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|I||Introduction : on lies, personal and presidential||1|
|II||Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and the Yalta conference||23|
|III||John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis||90|
|IV||Lyndon B. Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin incidents||160|
|V||Ronald W. Reagan, Central America, and the Iran-Contra scandal||238|
|VI||Conclusion : George W. Bush and the post-truth presidency||294|
Barnes & Noble.com: When Presidents Lie is subtitled "A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences." Why this book, and why now?
Eric Alterman: Well, I began this book 11 years ago, inspired by a footnote in an essay by my doctoral dissertation adviser at Stanford, Bart Bernstein, that speculated on whether Lyndon Johnson might have been quite so gung ho to go into Vietnam despite all of his misgivings had he known that John Kennedy, against whom he constantly measured himself, had not faced down the Soviets in Cuba as the popular myth had it. I thought this kind of thing happened all the time, and I turned out to be right.
I'm publishing it now because now is when I finished it, given the fact that I've written four other books and a zillion articles in the interim. Still, it turns out to be a propitious moment, given the dishonesty of the current administration and the price the nation is paying for it.
B&N.com: Would you say that all presidents have lied while in office?
EA: No. I can't speak to all presidents. And I think George Washington was pretty honest.
B&N.com: Which has been the most truthful, in your opinion? EA: Besides George Washington, you mean? I guess Jimmy Carter. I think George H. W. Bush had a pretty good record. And Clinton's was not bad, either, since I don't have a problem with personal lies to protect one's family's privacy, just with lies of state that affect the fate of the nation.
B&N.com: Are some presidential lies worse than others?
EA: Sure. Just like some personal lies are worse than others. It's not a bad thing to tell your wife that her new dress doesn't make her look fat, even if maybe it does. But to deliberately mislead the country into war and ask people to sacrifice their sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers on the basis of a lie, that's pretty bad. It also works out badly for the liar -- which is the main point of this historical study. Remember I'm not moralizing, I'm analyzing.
B&N.com: You chose to focus on FDR, JFK, LBJ, and Ronald Reagan. Why those in particular?
EA: I picked three Democratic presidents I admire because I wanted to demonstrate that the problem is endemic. I picked Reagan because so many people think him a hero as well.
B&N.com: Your Reagan section centers on Iran-contra. Do you think Reagan's passing will lead to a reexamination of that scandal?
EA: Well, the media seemed to prefer selective amnesia, or perhaps a voluntary lobotomy when it comes to this topic. I hope my book makes it unavoidable. But part of the problem with Iran-contra is that George W. Bush, has, by fiat, closed all the records in the Reagan library to scholars. People need to be made aware of that.
B&N.com: Were you tempted to do a Clinton section?
EA: Not really. In the first place, the consequences of Clinton's lies are well known. He was impeached. In the second place, as I argue in the book, private lies are uninteresting to me. Everyone has the right to lie about their private life. A better argument could be made for including Nixon, but again, with Watergate, everyone knows the consequences of those lies. I was trying to tease out consequences of which people were unaware, in order to demonstrate that from a pragmatic, rather than a moral perspective, presidential lying is a bad idea. It doesn't work out well.
B&N.com: Some readers might be surprised to see that George W. Bush is only briefly referenced at the very end of the book. Is that because there've already been so many books published on Bush's purported lies?
EA: Well, I wrote one of those books [The Book on Bush with Mark J. Green], and it's also a bit early to determine the ultimate consequences of Bush's lies. This is after all, supposed to be a work of history.
B&N.com: Is it easier for a president who's perceived as being "disengaged" to get away with lying?
EA: That was Reagan's excuse, and it seems to be Bush's, too. It's amazing that it works, but it does. And even were it true, it hardly works for the members of his administration who lie on his behalf.
B&N.com: Is it ever a good idea for a president to lie?
EA: I am almost always in favor of lying about sex. Civilization depends on it.