Lies, Lies, and More Lies: A Presidential History

All Presidents lie. It’s a basic fact of American government.

Some of these lies are necessary. Some are opportunistic. Some are meant to conceal corruption. Some are pathological.

As opposed to establishing his unfitness for President, Trump’s compulsive dishonesty made him irresistible to the press, which during the 2016 election elbowed aside other GOP candidates to focus on his musings of the moment.

Donald Trump’s lies are pathological, as Eric Alterman highlights in his new book on presidential mendacity, Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie, and Why Trump Is Worse, available for sale August 11. Alterman, a professor of English at Brooklyn College and longtime columnist for The Nation, puts the 45th President in a different league even from past Presidents whose lies cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars, noting that they “did not lie about everything.”

Alterman gives a whirlwind tour of purposeful deception emanating from the White House, going back to George Washington, who deviously shuttled slaves back and forth between two states to avoid having to free them. (Alterman, focused on higher-hanging fruit, refrains from pointing out that the story of a young George Washington owning up to chopping down a cherry tree with the declaration “I cannot tell a lie” was actually a complete fabrication.)

The author of ten previous books, Alterman says the American tradition of Presidents being “forced to lie to the public in pursuit of their expansionist goals” began with Thomas Jefferson, who lied about the true purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was not primarily scientific but meant to scope out the West for acquisition. 

From the Louisiana Purchase on, all U.S. Presidents would fudge facts when it came to America’s imperial ambitions, which Jefferson once imagined might see the United States “cover the whole Northern, if not the Southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governing in similar forms and by similar laws.”

Alterman speeds through the first century and a half of lying Presidents to get all the way to Franklin Delano Roosevelt by page 48, in his 416-page book. Here the lies regarding U.S. foreign policy become all the more consequential. 

FDR feigned reticence to entering World War II. Truman falsely described Hiroshima, a civilian center targeted for atomic devastation, as a “military base.” Dwight Eisenhower lied about U.S. spy flights over Russia, and got caught when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev produced the downed pilot, whom the United States had presumed dead. John F. Kennedy lied about the Cuban missile crisis. Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam, especially the imaginary Gulf of Tonkin attack that gave license to the war. 

Each successive President made it easier, if not actually mandatory, for the next President to lie. It was one Liar-in-Chief after another. By the time of LBJ, American Presidents acquired a “credibility gap,” meaning a fair number of people came to regard them as untrustworthy.

Richard Nixon, who possibly tops even Trump when it comes to outright bigotry, lied about a lot of things, including foreign involvements. Alterman’s chapter on Gerald Ford is titled, “A Time for More Lying.” 

You get the idea.


In the chapters that follow, Alterman explores how the media, a main focus of his inquiry, have applied a double standard to lies told by Presidents, savaging misstatements by Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama while winking at much more substantial lies told by Reagan and the Bushes.

“This stark contrast,” he writes, “should be understood, at least in part, as the result of a persistent complaint from conservatives about alleged ‘liberal bias’ in the media—along with a strong desire on the part of media institutions to appease them.”

But the problem isn’t that the newspaper-reading public doesn’t know that Trump is a habitual liar. The problem is that not everyone cares.

Alterman, whose acerbic column in The Nation is called, tongue in cheek, “The Liberal Media,” implicates the mainstream press as major enablers of presidential lying by Republicans. To prove their lack of bias, they fail to acknowledge and even make excuses for lies told by Republicans, while doggedly hounding lesser fibs by Democrats to prove that “both sides” do it. 

President George W. Bush, emboldened by this double standard, felt free “to construct an alternative reality [and] to regard anyone who objects to it as a sniveling dweeb obsessed with ‘nuance.’ ”

Clinton, in contrast, was impeached for lying about a nominally consensual sexual relationship. (Alterman, in an act of cosmic payback, devotes a few pages to cataloging the Clinton-era politicians and journalists who ended up being implicated in often more serious sexual misconduct.) 

