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Has George W. Bush Met His Own Ken Starr?
Presidential Lies, Those Who Expose Them, and How We Ought to Judge Among Them


Friday, Oct. 24, 2003

The Washington editor of The Nation, David Corn, has written a powerful -- not to mention disquieting -- 324-page polemic addressing the pervasive mendacity of George W. Bush's administration. It is entitled The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception.

Actually, calling the book a polemic is misleading. It may be more accurate to call it a bill of particulars -- the document that provides the specific charges underlying an indictment.

In this case, the charges are highly credible. Corn is an experienced and respected Washington journalist. His evidence is overwhelming, his tone is measured, and his book a jaw dropper. This devastating work is not a laundry list of false statements; rather, it is the chronology of a presidency. Corn found that "lies, in part, made this president, and lies frequently have been the support beams of his administration."

In sum, Corn has done for George Bush what Ken Starr did for Bill Clinton: provided evidence that places his presidency in jeopardy.

Corn's comprehensive, laudable work largely refrains from touching on one important issue, however: How should one judge presidential lies? In this column, I'd like to suggest criteria for doing so.

All Presidents Lie, Some More Than Others

Readers can find the book's introductory chapter posted online, on the author's site -- which also plans to track Bush's ongoing lies, after the time when the book went to press. Right out of the box, Corn acknowledges that a number of presidents have been found to be liars.

To mention only a few of Corn's examples, William Henry Harrison was not, as he said, born in a log cabin; Abraham Lincoln, the nation's leading railroad lawyer, was not the simple country lawyer he claimed to be when he ran for president; Franklin Roosevelt failed to explain to Americans, when he wanted to lead the nation to war, how the USS Greer had actually provoked a Nazi attack; and Harry Truman was untruthful when he said the first atomic bomb was being dropped on a military base at Hiroshima to avoid killing citizens.

Corn argues, however, that Bush may have "pushed the envelope further than recent presidents," and that his "reliance upon deceptive arguments to support the major initiatives of his presidency" while perhaps "not unprecedented," is "still distinctive."

More importantly, he points out that what prior presidents did is history: "Bush is the president of the nation has now -- at a point when honesty in government is needed as much, if not more, than ever."

A Fair and Balanced Analysis: Corn is No Bush-Basher

This is not a Bush-bashing book. Indeed, much of its power comes from the fact that it is not.

It is not shrill or nasty, and Corn exhibits no glee in finding lie after lie. Instead, he methodically deconstructs key statements from the Bush presidential campaign (in 1999-2000) to the present (through his August 2003 vacation).

Not until after he lays out the evidence, for readers to draw their own conclusions, does Corn offer his own assessment. In doing so, he examines how Bush has gotten away with his lies.

Corn argues that much of the fault belongs to the mainstream media, which is loath to call any president a liar. (For instance, The New York Times directed its "feisty, liberal columnist" Paul Krugman to not use the word "lie" when addressing Bush's proposals during the campaign.) In addition, Corn notes that those who regularly cover the President have good reason to treat him easily, for they fear retribution, given the White House's "vindictive streak."

For example, Corn describes how the White House went after Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, when he wrote a piece entitled "For Bush Facts Are Malleable; Presidential Tradition of Embroidering Key Assertions Continues." The White House phoned The Note -- a daily political newsletter produced by ABC News and widely read by the news media and political junkies -- and "trash-talked Milbank" while making a false rebuttal to his story.

Presidents Must Do More than Refrain From Knowing Lies

Corn's evidence against Bush brings us to the question I raised at the outset of this column: How should we judge Presidential lies?

Corn himself implicitly suggests a few criteria. He notes that it is not enough for a president and his principal aides to refrain from making knowingly false statements. Rather, they must find the truth, and if they can't, must say so. In addition, an error in a presidential statement, when discovered, is every bit equal to a false statement if not corrected immediately.

I agree. And that means that it is no defense that a President is unaware (such as President Reagan, who may have been in the early stages of Alzheimer's) or believes his own spin. The obligation to find the truth remains.

Some Rare Presidential Lies May Be Justifiable

Are there exceptions to this obligation to find and tell the truth? Some scholars say yes. The thinking of Hans Morgenthau, and more recently, that of James Pfiffner, are representative of those who feel that Presidents may be justified in lying.

Hans Morgenthau was a leading, and widely respected international relations scholar who called for political realism without ignoring ethics. Years ago, he wrote that "No president of the United States, handicapped as he is by constitutional and political conditions, is capable of translating his judgment and that of his advisers into action without overcoming grave difficulties, running grave risks, and resorting at times to evasion, subterfuge and manipulation."

James Pfiffner is a professor of political science at George Mason University who has written widely on the modern American presidency. In 1999, Pfiffner addressed presidential lying in the contemporary White House in an essay for The Presidential Studies Quarterly. There, he sets forth a hierarchy of presidential lies, starting with those that might be excluded because they are justifiable.

Pfiffner, though a realist, is not quite as forgiving as Morgenthau. "Lying to foreign governments is often considered a necessary element of diplomacy," he notes. But he also advises that any "presidential lying to citizens in a democracy should entail exceptional justification" -- usually, that will be a national security reason.

The need to protect the nation militarily, Pfiffner writes, can result in "occasion[al] need for presidents to lie." But he warns, that this exception has temped "presidents to use this justification to lie about things not necessarily essential to national security."

Examples of Arguably Justifiable Presidential Lies

Pfiffner offers three examples of justifiable presidential (or vice presidential) lies:

First, during the 1960 presidential campaign, Vice President Nixon lied when he publicly accused John Kennedy of acting irresponsibly in calling for an invasion of Cuba. Nixon knew that such plans were actually in the works under the direction of President Eisenhower. National security, he suggests, justified Nixon's lie.

