Which president told the biggest whoppers? You decide.
This summer, after it became clear that President George W. Bush had made false statements about Iraq's nuclear weapons capacity and links to al Qaeda in his January State of the Union address, some commentators accused him of being the most dishonest president in recent American history. There has been, however, no scientifically serious attempt to test such accusations--until now.
To come up with our Mendacity Index, we asked a nominating committee* of noted journalists and pundits to pick the most serious fibs, deceptions, and untruths spoken by each of the four most recent presidents. We selected the top six for each commander-in-chief, then presented the list to a panel of judges** with longtime experience in Washington. Panel members were instructed to rate each deception on a scale of 1 (least serious) to 5 (most serious). Then we averaged the scores for each deception and for each president. We believe their validity rests somewhere between the Periodic Table and the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. To view the results, click here.
But why trust the experts? We'd like to hear from you. The Washington Monthly and Beliefnet invite you to take the survey yourself and give each president a mendacity rating. We'll be keeping a running tab of the results. May the best man win!
Instructions: Read the lists below of deceptions spoken by the four most recent presidents. Click the link after each president to give him an overall untruthfulness score from 1 (least serious) to 5 (most serious).
Click here to go directly to a specific president's profile:
After opining in August 1980 that "trees cause more pollution than automobiles do," Reagan arrived at a campaign rally to find a tree decorated with this sign: "Chop me down before I kill again."
Balance the Budget And Increase Defense Spending? The Reagan administration introduced the 1981 Economic Recovery Act by claiming that it would cut taxes by 30 percent, increase defense spending by three-quarters of a trillion dollars, and achieve a balanced budget within three years. Budget director David Stockman admitted in November of 1981 that, "None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers" and that supply-side economics "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate."
Guns of Brixton. "In England, if a criminal carried a gun, even though he didn't use it, he was tried for first-degree murder and hung if he was found guilty," Ronald Reagan claimed in April 1982. When informed that the story was "just not true," White House spokesman Larry Speakes said, "Well, it's a good story, though. It made the point, didn't it?" Reagan repeated the story again on March 21, 1986 during an interview with The New York Times.
In November 1983, Reagan told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he had served as a photographer in a U.S. Army unit assigned to film Nazi death camps. He repeated the story to Simon Wiesenthal the following February. Reagan never visited or filmed a concentration camp; he spent World War II in Hollywood, making training films with the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps.
Arms for Hostages.
"We did not--repeat, did not--trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we," Reagan proclaimed in November 1986. Four months later, on March 4, 1987, Reagan admitted in a televised national address, "A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."
Cadillac Queens. Over a period of about five years, Reagan told the story of the "Chicago welfare queen" who had 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, and collected benefits for "four nonexisting deceased husbands," bilking the government out of "over $150,000." The real welfare recipient to whom Reagan referred was actually convicted for using two different aliases to collect $8,000. Reagan continued to use his version of the story even after the press pointed out the actual facts of the case to him.
Read My Lips. In his speech to the Republican Convention on Aug. 18, 1988, Bush predicted that, if he was elected, "the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no, and they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say to them, 'Read my lips: no new taxes.'" In his budget for 1991, Bush raised the top income-tax rate and boosted levies on gasoline, tobacco, and booze.
Drugs in Lafayette Park. Addressing the country about the war on drugs on September 5, 1989, Bush held a plastic bag of crack cocaine before the television camera and said it had been "seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House." In order to obtain the prop, however, undercover DEA agents had lured a teenage drug dealer from southeast D.C. to Lafayette Park. The dealer's initial response to the request was, "Where the [expletive] is the White House?"
SCUD Studs? On March 14, 1990, President Bush bragged that Patriot missiles placed in Israel and Saudi Arabia had successfully intercepted "41 of 42" Iraqi SCUD missiles. "Thank God for the Patriot missile," Bush said. But an Israeli Defense Ministry study found that only 1 of 17 Patriot missiles fired in Israeli had actually hit a SCUD. Studies by an MIT physicist suggested that the hit rate from Patriot missile launchers in Saudi Arabia was not substantially better.
The Best Man For The Job? Upon nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court of the United States, Bush told reporters, "The fact that he is black and a minority has nothing to do with this sense that he is the best qualified at this time. I kept my word to the American people and to the Senate by picking the best man for the job on the merits." Thomas had served only one year as a judge and was given the middling endorsement of "qualified" by a divided American Bar Association panel.
Iran Contra. In 1986, when asked whether he had participated in White House discussions about the Iran-Contra arms program as vice president, Bush claimed to have been "out of the loop." He specifically denied attending a January 1986 meeting at which Secretary of State George Schultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger opposed the arms-for-hostages deal. But White House logs, made public by independent counsel Kenneth Walsh in 1992, revealed that Bush had attended that meeting, and several others. In response, Bush claimed not to have heard Schultz's and Weinberger's objections, though Weinberger's journal entry for the meeting noted of the deal "VP favored."
