August 08, 2012

A brief overview of modern presidential lying

As the 2012 presidential campaign continues to deterioriate, I got to thinking about recent presidential lying and lying styles. Here's a few thoughts:

It’s arguable that the history of modern presidential lying begins with Jack Kennedy.

(For the purposes of this blog post, I’m ignoring Eisenhower’s “reasons of state” lies to Khrushchev about who ordered the fateful U2 flight of Francis Gary Powers.)

Kennedy lied for reasons of politics about his health, above all.

LBJ’s staff, during the Democratic race, had some inkling of his health problems, though it’s not clear they knew he had Addison’s disease.

Now, his affairs? That was more a conspiracy of silence by the few in the media (and the government, like J. Edgar Hoover, or pre-Veep nomination LBJ) who had any idea of how bad they were. Here, it’s more hypothetical, but the fact that he ditched the nuclear command codes “football” on at least one occasion assures me he would have lied if necessary, if confronted.

Two of his affairs were of particular concern: Ellen Rometsch and Judith Exner.

Rometsch was allegedly an East German spy; Jack left himself exposed, pun intended, to blackmail. Exner, of course, was a Mafia moll; while I don’t believe conspiracy theories about his assassination, he nonetheless made himself more of a possible Mob target because of this, or the Mob in combination with right-wing Cuban exiles. Short of assassination conspiracies, he was open to blackmail on this affair, too. And, such blackmail, in both cases, likely would involve forcing the president into certain executive actions, not seeking money.

Addison’s? The public had a right to know that it was voting for a man who might be incapacitated by the end of his (first) term. Not necessarily permanently incapacitated, but on an irregular basis, and before the passage of the 25th Amendment.

LBJ? Lied for his own version of reasons of state, which carried much less water than Ike’s.

I have no idea if Jack Kennedy would have kept troop levels steady in a second term, increased them, or tried to pull out, but I highly doubt the third option. I don’t know if he would have exploited the Gulf of Tonkin incident like Johnson, but it’s possible.

That said, we know that Johnson did. And, as the head of the rotting fish, he let pass and signed off on multitudinous lies about Vietnam by people in his charge.

David Halberstam notes he personified the war as a mano-a-mano contest with Ho Chi Minh. So the lies were on the line of macho brags. That makes it all the worse.

Richard Nixon? Lied from paranoia, couple with the brief that he deserved the same level of lying as his predecessors. (Sidebar: It’s too bad LBJ decided to let Nam chase him out of seeking renomination — the paranoia squared of him and Nixon would have been a Greek tragedy run through the filter of Marxian farce.

There’s no need to list further all his lies, but we should note they went far beyond Watergate, including his manifold campaign finance lies.

Jerry Ford? An honest, partisan (for that day) hack as House Minority Leader. That’s why Nixon nominated him as Veep, along with being almost as cynical about Ford’s brains as was LBJ. Nixon, from what I’ve read, honestly hoped that Ford as Veep would block impeachment moves.

Well, Ford started as a relatively guileless president. Did he believe that his pardon of Nixon would start a great national healing, or was he lying about that? The “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” after the presidential debate, was stubbornness, not a lie.

Jimmy Carter? He lied, like he lusted, in his heart. In public, he wasn’t really a liar, as much as he was a literalistic truth-teller while shaving corners. Jesuitical, to use an old term.

Below the fold — more modernistic presidential liars and styles.

Reagan? Lied about all sorts of “facts” that weren’t. How much did he believe his own alleged delusions, from polluting trees to his claims of “serving” in WWII? It really is hard to tell. But, here, as the first president to bring a certain style to lying, we’re in a new edge of presidential lies.

Reagan’s “Well …” we could call the grandfatherly style of lying. Because, when gramps talks like that, he couldn’t be lying, could he? Oh, yes he could. (And actual grandfathers do this, too.)

To the degree Reagan actually believed all these lies, pre-Alzheimer’s, showed a psychologically dangerous mind. Beyond believing in the Laffer curve (enshrined in some secular conservative altar) the lies about Iran-contra are the biggest. It led him into directly signing off on, at times, indirectly ignoring at more times, clearly illegal, sometimes unconstitutional actions. The semi-whitewash of the Tower Report coupled with Howard Baker as his last chief of staff, minimized not just the damage for Reagan but the repercussions for the future, sadly. “Looking forward, not backward,” began here.

Poppy Bush? His hips were moving, that’s when he was lying? Half of his lies were to himself, of the type of how much he thought he could please vociferous wingers, versus reality. Ultimately, his other lies were of the “genteel” type, like “How dare you wonder if I’m telling the truth?” (This isn’t the same type as the pseudo-genteel, non-pseudo-rich lies of a Mitt Romney, though.)

Bill Clinton? Didn’t get named the Slickster for nothing. Sexual-issues lies aside, Clinton was a “Bubba” type liar. In other words, you knew he was lying, whether you liked him politically or not, and you had a good idea he knew he knew he was lying.

Above all, you had a good idea he knew you knew he was lying.

Call this the Monty Python school of lying — “wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”

But, he was good at it, no doubt about it. And, like Reagan, coming from a troubled family, and one with alcohol issues, he, too, at least partially believed some of the lies, I think. With Clinton, it was more, though, believing in a right to lie to further his own ends.

George W. Bush? “Hitlerian” might go a bit too far. And, I don’t want to be accused of a Godwin’s Law issue. Nonethless, the way he told outright whoppers with a straight face (but did an “aw shucks” instead of ranting) is in the quasi-Hitlerian vein.

I don’t think Bush believed all of his lies, especially the war-related ones. Rather, he wanted to believe that reality should be this way, and that therefore he was going to act that way. And he did.

Again, quasi-Hitlerian in nature. And, supported by a vice-president who, to complete the analogy, had the “best” of Goering’s, or perhaps Papen’s, brains and connections, along with a non-demagogue version of Goebbels, Bush was able to get help on making the lies stick. And, furthering the imperial presidency.

Barack Obama? Arguably, like both Clinton and Reagan, he lies to be a people pleaser at times. But, it’s more than that. It’s the “constitutional law scholar” lies, which have some connection to Clinton as lawyer, and a bit to Carter as engineer, too. There’s also a discomfort factor. I don’t know whether it’s discomfort at lying, discomfort at getting caught, discomfort at thinking he’s not lying well enough, or what, but there is a discomfort factor with him that we haven’

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