James Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University, wrote to suggest that there are different categories of lies: Justifiable lies, such as to protect national security; minor lies, such as campaign exaggerations; lies to prevent embarrassment, such as John F. Kennedy’s denial that he had Addison’s disease; lies to cover up important facts, such as Ike and the U-2 or Richard M. Nixon and Watergate; and finally, at the top of the list, lies of policy deception. That would include things like Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam, Nixon and Cambodia and Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra.
In other words, not every lie is equal, and sometimes it takes time (and the opening of archives) to find out what really happened and to put the lie in perspective. Some readers objected to including President Obama and his promise that people could keep their plans on this list, arguing it was too early to make this judgment. But we decided it was justified because even at this point it is clear that administration actions made it impossible for the pledge to be kept — and yet Obama kept making the statement.
In response to reader comments, we changed our thinking on two other statements. We dropped George H.W. Bush’s “Read My Lips” pledge not to raise taxes, on the grounds that this was a campaign promise, not a statement made while he was president. One could also argue that he backed off his pledge because of justifiable policy reasons. We also did not include Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” but choose something else from the Watergate scandal. While “I’m not a crook” has become emblematic of the Watergate era, Nixon actually was responding to a question that concerned an unrelated matter.
Two presidents are missing: Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. We did not turn up any statements from their presidencies that belonged in this rarified company.
Dwight Eisenhower and the U-2 incident
“A United States National Aeronautical Space Agency unarmed weather research plane based at Adana, Turkey, and piloted by a civilian American has been missing since May 1.”
— State Department statement approved by Eisenhower, May 6, 1960
The consequences: Eisenhower approved a series of statements designed to cover up secret overflights of the Soviet Union by U-2 spy planes, on the mistaken belief that the pilot of a missing plane was dead and the plane was destroyed. His error proved to be a propaganda bonanza for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, as the Soviets not only had a live pilot but the plane’s wreckage. On May 7, the Soviet government dramatically revealed its evidence, and Eisenhower was eventually forced to admit that not only had the United States conducted secret flights for years but that it had lied about it as well. He later called it his “greatest regret” as president.
Here’s a clip of the news coverage of the “Spy Story of the Year:”
John F. Kennedy and Bay of Pigs
“I have previously stated, and I repeat now, that the United States intends no military intervention in Cuba.”
The consequences: Kennedy wrote this lie in a letter to Khrushchev, just one day after 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed on Cuban beaches in what became a botched invasion of the island. American involvement quickly became clear, to Kennedy’s embarrassment. On April 21, at a news conference, Kennedy ruefully said: “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” His mishandling of the incident convinced the Soviets to install nuclear weapons in Cuba, which in turn led to the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.
Lyndon B. Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin incident
“The initial attack on the destroyer Maddox, on August 2, was repeated today by a number of hostile vessels attacking two U.S. destroyers with torpedoes.”
The consequences: The USS Maddox supposedly was on a “routine patrol” when it faced an “unprovoked attack” from North Vietnamese forces, and then a follow-up attack two days later. Johnson seized on the reports to launch a major escalation of the Vietnam war. But the Maddox was engaged in intelligence gathering as the United States covertly attacked North Vietnam — and there really was no second attack. When Johnson gave his speech, officials were still unsure what happened. (The classified signals intercepts that they focused on were actually of the earlier naval clash.) Within days, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president carte blanche to rapidly build up forces in Vietnam. Johnson later told an aide, “For all I know, our navy was shooting at whales out there.”
Here’s Johnson’s address to the nation on the Tonkin incident:
Richard M. Nixon and the secret bombing of Cambodia
“American policy since then  has been to scrupulously respect the neutrality of the Cambodian people.”
The consequences: When Nixon gave his speech announcing an expansion of the war into Cambodia, he stressed the United States previously had “scrupulously” observed Cambodia’s neutrality, in contrast to North Vietnam. But in reality, Nixon had ordered a major bombing campaign more than a year earlier in an effort to weaken North Vietnamese sanctuaries. Johnson had also permitted some bombing in Cambodia, but Nixon’s effort was so secret that not even the Air Force secretary was aware of the secret missions. By the time of Nixon’s official announcement, the Air Force already made more than 3,600 bombing raids, dropping 29,000 bombs. By war’s end, nearly 2.8 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Cambodia. (By contrast, the Allies dropped 2 million tons during all of World War II.) Many scholars trace Cambodia’s tragic descent into war and genocide to Nixon’s bombing campaign.
