America is built on the myth of honesty. “I cannot tell a lie,” George Washington supposedly said, when called out about who chopped down the family cherry tree. Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, was nicknamed Honest Abe. Of course, myths are built on half-truths, white lies and downright fabrications. So it is with the American presidency. Presidents lie, even our most admired ones. Some of them were really good at it, like Franklin Roosevelt. Others, like shifty-eyed Richard Nixon, were just pathological.
The truth is, while we Americans profess to want honest leaders, what we really want are effective leaders, and sometimes lies are necessary evils if we want to get something accomplished. Machiavelli famously laid that argument out in The Prince:
“Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep his word, and to behave with integrity rather than cunning. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account, and have known how to beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning. In the end these princes have overcome those who have relied on keeping their word.”
When we got a president who promised never to lie to us, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976, many thought he was not particularly effective and voters tossed him out on his ear in 1980, for a master Machiavellian prince named Ronald Reagan. Republicans pounced on President Obama when, pushing the Affordable Healthcare Act, he promised Americans that if we wanted to keep our current health insurance, we could. That turned out to be not completely true, and surely Obama knew it even as the words were coming out of his lips. Still, for President Obama, the end—a broader, fairer healthcare system—justified the means. His signature accomplishment in office, Obamacare, might not have passed had he been totally forthright.
Still, as a liar, Obama is a real lightweight. Here are the seven greatest presidential liars in American history.
1. Lyndon B. Johnson
Until the Bush/Cheney presidency came along, the war in U.S. history that could truly be labeled a debacle was Vietnam. At its height, 500,000 soldiers fought, and almost 60,000 soldiers died in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Most of those deaths can be attributed to the lies of Lyndon Johnson (with some able dishonest assistance from Richard Nixon).
In August 1964, in Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin, two U.S. ships were reported attacked. Johnson went on the air that night and spoke to the American people about the “unprovoked” attack and the bombing response he ordered in retaliation against the North. In all, he ordered 64 sorties, bombing a coal mine, an oil depot, and much of North Vietnam’s navy.
Congress, following LBJ’s lead, passed a resolution, now known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing, “the president, as commander-in-chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the US and to prevent further aggression.” That resolution transferred the power of war from the Congress to the president, and has been used many times by subsequent presidents to wage war without explicit congressional permission. From that incident arose the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. And it was all based on a lie.
The truth was that the Johnson administration had already drawn up plans for putting military pressure on North Vietnam, a communist government which the U.S. was convinced was the first domino in the fall of Asia to Soviet and Chinese domination. There was no unprovoked attack. The U.S. had been spying on North Vietnam, coordinating South Vietnamese attacks on the North. The North attacks on U.S. ships were fabricated. Johnson himself admitted in 1965, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
Meanwhile, 1964 was an election year, and President Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was painting LBJ as weak on defense. His forceful response to the Tonkin “attacks” protected him from Goldwater’s charges, and ironically, he was able to portray himself as the peace candidate and Goldwater as an extremist who would get the U.S. into war.
2. James K. Polk
If pressed, few Americans today would be able to tell you much about James Polk, the 11th president of the United States. That’s a shame, because without Polk, Los Angeles today might well be part of Mexico, along with the rest of California and much of the Southwest United States.
Polk ascended to the presidency at a time of Manifest Destiny, the widespread belief that America was graced by God to expand and cover the entire continent of North America. A mere day before Polk took office, the U.S. admitted Texas to the union, an act that enraged Mexico, which had designs on reacquiring the territory it lost when Texas won its independence. In the diplomatic back-and-forth that followed, Mexico claimed that the Nueces River was the southern boundary of the new state, while the U.S. claimed it was the Rio Grande.
In the meantime, Polk had his eye on other Mexican territories, California and New Mexico. Polk tried to buy the land from Mexico, sending an envoy, John Slidell, with an offer of $30 million to hand over the territory, along with accepting the Rio Grande as the Texas border. Unsurprisingly, Mexico not only rejected the offer, but refused even to see Slidell. Polk responded by sending troops into Texas to cross the Nueces and guard the Rio Grande.
The response from Mexico was swift. Indeed, as Polk hoped, they fired upon the troops they considered had invaded Mexican territory. After all, the border was still in dispute. Sixteen soldiers were killed or wounded. Polk responded by going to Congress and declaring Mexico had, “invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil.” Thus, the Mexican-American War started on a lie. As Polk knew, Mexico was no match for the Americans, and California and the Southwest were U.S. territories within two years.
3. Ronald Reagan
The lies modern-day Republicans tell about Ronald Reagan are legion. To today’s GOP, Reagan was beloved and his presidency resided over a “shining city on a hill,” as his campaign commercials portrayed America. The truth was more shaded, to say the least. Welfare cuts pushed half a million people, mostly children, into poverty; tax cuts helped the rich but not the rest of us; and unemployment during his first term hit a post-war high. Terrorists killed 220 marines in Beirut on Reagan’s watch, which Reagan responded to, not with resolve, but by cutting and running. Despite claims to the contrary, JFK, Eisenhower and even LBJ were more popular overall than Reagan (although his ratings at the very end of his second term were higher).
