Monday, October 11, 2004

Lying Around

Eric Alterman in The Nation on the pathology of presidential deception.

Presidential dishonesty, like so many things in life, is not what it used to be. Before the 1960s, few could even imagine that a President would deliberately mislead them on matters so fundamental as war and peace. When the evidence of presidential lying grew so enormous the phenomenon could no longer be avoided, its revelation helped force both Lyndon Johnson and his successor, Richard Nixon, out of the office. LBJ’s false assurances regarding the second Tonkin Gulf incident, and their later exposure, would prove a significant factor in his own political demise, the destruction and repudiation of his party, and the ambitious Texan’s personal humiliation and disgrace. Much the same can be said about his successor, the no less ambitious or dishonest Nixon. He, too, paid for his deceptions with his presidency, his reputation and a degrading defeat for his party in the following presidential election.


From the standpoint of personal political consequences, the act of purposeful deception by an American President depends almost entirely on the context in which it occurs. Bill Clinton was impeached for his decision to “lie” under oath about adultery–a choice that, fortunately for many of his predecessors in office, no previous President had ever faced. In Clinton’s case, his most vociferous critics succeeded largely in galvanizing the country on the President’s behalf and in making themselves appear ridiculous. At the moment the conservative quest to remove Clinton from office reached its zenith–the day of his impeachment–the President’s approval rating rose to a remarkable 68 percent. Still, lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, both to the nation and to the grand jury, was the most costly mistake Clinton ever made, including having the affair itself; it was a betrayal of both his closest supporters and many of his own most deeply held personal and political aspirations.

To the relief of many made uncomfortable by the complicated moral questions raised by a President who lied about what most people consider to be a private moral sphere, Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, returned the presidency to the tradition of deception relating to key matters of state, particularly those of war and peace. Bush may have claimed as a candidate that he would “tell the American people the truth,” but as President he effectively declared his right to mislead whenever it suited his purpose. We have no need here to rehearse the many costly untruths that led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq, as well as almost every significant policy initiative of the Bush Administration, nor their costs. As Michael Kinsley sagely observed early in the Administration’s tenure, “Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven’t bothered. If telling the truth was less bother, they’d try that, too. The characteristic Bush II form of dishonesty is to construct an alternative reality on some topic and to regard anyone who objects to it as a sniveling dweeb obsessed with ‘nuance.'” [Emphasis added.]

It’s interesting how the Bushies are consistent in their strategy of how to protect themselves against the seekers and speakers of truth.