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July 6, 2007

Why Presidents Lie

I read this piece in The Atlantic and have wanted to blog it for a few weeks. It is entitled Untruth and Consequences by Carl M. Cannon. The first line is an eye grabber: "From Washington to FDR to Nixon, presidents have always lied. Here’s what makes George Bush different." With all the rhetoric about WMD’s, quagmires, 9/11 conspiracies, Guantanamo, etc. floating around, this article was just begging to be read.

The article starts out with lies told by FDR’s aids about his health. He was in poor shape but with Allies getting ready to kick some ass in Europe and the Navy bouncing around in the Pacific it seemed prudent to lie to America about how many hours the President actually worked- at most 4 hours and day, sometimes as little as 1. Roosevelt’s cardiologist described FDR’s condition as "god-awful"- hypertension, hypertensive heart disease, cardiac failure, and acute bronchitis all on the chart. But it would have been disastrous for the war effort to reveal the serious condition of the President.

Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, had this to say about why presidents lie.
Presidents lie for all kinds of reasons. Richard Nixon lied because he was trying to save is presidency, which was imperiled by his misdeeds. [FDR] misled the country over things like Lend-Lease in order to advance a policy he thought would save the world, but which he knew would be difficult to sell politically. Honesty doesn’t necessarily make for an effective presidency… what the public has to judge is whether [presidents] are lying for the good of the country- or for their own good.

"Bush lies!" has been a mantric phrase for so long that I no longer pay it much attention. But it seems that the phrase isn’t without merit and in keeping with the article’s premise it only seems fit to dive into why Bush’s second term has really taken a credibility nose dive. Although Bush’s predecessor repeatedly lied about his personal affairs (no pun intended), Bush has been accused of prevaricating for a much more serious reason, quite possibly the most serious thing a President can do in his term, the decision to take a nation to war.

Several Gallup polls over the years have focused on the Iraq war and have shown the waning support for Bush’s terse decision. By April 2005, the majority of Americans believed Bush about WMD’s (67%) but today 51% think that Bush deliberately lied about the WMDs.
Bush’s place in history will depend not on whether he lied to the American people- every president, arguably has, 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 by whether he recognized what the truth really was.

Catch phrases have emerged to describe the lies for presidential terms- plausible deniability, credibility gap, "What did the President know and when did he know it?"- as each President tried to attest to his own future truthfulness as he berated the current president for his lies. Ford quipped truth is "the glue that holds government together", Carter promised, "I will never tell a lie."

Campaign exaggerations abound with tales of truthfulness and promises of keeping American informed, even if it is bad news. But truth be told, we elect these clowns because they lie. Western Illinois University professor George Hopkins adds, "So the problem is not with them, it is with us. We should look in the mirror."

An anecdote in Cannon’s article tells of a story Reagan used to tell to validate his truthfulness, but the football story was an outright lie. He lied to show how honest he was?

So Bush has many books, blogs, and movies about how he has become the "prevaricator in chief" and his half truths are splattered all over the MSM. Are lies of omission worse than lies of commission? Cannon notes a few in particular to push the point:

- Bush accurately asserted the U.S. economy had gained 4.6 million jobs in the previous 2 ½ years but failed to mention it had lost 2.6 million in his first 2 ½ years. I have to give a shoulder shrug to this claim. It is all about marketing to me for these types of statements. Would he have been more accurate to say, "Since I have been president, the economy has gained 2 million jobs."?

- In March 2003 Bush stated, as a matter of fact, that he had assemble more countries together in the coalition against Iraq than his father did in 1991. In Fiasco, Ricks deconstructs this statement by pointing out that most of the countries that helped us were there but reluctant. The Navy has a term for this- compliance does not mean agreement. Ricks gives examples of the loosely knit coalition forces: Poles fought but resented being there, Italians wouldn’t get out of their vehicles, and the Japanese wouldn’t patrol at all. The Dutch had to guard the Japanese perimeters for them. But does this make Bush a liar?

- In June 2004, when asked about Ahmad Chalabi, Bush acted like he didn’t really know the guy, even though Chalabi, an Iraqi exile, had been a driving force for our decision to invade Iraq. "I haven’t had any extensive conversations with him." Talk about the big blow off. It is akin to Roosevelt’s speech writer, Sam Rosenman, telling the president to "Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh" if the campaign promises ever came up that FDR made to a crowd in Steel City in 1932.

Presidents rarely tell the truth during wartime and it seems the public can grant them those lies without fault (Vietnam seemed to be the tipping point though). A few days after Pearl Harbor, FDR told America we were in it up to our assholes and that he would keep everyone informed "every step of the way". But he couldn’t find it in his heart to tell Americans just how heavy our losses were in Pearl. Nowadays, the media is starting to question every little thing our president does that isn’t in his public Outlook folder. Remember the hissy fit the MSM had when Bush secretly flew to Iraq for a Thanksgiving Day morale boost for the troops? Not even Bush Senior knew about that trip.