Nixon and Watergate
“I can say categorically that his investigation indicates that no one in the White House staff, no one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.”
The consequences: The Watergate affair, an umbrella term for a broad pattern of illegal activities by the Nixon administration, began with a bungled June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex. Nixon may not have been aware of the break-in, but he quickly authorized a cover-up. While Nixon told reporters that presidential counsel John Dean had conducted an investigation, clearing White House staff, no such probe had actually taken place. Watergate led to Nixon’s resignation in the face of certain impeachment by the House of Representatives after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment. (One rejected article of impeachment concerned the secret bombing of Cambodia.)
This is Nixon’s announcement that he was resigning:
Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra
“We did not — repeat — we did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.”
The consequences: The Reagan administration had secretly sold arms to Iran to secure the release of hostages, and money from the arms sales went to the Nicaraguan Contras; funding for the Contras had been blocked by Congress. The fallout from the revelations greatly weakened Reagan’s presidency. Reagan’s story about what he knew and what he authorized changed several times, and scholars have debated whether he deceived himself, had little understanding of what his staff was doing or had deliberately misled Americans. After an independent commission confirmed the illegal transactions, Reagan went back on national television to say: “A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it’s not.”
George H.W. Bush and ‘incubator babies’
“They have committed outrageous acts of barbarism. In one hospital, they pulled 22 premature babies from their incubators, sent the machines back to Baghdad, and all those little ones died.”
The consequences: This statement was one of at least five occasions when the president, in the run-up to the first Persian Gulf War, cited claims that Iraqi forces, after invading Kuwait, had pulled babies from incubators and left them to die. This story stemmed from emotional testimony before a congressional hearing, in which a 15-year-old girl, known only as Nayirah, sobbingly described seeing this with her own eyes. She was later identified as the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, and no witnesses or evidence were ever found to support her story.
(Note: There is no evidence Bush knew at the time this story was false, but the burden remains on the White House to verify a story told repeatedly by a president. Many readers volunteered this as a presidential statement that especially grated on them years later.)
Here’s Nayirah’s dubious testimony:
Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
— Bill Clinton, meeting with reporters, Jan. 26, 1998
The consequences: Clinton’s flat denial of an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old White House intern, may well have saved his presidency, because it allowed supporters to rally around him after news broke that he had denied the affair under oath. Seven months later, in an address to the nation, Clinton admitted to the relationship: “I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.” Clinton was later impeached by the House of Representatives, but acquitted by the Senate.
George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq
“Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”
— George W. Bush, address to the nation, March 17, 2003
The consequences: President Bush and many members of his administration, especially Vice President Cheney, justified the invasion of Iraq by citing claims that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, including possibly nuclear weapons. Officials, including Bush, also suggested there was a possible tie between Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But no such weapons were ever found, and later investigations found officials had hyped the intelligence or ignored contrary information. No link to 9/11 was ever found, either. Hussein, before he was hanged, told an FBI interviewer he allowed the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction because he was worried about appearing weak to Iran. After he left the presidency, Bush said he felt “terrible” about the failure to find any weapons.
Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act
“If Americans like their doctor, they will keep their doctor. And if you like your insurance plan, you will keep it. No one will be able to take that away from you. It hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen in the future.”
The consequences: This was not a one-time statement by the president, but a repeated claim, made before and after the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010. But the Obama administration set an unusually early cut-off date — March 23, 2010, the day the law was signed — and then wrote tight regulations that all but ensured that many individual health plans would not qualify under the new law. The administration, when it released interim rules, estimated that 40 to 67 percent of policies would not qualify simply because they came into effect after the law was signed. Yet the president kept making his pledge, leading to the cancellation of at least 5 million policies when the law was implemented in 2013. His statement earned Four Pinocchios and was designated “Lie of the Year” by PolitiFact — and it appears destined for inclusion in any list of memorable presidential misstatements.
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