Lying is the fundamental sin. It facilitates all others: Adultery is hardly possible without a lie; gluttony would be downright embarrassing. And forget politics. While not technically a sin, politicking bends and batters the truth beyond public recognition, leaving good citizens to choose between the lies told them and those they want to believe. Four books recently released in paperback address the shady grays of governmental honesty.

Who can forget such White House whoppers as "I am not a crook," "No new taxes" or "I did not have sex with that woman"? And those aren't even the truly damaging ones, writes Eric Alterman in When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences (Penguin, $16). When Presidents Lie examines "four key presidential lies": Franklin Roosevelt on what the Yalta accords really meant, John F. Kennedy on how the Cuban missile crisis was averted, Lyndon B. Johnson and the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Ronald Reagan on U. S. involvement in Central America. "In each case," Alterman writes, "the president told a clear and unambiguous falsehood to the country and to Congress regarding a crucial question of war and peace." And in each case, he continues, "these lies returned to haunt their tellers (or . . . their successors), destroying the very policy that the lie had originally been told to support."

But the truth will out. And John S. Friedman, editor of the anthology The Secret Histories: Hidden Truths that Challenged the Past and Changed the World (Picador, $16), does his best to make it so. He has gathered documents and investigative reports "bringing into the open previously hidden knowledge or information, challenging established versions of events, and forcing a reevaluation of accepted beliefs." Among Friedman's selections: the Venona cables, American translations of Soviet cables that, if revealed, might have prevented the execution of the Rosenbergs; the Church Committee's report on the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Edward R. Murrow's CBS broadcast exposing the falsehoods of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Seymour M. Hersh's first reports from My Lai and Abu Ghraib are here, as is Philip Gourevitch's tracking of the fax that warned the United Nations of the imminent genocide in Rwanda. It is a rich -- and disheartening -- collection of deception and exposure.

And it's likely to make the disillusioned reader ready to swallow up every crackpot conjecture enumerated in The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories (Rough Guides, $14.99), by James McConnachie and Robin Tudge. "Once you've left behind the reassuringly two-dimensional dry land of believing what the government or the media or indeed anyone else tells you," write the authors, "you're in a new and infinitely more complex world." For the most part, McConnachie and Tudge don't buy the theories: They are more interested in presenting "the world according to conspiracists." And to that end, they include such gems as the "Nazi-Communist-CIA-malevolent government-industry conspiracy" behind fluoridating the water, the Trilateral Commission's creation of a nefarious New World Order and, of course, the British secret service's assassination of Princess Diana. After each entry, McConnachie and Tudge provide sources for the theories -- not for the actual conspiracies, of course -- so that curious readers can form their own opinions. The authors themselves recommend "complete disbelief."

Perhaps the elusive truths about the war in Iraq account for this clutch of books on governmental prevarication. Certainly, none holds the current administration's honesty in particularly high regard. Philosopher Michael P. Lynch's True to Life: Why Truth Matters (MIT, $14.95) is no exception, although his concern with truth transcends politics. For him, the misrepresentations about weapons of mass destruction illustrate a larger problem in society's attitude toward truth, which he characterizes with a paraphrase from Nietzsche: "The truth may be good, but why not sometimes take untruth if it gets you where you want to go?" Lynch finds this attitude abhorrent: "I'll try to convince you that if you care about truth you better not care about dogma; . . . that you nonetheless don't have to believe in one true story of the world; . . . that being willing to stand up for what you believe is important for happiness; and that if you care about your rights, you better care about truth." In other words, the truth will set you free.

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

Edward R. Murrow in 1958