Presidential lying: A history primer

    Presidents sometimes lie, as evidenced most recently by Barack Obama’s you-can-keep-your-plan doozy. But where does his lie rank in the pantheon of presidential lies?

    I ask that question not merely to prompt a parlor game, but to make a point about the importance of historical perspective.

    I’m well aware that the people with a longstanding vested interest in the failure of Obamacare don’t believe in historical perspective, because they think that history began on ’09 Inauguration Day – but that’s their problem. This post is aimed at the open-minded.

    Presidents have been slinging the bull since the era of powdered wigs. Thomas Jefferson (who denied that he slept with slaves; who hired people to dig up dirt on his enemies, then denied he’d done so) was widely known in his day as “Jeff the Trimmer.” Four decades later, James K. Polk agitated for war with Mexico, declaring that Mexican troops had crossed “the boundary of the United States, invaded our territory, and shed American blood on American soil.” (All of that was a lie.)

    A century after Polk, Harry Truman ushered in the atomic age by saying, “Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.” (Pants on fire. Hiroshima was a civilian city, primarily populated by women, children, and elderly males.) Sixteen years after Truman’s announcement, John F. Kennedy insisted, in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, that “no Americans” were involved; moreover, “I have previously stated, and I repeat now, that the United States intends no military intervention in Cuba.” (The Bay of Pigs invasion was a CIA production, and Americans flew combat missions.)

    Richard Nixon, in the throes of Watergate, insisted “I’m not a crook,” and a generation later, Bill Clinton said “I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” No wonder they were called Tricky Dick and Slick Willie. They both got impeached by the House – a fate that Ronald Reagan managed to escape, even though he mouthed this whopper on national TV in November ’86: “We did not – repeat – did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.” (Oh yes they did. Reagan’s team sold weapons to the hostage-taking regime in Iran – thus violating an American arms embargo – and routed the profits to anticommunist Contras in Nicaragua, thus violating a congressional ban on aid to the Contras.)

    But I’ve barely scratched the surface, lies-wise, so let’s scratch further. Because I have this wild and crazy notion that lies that get a lot of people killed are qualitivately far worse than lies in the service of reforming health care.

    When Lyndon Johnson was president, people used to joke: “When he’s pulling on his ear lobes and stroking his chin, he’s telling the truth. When he’s moving his lips, he’s lying.” But the joke was serious. In 1964, LBJ ginned up a wider war in Vietnam by declaring on TV that North Vietnamese commies in PT boats had attacked us in the Gulf of Tonkin; but as we learned years later, via newly-released White House tapes, there was no such attack. And one Navy aviator in the Gulf of Tonkin at the time, James Stockdale, confirmed it in his memoir: “Our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets. There were no PT boats out there. Nothing but black water and American firepower.” (The result? A congressional blank check for a lost war that ultimately took 58,000 American lives.)

    And you know where I’m going. Next stop, the obvious.

    In George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech, part of his effort to gin up an invasion of Iraq, he said: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.”

    All lies.

    Long before Bush’s speech, the CIA had warned the White House that the British intelligence was based on forgeries, that in fact Hussein was not seeking uranium; and long before Bush’s speech, the State Department and the Department of Energy had concluded that Iraq sought those aluminum tubes only for conventional artillery rockets.

    Bush lied often in the run-up to war, but these are my personal favorites: In September ’02, he said that a “new” report by the International Atomic Energy Agency put Iraq “six months away” from building a nuke; in his words, “I don’t know what more evidence we need.” Whereupon the IAEA released this priceless statement: “There’s never been a report like that issued from this agency.” And in October ’02, Bush said that Iraq was plotting to use unmanned aerial vehicles “for missions targeting the United States.” In truth, those aerial vehicles had a target range of several hundred miles.

    Call me crazy, but somehow it seems that Obama’s keep-your-plan lie, while definitely deplorable, is a tad less serious, and lethal, than the litany of lies that ultimately cost the lives of 4,486 American soldiers, 1,487 U.S. contractor employers, and an estimated 135,000 Iraqi civilians – at a price tag of $2.2 trillion…not counting the estimated $4 trillion that will be paid out in benefits to war vets (including the 32,000 wounded) over the next four decades.

    As political analyst Ron Fournier remarked the other day, even while strongly assailing Obama’s lie: “On history’s scale of deception, this one leaves a light footprint. Worse lies have been told by worse presidents, leading to more severe consequences…”

    So let’s invite the people who are rooting for the failure of Obamacare, who are currently dining out on Obama’s lie, to finally acknowledge the Bush administration’s serial lies – and perhaps entertain the thought that lies about war are weightier than all others, that a dash of perspective can be a good thing….People, are you there? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?


    Yesterday, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, I hosted political reporter Matt Katz. He covered Chris Christie for the Philadelphia Inquirer (three years); now he’s doing it for WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio (possibly for the next three years). Check out our conversation. Much to say about Christie’s presidential prospects, his relations with the press, and the changing nature of political journalism.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman


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