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Lies My Presidents Told Me

The fine art of political prevarication is nothing less than ordinary, everyday lying writ large

By Richard Stengel

TIME magazine

(TIME, August 31) -- Three great presidential lies: I am not a crook. I will never lie to you. I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

All first person. All simple declarative sentences. All uttered knowing the statement was false.

That's what a lie is.

In 1960, when the Russians shot down Gary Powers' U2 spy plane, it was the Secretary of State, not President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who claimed a weather-research plane had gone off course. "So intense was the desire to not have the President lie," says presidential historian Michael Beschloss, "to not break the bond of trust with the American people, it was left to others. Eisenhower never spoke an untruth." Of course, Ike was never the focus of an investigation by a grand jury, either.

The history of presidential lying is a brief one because the phenomenon came into its own only in the television age. The Kennedy-Nixon debates were the first time a presidential candidate could look ordinary Americans square in the eye and dissemble: "I do not have Addison's disease." When J.F.K. boldly stated that, he knew it was a bald-faced lie.

Once upon a time, Presidents might have fudged the facts to a few Congressmen in smoke-filled rooms, but who was the wiser? If voters heard the words second- or thirdhand, how could they judge them? Now it's impossible to fib in obscurity. Americans can already mouth the words when they see the incessant reruns of that finger-jabbing image: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Sissela Bok, the high priestess of the scholars of lying, says the TV camera has made it far more dangerous for a President to prevaricate than it was 50 years ago. Now it's the camera that doesn't lie.

In some ways, lying in general has become a lot easier. The breakdown of communities and the peripatetic habits of the population, notes Charles Ford, author of Lies! Lies!! Lies!!!: The Psychology of Deceit, have made lying harder to uncover. If you live in a condo in San Diego, you can pretend you were captain of your high school football team in Akron, Ohio. But for public figures, it's precisely the opposite: TV and the mass media turn the whole country into one small town.

All politicians, says presidential scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson, "tell the truth selectively." Bill Clinton has been accused of telling the truth slowly. This is not the same thing as lying. It's a sin of omission, not commission. It's like the difference between lying as a legal issue and as a moral one. The definition of perjury is far narrower than what your grandfather would have considered a damned lie. The legal bar of truth is awfully low. Bill Clinton can be "legally accurate" and still be lying through his teeth. "Religion and law are fishing at the opposite ends of a continuum," says Skip Masback, a former Washington litigator who is now a Congregational Church minister. "It's not enough for religion to say, 'Just be technically accurate,' for in the depths of the soul, dissembling just doesn't cut it."

In Washington lying is an art form and a growth industry. The number of Congressmen stays the same, while the number of p.r. firms, lobbyists and pundits increases exponentially. What is the modern art of damage control, after all, but putting on a false front? What is spinning but massaging the truth? Inside the Beltway, the scandal is not the lie but the unvarnished truth. George Bush's campaign barb about Reaganism being voodoo economics raised far more hackles than his claim that Clarence Thomas was the most qualified man in America to be on the Supreme Court.

Watergate was the Waterloo of presidential truth. In 1976, 70% of Americans agreed in a national poll that the country's leaders consistently lied to them. This from a nation brought up on Parson Weems' smarmy fable about young George Washington's perfect truthfulness. Honesty has been a casualty in the eyes of Americans ever since. Today, Bok notes, the public sees a politician's clever dodge as no different from a big fat lie. We're defining deception downward.

In the past few weeks, there have been a thousand sound bites from self-righteous men in button-down shirts advising some variation on "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." This is an impossible standard. No one knows the whole truth. (Omniscience is not a human attribute.) Moreover, humankind cannot bear "nothing but the truth." Meursault in Camus's The Stranger is incapable of lying and is executed for it. Prince Mishkin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot is a man of perfect honesty who brings disaster to everyone he meets. And in Liar, Liar, Jim Carrey, who has played a few idiots in his time, is even more insufferable as a truth teller than as an inveterate b.s. artist.

The reason we have etiquette books is that not only does the truth not set you free, it gets you in trouble. "Sweetbreads? I hate sweetbreads!" "That's the dumbest haircut I've ever seen." "What a suck-up you are, you little weenie." One researcher asked his test subjects: If you could have the ability to read the minds of everyone within 50 ft. of you, would you want it? No way, Jose.

