alterman cites plenty of deceptions that were either strategically unnecessary or simply a function of one or another individual's own personal feelings, such as Kennedy's efforts to discredit Adlai Stevenson after the Cuban missile crisis, seemingly born more of personal antipathy than anything else.
But perhaps the most troubling thing that emerges from the stories Alterman tells is the degree to which lying infects large parts of the executive branch. Once the president lies, those around him begin to lie as well, and dishonesty spreads like a cancer. Ironically, the case of Johnson and Vietnam, in which the official lies were most abundant, may be the one in which the original lie mattered least. When Alterman details just how dishonest the Johnson administration was about nearly every detail of the burgeoning war, the reader ends up questioning how much the Tonkin Gulf incident really mattered in the end. Were it not for the Tonkin Gulf, Johnson could easily have found another excuse to proclaim the villainy of the Vietnamese communists, and Congress would almost surely have gone along as it did. The cascade of deception that followed was not, as is so often the case, in the service of preventing the original lie from being discovered.
Many of the lies Alterman documents seem to come in the form of assuring the public that a disastrous policy was not only a good idea in the first place but is going well at the moment -- we're making progress in Vietnam, our allies in Central America aren't really massacring civilians, etc. The exception is the Cuban missile crisis, which, particularly compared with the other events Alterman discusses, turned out pretty well in the end. While it may be true that the crisis established a standard of manly toughness vis-à-vis communism that the tormented Johnson wasted thousands of lives trying to live up to, Vietnam might just as well have occurred as it did regardless.
But the central deception of the Cuban missile crisis -- that it was resolved not through a clever and wise negotiation but by showing the Soviets that we were tough and strong until they limped back home in defeat -- had ramifications that were mostly symbolic. Alterman argues that the “lessons” of Munich, Yalta, and Cuba -- respectively, that our enemies cannot be “appeased,” that communists cannot be trusted, and that our enemies will back down if we show sufficient backbone -- “formed the intellectual DNA of U.S. foreign policy and the American people's understanding of the world.” Indeed, in the months preceding the Iraq War, one finds references to Munich turning up in American media at a rate of well over 10 per day.
Alterman concludes the book with a chapter on George W. Bush and the “post-truth presidency,” an apt assessment of where we have come to. Seeing as Alterman began the book many years ago as a graduate dissertation, it is not too surprising that Bush's presidency provides only a brief coda. But Bush's relationship to the truth and its consequences for our politics are worthy of lengthier contemplation.
Two things distinguish Bush from his predecessors on the subject of lying. First, Bush's grandest lies have not been about covering up what has already happened but about persuading the public to go along with what he has decided to do but has yet to implement. Tax cuts, Iraq, now Social Security -- each major policy move has been accompanied by a campaign of deception. Lying is not a defensive reaction to a crisis but a carefully crafted strategy. Second, and perhaps most troubling, is that Bush seems unconcerned about getting caught. Indeed, the administration's damn-the-torpedoes fearlessness is the source of much of its political success. That it would actually hire, along with a series of other Iran-Contra figures, a perjurer like Elliot Abrams -- who has recently been promoted to deputy national-security adviser in charge of democracy promotion, of all things -- is testimony to its utter audacity. Go ahead, these officials seem to be saying, call us a bunch of liars -- we really don't care.
One of the common threads running through this history is that in case after case, the press went along with whatever the administration told it. Watergate may have temporarily cured reporters of this credulousness, but the remission lasted only so long. When the history of the Bush administration is written, the abject cowardice of the press in confronting an administration that held it in undisguised contempt and lied in its face will be one of the most depressing chapters. As citizens, we have no defense from official deception but the reporters who are tasked with discovering the truth and holding presidents to account on our behalf. As Alterman writes, if public officials “feel free to lie to the press -- and, by extension, the nation -- with impunity, then democracy becomes pseudo-democracy, as the illusion of accountability replaces the real thing.” Even when they have mustered the courage to point out fabrications in a story buried on page A19, the media's mighty arrows of truth telling have bounced off this White House like a child's toy with defective suction cups.
“In each case,” Alterman says about Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan, “the president or his party was made to pay for his deceptions along with the country they so cavalierly misled.” As of yet, not only has neither Bush nor his party paid a price for the lies about Iraq but there is little reason to think they will anytime soon. In no small part, the administration is able to evade consequence for its mendacity because its supporters have adopted a siege mentality, hunkered behind the castle walls of their loyalty to the president. Presented with irrefutable evidence that the war in Iraq was sold on a series of deceptions, many of them simply stick their fingers in their ears and chant, “La la la, I can't hear you.”
According to the University of Maryland's Project on International Policy Attitudes, just before the 2004 election, 47 percent of Bush supporters believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and another 26 percent thought it had a major weapons program. Three out of four Bush supporters also thought Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda. These people seem to have resolved the cognitive dissonance created by the collision of the truth with their support of Bush by adopting a new set of “facts” more in line with what their leader had told them.
One trembles to contemplate the lesson of the Bush administration's deceptions: Admit nothing, even when caught; continue to lie, even after the lie has been exposed; define anyone who questions the lie as an enemy of the nation or, failing that, of “the troops.” If your partisans stand firm (and particularly if your party controls Congress, so no pesky oversight hearings will take place), you can get away with just about anything. As Alterman makes clear, lies have consequences, often in blood. As we hear that forces within the Pentagon are seriously contemplating military action against Iran and Syria, one wonders just what they will tell us to justify the next military adventure. Will we believe them? And will it make a difference?
Paul Waldman is editor-in-chief of The Gadflyer (www.gadflyer.com). His latest book is Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why the Media Didn't Tell You.