Jody Powell lied for Jimmy Carter, and says he would probably do it again. Ron Nessen admits he did it once to cover for Jerry Ford, but he advises against it. Ron Ziegler has said he never wittingly lied for Richard Nixon because he was kept in the dark about Watergate. And as everyone knows by now, the current White House spokesman, Larry Speakes, was infuriated this week because he was not told about the planned U.S. invasion of Grenada and so inadvertently gave false information.
"Preposterous," he told CBS when first asked if Marines had landed on Grenada. That, may well become the quote of the year.
Washington is a town of high-level secrets and double-talk codes. It's a town where the old adage "information is power" takes on new dimensions, and where presidential spokesmen may carry misinformation waiting to be passed on.
The job could neatly fit into the no-win category. The press has argued all week that the spokesman's role is to inform truthfully and that he should be informed. But if he is informed, how does he avoid lying?
"It is indeed the way life is," says Jody Powell, former Carter spokesman, who lied in 1980 when he denied that there was an Iranian hostage rescue mission in the works. "I think it's done more often than we admit. There are occasions in which lying is the lesser of evil choices available to you . . . when evasion just won't work and 'no comment' is very likely to be taken as a confirmation. It's not right but you have to do it anyway."
"You just don't do it," said former Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler. "Larry should have known about the invasion. He should have been told. The press secretary should know it all. Larry didn't lie because he didn't know . . . At a minimum a pool of reporters should have gone with the invasion. I know in dealing with the press--when asked to keep a confidence they will maintain it. It was absolutely inexcusable."
"When I got the job my father wrote me and said 'Tell the truth if you can, and if you can't don't tell a lie,' " said Bill Moyers, a Johnson spokesman, who is now a CBS correspondent. "You have to work very hard at that. However, at times circumstances make a liar out of you . . . Censorship is acceptable, lying is not. They have taken the press with them and not told them where they were going."
"The Speakes incident falls into something that happened to me," said John F. Kennedy's spokesman, Pierre Salinger, yesterday from Paris, where he is an ABC TV correspondent. "I was not informed at all about the planning of the Bay of Pigs. As a result I was in a very delicate and embarrassing situation with the press. I did go to see President Kennedy and I told him that if I was not informed, I could not do my job. Even if there were things I could not say, I had to know.
"The president took that very seriously and the result was that during the Cuban missile crisis, I was totally informed about every development. And while I did not tell the press . . . I had full knowledge."
Whether Salinger would have been able to avoid revealing his information today is another story. Since Vietnam and Watergate, the White House-press corps relationship has reached sophisticated, albeit sometimes hostile, levels.
Nonetheless, had Speakes known of the impending invasion, there are some non-lies he might have entertained to fend off inquiries. It's a language understood by the press and government and it usually gets them both through the tough ones. What could Larry Speakes have said or done had he known about the invasion?
No Comment: It used to mean just that. Today it can be dangerous--some reporters take it as a confirmation because there is no outright denial.
Off the Record: Once it meant "I'll tell you something you ought to know for your own information. But you can't print or broadcast it." Today, it often means you can use it but don't put in my name anywhere, buddy.
Not for Attribution: You can use it, but forget you knew me.
On Background: Use it on your own. Don't attribute it all. Report it as if you know it by divine intervention.
The Guidance Technique: "If I were you I'd be at the State Department at 6 tomorrow morning."
Reverse Guidance: Question--"If I were to write that the United States was invading Grenada, would I be wrong?"
Answer One: "You could do that."
Answer Two: "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
The Feigning Ignorance Technique: "You could say something like 'I don't have anything to give you on that,' " says Ron Nessen, former Ford press secretary. "I don't think White House spokesmen ever ought to lie. His most valuable asset is credibility and if he burns up credibility he cannot usefully serve in that role anymore." Nessen admits to lying once: He says he tried to give the impression there was an official reason for a trip Ford took to Florida when in fact the president just wanted to play golf.
Volunteering a Lie: "Two days before the hostage rescue attempt, I was working on a story," says Jack Nelson, the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, "and the question had been raised about whether White House officials had mentioned in a meeting that the administration was ready to get us into war in the Persian Gulf. Hamilton Jordan told me to call Jody Powell and run it by him.
"I called Jody and he said 'You might have heard at some meeting that the possibility of a rescue attempt was discussed.' He raised it and lied about it in the same breath. But I think he was justified. It had to be highly secret. It was different from the Grenada incident . I could understand what he was doing there."
The Smokescreen: "I'll check on it," the spokesman commonly says. Then he avoids the reporter and hopes the question is forgotten and/or the issue dies.
The Table-Turning Technique: "There are a million ways to avoid a lie," says Moyers. "One way is to say 'Now if you were me, would you feel comfortable telling you?' "
The Talking Technique: "I remember during the Camp David Summit when Sadat and Begin were not getting along at all and not even seeing each other," says Powell. "We had not anticipated that development. I had begun giving out information about all the meetings. By the third day, when they had not met since the first day, the press figured it out. But they needed something like a confirmation from me before they could do anything.
"What I did was just blabber on and on with things like 'I don't know, the men haven't confided in me,' or 'The schedule of meetings doesn't necessarily mean anything' and 'There is a cycle to these things.' This worked for seven or eight days. By the end people were convinced of the real truth, of course. But it never came out until later."
The Surprise Ending: "When Lyndon Johnson went to Manila for the Southeast Asian Summit in 1966, all the reporters wanted to know if he was going into Vietnam," says Moyers. "Well, of course, we couldn't tell them because of the president's safety. So in the middle of the night, I sent runners to gather up the press and we assembled them in a room and locked the door. I told them we were taking them to Vietnam with the president and that we had arranged for them to file when we left the country. I spent three miserable days with the knowledge that at the right time I could do the right thing."
The Disappearing Act: "Once in Chicago I was asked by reporters if we were mobilizing troops to go into Cuba," says Salinger. "I asked the president what I should say. He told me we were not prepared to talk about that yet. So I just disappeared for the evening. And never did lie."