When Presidents Deceive

One might think that everything a president needs to know about honesty was learned in Sunday school. Yet, as in … Continued

One might think that everything a president needs to know about honesty was learned in Sunday school. Yet, as in so many areas of leadership, this would be slightly misleading.

To be sure, we as a people have memorialized presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln who have been seen as leaders of candor and complete integrity. In modern times, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower stand out as men of character, as do many others who served them during World War II like George Marshall. In his writings about Truman, historian David McCullough concluded that character is the single most important asset a president must have.

Even during the cynicism of the Watergate period, I saw personally how much trust was still the coin of the realm. As recounted by Jim Cannon in his memoirs of the period, Richard Nixon was in search of a new vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in scandal. Nixon wanted John Connally as Agnew’s successor and called in the two leaders of the Democratic Congress, Senator Mike Mansfield and Speaker Carl Albert, to run his choice by them. They both adamantly refused, arguing that they didn’t trust Connally. Well, who would you support, then, Nixon asked. Carl Albert suggested only one man, Jerry Ford, and Mansfield seconded the idea. “We gave Nixon no choice but Ford,” said Albert later. And so it was that Nixon chose Ford — a man universally trusted for his honesty.

Ford’s tenure was the shortest in the 20th century and his pardon of Nixon brought a storm of controversy, but in the rear view mirror of history, he looks better and better. A few years before he died, the John F. Kennedy Library presented him with its profile in courage award for the Nixon pardon. Introducing him at the Kennedy School, former Senator Alan Simpson said, “If you have integrity in politics, nothing else matters; if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”

Most of us would like to believe that, and most of the time we do. Yet candor compels to recall historical examples when that was not quite true. Think of the contrast in our historical memories between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover was a complete boy scout — a man famous for his many personal virtues — but he went down as one of our worst presidents. By contrast, Roosevelt could be a deeply devious man who kept everyone guessing about what he really meant or what he was really doing. And the press often went along with him: throughout his presidency, reporters and photographers cooperated with him as he misled the public into believing that he had conquered polio and could walk again. When war came, he expressed his approach very directly:

“You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does… I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”

Roosevelt today is almost universally remembered as the greatest American president of the 20th century — one who stands in the same pantheon as Washington and Lincoln.

What can one conclude from our political history? Personally, I continue to believe that trust and honesty remain central to presidential leadership. Indeed, they are even more important to leadership today than in the past because our presidents can no longer count on deference from the public but must rely heavily upon persuasion and influence. Yet there are moments when the public expects a president to be tough and crafty — even manipulative and deceptive. They recognize, for example, that the world can be a rough place and they want a president who will protect them in the jungle.

If there is any line to be drawn, perhaps it is this: the public is much more prepared to accept deception in the White House if they think the president is acting in the national interest but not if they think he is acting in his self interest. Even though the press was in an uproar over Nixon’s lies about bombing Cambodia, for example, the general public seemed more accepting as a price of war. But when the public saw him lie over Watergate in order to protect himself, they turned against him.

As a general proposition, voters want a president in the White House they can trust, but they also want someone who is effective as a leader – and once in a while, Machiavelli may trump the Marquis of Queensbury.

David Gergen is a professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of its Center for Public Leadership. He is also editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report and a Senior Political Analyst for CNN. In earlier years, he served as a White House adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

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  • Mateo

    Your effort to compare Nixon’s law breaking and political connivance to Roosevelt’s global geopolitical brilliance is familiar to those of us who are students of conservative revisionist history.Please try harder. Nixon was, in fact, a crook, as convicted by a jury of his peers; Roosevelt was, in fact, a genius, as proven by both his legacy and his successful actions in his time. Lies about polio and lies about illegal spying on your opponents aren’t in the same ballpark, as much as the apologists for Republicanism would like us to believe they are.Ford’s pardon of Nixon set a catastrophic precendent in which Presidents can rightfully believe they may willfully break the law without consequence. Our current era of legalized torture, Supreme Court-sanctioned suppression of elderly and minority voters, illegal spying and extrajudicial killings can be directly attributed to that historic and cowardly act by Mr. Ford. We are a nation of laws, not men. I am beginning to think that the definitions of “integrity” and “honesty” held by most conservative Beltway pundits and Republicans in general is quite a bit different than the actual meaning of those words.And Gergen is an embarrassment – which, of course, is what it takes these days to get an appointment at Harvard or any other Ivy walled buttress against reality.

