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Tripped up by the truth

When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, Eric Alterman, Viking: 448 pp., $27.95

September 26, 2004|Jon Meacham | Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, is the author of "Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship."

On the evening of Nov. 30, 1943 -- a late autumn Tuesday in Tehran -- Winston Churchill, flanked by Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, was celebrating his 69th birthday. It was the final night of the first wartime conference of the Big Three, and it had been a tumultuous few days as the Allied leaders fought over the timing of a cross-Channel invasion and the shape of a postwar United Nations. But at the table, as the champagne and wine flowed, there was much candor and good cheer in the dining room at the British legation. Amid many toasts, the talk turned to deception schemes designed to mislead the Germans about plans for Operation Overlord. "In wartime," Churchill said, "truth is so precious that she should always be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies."

Though Churchill's aphorism from this long-ago night has often been cited to justify all sorts of deceptions, it is important to remember the context: He was talking about deploying falsehoods to protect a military operation, with lives at immediate stake. He was not proposing that a democracy routinely resort to lying to perpetuate itself. Yet the evocative "bodyguard of lies" is one of those phrases that now gives politicians convenient Churchillian cover when they choose to mislead the people.

Churchill, then, is something of a victim of his own eloquence, but in the long run an expression's currency is more important than its coinage, since it is in its usage that it reaches from the past to shape the present. Is lying inextricably bound up with statecraft? Are democracy and deception ultimately compatible? When do the ends justify the means -- and who decides? These are ancient questions. (It was an exasperated Pontius Pilate, after all, who muttered, "What is truth?" amid the trial of Jesus.) Into this perennial debate -- one made more urgent by the intelligence disasters on the road to the war with Iraq -- comes a provocative, intriguing and insightful new book by Eric Alterman, "When Presidents Lie." Alterman, a combatant in the partisan wars of the moment (a columnist for the Nation and co-author of "The Book on Bush: How George W. [Mis]leads America"), takes a broad, complex and satisfying view in his latest work, examining four cases of deception by U.S. presidents in the 20th century. He chooses well: FDR, Truman and Yalta; JFK and the Cuban missile crisis; LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin; Reagan and Iran-Contra. In Alterman's parlance, a lie is "presidential dishonesty about key matters of state," and such lies, he says, are "ultimately and invariably self-destructive." Acknowledging that we live in the real world, he notes that leaders should use confidentiality, not mendacity, to protect the state. "Keeping a secret," Alterman writes, "is not the same as telling a lie." His eye is on deceptions about policy. His prescription for the presidency: Lying "should be avoided at all costs. Period."

Before the Bush-obsessed left leaps to its collective feet to applaud, though, it should know that Alterman's case is more subtle than the conspiracist-minded Michael Moore wing of the American political class would probably like. Granting that a certain amount of deception is necessary in the presidency, Alterman goes far beyond moral finger-wagging -- in fact he purposely avoids moral judgments altogether -- to assess large lies about large things, from the Crimea in 1945 to Iraq in 2003. He argues that Roosevelt and Truman, not Stalin, initially failed to live up to the promises made at Yalta, particularly on the question of a postwar Polish government. The resulting disintegration of Big Three relations, Alterman writes, helped press Stalin to take a tougher line and, in the end, led to a prevailing Western impression that "no American president could or should trust any Communist leader to keep his word on any matter of mutual interest. When problems arose, they would be settled exclusively by the threat of force." Alterman's is an interesting revisionist view and, like many revisionist views, is open to argument on the details. (To think Stalin would have long remained a friendly kinsman in FDR's envisioned family of nations strains credulity, but Alterman makes a nuanced case that is worth weighing.)

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