The Art of Presidential Prevarication
By Andrew Ferguson
"He's just pleased that things are working out for her."
--White House spokesman Mike McCurry on the President's reaction to Monica Lewinsky's immunity deal
(TIME, August 10) -- O.K., just humor me now. Stick with me a second. I want to perform what eggheads call a "thought experiment." Let's suppose that Mike McCurry's statement is not, technically speaking, accurate. Let's suppose that the President was not really, truly pleased that "things are working out" for Monica Lewinsky, especially when "working out" in this instance means that she's apparently about to tell the world that he's a perjurer. Let's suppose, by contrast, that the President was just the slightest bit depressed by the news. Let's suppose, in other words, that McCurry's statement is a lie.
The question then becomes, What kind of chumps do they take us for? And the answer is, World-class.
And not without reason. The list of presidential statements that are, as the euphemism goes, "at variance with the facts" is a long one, and those of us with a professional interest in such things have our favorites. There was the morning in 1995 when the President spoke to a group of Iowa farmers. "I am the only President who knew something about agriculture when I got there," he said, briefly forgetting his many predecessors--beginning with George Washington--who actually grew crops. A few months later he was in Selma, Calif., the "raisin capital of the world." What a coincidence! "I have probably consumed," the President told a group of schoolkids, "more raisins than any President who ever held this office." He was forgetting, perhaps, William Howard Taft, who ate more of everything than anybody else.
On the subject of his appetites the President is understandably touchy. He was asked last year about his love affair with McDonald's. "It's funny," said Clinton, who didn't look as if he thought it was funny at all. "I haven't eaten at McDonald's a single time since I've been President." To incredulous reporters the White House immediately emphasized that the operative word in the President's answer was eaten; he had in fact drunk coffee at McDonald's. Then it turned out the operative words were eaten at, for he'd eaten Big Macs at a catered party with congressional Republicans. And he had told a group of White House visitors in 1994 that "we love to have Egg McMuffins on Sunday mornings." But listen: the statement stands.
This Jesuitic fine slicing is a harmless, even touching, instance of the sly evasion, a technique the President has made famous, in which a statement is true word for word but false in spirit. He will forever be known as the President who "didn't inhale," but the dodges leading up to that indelible admission are worth remembering too. When he was first asked whether he'd ever used marijuana, candidate Clinton replied that he'd "never violated the laws of my country"--then that he had "never violated any state laws." And this was true, literally. It turned out, of course, that it was in England that he hadn't inhaled.
Sometimes evasions don't work, and when they fail, the President's memory fails too. Early in his first presidential campaign, he was asked how he had managed to avoid the draft. "I was just lucky, I guess," he replied (twinkle, twinkle). Only later, of course, did we discover that luck, as Mae West might have said, had nothing to do with it. As a candidate, he remembered almost none of the artful maneuvers and broken commitments that had allowed him to escape military service. "I'd been in public life a long time," he said, to explain his memory lapses, "and no one had ever questioned my role." Actually his draft record had been raised in almost every one of his Arkansas political campaigns--more than half a dozen of them. But who's counting?
"Clinton is an unusually good liar," Senator Bob Kerrey once told Esquire magazine. "Unusually good." But this isn't quite true either. President Clinton is an extraordinary politician, a uniquely gifted product of a political culture in which telling the whole truth about small matters is simply one possible tactic among many. He is a master of the fudges, fibs, hedges, exaggerations and omissions that grease the wheels of public relations. Most pols will employ them now and then to various purposes--to flatter allies, condemn opponents, cast themselves in a happy light--and more often than not the public shrugs, when it notices at all.
But like most politicians--like most people--the President is much less proficient with the categorical lie. Surely his crook-fingered, squinty-eyed, gravel-voiced denial of sex with "that woman," repeated like a tape loop on TV, looks less persuasive in retrospect. And recall his answer, after the Troopergate story broke, to the straightforward question "So none of this is true?" He was quiet for a full 10 seconds. "I have nothing else to say," he said at last. "We, we did, if, the, the, I, I, the stories are just as they have been said. They're outrageous, and they're not so." More fluent, but just as inept, was this exchange from his deposition in the Paula Jones case:
Q: Have you ever given any gifts to Monica Lewinsky? A: I don't recall. Do you know what they were? There has always been a danger in the public's indifference to political fudging, which is that politicians will begin to take it as evidence that their audience really is a bunch of chumps. Clinton's problem is that now he is caught in a criminal investigation, where the rules are quite different from the murky conventions of politics. The acceptable evasions of p.r. are not transplantable.
In perjury there are no shadings of truth. Lying under oath--even about sex--entails an assault on the foundations of our system of justice. The law is not, contrary to Mr. Bumble, a ass. The President can only hope that the American public is.