Reagan’s administration was filled with little lies, claims about trees being major air polluters and apartheid-era South Africa eliminating segregation. Never mind the larger distractions, like the eight senior members of his administration who were indicted. But his biggest lie came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair. Reagan came to office in 1980 in large part due to the failure of the Carter administration to successfully free hostages in Iran who had been held for over a year. The hostages were finally released the day of Reagan’s inauguration—thanks to Carter’s persistent diplomacy.
In 1985, during Reagan’s second term, Iran, which had taken additional hostages in the intervening years, offered to free the hostages in exchange for missiles. A plan was hatched in which Israel would ship missiles to Iran, the U.S. would resupply Israel with the missiles, and the U.S. would receive the cash that had been paid for the missiles. That cash would then go to Nicaragua, to fund the contras, the rebels Reagan portrayed as, “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” who were fighting to take down the elected Sandinista government.
When details of the exchange leaked in 1986, Reagan was forced to explain why America was selling missiles to a sworn enemy, while intervening in Nicaragua, which Congress had forbade. Reagan’s response was to deny that arms had been traded for hostages. “We did not, I repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else [to Iran] for hostages, nor will we.” A few months later he admitted, “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 evidence tell me it is not.” A disingenuous way of saying, “I lied.”
4. John F. Kennedy
Many look back on the short-lived administration of John F. Kennedy and see a Camelot that never was. We will never know what JFK might have accomplished (or in the case of Vietnam, might have avoided), but the record he left is a very mixed bag. We think of his strength and resolve during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he stared down the Soviet Union and Khruschev blinked. But earlier in his term, the Bay of Pigs fiasco almost ended his presidency before it had much begun.
Early in 1961, when rumblings of a possible invasion of Castro’s Cuba leaked out, Kennedy stated, “I have previously stated, and I repeat now, that the United States plans no military intervention in Cuba.” Just months later, Cuban nationals, backed by the CIA, invaded Cuba. The operation was a disaster. Castro and his soldiers were waiting for them and the rebels were easily dispatched. The Bay of Pigs served only to strengthen Castro, weaken Kennedy and embolden the Soviets to build bases in Cuba, leading to the Missile Crisis a year later.
5. Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln lived in a time when black people were widely considered to be inferior to whites. In order to get elected and effect change, he said many things that, in retrospect, he did not believe. “Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.”
He even expressly denied the equality of black people: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
And yet he also said, “I believe the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest; that negro slavery is violative of that principle.”
As Machiavelli would certainly agree, sometimes lies are necessary to achieve a greater good.
6. Franklin D. Roosevelt
In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt was battling for an unprecedented third term as president. Running against Republican Wendell Wilkie, and understanding the prevailing desire throughout the country to avoid getting embroiled in the wars in Europe and Asia, FDR ran as a peace candidate. “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars,” he told voters in Boston. “I am fighting to keep our people out of foreign wars. And I will keep on fighting,” he told voters in Brooklyn. “Your president says this country is not going to war,” he assured voters in Buffalo.
His words made for good campaign policy, but the reality was that Roosevelt was lying. Even as he made his assurances, he knew his actions in office would inevitably lead to war against the Nazis and the Imperial Army of Japan. While professing peace, he was secretly meeting with Winston Churchill to plot ways to provide Great Britain with badly needed arms. Once he was re-elected, the Lend-Lease Act was passed in 1941, providing Britain with ships, violating American neutrality. Naval patrols were providing Britain with intelligence on German submarines, and ships were ordered to shoot at German subs upon sight. The Nazis could not fail to see these acts as provocative.
Meanwhile, in Asia, referring to pressure on him to stop providing oil to Japan, FDR explained, “It was very essential, from our own selfish point of view of defense, to prevent a war from starting in the South Pacific. So our foreign policy was trying to stop a war from breaking out down there…. Now, if we cut the oil off, they [the Japanese] probably would have gone down to the Netherlands East Indies a year ago, and we would have had war.” And yet in 1941, he did just that, freezing Japanese assets and probably provoking Japan into hitting Pearl Harbor.
As with Lincoln, Roosevelt recognized the necessity and inevitability of war, as well as the need to lie in order to achieve what he perceived to be the greater good, the defeat of worldwide fascism. The former congresswoman Clare Booth Luce put it succinctly: “Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor … He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good … The country was overwhelmingly noninterventionist to the very day of Pearl Harbor, and an overt attempt to lead the people into war would have resulted in certain failure and an almost certain ousting of Roosevelt in 1940, with a complete defeat of his ultimate aims.”
7. Richard Nixon
We’ll just make a list:
- Alger Hiss.
- Checkers the dog.
- “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
- Secret plan to end the Vietnam war.
- Salvador Allende.
- “I am not a crook.”
- “I have never been a quitter.”
This is too easy.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: Ike denied that U2 spy planes were flying over the Soviet Union.
The truth: U2 planes were spying on the Soviet Union. One was shot down, provoking an international incident.
Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
The truth: “I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. I misled people, including even my wife.”
William McKinley: McKinley assured Congress that Spain blew up the U.S.S. Maine in Cuba, prompting the Spanish-American War.
The truth: An investigation in 1976 pointed toward a fire on the ship that blew up the Maine’s ammunition stock as the probable cause of the explosion.
George H.W. Bush: “Read my lips. No new taxes.”
The truth: New taxes.
George W. Bush: “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.”
The truth: Merriam-Webster: “Quagmire: a situation that is hard to deal with or get out of: a situation that is full of problems.”