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Scrutiny Without End

The Ties That Bind President & Public

January 25, 1998|Michael Kazin | Michael Kazin, who teaches history at American University, is the author of "The Populist Persuasion: An American History."

WASHINGTON — Why do we assume presidents lie, particularly when the truth matters most? Last week, President Bill Clinton denied allegations involving "an improper relationship" that, if proved, could wreck his presidency. Opinion pollsters reported that nearly half the Americans they surveyed, including many who voted for him, suspected he was not being honest about the situation.

Of course, this president has seldom been candid about his personal troubles. Whether the subject is sexual liaisons or White House coffees, Clinton has mastered the art of saying just enough to persuade most citizens to think about something else. We don't believe he consistently tells the truth. Yet, neither the media nor any legal authority has caught the president in a lie big enough to overshadow such popular achievements as preserving Medicare, balancing the budget and boosting the Dow Jones industrial average.

Americans expect their presidents to walk a fine line between the symbols and substance of leadership. The men who rule from the oversized White House have to light Christmas trees and review the troops. But they also have to get involved in the intricacies of policy, both foreign and domestic. Most other Western nations split the roles of head of state and head of government: They elect a prime minister to run the government and let a hereditary monarch or ceremonial president handle the rituals of the nation. But Clinton and his predecessors try to do it all, and, in recent decades, dishonesty has filled in the cracks. The relationship between president and public has become increasingly skewed by the expectations of the office.

The nation has not always been so cynical about the veracity of its chief executives. In the 19th century, partisan rivalries were fiercer than today, but a president's opponents usually objected to his principles or the interests he was serving rather than charging him with rank dishonesty.

Back then, most successful politicians cultivated a truthful image, at a time when the federal government was more significant as a symbol of national unity than as the wielder of much revenue or clout. During the 1884 election campaign, a Republican newspaper uncovered evidence that Democrat Grover Cleveland had once fathered an illegitimate child. Some of Cleveland's friends rushed to deny the story, but the candidate would not have it. "Whatever you do, tell the truth," he said. And, having accepted responsibility for his act, Cleveland triumphed at the polls.

A belief in presidential deception first sprouted in luxuriant form during World War II and the early Cold War. The men in charge of the now mighty state apparatus prized secrecy and sometimes crossed the line between partial disclosure of the facts and blatant disinformation. This drove anti-interventionists, most of whom were on the right, wild. They decided that liberal Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman were engaged in a pattern of lies.

Historian Charles Beard was only the most famous of those who accused Roosevelt of encouraging the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. During the Truman administration, a larger group of conservatives, the most flamboyant being Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, charged Democratic policy-makers with systematically covering up their support for both the communist victory in China and for North Korea's invasion across the 38th parallel. In part, such allegations arose from a naive belief in U.S. omnipotence: Only wide-ranging treachery could explain big gains by our enemies.

Still, it was not until the 1960s that presidents gave even many of their own supporters good reasons to believe they were routinely shirking the truth. Another war got the ball rolling. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson, running as a peace candidate, lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and promised he would not send U.S. troops to prop up the government of South Vietnam. Four years later, Richard M. Nixon, long known as "Tricky Dick," vowed he had a "secret plan" to end the war, which, curiously, took more than four years and more than 30,000 U.S. combat deaths (plus many more Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian ones) to implement. And, of course, Nixon spent the last two years of his tenure in the White House denying a massive cover-up his own tapes finally revealed.

Johnson and Nixon put Americans on guard: If presidents can lie about such momentous issues, why should anyone trust what they say about smaller matters?

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