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A Watchdog Panel to Deal With Presidential Lying?

June 09, 1987|RICHARD L. FRANKLIN | Richard L. Franklin is a writer and former teacher of rational thinking who lives in San Diego.

If there is a single baneful characteristic shared by most Presidents, it is that they lie. Some lie compulsively, even when there seems no need to do so. Some lie for greed, some for power, some for ideology. Some are clumsy liars. Some are adroit.

Like all liars, however, our Presidents have been victims of the liars' law: They invariably overestimate the benefits of their lies. We could even formulate an additional law and say that Presidents always seem to underestimate the harm caused by their lies. These appraisals are embedded in a whole skein of naive miscalculations. They misjudge the chances that their lies will be exposed. They ignore the common wisdom that simple lies tend to spread into tangled webs. And they exaggerate the loyalty of the public.

Such presidential deceit usually leads to much breast-beating over ethics, some feeble efforts at reform, and occasionally some legislative hearings. The press and Congress ask: What did the President lie about? To whom did he lie? When did he lie? Why did he lie? Did he, in fact, lie? These are the standard who-when-where questions--questions designed to give us facts but not understanding.

We need to know the stratagems of presidential deception, but we also need to understand the practice of deception. The practice of lying by our political leaders has become institutionalized, albeit illegitimately, and we must talk more about the consequences and meaning of that institution. What happens in a democracy when elected leaders lie? Surely it takes power from the people and increases the power of the President. And surely any practice that erodes the power of the people demands our study and our understanding.

With understanding comes the ability to chisel out more concrete ethical codes. When we consider the problem of presidential lying, we are faced with a yawning chasm in public policy. Guidelines are almost non-existent. Should a President lie if it is in the national interest or security to do so? What are the justifications? If a deception is planned, what procedures should be followed? What kind of consultation should be used? Who should the President consult?

The importance of such consultation becomes apparent when we consider the differing viewpoints of the President who lies and the public that is lied to. Liars almost invariably feel that their lies are OK, but those who are deceived almost invariably say that they do not want to be lied to. This prosaic fact is crucial in a democracy, and we must consider it when creating public policy. Clearly, we would want to draft stringent guidelines for presidential deception. The stakes are high--the health and survival of our democratic ethos.

Truth is vital in a democracy. Without access to the truth, the people and Congress are effectively stripped of political power. When the President ravages the truth, the office becomes an imperial presidency. Truth is fragile and multidimensional. The Founders knew this, and designed an elaborate system of checks and balances to protect and arrive at the truth.

Given the history of deception by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and the enormous damage done by the practice, it is time for serious debate about how we can protect the truth from presidential despoilment. We have a Supreme Court to protect the Constitution from legislative or executive mischief. Why can't we create a kind of ethical supreme court? Such a watchdog council, composed of ethical and juridical thinkers, could draft strict guidelines to be followed whenever presidential deception seems necessary for national security. If the President failed to follow the prescribed code of ethics, the council could investigate and censure his conduct. Such censure would have no legal weight, but could serve as a precursor to congressional action.

An ethical high council would not put an end to lying by our Presidents, but it would help discourage such deceit. More important, such a body would serve as a focal point for establishing and clarifying public policy about lying--a policy that we are deplorably lacking.

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