And Obama got clobbered for saying that, under the Affordable Care Act, anyone who liked their current health care plan could keep it. Alterman notes that this statement, which PolitiFact anointed as its “Lie of the Year,” was mostly true and that Obama immediately took steps to clarify his meaning.

All of this set the stage for a Republican President who would freely and shamelessly lie about, well, everything—from the claim that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the attacks of 9/11, to the size of his inauguration crowd to, tragically, his glib insistence that COVID-19 will suddenly “disappear” because he wants it to.


As opposed to establishing his unfitness for President, Trump’s compulsive dishonesty made him irresistible to the press, which during the 2016 election elbowed aside other GOP candidates to focus on his musings of the moment.

In fact, Alterman argues, Trump’s entire business and political career has centered on his constant lying, aided by media outlets with a disinterest in the truth. 

Here, as in his Nation column, I think Alterman is a little hard on the journalistic profession, which has done an often admirable job in exposing Trump’s perfidy, not that it has mattered. Could the media do a better job of flagging Trump’s lies, as social media sites are beginning to do with the President’s dangerous lies about COVID-19? Of course. 

But the problem isn’t that the newspaper-reading public doesn’t know that Trump is a habitual liar. The problem is that not everyone cares.

Alterman’s historical deep-dive, arriving just weeks before the 2020 election, is nonetheless important. Lying in State conclusively demonstrates that Trump has, as a matter of fact, taken lying to a dangerous new level. He has not just lied; he has endeavored to make truth irrelevant.

Those who do the President’s bidding, Fox News included, see it as their role not to interpret reality but to subvert it. Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s economic advisers, once said: “My function, really, as an economist, is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his [Trump’s] intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.”

Alterman chillingly quotes from political theorist Hannah Arendt’s 1967 essay, “Truth and Politics,” in which she warned of “a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth” as a necessary prong of a totalitarian dictatorship. 

This is the level of lying in which Donald Trump is engaged. This is the path we are on. Will an election that Trump is sure to lie about be enough to change course?

Print
Print Share Comment Cite Upload Translate Updates

Leave a Reply

APA
Bill Lueders | Radio Free (2022-07-02T17:37:15+00:00) » Lies, Lies, and More Lies: A Presidential History. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2020/08/10/lies-lies-and-more-lies-a-presidential-history/.
MLA
" » Lies, Lies, and More Lies: A Presidential History." Bill Lueders | Radio Free - Monday August 10, 2020, https://www.radiofree.org/2020/08/10/lies-lies-and-more-lies-a-presidential-history/
HARVARD
Bill Lueders | Radio Free Monday August 10, 2020 » Lies, Lies, and More Lies: A Presidential History., viewed 2022-07-02T17:37:15+00:00,<https://www.radiofree.org/2020/08/10/lies-lies-and-more-lies-a-presidential-history/>
VANCOUVER
Bill Lueders | Radio Free - » Lies, Lies, and More Lies: A Presidential History. [Internet]. [Accessed 2022-07-02T17:37:15+00:00]. Available from: https://www.radiofree.org/2020/08/10/lies-lies-and-more-lies-a-presidential-history/
CHICAGO
" » Lies, Lies, and More Lies: A Presidential History." Bill Lueders | Radio Free - Accessed 2022-07-02T17:37:15+00:00. https://www.radiofree.org/2020/08/10/lies-lies-and-more-lies-a-presidential-history/
IEEE
" » Lies, Lies, and More Lies: A Presidential History." Bill Lueders | Radio Free [Online]. Available: https://www.radiofree.org/2020/08/10/lies-lies-and-more-lies-a-presidential-history/. [Accessed: 2022-07-02T17:37:15+00:00]
rf:citation
» Lies, Lies, and More Lies: A Presidential History | Bill Lueders | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/08/10/lies-lies-and-more-lies-a-presidential-history/ | 2022-07-02T17:37:15+00:00
To access this feature you must login or create an account.