When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences

Overview

Lying has become pervasive in American Life--but what happens when the falsehoods are perpetrated by the Oval Office? As the lies told by our government become more and more intricate, they begin to weave a tapestry of deception that creates problems far larger than those lied about in the first place.

Eric Alterman's When Presidents Lie is a compelling historical examination of four specific post-World War II presidential lies whose consequences were greater than could ever ...

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When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences

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Overview

Lying has become pervasive in American Life--but what happens when the falsehoods are perpetrated by the Oval Office? As the lies told by our government become more and more intricate, they begin to weave a tapestry of deception that creates problems far larger than those lied about in the first place.

Eric Alterman's When Presidents Lie is a compelling historical examination of four specific post-World War II presidential lies whose consequences were greater than could ever have been predicted. FDR told the American people that peace was secure in Europe, setting the stage for McCarthyism and the cold war. John F. Kennedy's unyielding stance during the Cuban missile crisis masked his secret deal with the Soviet Union. Misrepresented aggression at the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese gave LBJ the power to start a war. Finally, Ronald Reagan's Central American wars ended in the ignominy of the Iran-contra scandal.

In light of George W. Bush's war in Iraq, which Alterman examines in the book's conclusion, When Presidents Lie is a warning--one more relevant today than ever before--that the only way to prevent these lies is America's collective demand for truth.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"When in doubt," advised Mark Twain, "tell the truth." As if to prove Twain's point, Eric Alterman examines four 20th-century cases of little White House lies that escalated into major national problems. The four examples are bipartisan: FDR's misrepresentation of the Yalta Conference; JFK's lies about the Cuban Missile Crisis; Lyndon B. Johnson's fabrication of North Vietnamese aggression; and Dwight Eisenhower's costly fibs about our Central American policy. The book closes with an examination of the mendacity of the current administration. When Presidents Lie isn't just an honesty sermon; it's a fascinating study of American foreign policy in the post-World War II era.
The New Yorker
In 1964, as Congress prepared to vote on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the use of force in Vietnam, Senator William Fulbright said that he simply did not “normally assume” that “a President lies to you.” That was a mistake, according to Alterman’s compendious history of Presidential lying. Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, refers to the Bush Administration as a “post-truth Presidency,” but in general he is hardest on Democrats. He writes of Roosevelt’s “deliberate mendacity” at Yalta and Kennedy’s “nasty double game” during the Cuban missile crisis—tactics that, respectively, he claims, started and deepened the Cold War. Alterman argues that such behavior, whatever its justification, invariably exacts a price—L.B.J.’s lies about the Tonkin incident consumed his Presidency—and that the greatest dangers come when an Administration starts to believe its own lies.
Publishers Weekly
Mendacity has increasingly become a journalistic touchstone for analyzing America's international relations. Alterman, best known as a columnist for the Nation and author of What Liberal Media?, presents his case for what he calls four key lies U.S. presidents told world citizens during the 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt lied, he says, about the nature of the Yalta accords, creating the matrix for a half-century of anti-Soviet paranoia. John F. Kennedy lied about the compromise that settled the Cuban missile crisis, and kept the Cold War alive by humiliating the U.S.S.R. Lyndon Johnson lied about the second Tonkin Gulf incident, and moved the U.S. down a slippery slope that destroyed his hopes of creating a Great Society. Ronald Reagan lied about his policies in Central America, creating a secret and illegal foreign policy that resulted in "the murder of tens of thousands of innocents." Alterman interprets this pattern as a consequence of mistaken American beliefs: belief in providence watching over the U.S., belief in American moral superiority abroad and belief, unfulfilled, in unyielding commitment to democracy at home all of these things are easy to stump on, but impossible, Alterman argues, to demonstrate. These "delusions" in turn create an unrealistic picture of the world, one immune to education regarding reality. All of this, predictably enough, leads to George W. Bush, whose administration is dismissed as a "post-truth presidency." The American-centered perspective of Alterman's case studies overlooks the many times when the U.S. was outmaneuvered (or deceived) by other players to a point where truth became obscured by means other than executive mendacity. Alterman also allows little room for mistakes or plain incompetence on the part of the administrations in question. But his conceit is otherwise carefully and compellingly executed, and sets the stage for debate. (On sale Sept. 27) Forecast: This book's historical grounding sets it apart from other "Bush lies" books this season; look for excellent coverage and corresponding sales the snappy title guarantees an audience beyond the Nation set. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Crack political journalist Alterman (What Liberal Media?, 2003, etc.) examines the culture of deceit that has marred the American presidency, footnoting every word.
Here, he traces four instances of presidential lying that have returned to haunt the republic, undercutting not only the policies they were intended to support, but the integrity of the presidency. He's not interested in transgressions of a private nature, targeting instead "presidential lying about matters of state that is alleged to be undertaken for the public good." In other words, bad statecraft based on the premise that the people are too ignorant or emotionally immature to see all the cards. Public trust, the bond between government and the rabble, gets a screwing. Alterman zooms in on four instances of deceit that had unintended systemic consequences as old as the Greek hubris-nemesis sequence; each created self-destructive blowback wherein not only the nation was deceived, but the deceivers fooled themselves. The first is the painful irony of the 1945 Yalta conference: Stalin, "vicious killer atop the Soviet evil empire," honored the deal struck there, while Roosevelt and Churchill, "perhaps the twentieth century's two greatest champions of freedom and democracy," reneged, with the subsequent disavowal of their concessions leading to the Cold War. Then came Kennedy's fibbing about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the undisclosed trade for Turkish missile sites that made the US stance look terrifically tough. The secret American aggressions that brought the US to the Gulf of Tonkin, and the unparalleled war-making powers granted to the presidency, crushed the work of Lyndon Johnson, who had "begun to build a domestic legacy that might even have surpassed that of FDR." And perhaps the most appalling fallout of the Iran-Contra imbroglio was the collapse of the press as an investigative agency: lying was mundane and not worth the bother of reporting. As for Bush II, "the virtue of truth . . . for all practical purposes, became entirely operational."
Throws bones worth chewing on long and hard.
Agent: Tina Bennett/Janklow & Nesbit
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670032099
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 9/23/2004
  • Series: Penguin Lives Series
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 1.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman, media columnist for the Nation, is professor of English at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, senior fellow of the Center for American Progress, and “Altercation” weblogger for MSNBC.com. He is the author of five previous books, including What Liberal Media? and Sound and Fury.

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Table of Contents

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
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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Eric Alterman

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.

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