Second, during the summer of 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford lied about his meeting with White House chief of staff Al Haig, when they discussed six scenarios for Nixon's "tenuous political situation." Pfiffner suggests this lie was justified by a concern for the nation's well-being -- arguing that "[i]f Ford admitted that he had talked with Haig about a possible Nixon resignation, the public reaction would likely be that the Nixon presidency was over. Or, Nixon might have reacted by changing his mind and going through the impeachment process." (Ford later testified truthfully about his meeting with Haig.)

Third, Jimmy Carter made a campaign promise that "I will never lie to you." Pfiffner notes that this blanket promise, however, failed to recognize a circumstance during the Carter presidency where lying would have been justifiable. Telling the truth about a hostage rescue attempt in Iran could have endangered the lives of both hostages and rescuers. So if Carter lied about that situation, Pfiffner submits he was justified in doing so.

I looked back through David Corn's catalogue of Bush's dishonesty, deceptions, lies and falsehoods, to consider if any of the lies seemed justifiable. But I could find none that appear even potentially justifiable by reason of national security, or other greater good.

Pfiffner has also offered a classification of Presidential lies. There are those that are wrong but understandable, those that are serious breaches of the public trust, and those that, he contends, are most loathsome -- lies of policy deception. As I read Corn's study, I was tracking Pfiffner's additional categories to see where Bush's lies might fit.

Presidential Lies That Are Wrong But Understandable

Pfiffner's examples of wrong but understandable lies include Vice President George H. W. Bush's campaign statements regarding Iran-Contra, where he falsely claimed he was "not in the loop." They also include his claim later, as President, that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was "the best qualified" person for the post, and the nomination had nothing to do with Thomas being "black and a minority."

Pfiffner also includes, in this category, President Eisenhower's having his staff lie about the U-2 affair, when Russia shot down Gary Powers over the USSR. Finally, he counts President Kennedy's denial that he had Addison's disease as also wrong but understandable.

Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush offers a few relatively less serious lies that would have to be pigeonholed in Pfiffner's wrong but understandable category. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush falsely claimed to have been "very candid about [his] past" (in fact, he failed to mention his DWI, among other things).

Then as president, after Enron imploded, Bush falsely claimed he "first got to know Ken [Lay in 1994]." Corn's work also shows that Bush's assertion that he believed "everybody should be held responsible for their own personal behavior" is untrue.

Presidential Lies That Are Breaches of the Public Trust

Under Pfiffner's hierarchy, a more serious category of lies are those that amount to "breaches of the public trust." In grading lies, Pfiffner looks at the context, and when a president is under investigation, he finds an added public trust obligation for truthfulness.

As examples, Pfiffner offers Nixon's lies about Watergate (his involvement in the cover up, his lying about misusing the CIA, and his dishonesty about his personal taxes). Those lies, Pfiffner explains, "were intended to impede governmental investigations."

Similarly, Pfiffner places Clinton's lies about his encounters with Monica Lewinsky in this same category. This time, he argues that the public trust was breached because the lies were made under oath.

I found no Bush lies in Corn's study that could be called, under the Pfiffner criteria, lies that breach public trust -- although several certainly are on the border, such as his misleading statements about the SEC investigation of his sale of Harken stock.

Presidential Lies That Are Policy Deception Lies

Pfiffner's third, and most troublesome, category of presidential untruthfulness he labels as lies of policy deception, where "a president says that the government is doing one thing when in fact it is doing another."

Pfiffner explains that "misleading the public about the direction of government policy does not allow the electorate to make an informed choice and undermines the premise of the democratic process." He cites the work of American philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok to suggest why such deception is abhorrent: "It allows those in power to override or nullify the right vested in the people to cast an informed vote in critical elections."

Pfiffner sets forth three examples of policy deception lies:

First, "Lyndon Johnson misled the American public and concealed his policy of escalation in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965," Pfiffner writes. He notes that "[o]ne of the most far-reaching deceptions of Johnson was his orchestration of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution," which took the nation to war based on bogus information.

Second, Pfiffner points out that Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia, for fourteen months, was accompanied by lies and deceptions that "deprived the American people of the information necessary to make informed political decisions."

Third, Reagan lied about sending arms to Iran and aid to the Nicaragua contras. Pfiffner notes that "Reagan changed his story at least three times during the [Tower Commission] investigation." To attribute this to the president's lack of interest in details, self-deception or incipient Alzheimer's, invites "condescension," says Pfiffner -- who adds, somewhat apologetically, "If we give Reagan full credit for his policy victories, we also must admit that he was not always entirely truthful."

Unfortunately, it seems to be at policy deception lies that our current President excels. The Lies of George W. Bush contains many, many persuasive examples of Bush's policy deception lies.

An Alarming Number of Policy Deception Lies By Our Current President

Thus, applying Pfiffner's hierarchy of Presidential lies to the collection of falsehoods Corn chronicles in his narrative is alarming indeed. It shows that Bush's lies are almost never justifiable. And it also shows that they are typically of the most serious kind -- lies that misinform the public in such a way as to disrupt the proper functioning of the democratic process.

Best known are the false statements about the weapons of mass destruction. These statements, of course, were the Administration's central justification for going to war in Iraq. Yet no such weapons have been found -- and the statements in some cases have been revealed to be, and in other cases strongly appear to be, blatant lies.

Whether you are a Bush fan or not, you should examine Corn's important book. This work, an easy and engaging read, is quite sobering. No one can afford to ignore it: It recounts too many lies, of too high a degree of seriousness, to be overlooked or disregarded.

John Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former Counsel to the President of the United States.

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