Respond to this Article November 2004

The Post-Truth Presidency

The unintended consequences of presidential lying.

By John W. Dean

May 22, 1973, loomed large in my life, and although most Americans may not realize it, helped determine the fate of a presidency. For weeks beforehand, rumors had circulated through official Washington that Richard Nixon was going to come clean about the Watergate cover-up. Nixon had already asked for and accepted not only my resignation, but also that of his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, his top domestic affairs adviser, John Ehrlichman, and his attorney general, Richard Kleindienst--all in an effort to contain the fallout. The Senate's Watergate investigation was just getting under way. So, when Nixon announced that he would be putting out a statement, Hays Gorey of Time magazine asked if I would meet with him privately, and off the record, when the much-anticipated statement was finally released. On that day in May, Gorey and I met at a mutual friend's apartment not far from the White House. I hoped, both for Nixon's sake and for the nation's, that he was actually going to tell the truth.

When Presidents Lie
by Eric Alterman
Viking Books, $27.95

It was a lengthy statement. The president opened it with seven "categorical" declarations about his own role in Watergate; he claimed to be unequivocally explaining what he knew and when he knew it. I read the declarations carefully and was truly stunned. At that moment, I knew that Richard Nixon had sealed his fate: Six of the seven disclaimers were flat-out lies, lies that--as I told Gorey at the time--would haunt Nixon forever. My first reading of the president's falsehoods left a knot in the pit of my stomach. Even at that late stage, and not withstanding his increasing attacks on me, I wanted to believe he would do the right thing. After all, he was the president of the United States. But he didn't, and the rest, as they say, is history. Even before the secret tapes surfaced, there were any number of ways Nixon could have been proven a liar, and when the so-called "smoking-gun" tape of the June 23, 1972, conversation with Bob Haldeman surfaced, two of his deceptions were demolished: His claim that he had not been involved in covering up anything, and his argument that he had no involvement whatsoever in implicating the CIA in the Watergate matter. Nixon had mounted his defense on lies when the truth might have saved his presidency.

Eric Alterman's new book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, shows that Nixon is no exception when it comes to presidential untruthfulness. Alterman is interested specifically in lies pertaining to the conduct of foreign policy and focuses his study on four presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. (Nixon is excluded, Alterman explains, because the consequences of his deceptions have already been exhaustively examined. So are Bill Clinton's, although Alterman acknowledges that Clinton's Monica-related deceptions are "the best publicized of presidential lying in recent times.") In working my way through Alterman's study, I noted how helpful When Presidents Lie would be for anyone who seeks to work in, or around, the Oval Office. This book is essential reading not only for insiders but for outsiders as well because it makes a strong case that the end result of major deceptions is almost always negative and always unpredictable. In addition, this is an astute study of presidential decision-making--if lying instead of telling the truth can be so dignified--along with critical examination of the news media's unfortunate but recurring role in facilitating presidential lying.

Implausible deniability

The first half of the book, an adaptation of Alterman's Stanford doctoral dissertation, examines the presidential mendacity in Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. Alterman shows how FDR lied to Congress and even to his closest aides about a number of off-the-record agreements he had made with Soviet premier Joseph Stalin at Yalta.

At the time, the president was not certain the atomic bomb--then being developed in secret--would work, and he felt he might need the Russians to help conclude the war against Japan. Roosevelt also wanted Stalin to cooperate with his efforts to create the United Nations, accomplishing what Woodrow Wilson had failed to do with the League of Nations. Stalin, whose troops were in Poland and Eastern Europe, wanted to keep what his army had won. Accordingly, Roosevelt and Stalin concluded several agreements--among them Roosevelt's acceptance of ongoing Soviet dominance of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe--which were known to only a very few people, and never fully reported to the American public.

Similarly, Kennedy, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey, while pretending he had averted a confrontation with the Russians by standing firm.

The book's second half covers the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson, whose administration's exaggerations and distortion of the Gulf of Tonkin incident precipitated formal American involvement in Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan, whose administration dissembled about the atrocities committed by Contras in Nicaragua as well as about the program devised by the White House to fund them with proceeds from illegal arms sales to Iran.

Drawing on both archival research and his own previously published books and articles, Alterman sets out to untangle the webs woven by presidents whose practice was to deceive. But he's not interested in passing moral judgments. Rather, he approaches his subjects as a social scientist, examining the reverberations of presidential deception much as a computer scientist might probe the problems caused by a hacker's virus. All of the presidents in question, Alterman writes, "believed themselves to be acting on the basis of patriotic necessity when deceiving the nation." Roosevelt thought he was "preserving the postwar peace"; Kennedy felt his lies were were necessary to prevent war with the Soviets; Johnson believed his dishonesty would prevent the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia; and Reagan held similar beliefs about Central America.

But presidential deceptions tend to have unintended consequences that fall on not only the liar but also his successors. Harry Truman inherited the hidden costs of Roosevelt's lies at Yalta. The agreement fell into disrepute during the postwar period, making the Democrats look like appeasers of Stalin, adding fuel to the fire of McCarthyism, and compelling Truman to take a hard line on Korea. Similarly, Kennedy's fabrications helped force Johnson's hand in Vietnam. If Kennedy had acknowledged his secret compromise with the Soviets regarding their missiles in Cuba, Johnson might not have felt the country's credibility was on the line when he was deciding whether to escalate American involvement in Southeast Asia. The necessity of going to war in Vietnam, and the further necessity to deceive the public about the consequences, destroyed Johnson's presidency and squandered his legacy. "The more a leader lies to his people, the more he must lie to his people," Alterman writes. "Eventually the lies take on a life of their own and tend to overpower the liar."