  • bill

    See, I can’t abide the later paragraphs here. The view that lies are can be ok so long as they are deemed not in the leader’s “personal” interest leads directly to partisan fiasco. Republican voters are willing to overlook the WMD lies of the administration because they feel like they are all on the same team, all in the know, wink wink, we trust our leaders despite palapbale falsehood because they are on “our” side. No, presidents may withhold the truth for a time, if they must, for security reasons, but they cannot be allowed to lie. It just deepens the rancor of partisan politics, as otherwise normal people become ever more strident defenders of ever more dishonest leaders, in order not to feel themselves duped.

  • L.Kurt Engelhart

    Integrity and honesty are not necessarily the same thing. Rhetoric is a tool that is used to achieve a purpose and Alan Simpson should agree that if a speaker has integrity, honesty is no longer an issue. But what is integrity? I believe it is a combination of consistency and transparency, the latter being referred to a lot lately. To be trusted, a speaker should be true to the word, and even an accidental or perceived breach of this trust might call integrity into doubt. Ultimately, it is the way challenges to integrity are addressed that determines whether a speaker will be trusted. Forget about “leadership.”

  • gary

    in other words he can say he doesn’t believe the rev. wright but not mean it and thats okay because he gonna git me the money?

  • gary

    roosevlts brilliance? more like his and wilson’s facism.

  • steve curley

    just like our folks

  • don

    I would surely love to know where and when that quote from FDR comes from,– obviously during the war years. I am a great admirer of Pres Rose

  • Patricia R. Sweeney

    I can’t believe that Pres. Ford was deserving of a “profile in courage” award for pardoning Pres. Nixon. In the first place, Pres. Nixon had not been indicted, let alone convicted. How is it possible to pardon someone for crimes unspecified & unproven in a court of law? Ford was in effect saying, “Whatever he did or may have done, I am exempting him from any punishment.” This was irreponsible, unwise, & set a bad precedent. In the 2nd place, Ford said later he did it to avoid “dividing the country” during a long & acrimonious trial, or series of trials. So if getting justice is disruptive/expensive/tedious, a President can simply make the judicial process irrelevant. Again, a very bad precedent!

  • Patricia R. Sweeney

    I can’t believe that Pres. Ford was deserving of a “profile in courage” award for pardoning Pres. Nixon. In the first place, Pres. Nixon had not been indicted, let alone convicted. How is it possible to pardon someone for crimes unspecified & unproven in a court of law? Ford was in effect saying, “Whatever he did or may have done, I am exempting him from any punishment.” This was irreponsible, unwise, & set a bad precedent. In the 2nd place, Ford said later he did it to avoid “dividing the country” during a long & acrimonious trial, or series of trials. So if getting justice is disruptive/expensive/tedious, a President can simply make the judicial process irrelevant. Again, a very bad precedent!

  • g

    in 2009 we’re going to have the first honest president since carter.

  • T Owens

    Mateo, you present yourself as having worked out a sound theory. Let’s test the facts that underlie your theory. Please begin by telling us when and where this jury “in fact” “convicted” Richard Nixon? After your done with that please explain your factual basis for derisively labeling Mr. Gergen a conservative. Are those the only categories of people you see, conservatives and liberals? That must simplify your life nicely. Begin with the facts in mind.

  • Patrick

    Gergen is a pablum-pushing phony who can’t tell the difference between lies told to enemies and lies told to the American people for partisan, personal gain.

  • Patrick

    Gergen is a pablum-pushing phony who can’t tell the difference between lies told to enemies and lies told to the American people for partisan, personal gain.

  • Patrick

    I think most Americans now believe that lies told them by those at the top back in 2003 were told for partisan reasons and not valid national security reasons. That’s why most now say that if they knew then what they know now their decisions would have been different.I certainly believe almost nothing the Bush administration says any longer and I voted for George Bush in 2000. Is believing almost nothing your president tells you “business as usual?”I don’t think so.

  • kunino

    The Gergen distinction doesn’t seem to mean much. When a president lies to the American people, are we to believe he’s doing it for respectable reasons rather than just to save his own skin — on the ground that he says his reasons are respectable? The Nixon “save me save me” efforts to avoid criminal prosecution were phrased as noble attempts to uphold the principle of Presidential privilege.The really interesting issue arising from the Gergen piece: How come there’s been no serious attempt to impeach George W Bush? A clear majority of Americans have real doubts about his ability and competence … and honesty. What has dulled American understandings since Nixon was driven out?

