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Our Long History of Presidential Lies

Whether it’s President Clinton’s emphatic proclamation, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” or Richard Nixon’s Watergate defense, “I am not a crook,” the lesson is the same: politicians lie.

The sad reality is that voters expect no better.

Since 1976, Gallup has been polling Americans [1] to rank various professions from least to most ethical. Nurses are nearly always perceived to be the most honest. Politicians are consistently ranked on the opposite end of the spectrum. That means most Americans think members of Congress are more unethical than car salesmen and telemarketers. It’s worth noting that politicians were ranked lowest on this list decades before [2] Donald Trump entered the political arena.

Yet it’s President Trump, not his predecessors, who has ignited the greatest outrage over dishonesty in politics. To be sure, the sheer number of times that Trump has stretched or distorted the truth [3] can be hard to keep up with, but a liar is still a liar whether he lies seven times a day or once a week.

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What it comes down to is that Americans either want honest politicians or we do not. One thing’s for certain: we’ve done a terrible job demanding that of our presidents so far.

Just pick up any biography about any former president. Nearly every one I’ve read exposes its subject as having had a measurable propensity to exaggerate, mislead, and lie.

President Lyndon B. Johnson promulgated a myriad of falsehoods and cover-ups surrounding Vietnam and so much more. Distinguished historian Robert Dallek, in Lyndon B. Johnson, summed things up by repeating a popular joke from the time: “How do you know when Lyndon Johnson is telling the truth? When he pulls his ear lobe or scratches his chin, he’s telling the truth. When he begins to move his lips, you know he’s lying.”  

And if infidelity equals a lack of integrity, then I’d argue that Johnson’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy, was one of the most dishonest presidents to have ever lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. JFK’s numerous affairs are fair game when assessing his character because, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin put it [4], “Someone who refuses to deal honestly with his private life may well distort the reality he confronts in public office.”

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In An Unfinished Life: John F. KennedyDallek provides details of six affairs that Kennedy juggled while he was president. Among his alleged mistresses were three White House secretaries (one was his wife Jackie’s press secretary) and a 19-year-old college sophomore and White House intern. There were also reportedly numerous Hollywood stars and starlets and call girls who were paid by Dave Powers, described as “the court jester and facilitator of Kennedy’s indulgences.”  

JFK’s most shameful lie, though, concerned the Bay of Pigs fiasco when he promised the American people that there would be “no military intervention in Cuba. [5]” Just five days later on April 17, 1961, the CIA-led and Kennedy approved covert invasion of the island not only cost the lives of many, but resulted in a breakdown of trust and communication with Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev—conditions that led [6] to the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt also struggled to maintain integrity, both in his personal life and in politics. For one thing, he and his administration went to great lengths to hide the extent of his health problems from voters during his New York gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. Another lie came out repeatedly when he was trying to win a third term in the White House: “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 added at another campaign rally: “Your president says this country is not going to war.”

His words made for good campaign rhetoric as a peace candidate, but FDR was lying. Even as he made such assurances, he knew war with Germany and Japan was likely inevitable and he and Winston Churchill were secretly planning accordingly. It’s worth mentioning as well that, like Kennedy, FDR had an affair with his wife’s secretary, and that according to his biographer Jean Edward Smith, it was FDR’s mistress, not his wife, who was “the last face FDR saw before he died.”

Of course, we know President Obama lied when defending the NSA [7] and earned Politifact’s [8]“Lie of Year” with his repeated claim that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” President Nixon tried to cover up his role in the Watergate scandal, President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives for lying under oath, and President George W. Bush out-fibbed them all when he said there was “no doubt [9]” Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, falsely justifying [10] America’s entry into yet another horrific war.

All this raises the question: if lying isn’t something our nation thinks is presidential material, why do we keep electing people who lie?

And yet, the fallout of the 2016 election may be the very catalyst needed to change the status quo. To be sure, in the age of Trump, every word, deed, and tweet are examined under a microscope. Journalists scrutinize every perceived deception and talk show hosts have made politics the center of their nightly programming like never before.

While this might just be “resistance” outrage and the partisan nature of the media in overdrive, I celebrate the fact that we’re finally having this conversation. Holding presidents—Republican or Democrat—to a higher standard of truth and honesty is something we seem to have lost along the way, and the integrity of the office has suffered, if not dimmed completely, as a result.

Daryl Austin is a freelance writer based in Utah. He has been published at HuffPost, the Washington Examiner, and USA Today.

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Our Long History of Presidential Lies"

#1 Comment By polistra On March 14, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

This is absurd. Stop blaming the voters. We have exactly ZERO power. All candidates are approved by Deepstate. No candidate who opposes Deepstate will ever reach the ballot.