Bella DePaulo of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, who has done several studies on lying in everyday life, notes that no one is totally honest all the time. "The tendency to tell lies," as Jean Piaget wrote in 1932, "is a natural tendency, spontaneous and universal." One of DePaulo's studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that people told at least one lie a day, and that more socially adept folks stretched the truth more often than the less sophisticated. There's a reason the devil is always depicted as a smooth-tongued fellow. Facility breeds falsity. In the end, Presidents lie for the same reason everyone else does. It's just that the rest of us can't blame national security or cite Executive privilege when we say, "Yes, honey, I picked up the laundry."

In his briefest of speeches on Monday night, Clinton offered a taxonomy of lying. Parse his remarks, and you will find many of the categories of lies that have been promulgated by scholars and philosophers:

"I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors. First, by a desire to protect myself from embarrassment."

This is the one breathtaking line in his speech, because it is breathtakingly self-aware. Sociologists suggest that almost all lies, certainly the most pernicious ones, are motivated by self-interest. This is what is known as an adaptive lie, a lie to avoid punishment or to achieve gain. Sociologists observe this phenomenon in children as young as two years old.

"I was also very concerned about protecting my family."

This is also an expression of self-interest: by protecting his family he was protecting himself. This is the lie sociologists see when one partner in a marriage hides an adulterous liaison. One study showed that while women committing adultery tend to blame themselves, the men cast the blame elsewhere. Women feel shame when they lie; men regret. A woman will say, "I lied; therefore I'm no good." A man will say, "I lied, but Ken Starr forced me to."

"The fact that these questions were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit, which has since been dismissed, was a consideration too."

Hey, it didn't matter. Who was being hurt anyway? For a while, we have heard tales of Bill Clinton's fabled ability to "compartmentalize." This is a euphemism for denial, which is a defense mechanism that disavows thoughts that cause anxiety. Denial is a lie to oneself. We rationalize away the fear. Bill Clinton is a genius at denial. "We fool others in order to fool ourselves," writes Robert C. Solomon of the University of Texas in an essay on self-deception, "and we fool ourselves in order to fool others."

"In addition, I had real and serious concerns about an independent counsel investigation...that itself is under investigation."

This exemplifies the moral principle that if you are asked an immoral question you can answer with a lie. The Philosophy 101 example of this is, if the Nazis came looking for a family of Jews whom you were hiding in your attic, you would be permitted to lie in order to protect them. Most people would say such a lie was an act of virtue. Not 19th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was an absolutist who believed the prohibition against lying was a paradigm of a "categorical imperative," an unconditional moral law. Kant was cruel; he would have turned in Anne Frank. With honesty like that, most people would prefer lying. People who say they never lie tend to be supercilious and self-absorbed--and not a whole lot of fun to be around.

Fortunately, all lies are not created equal. St. Augustine enumerated nine categories of lying, several of which would go into the category we call white lies. Such benign falsehoods make the world go round. No. 6, for example, is a lie that harms no one but helps someone else. This is when you tell your friend who is getting chemotherapy for breast cancer that she looks marvelous.

Clinton--and almost all politicians--are congenitally guilty of St. Augustine's lie No. 5: "That lie which is told from a desire to please others in smooth discourse." It is from this desire, not more carnal ones, that he gets the nickname Slick Willie. The presidential candidate who tells audiences one thing in New Hampshire and another in California fits into this category. Politicians have been helped mightily in this regard by the ubiquity and sophistication of pollsters who tell politicians what pleases voters.

But this leads us to an unpleasant conclusion. You can be lied to only if you suspend disbelief. Author Charles Ford asserts that "politicians are mouthpieces for the self-deception of the people. Wittingly or unwittingly, they tell us that which we have asked them to tell us." Ergo, we have all been enablers for Bill Clinton. Poll after poll reveals a populace that doesn't want to know the awful truth. "Lie to me," sings Sheryl Crow, "and I'll promise to be true." Bok says that because we expect to hear hypocrisy from our leaders, we get it.

Ultimately, Bill Clinton stopped telling a full-blown lie not because he wanted to or even because we wanted him to, but because he had to. In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wasn't a fanatic about the truth, wrote: "'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that,' says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually, memory yields." In Bill Clinton's case, pride yielded, and the rest is history.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 31, 1998

"I Misled People"
Leading By Leaving
Blowing His Stack
Justice Should Come Before Closure
The View From Congress
Lies, Tight Spots
How We Really Feel About Fidelity
Is This What We Expect?
Can We Get On to Something Serious?
Finally, the Telltale Lie
That's Where He Lost Me
The Notebook: Clinton Loses Touch
Lies My Presidents Told Me
President Gantry Addresses The Flock


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