But some Presidents do look back on their wartime decisions and think aloud in hindsight. Ike made public denials about Gary Powers’ failed U-2 spy plane run over Russian airspace in 1960, but after his term he admitted it was one of his biggest mistakes. "If I had to do it all over again, we would have kept our mouths shut" Interestingly, political journalist Eric Alterman theorizes that is was these lies that helped set in motion the Cold War and it was this loss of American credibility that helped the Cuban Missile Crisis gain momentum during JFK’s term. Our uncompromising stance during that era probably sparked Vietnam. But no matter how hard our stance appeared, JFK had missiles in Turkey just in case Khrushchev had any ideas of following through with putting missiles in Cuba.

Presidents have an awful time "resisting the short term gain a lie can afford them" and believe what they say even if what they are saying isn’t true. This is otherwise known as "exculpation", a good example being Bob Kerry’s concealed adoration of Bill Clinton being 'an unusually good liar'. Mike Deaver, in his book My 30 years with Ronal Reagan, writes, "Throughout the entire Iran-Contra affair, Reagan believed what he did was right and that he was telling the truth to the American people."

Which brings us to Bush. Does he believe what he is saying is true, even if it might not be? Stephen Colbert coined the term ‘truthiness’ and Cannon seeks to find out if even Bush’s toughest critics can concede on a few postulates:
a) That Bush considers himself a truth teller.
b) That although statements made by Bush as president have proven to be untrue, Bush generally believed they were true at the time.
c) That even when Bush’s words have been at odds with the facts, you could hook him up to a polygraph machine; he’d still tell you he was telling the truth- and he’d pass.

Cannon asks of his long time acquaintance and author of The Lies of George W. Bush, David Corn, what he thinks about a, b, and c. Corn didn’t really ‘quarrel’ with Cannon’s postulates, and even though Corn’s book read like an "anti-Bush polemic", he still had a valid remark concerning the President’s veracity:
He doesn’t do any due diligence with the facts. Even if you believed something was true [at] the time you said it, it becomes a lie when you don’t act on new information- or correct yourself when you’ve been proven wrong.

Cannon offers 3 reasons about Bush’s behavior:
he is intellectually incurious or doesn’t care enough to get all the facts before making a decision; that his late-life embrace of religion has given him inner peace, but also a near-absolute level of certitude; and that his demand for total loyalty discourage the give-and-take a leader needs, because aids who proffer advice or information that doesn’t jibe with this administrations policy are not viewed as team players.

Cannon refutes the last claim with evidence of Ari Fleisher bitch slapping the President when Bush made the rash statement of "Bring it on!", and that it probably wouldn’t sit well with mothers who had sons in Iraq. But Cannon observes that Bush is consistently surprised by things that happen during the war that he has made and furthermore warns that there is a thin line between optimism and delusion.

From Bush;'s statements involving our missile defense system at the Beoing plant in 2004, to the assertion about his death row executions in Texas while running in 2000, to the prisoners at Gitmo, Bush seems to be surrounded by a thick layer of blasé optimism and downright denial. But what really gets under the skin of most people is not that Bush lied, but that he refuses to acknowledge or admit that he has lied, that this administration doesn’t have a plan B, or that hindsight and optimism are not strategies.

Cannon closes with a fact tempered in historical context- "posterity rewards success". Would FDR been hailed as a heroic war time president had D-Day failed or as someone whose deteriorating health deluded him with a successful campaign that would be fought on two fronts? Had Japan solidified a resolve based on their sense of honor and not surrendered, would Truman have been recounted in the history books as a butcher? If the huge stockpiles of WMD’s, whose sheer size would have to be immense to appease the naysayers, were found within 2 weeks of crossing into Iraq would Bush’s integrity be in question? "Consequences matter more than truths" and presidents will always hold to that because they do not want to be remembered throughout history as "The President who should’ve…"
While Kennedy may have lied to the public about why the Russians removed their missiles from Cuba, he knew the truth of the situation well enough to negotiate the compromise that led to their removal. Bush, on the other hand, seems unwilling to recognize that the reality of the situation in Iraq does not conform to his vision of it.

That is a little harsh, even for Cannon, to suggest that Bush sees Iraq through rose colored glasses. Even at the time of print, things were getting better in Iraq- the Red Zones were becoming smaller and that Bush’s vision of Iraq was actually starting to gel. The truth is obscured in Connor’s piece as Iraq is made out to be one big mistake that Bush will look back on with regret and that the history books will rewrite themselves no matter what happens in the Middle East.

Time will either be kind to Bush or it will be his greatest enemy.

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