Bill Clinton, Taxaholic. During the 1992 campaign, Bush repeatedly claimed that Bill Clinton had "raised taxes 128 times" as governor of Arkansas. The Wall Street Journal and the Congressional Research Service found that, to reach 128 increases, Bush had counted as "raising taxes" such acts as lengthening the state's dog-racing season and simply counted many taxes twice. As governor, they concluded, Clinton had cut taxes about as many times as he'd raised them.
Draft-Dodging. In a 1991 interview with The Washington Post, Clinton said: "The rule was there was no graduate deferment, but you got to finish the term you were in . . . I wound up just going through the lottery, and it was just a pure fluke that I was never called." But as both the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal reported in 1992, Clinton received an induction notice before promising to join an ROTC program in 1969 and later wrote to a reserve colonel expressing thanks for "saving" him from the draft by letting him take the deferment even though he never in fact joined the ROTC.
Sending Troops to Bosnia. In 1995, after deciding to deploy U.S. troops to Bosnia--in violation of a 1993 pledge not to deploy troops without a clear exit strategy--Clinton pledged that they would not be sent "unless I was absolutely sure that the goals we set . . . are clear, realistic, and achievable in about a year." U.S. troops are still in Bosnia today.
Remembering The Iowa Caucuses. At the start of the 1996 election season, Clinton commented, "Since I was a little boy, I've heard about the Iowa caucuses." There were no Iowa caucuses when Clinton was a boy. They began in 1972, while Clinton was a graduate student at Oxford University.
Black Church Burnings. During a weekly Oval Office radio address on June 8th, 1996, Clinton told his audience that "I have vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child." The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported the following day that there was no evidence available of a black church ever being burned down in Arkansas.
That Woman. During a press conference on Jan. 26, 1998, Clinton declared, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." But Clinton had, indeed, received oral sex from Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern at the time.
Rwandan Inaction. In March of 1998, Clinton traveled to Rwanda to apologize for U.S. inaction during the 1994 genocide, saying that he and others "did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." But international press coverage, American intelligence, and reports from human rights organizations all indicated early on that hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Tutsis were the victims of systematic, state-sponsored killing. Just 11 days after the start of the killings, Secretary of State Warren Christopher had ordered U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright to call for an immediate withdrawal of all U.N. troops from Rwanda.
The Trifecta. On many occasions during 2001 and 2002, President Bush talked about a campaign promise made in Chicago that he would only deficit spend "if there is a national emergency, if there is a recession, or if there's a war," sometimes adding, after 9/11, "Never did I dream we'd have a trifecta." Reporters pressed the Bush's communications staff to prove that Bush had actually made such a statement during the 2000 campaign, but the White House couldn't turn up any proof. Bush continued to insist he'd made the promise.
Cutting AmeriCorps. In his 2002 State of the Union Address, President Bush made AmeriCorps the centerpiece of his new, post-9/11 service agenda, promising to expand the program's roster by 50 percent in order that Americans might serve "goals larger than self." But in 2003, he signed legislation that cut the program's operating budget by 30 percent. This year, AmeriCorps has half as many members as it did in 2001.
Going to War. During a visit to West Virginia in January 2002, Bush joked, "I've been to war. I've raised twins. If I had a choice, I'd rather go to war." During the Vietnam War, however, Bush served with the Air National Guard in Texas, and had specifically noted on his Air Force officers test that he did not wish to serve overseas.
16 Words. In making the case for a U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush stated in early 2003, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Yet the CIA had itself previously warned top White House officials and British intelligence that the reports of an Iraqi attempt to buy uranium from African countries were almost certainly untrue, and no nuclear program nor weapons of mass destruction have yet been found in Iraq.
"Average" Tax Cuts. Announcing his second big tax cut package in January 2003, Bush stated that "These tax reductions will bring real and immediate benefits to middle-income Americans. Ninety-two million Americans will keep an average of $1,083 more of their own money." But because the package was tilted heavily towards the very wealthy, the average tax cut for households in the middle quintile of the income spectrum was only $217, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
What WMDs? In May 2003, President Bush stated, "We found the weapons of mass destruction." U.S. forces have yet to find any evidence of chemical, nuclear, or biological weapons in Iraq.
*Nominating Committee: Tony Blankley, Sidney Blumenthal, James Carville, John Fund, Joe Conason, Jonah Goldberg, Hendrick Hertzberg, Haynes Johnson, Hamilton Jordan, Michael Kinsley, Victor Navasky, Bruce Reed, Wlady Pleszczynski, and David Tell
**Panel of Judges: Jodie Allen, Russell Baker, Margaret Carlson, Thomas Mann, Norm Ornstein, Richard Reeves, Larry Sabato, and Juan Williams
All artwork by Taylor Jones (L.A. Times Syndicate/ Newscom)