But not every president has been damaged in proportion to his mendacity. Presidents whose policies are deemed broadly successful appear to have escaped lasting damage. Kennedy's reputation for foreign-policy toughness remains intact. "Convulsive" lying by Ronald Reagan (who claimed he knew nothing of the Iran-Contra arrangement) and his vice president George H. W. Bush (ditto) certainly had negative consequences. Reagan was portrayed as exhibiting a slightly senile ignorance of what his own aides were up to. (Alterman is not certain if Reagan's lies derived from conscious dishonesty or mental decline; as a result, he comes down much harder on Reagan's senior aides than on the former president since these aides have no excuses.) Bush's claim that he was "out of the loop" came across as patently absurd. But their deceptions seem to have had only short-term consequences.

Currently, Alterman points out, "ex-presidents Reagan and Bush are nationally admired and, to many people, beloved figures, subject to nary a mention of the lies and crimes described in detail"--perhaps because the Cold War ended on U.S. terms, granting Reagan and Bush a kind of historical pardon. Ironically, "ex-President Jimmy Carter, who earned a reputation for being painfully honest in public life, enjoys no such cachet in the media or insider political establishment." Today, Alterman concludes, we accept more mendacity from our presidents than ever: What Alterman calls the "post-truth presidency" is exemplified by George W. Bush, who "has appeared remarkably unconcerned with the question of whether he even appeared to be speaking truthfully."

None of these lying presidents, of course, could have succeeded without an accommodating press corps. Take the media's reporting on the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which Johnson used to obtain congressional authority to go to war in Vietnam, and which was based almost entirely on information and details spoon-fed by top officials of the government. Time magazine dramatized this incident (that, in fact, never occurred) down to the smallest details: "Russian-designed 'Swatow' gun boats armed with 37-mm and 28-mm guns. . .opened fire on the [American] destroyers with automatic weapons, this time from as close as 2,000 yards." Similarly, Newsweek's creative writers described a non-existent North Vietnamese "PT boat burst[ing] into flames" and other boats that were never there sinking or scurrying into the shadows nursing their wounds. The New York Times likewise provided a minute-by-minute account.

There are, of course, some similarities between Johnson's tenure and Bush's post-truth administration. Both presidents enjoyed a docile press early in their terms, and a more inquisitive one later on. In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, Alterman notes, some of America's most influential voices on foreign affairs, like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and the editorial page of The Washington Post, aided Bush by brushing off evidence that the president had lied about weapons of mass destruction. Weapons or no, Friedman wrote in 2003, Bush had at least eliminated "a huge human engine of mass destruction." The Post concurred, writing that same year that whether or not the president turned out to have made false claims, his beliefs about Iraq's programs "reflected a broad international consensus," an odd assertion given the many credible stories that had appeared in that paper's news pages questioning White House claims even as they were made.

Both Friedman and the Post have, of course, gotten more critical in the months since. But most mainstream news organizations--even when confronted with overwhelming evidence of a sitting president's dishonesty--have become incapable of writing the simple words, "the president lied." So, why should a president bother to be truthful? Americans can "no longer depend on the press--its powers and responsibilities enshrined in the First Amendment--to keep [their presidents] honest," Alterman laments. He only speculates why this is the case: reporters' deference to the high office, their belief that Americans will not tolerate a reporter labeling a president a liar, the insular nature of Washington culture, or the reality that some journalists are ideologically disinclined to challenge the lies in question.

Other than in a few passing references, however, Alterman withholds an explanation of why presidents lie until his concluding chapter. There he looks briefly at the thinking of neoconservatives, and the canon of political philosopher Leo Strauss, who believed in the Platonic noble lie. But Alterman eventually rejects any such high-minded justification for presidential lying, concluding instead that "presidents lie largely for reasons of political convenience," which he ties to "a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the practice of American democracy."

For Alterman, of all the lies a president may make, none are less unforgivable than those "relating to matters of war and peace," the "most sacred and demanding of presidential duties…where the presidential words carry the greatest power." He explains that presidents must play "great power politics" on the world stage, while American citizens do not understand the world in these terms. Stated a little differently, in the real world "deals must be struck and compromises made on behalf of larger purposes," and rather than explain all this to the American people, "presidents tend to prefer deception over education."

Mendacity capacity

There may be some truth to this, but I think Alterman may have attributed a sophistication to presidential lying that simply does not exist. As someone familiar with the underbelly of the beast, so to speak, and who has examined the entrails of many a presidency that preceded and succeeded the one in which I served, I think Alterman had his finger on the explanation when he was finishing his doctoral work. Allow me to quote material from his dissertation material that he chose to use only partially in When Presidents Lie:

[Presidents lie] because they believe the lies they tell serve their narrow political interest on the matter in question. Moreover, US presidents, like so many politicians the world over, have demonstrated a remarkable psychological felicity for confusing their own good fortune with that of the nation's. While appearing to be honest is generally considered better than its opposite, this is hardly the same thing as actually being honest. Hence, truth telling has no independent instrumental value. Hence, if a president believes a lie to be necessary to maintain or improve his political fortunes, the lie is told. The truth is fine too, but if a lie works better, well that is generally considered fine too. As Peter Teeley, press secretary to Vice Presidential candidate George Bush, explained after the 1984 Bush/Ferraro debate, "You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it." If the press then points out an error, "So what? Maybe 200 people read it, or 2,000, or 20,000."

I've never read a better explanation of why presidents lie. Alterman should have stayed with it. I have never read a better explanation of what ensues when presidents do dissemble than When Presidents Lie.

John W. Dean was a White House counsel during the Nixon administration and is the author, most recently, of Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.


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