More on Politics and Lying

By Richard W. Crockett


Lies of public officials usually derive from the desire for secrecy, to “cover up” some event or fact, or to manipulate public opinion for some political purpose. It is often to avoid being discovered in the worst possible light.  Sometimes a rational is offered that is nobler and higher than mere selfish political ends, such as, “it is in the national interest” or “in the interest of national security” to deceive the American people. The late political philosopher, Leo Strauss advanced ideas akin to this. The stories offered in such cases are merely portrayals, which are making a political claim, according to political scientist Debra Stone. But most of the times these higher, nobler ends are used because of the recognition that the ends can be made use of to justify the means. This is one thrust of what many take from the work of Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance writer who authored The Prince. Machiavelli counseled that a prince with good impulses must “learn how not to be good.”  Often in presidential politics, the president himself has other people do the lying for him so that he can maintain “plausible deniability,” to use a horrible Watergate phrase.  Lying by political leadership is by no means the exclusive turf of the United States of America.  Adolf Hitler believed in use of “the big lie,” a lie so preposterous that its falsity is obvious, and that if anyone is willing to say it in public indicates that it surly must be true.


Lying in high places in America is a bipartisan sport. For the record, while lying in American politics did not begin with the twentieth century, even though the nineteenth century is represented by the fanciful story of George Washington saying as a child to his father, during the eighteenth century, “I cannot tell a lie—I cut down the cherry tree.”  This has been described as the invention of a book publisher later trying to promote the sale of books about George Washington.  To name only a few in the twentieth century, administrations, which are ripe for mention include that of Dwight D. Eisenhower with the U-2 spy plane incident, Lyndon Johnson with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Richard M. Nixon with a cover up of events during Watergate, Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra episode, Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinski affair, and the George W. Bush administration in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Other politicians have been caught in lies too, including the recent confession of John Edwards that after previously denying it, he had in fact engaged in adultery. Others in congress have been caught up in “sex” scandals, which they attempted to cover up.  Some writers make distinctions between the seriousness of the lie and whether it is concerning personal matters which in years past were “off limits” to public disclosure or whether it involves matters of state or matters of war and peace.  The last two, matters of state or matters of war and peace, are seen to be more serious, because they potentially raise constitutional issues.

The U-2 incident occurred on May 1, 1960 when Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in his “spy plane.”  At first, the Eisenhower administration issued denials, describing the plane as a weather plane, which was flying over Turkey, and due to an oxygen malfunction while on autopilot had wandered inadvertently over Soviet air space. They falsely stated, believing that the pilot had been killed, that the pilot had radioed that he was experiencing “oxygen problems.”  They even went so far as to have similar planes painted up as NASA planes and “grounded” them to check for “oxygen problems.” What the Eisenhower Administration didn’t know was that the Soviets had recovered not only the aircraft and much of its spy equipment and the photographs it had taken but had captured the pilot unhurt.  After the Americans had issued various explanatory statements in an attempt to cover up the spy mission of the plane, Khrushchev announced to the world,

“I must tell you a secret. When I made my first report I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and well… and now just look how many silly things [the Americans] have said.”


This deception might  plausibly be understood as an attempt to hide the secret fly overs of Soviet airspace by the the American spyplane. The problem is that the Soviets knew.  It came down to lying to the American people as well as the international community.


In the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which occurred during the Lyndon Johnson Administration, is the name given to two alleged events on two separate days on August 2 and August 4, 1964, an election year, between the United States and North Viet Nam. On August 2, two American destroyers engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats and sank one of them.  A second engagement was reported, alledgedly having occurred On August 4, which turned out later to be false.  The incident served to justify the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress allowing the United States to assist any Southeast Asian country threatened by communist agression.  This gave Lyndon Johnson the authority to begin the build up of American forces in Viet Nam leading to war.  There is a  good deal of consensus that on the second day the whole thing was staged and was aimed at mobilizing the support of the American people for the war.  Ironically, Johnson ran as the “peace” candidate and Senator Barry Goldwater was portrayed as the candidate ready to “shoot from the hip.” Johnson won election in November of 1964 and began the buildup for the ill-conceived Vietnam War two months later in January of 1965.


Richard Nixon and the Watergate affair is an example of lies used to cover up the involvement of the Nixon Administration through the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) in a burglary of the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D. C. during the election of 1972. August 19,1972, Richard Nixon said that noone in his administration had anything to do with the Watergate burglary. As it turned out his administration had everything to do with it. On March 22, 1973, regarding the administration’s involvement in the burglary, Nixon told his Attorney General, John Mitchell, “I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment; cover-up or anything else, if it’ll save it, save the plan.” When it was exposed, it led to prison time for 19 administration officials and the resignation of the Richard Nixon from the Presidency on August 9, 1974.


Iran-Contra is shorthand for a scandal during the Reagan Administration involving “guns for hostages,” which Reagan denied had occurred, but later acknowledged.  “During the planning of the secret weapons sales to Iran, Reagan Cabinet officials, as well as the President himself, had warned of dire consequences should the public become aware of their plans: George Shultz argued during the crucial meetings that Reagan was committing ‘impeachable offenses,’ while Reagan himself predicted that if there was a leak to the media, ‘We'll all be hanging by our thumbs in front of the White House.’”  The complicated transaction allowed Israel to sell guns to Iran, and the United States would reimburse Israel with replacement weapons.  This created the impression that the U.S. was not bribing the Iranians into releasing American hostages held by Iran.  The Contra part of the scandal derived from the transfer of cash generated by the sale of arms to Iran to the Contra Rebels in Nicaragua who were in revolt against the Sandanista government. The lie occurred when the President and high-ranking officials in the administration met to create false accounts of the president’s knowledge of the transaction.But while the revelation did convulse the nation's political system for a year or so,” according to Alterman,  “it turned out that the President and his men had overestimated the cost of being proven liars as well as suppliers of weapons to terrorists.”

The second invasion of Iraq is another example.  Karl Rove, Scooter Libbey, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, George Tenant were all implicated in some measure in the falsification of intelligence.  “On January 28, 2003, when delivering his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush made his case for going to war with Iraq the heart of his presentation.  The gist of his argument calling for the removal of Saddam Hussein by force is found in eight purported facts Bush provided to Congress. Based on material available in the  public record, it is apparent that Bush provided conspicuously distorted, decepteive, and false information,” according to John Dean.  According to Alterman, Congress, the press, and the public bought a densely textured fabric of lies.

Several books and articles have been published on the topic of lying for those who are curious, and three deserving mention are by Eric Alterman, by David Wise, and by John Dean of Watergate infamy.  Alterman’s book is entitled, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences (2004). Alterman has also done an abbreviated version of his book in an article, which appeared October 7, 2004 in The Nation.   Wise’s book is The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy and Power (1973).  John Dean’s book, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush, started out to be advice to the Bush Administration, based upon Dean’s own bitter experience as legal counsel to Richard Nixon, but as he investigated the matter the book became a condemnation of what the Bush Administration was doing.


“Joseph Cropsey, a close friend and colleague of the late Leo Strauss's at the University of Chicago, as well as the editor of his [Strauss’] work, explains that in Straussian thought, a degree of public deception is considered absolutely necessary. ‘That people in government have to be discreet in what they say publicly is so obvious—‘If I tell you the truth I can't but help the enemy.'"  This is the dilemma.  However most lies by public officials cannot be justified in these terms and withstand scrutiny.  Most are self-serving attempts to gain or hold on to power.