  • John

    There is no lie to compare to the lie which this admistration perpetrated against it’s own people to fool them into war.

  • marianne

    so, bosnia snipers falls into the self interest category… right?

  • Judy Smith

    Obama has integrity, honesty, candom, intelligence with a philosophy that the federal government must abive by Constitution, Bill of Rights, Geneva Accords and the Kyota Accords.His focus is on grassroots participation in their government that must be open, tell Americans the truth.Be an Honest Broker with Israel and Palestine and finally gain the trust so sorely needed in the Middle East…no more playing favorites.That is, he is the candidate I am admire, respect and trust to do what is best for the common good in the United States.

  • NICE

    LIARS BEWARE!

  • James Hicks

    Your topic is compelling, but your arguments are rather weak. Why use FDR as an example when there are plenty of examples for how Washington and Lincoln lied? On the campaign trail, Lincoln would endorse policies popular with local audiences, often brazenly conflicting previous stump speaches. Washington allegedly fought in the revolution because he could no longer maintain the debt burden of his proflagate Mount Vernon estate.

  • Judy Smith

    Principles, openness, courage to express his philosophy to the public such as Howard Dean did demonstrates candor and honesty.If it is necessary for the common good, a president can simply remain silent which is NOT the same as manipulation and lying.Obama is the ONLY person I have been able to completely admire, respect and trust.

  • nice

    There is n biz like show biz.

  • DoTheRightThing

    On his last two paragraphs Mr. Gergen states the expected: public deception in the national interest is acceptable; all other deception is not. That’s how one would expect an intelligent electorate to think.

  • dclb

    Finally, someone speaks the truth. The irony of this should be apparent.I think history will show that all three candidates for President lie on a daily basis and at about the same frequency. What differs is the level of scrutiny given to these misstatements by the press and the ease at which the candidates lie.Mr. Obama is a far better lier than Ms. Clinton. This may, in part, account for why Hillary’s misstatements get hyper-scrutinized over several news cycles and Mr. Obama’s get buried in Fact Checker columns.I’ve often referred to a potential Obama Presidency as the Oprah Presidency, but perhaps a more abt description would be the Colbert Presidency. No one embodies Mr. Colbert’s notion of “truthiness” more than Mr. Obama and his followers. To them, it’s not was is true but what they feel should be true that matters.This may well come back to haunt Mr. Obama. If he is elected President, he will quickly have to level with the American people and explain why all the troops won’t be out of Iraq in two years and why he won’t get universal health care passed in his first year. Both statements would be true and reasonable given the constraints of both situations.Nonetheless, these statements will be seen by his most honest supporters as either direct lies or evidence of previous lies. It will be then that these accolytes will abandon their savior in droves, feeling betrayed by a snake-oil salesman.One could hardly say the same about Hillary, is she were to change her position as President people who not be surprised, but focus rather on whether her new position was in the best interest of the country.Oh, but forgive me, I forgot that pragmatism and rationality are verbotten when dealing with Ms. Quinn and Mr. Meacham. They’d rather drink the Kool-Aid, close their eyes, and hope for a perfect world.

  • DFC102

    In this era of 24/7 scrutiny and microscopic measurement of the results, it’s increasingly difficult to lie unless you’re utterly brazen about it at the beginning and in complete denial at the end. In both cases you deny something obvious and fundamental: the American people are intelligent, willing, and respectful in return for being respected. Lying, in the end, is a waste of time, and moreover of lives and money.The Bush Administration is all the proof you need.

  • — Lesser

    Another way of putting Gergen’s conclusion I think is the following: You are always on safe ground when you tell the truth; your character is validated. If you decide for some reason in a particular case that you had better deceive and lie you are no longer on safe ground. In that case you are arrogating to yourself the right to impose a standard that trumps the truth. In that case you are accountable and may be judged according to the outcome. In other words you had better be right or else you’re justly subject to the strongest sanctions.