#2 Comment By Sid Finster On March 14, 2019 @ 2:36 pm

Didn’t Wilson run for re-election in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war!”?

And no sooner did Wilson take the Oath of Office for the second time than he dragged us into that war, and he and his Attorney General Palmer blithely proceeded to violate the civil liberties of anyone who dissented.

#3 Comment By One Guy On March 14, 2019 @ 2:39 pm

Oh, you’ll see how much we “let them do it” in November of 2020.

Or are you suggesting we get rid of Trump before then. If so, tell me more.

#4 Comment By Taras 77 On March 14, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

Agree with comment(s) above that voters have no leverage. Without the presstitutes coming out and revealing the lies, the lumpin are clueless and the candidate of choice is in.

Elections do not matter. It is primarily a con game which provides some methodology for all of the money to flow into various hands. It is called the deep state. How could the lie of “democracy” continue?

#5 Comment By Just Meg On March 14, 2019 @ 3:25 pm

One thing that has to be emphasized is that Bill Clinton was a real turning point in our morality of public lying.

Clinton was not only caught dead to rights engaging in behavior that until that point was almost universally accepted as career-ending, he then lied about it in the most public and excessive way any of us have ever seen. And then the Democratic Party and the mainstream American media decided to just change the rules so it didn’t matter anymore.

No one can ever understand support for Trump unless you recognize it as the reaction of millions of Americans who felt like they got played for suckers over Bill Clinton and decided to stop following the rules themselves.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 14, 2019 @ 3:31 pm

“Or are you suggesting we get rid of Trump before then. If so, tell me more.”

No doubt to be replaced with a more honest politician, who himself at least does not believe his own lies?

And by telling lies to try to make it happen…

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On March 14, 2019 @ 3:58 pm

Daryl Austin says that “the sheer number of times that Trump has stretched or distorted the truth can be hard to keep up with…” Austin cites a Washington Post article (Aug 1, 2018) as the basis for his information. Among the Washington Post article’s allegations of the President’s “false or misleading claims” is this gem: “All told, nearly 160 times the president has made claims suggesting the Russia probe is made up, a hoax or a fraud.”

#8 Comment By WorkingClass On March 14, 2019 @ 3:59 pm

Journalists scrutinize every perceived deception and talk show hosts have made politics the center of their nightly programming like never before.

These people are bigger liars than Trump. Russiagate is the biggest lie of our times. I don’t think Hollywood and Corporate Media are helping.

#9 Comment By Deacon Nicholas On March 14, 2019 @ 5:46 pm

On that one occasion before the Bay of Bigs, JFK told the truth. The point of covert action is to intervene without “military intervention.”

#10 Comment By Clyde Schechter On March 14, 2019 @ 6:07 pm

While politicians may well be the worst, the fact is that they just reflect a culture of dishonesty that permeates everyday life in modern America. Honesty in business dealings is so uncommon that it stands out. Students cheat on exams. Parents pay agents to bribe colleges to accept their children, or falsify their entrance exam results. Notably the occupations of those involved in that scheme ran the gamut of upper-income occupations: there were doctors, lawyers, CEOs, financiers…

I’m not going to claim that “back in the good old days” everyone was always truthful. Clearly that was never the case. But decades back, it was neither as ubiquitous nor as flagrant as it is now. Societal trust has been thoroughly eroded.
Paranoia has been converted from a mental illness to a crucial survival skill. This will not end well.

#11 Comment By Ta-Nehisi Trump On March 14, 2019 @ 6:53 pm

Distinguished Historian Robert Dallek, DHRD, studied the lies and drugs embedded in JFK’s ‘official’ medical records — not to be confused with closeted interventions by Dr. Feelgood and Mary Pinchot Meyer, a lab rat for Dr. Timothy Leary. Respected Robert’s conclusion? JFK was “heroic.”

My conclusion? The world’s moments of maximum danger happened when a kid and a kid’s kid brother led the Free World.

#12 Comment By William Foster On March 14, 2019 @ 8:18 pm

There is some evidence that Obama simply didn’t know what he was talking about when he claimed “you can keep your health plan” … not that I’m suggesting that incompetence is preferable to dishonesty!

I also would point out that Jimmy Carter didn’t make Mr. Austin’s Dishonor Roll. And look where his honesty got him.

And finally, if we limit our focus to Presidential lies that actually impacted our national polity, Bush II, Nixon, and Trump (Republicans all) are clearly destined to be on Mount Rushmore. Pick whatever Democrat you want to round out your top four. LBJ works for me.

#13 Comment By Whine Merchant On March 14, 2019 @ 8:29 pm

Thank you – I was expecting either a hatchet job or moral-equivalencing whataboutism, but this is a simplistic yet entertaining slant on recent history.

