Monday, November 08, 2004

If a Lie Works Better . . . . 

John Dean, reviewing Eric Alterman's When Presidents Lie in the Washington Monthly:
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.

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 . . . .

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” . . . .

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 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.”

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