  • jayvee

    We seem to be in a post-veracity era. The Bush administration’s lies and deceptions are so pervasive as to defy comprehension. And Americans seemed inured to it. They have witnesses to much corruption and ineptitude, they are incapable of outrage. The lies began with Bush’s coronation by the Supreme Court and continued apace even before 9/11, with the doctoring and suppression of data that supported the thesis of global warming. It continued through the run-up to the war and beyond. I can’t think of a significant issue to which the administration has NOT employed deception, if not outright lies. Can you? And I cannot think of a major issue on which I think they took positions or actions that reasonable people would consider correct, far-sighted, sensible or honorable. Bush even ignores the will of Congress with his signing statements. Our system of government is broken, perhaps irreparably. I find myself wishing we lived under a parliamentary system, which would have jettisoned Bush and Cheney a long, long time ago. Yet even the poorest among us have their televisions (where propaganda always trumps veracity) and their fast food. So the populace is mollified and ignorant. One reason Obama has such broad appeal is because many people think he can lead us out of our complacency and this wilderness of Orwellian corrosion, incompetence and political venality. The mainstream media, by the way, has been absolutely complcit in the nation’s loss of conscience.

  • Reasonable not hateful

    To Mateo:”Ford’s pardon of Nixon set a catastrophic precendent in which Presidents can rightfully believe they may willfully break the law without consequence. Our current era of legalized torture, Supreme Court-sanctioned suppression of elderly and minority voters, illegal spying and extrajudicial killings can be directly attributed to that historic and cowardly act by Mr. Ford.”I would love to see you prove that GF’s pardon of Nixon is “directly linked” to “legalized torture”, “Supreme court sanctioned suppression ” of minority voters? Because people can’t produce a ID to prove they are who they claim to be?Given your lack of historical perspective(remember LBJ and all his dirty dealings?(he was also corrupt along with Nixon) I dismiss your assertions out of hand. Partisan, very partisan.The pardon was well worth it- by healing the country. (I also note that you don’t mention Clinton’s pardon of Mr Rich.)

  • Kevin99999

    The term “Honest President” is an oxymoron. You cannot be a politician, be a member of the elite class, and be a honest. It is a fairy tale.

  • doctor t

    Hi-

  • Daniel

    What is troubling, and fallacious, about this reasoning is that an argument can always be made that something “is in the national interest.” For example, it is in “the national interest” to seize as much oil as we possibly can for the United States; this, however, does not make the appropriation of this oil just, warranted, or excusable, and does not make a lie to achieve this end palatable in any respect.Mendacity or prevarication by a leader is a ultimately the sign of weakness. A great leader will make the argument with what he or she believes to be the truth, and will accept the consequences. At the opposite extreme, some (e.g., the current president) believe that they are somehow wiser than the American people, and that the American people do not possess the judgment to respond in the correct manner when confronted with the “truth.” And so they lie to them. It is only post-hoc rationalizations from those of Mr. Gergen’s camp that give them comfort that history will treat them kindly.

  • rd

    I think that the nation expects the President to be an aggressive negotiator on the behalf of its interests. At times, that will require holding some cards close to the vest, with a poker-face, and some dissembling. I think people expect that other nations will take a similar or more aggressive approach.However, once the contract is hammered out (laws, treaties, etc.), the nation then expects some honesty from all parties with punishment for those who do not follow the rules.Corruption, hypocricy, and protection of the self over the many is ultimately the greatest sin. Lying in this context is fatal to a political career. There is a huge difference in people’s minds between FDR’s political tactics to win WW II versus the Johnson and Nixon Administration lies about the Vietnam War which were more about saving face.This puritanical streak in American politics surprises and vexes many outsiders but, when combined with the Bill of Rights and the rule of law through the separation of powers, has created a strong and resilient form of government with hope for the future.

  • Anonymous

    You want candor and honesty, then you do NOT want Obama.I went to a so-called Christian church for 15 years. Then that church started preaching I then went to a church that after attending for 5 years they started teaching that I did not go to church for 2 years as I was so disgusted with what I was hearing at my Then a friend recommended another church. We are now attending this church for 3 year as So do not tell me that someone can go to a church for 20 years and be unaware of what is This is not Iran with no freedom of religion. This is American and if you go to a church If Obama will lie this early, this easily and about something like his church, then he dangerous. He stabbed the Rev. Wright in the back. The Rev full well knows that Obama is lying and the Rev. Wright probably expected to get a position in the Obama administration. So this Obama turns on his old friends and then lies about his past association. Just patently disgusting!