#14 Comment By grin without a cat On March 14, 2019 @ 8:59 pm

Politicians lie. The most effective politicians are the ones who are the most effective liars.

#15 Comment By Brian Villanueva On March 14, 2019 @ 10:14 pm

“we’ve done a terrible job demanding that of our presidents so far.”

Unfortunately, this lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of those with the least power in our republic: the citizens. How exactly, was a citizen seeking an honest, ethical President supposed to vote in 2016? One candidate declared half the country irredeemable bigots (flyover country) and the other lied constantly while behaving grotesquely toward a different half of the country (women).

I’m not taking the blame for that choice. Perhaps ranked choice voting (ala Maine) could elect presidents? Would a parliamentary system get us better representatives?

I don’t have an answer, but I refuse to blame the citizens for the blatant moral failure of our aristocratic elites.

#16 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On March 15, 2019 @ 12:31 am

Yeah, they lied and yeah, they, everyone I now name did as well as be dishonest by ommision:
not stating the basic facts so as to do and/or cover for their crimes against morality and against god and humans that they authorized be killed.
These creeps:
Clinton, Hillary the Clinton,sic- -Bush sr. and Bush W- the killers of over one million people in the mid-east and Afghanistan, then there’s Obama the coward along with Hillary for Libya, Syria and Gaza- 100% of Congress critters also lied/lie.
Look at them. Don’t you think that these criminals aren’t laughing at us on the inside and outside? Not to me, if I saw one of these lowlifes I’d tell ’em- Hey, child killers, how ya feelin’ Now get outta here, you freaks…then I’d say, have a good day, creeps.
Can you dig where I’m coming from, you all? Yeah, you do.

#17 Comment By Donald On March 15, 2019 @ 1:16 am

Just Meg—

Oh rubbish. Each side can trace things back as far as they want and make excuses for their own tribe.

And to be clear, I think the Clintons are both liars.

#18 Comment By Deacon Blue On March 15, 2019 @ 4:42 am

It’s not just presidents.

Dennis Hassert (sexually assaulting a teenager at the school he coached and taught at, paying him blackmail and having the chutzpah to go into politics with this in his background). Who was the guy before him? – Livingston (resigned due to an affair). Newt Gingrich has all kinds of personal baggage. John Edwards – would be president and Vice President – deserves a special prize.

Several ex governors also come to mind. The list of morally despicable politicos who have fooled millions is seemingly endless.

These people are super ambitious and have a gene for getting where they want to be. They’re different. Many probably are somewhere on the sociopath spectrum.

#19 Comment By Johann On March 15, 2019 @ 6:55 am

Trump jaw-jaws at his rallies and on his twitter. He talks like a guy on the street, not a “polished” politician. It drives the self appointed elite insane and they’ve gone mental on fact checking Trump.

If Trump makes and off-handed comment like “hey, that restaurant on 45th street is the best restaurant in the world”, they will do an exhaustive study with experts and rank all the major restaurants of the world and declare that Trump lied once again.

#20 Comment By JdL On March 15, 2019 @ 8:41 am

The author is mistaken to blame voters for politicians lying. The fact is, voters have no leverage to hold politicians to their campaign promises once they’re elected. At worst, voters are naive in hoping that the latest fresh-faced candidate who promises he’s really, truly going to be honest, is telling the truth. The actual truth is that they’re all corrupt. Politics attracts the corrupt and corrupts the honest.

#21 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On March 15, 2019 @ 9:37 am

People enter politics for three reasons: power, power and–power. Oh, and throw “glory” into the mix for good measure. Thus they will tell voters whatever it is that they want to hear just so they can get elected and maybe get a monument built to them or a highway named after them. Where there’s a buyer there will always be a seller. And there are millions of buyers with agendas they want advanced or pockets that need to be filled. When the franchise was extended to the masses , there evolved a built-in incentive to lie. Is it any wonder The Founders distrusted “democracy”. As Barnum said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” To which the late radio talk show host, Les Kinsolving, once added in sing-song form “and the biggest sucker is–MEEE!!!”.

It was always thus…and always will be. The 2020 POTUS election, no more than any other election, won’t make a difference. Want to change the system? Restrict the franchise to property owners whose net worth is no less than (pick any number you want). But that ain’t happening folks–not by a long shot. Why, now there’s even talk of lowering the voter age to–sixteen. SIXTEEN!!

So, we’re just gonna have to deal with the lying, duplicity and mendacity attendant to a political system designed to govern (to the extent it’s even possible) the masses. That’s the trade off for a system which Churchill said was the worst form of government except for all the rest.

