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From Style: The Lost Art of Lying

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  • By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, December 8, 1998; Page C01

    I am not a crook. What spy plane? What Gary Powers? I won't send American boys to fight a war when Asian boys won't. I hold in my hand a list of Communists. We don't have a clue who sent these Cubans to the Bay of Pigs.

    Iran-contra, what Iran-contra?

    They are the defining lies of our times. Vast, sweeping fabrications, offered with sublime assurance by our national mythmakers, our presidents and senators and their functionaries, the people we vest with speaking for and leading America. These are the lies about wars and toppling governments that can set millions of people to agitating in the streets, that force historians to rewrite the history books.

    Then there's Bill Clinton.

    "I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

    Our president's giving a bad name to official lying. It's not just that he lied directly and under oath. It's that he's lied about such banalities. This isn't obfuscating to cover up American complicity in a Chilean coup. This isn't a presidentially directed coverup of a burglary. This isn't covering up an affair with an East German spy or pretending we're winning the war in Vietnam.

    This is lying to cover up tortured sex in order to outwit a woman he might have hit on in a hotel room in Arkansas eight years ago. And it could bring him down!

    "It's a lie with utterly self-serving motivations; it's about nothing," says Robert Dallek, a Boston University historian. "Historians will look at this scandal and wonder what we were thinking about."

    Not that Dallek is inclined to let the First Citizen skate. The author of "Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Time, 1961-1973," he's an expert in presidential prevarication. He recalls this long-ago advice for students of Johnson's body language:

    "When he's pulling on his ear lobes and stroking his chin he's telling the truth. When he's moving his lips, he's lying."

    It's a lesson, Dallek suggests, that might be usefully applied to our Arkansan in the White House.

    "What makes the Clinton crisis so enduring is that it's lying in such a direct, overt way," Dallek says. "And he already had a reputation as 'Slick Willie,' so there's a cumulative effect."

    Even the sex stuff is a bit of a hot lips bore. Attaining high office often has a salutary effect on the aging male libido. George Washington mooned after the wife of a close friend. Thomas Jefferson lied about his illicit liaisons with slaves ("Jeff the Trimmer," they called the nation's third president, in reference to his lack of candor). Grover Cleveland admitted fathering a child out of wedlock. Warren Harding was a Teapot libertine. Franklin Delano Roosevelt died while vacationing with his mistress. And Nelson Rockefeller left this mortal coil in his paramour's embrace.

    As for John F. Kennedy -- well, that's another (long) article.

    In this context, Clinton's pantry pantings are a tad sophomoric. Except for those lies.

    Presidents long have constructed elaborate ruses and cock-and-bull stories, and instructed aides to falsify and stonewall and occasionally trot off to jail for their troubles. But it's rarer for a president to fib to your face.

    "It's unusual for a president to say a declarative sentence to the American people that they know not to be the truth," says Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. "There are lots of examples of lack of candor and forthrightness but most presidents take great care not to lie directly, because they know that the bond between them and the American people will snap."

    Thus, Kennedy sends out Adlai Stevenson to lie about the Bay of Pigs. And Eisenhower lets aides describe Gary Powers's U-2 as a weather plane that mistakenly wandered 1,500 miles into Soviet airspace. Eisenhower explained later why he delegated his surrogates to spin deceptions in his stead:

    "When a president has lost his credibility, he has lost his greatest strength."

    Here one must carve out a Ronald Reagan loophole: If your public so adores you, and at the same time is convinced that you occasionally inhabit a mental landscape of your own making, then perhaps a lie is not quite a lie. Thus we have Reagan's claims, factually challenged all, that he served four years in the military and participated in the liberation of a concentration camp, and that the pope supported his effort to arm the contras.

    There is, too, Reagan's mea culpa, in which he took responsibility, sort of, for the Iran-contra scandal. He had long insisted that the United States did not trade weapons for hostages. "My heart and my best intentions tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."

    And it worked! They forgave him.

    Clinton has no such luck with his parsings. The First Citizen puts on the rhetorical shake 'n' bake and, time and again, winds up in more trouble. He quibbles about the definition of "is." He deconstructs the past, present and future tenses like a rabid grammarian. This boomer president has driven his Republican adversaries to revive the art of diagraming sentences.

    As Niccolo Machiavelli, a Florentine Dick Morris for the ages, wrote a few years back: "For a long time I have not said what I believe nor do I ever believe what I say and if indeed I do happen to tell the truth, I hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find."

    It must be a bit exhausting, these shadings, and fudgings and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i--n-g-s. Yet Clinton gives no sign that his successive escapes from the results of his own follies have eroded his will.

    Indeed, some argue that a little falsification is the wage of survival in a bitterly partisan and amoral world. As a senior Republican said of the Iran-contra scandal in 1987: "It just seems to me too simplistic to condemn all lying. In the murkier grayness of the real world, choices must be made."

    That world-weary grandee was Henry Hyde. But never mind . . .

    It's an argument that Clinton's partisans now make over and over again. Wake up! Get real! Everyone lies about sex. Everyone lies, period: About business, about pleasure, for social convention, private gain and public advantage.

    Ignore this Elmer Fudd-ish Kenneth Starr, they urge, with his Sir Thomas More shtick and his whining that the president swore to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." (Starr noted more than a dozen times in his testimony before Congress that the president had "sworn" to tell the truth.)

    This cry to arms can stir a certain queasiness, even among those legal scholars and historians inclined to stop short of booting Clinton and his belongings onto Pennsylvania Avenue. The House Judiciary Committee Democrats inquired if Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor and frequent champion of liberal causes, might be interested in speaking as a friendly witness.

    He declined.

    "There was nothing 'misleading' at all about Clinton's [grand jury] testimony," Raskin says. "He simply denied it ever happened. . . . The whole legal system would collapse if we all did that. It sends a very cynical message."

    But that doesn't put Raskin's hand on the impeachment guillotine. "If you count up the top 20 presidential lies of the 20th century, this doesn't make the list. Next to the Gulf of Tonkin and the bombing of Cambodia and the illegal break-ins, Monica Lewinsky pales by comparison."

    And yet . . .

    Raskin catalogues the president's deceits, and plays out his likely defenses. Few of the tunes work, he says. "The president invites us to believe that had Starr's lawyers asked him the right question, he would have told the truth. That's what is so hard for the Republicans to believe.

    "In our everyday life, people distinguish between lies all the time. But we don't excuse lies under oath, especially from the president. That's where it gains a much more complicated resonance."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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