#22 Comment By CLW On March 15, 2019 @ 12:17 pm

It’s sad to see the extent of Whataboutery Trump’s defenders will go to when justifying the dozens of outright lies he tells every day. However wrong Clinton et al. were for the lies Austin mentions above, it doesn’t equate to Trump getting a free pass for being a pathological liar. Nor is it the media’s fault that Trump tells lies publicly, gets caught doing it, then either doubles-down or invents whole new lies. The “Tim Apple” incident is merely the latest example (as of this morning) of Trump’s innate inability to tell (or perhaps even understand) the truth. Argue all you want about the relevancy of Trump’s dishonesty, but continuing to deny that he is a serial liar is nothing more than another form of deceit.

#23 Comment By Varina On March 16, 2019 @ 6:39 pm

It has been fascinating seeing the GOP being turn from a byword for patriotism into a party of corrupted loyalty and suborned treachery in the service of Israel. I voted Republican for over 30 years. The transformation has been stunning, and Trump’s contribution was particularly shocking to me. I voted for “America First”, not “Israel First”.

#24 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 16, 2019 @ 11:33 pm

It is kinda unusual to have a President who sometimes tells the truth. Most, you couldn’t believe a word they said if you knew any of the truth yourself.

This President has had outbursts where he said truths that are not allowed to be voiced by regular professional politicians.

#25 Comment By Honest Abe On March 17, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

I think we’re off into the wild blue yonder on presidential lying now.

Also, as a liar, Mike Pompeo is in almost in a league of his own, and if Hillary Clinton hadn’t preceded him as Secretary of State one would have to say he was the biggest liar we ever had in a cabinet post. Pompeo seems to relish lying to Congress in particular, though his lies to the press are probably more numerous.

#26 Comment By Quizil Donor On March 17, 2019 @ 6:49 pm

Trumps’ 224 sellout and Jared’s Koch cheap labor deal making are not really as significant for the fact that it goes against all the promises he made, but more so for the fact that most people still are not yet aware he is even doing it, thanks to the smokescreen operations of the 4th estate.

John Binder / Breitbart –
“Between December 21, 2018 and March 5, DHS has released a total of 84,500 border crossers and illegal aliens into the U.S. At this rate, DHS is releasing more than 42,000 border crossers and illegal aliens into the country about every month.”

A lot of people went to extreme efforts and suffered a lot of abuse to get Trump elected, specifically because he was the only candidate telling the truth at the time. The most well-known and visible examples are the footage of the frightened woman with the scared smile being pelted with raw eggs, by violent illegal aliens and their supporters, while security huddled nearby behind a glass door. You had peaceful people chased down and beaten, knocked out, mobbed outside myriad rallies, for the crime of wearing a hat.

Those were the folks that Trump owed allegiance to. Expecting him to assign top administration appointments to those who ardently agree with his election promises, instead of selecting those who have long opposed all of his promised policies, its Trumps’ failing. Signing DAAA (Deferred Action for All Arrivals) into law with the February Omnibus was Trumps’ deliberate act.

The nation is not a Corporate serf workforce to service the needs of Jared and the Kochs.
It is not a spreadsheet or flowchart designed to delight speculators, lobbyists and franchises seeking a supplicant labor supply. Real Americans have been called to the defense of the nation, and, across our history, they did not flinch or betray their fellow citizens even when facing death, deprivation or maiming. Trump threw all of that sacrifice away. Trump’s DAAA has now led to the largest rush on the border in recent memory, with masses of grifter aliens moved to bus stations in the US interior on an assembly line schedule.

When the French ceded Quebec, their Monarch dismissed it and its citizens as a “few acres of snow”. Maybe in a few years Trump can work up some similar witticism to dismiss his omnibus sellout to Jareds’ Boardroom legion of deferment Dragoons. “those states were full of losers.. with low ratings”

#27 Comment By Wayne Lusvardi On March 18, 2019 @ 12:05 am

I’m far from a moral relativist, but is lying for leaders of nations absolutely wrong?

What a leader of a nation must decide falls into a different category than what parents, teachers, religious leaders and intellectuals face. A leader of a nation must face emergency situations that pose an existential threat to the nation. Leaders of families, schools, religious and academic institutions never face such circumstances. Such situations require what is called “reasons of state” – meaning a “purely political reason for action on the part of the ruler or government, especially where a departure from openness, justice or honesty is involved”. I sincerely doubt the author ever heard of the term. When Truman authorized the dropping of A-bombs on Japan to end the Pacific War and save thousands of lives on both sides, that reflected a “reason of state”. Reasons of state take into consideration necessary evils, lesser evils and greater evils. Utopians and adolescents, however, often live in a world where lying is always evil. If a rapist is chasing a woman who runs by you and turns a corner, do you tell the rapist which way the woman fled? Do you tell the wife of your best male friend that he has been cheating on her, perhaps ruining any chance of patching up in the future? Do you tell everyone you meet what you feel about them to their face or do you politely use double talk?