Lies Matter

Sunshine Week Commentary

By Benjamin C. Bradlee

Access is a mixed blessing. It gives the reporter opportunities to delve deeper and deeper in search of truth, and it gives those who are accessed opportunities to manipulate that truth, a little or a lot or beyond all recognition. Many reporters feel that they need a level of super access to do their job, and politicians get the message. They give selected reporters this super access and the great manipulation madness is underway.

Although access can certainly breed manipulation, the manipulators have gone way beyond the granting or the withholding of access in their campaign to influence, and thereby distort, reality. And we in the press have shown remarkably little righteous indignation about it.

The most primitive of all forms of manipulation is lying. Nothing subtle, like TV spots suggesting that Barry Goldwater will nuke us all back to the Stone Age, or Mike Dukakis will flood the streets with convicted rapists, or John Kerry will leave America vulnerable to terrorist attacks. I'm not talking about exaggerating, misrepresenting, misspeaking, I'm talking about the real McCoy – lying.

"Lord, Lord. How this world is given to lying!" cries Falstaff in King Henry IV, and things have been going downhill ever since. In fact, lying has become just another tool for making deals, for selling beer or war, soap or candidates. Lying has reached such epidemic proportions in our culture and among our institutions in recent years that we've all become immune to it.

Let's concentrate on lying by the executive branch of government, by presidents. If we cannot trust our presidents, who can we trust? If our leaders routinely lie, who should we follow, or even worse, why should we follow?

For me, the world was never quite the same after President Nixon went on national television to say that he could not tell us about Watergate because "national security was involved." That's the toughest lie to rebut, when one is out there on the cutting edge, all alone with a story we all found hard to believe in the first place. I mean, any president knows more about national security than a bunch of reporters and editors, right?

Then there was the bombing of Cambodia, a neutral country, in March of 1969; 3,630 B-52 raids on Cambodia, dropping 110,000 tons of bombs for 14 months. Never happened, said the president of the United States. Although one has to wonder there, too, about the use of national security as a justification for lying. The Cambodians and the Viet Cong who were in Cambodia certainly knew about it, and that meant the Russians and Chinese knew – and in those days, that's who we were trying to keep secrets from. Only the American people had to be kept in the dark.

An embarrassment of riches faces anyone looking for a favorite LBJ anything. The larder is full of stories about this larger-than-life man lying. Did you hear the one about his great-great-grandfather dying at the Alamo – a story later adapted to make him a hero of the battle of San Jacinto? All of it lies. Doris Kearns Goodwins' investigation for her excellent biography of LBJ proved that the great-great-grandfather had not been at the Alamo, he had not been at San Jacinto, he was a real estate trader who died at home in bed.

John F. Kennedy, that marvelous man who wrapped up this country in cords of promise, hope and confidence for a short, short thousand days: Did he lie, too? Surely President Kennedy lied about Addison's disease. He had it, and he said he didn't have it. Would he have been elected if the voters had known the truth?

Then there was Bill Clinton, the president who "didn't inhale." He stated flat out, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." He ultimately was impeached not for his inappropriate conduct, but for lying about it.

Are these all just little lies? Maybe petty exaggerations that slip out in the heat of political discourse and leave no mark on history? Are these mole-hills in a landscape where men are judged by their ability to move mountains?

What about these little dishonesties that add up to lying but are never quite defined as lying by society numbed beyond righteous indignation to all these little lies?

I hope lies will never not matter. The trouble with overlooking little lies is the damage done to reverence for truth. If the truth is not revered, there is no conscience, there is no compass. And without a compass, a man gets lost, a country gets lost.

Just look at Vietnam. The man who couldn't tell the truth about his great-great-granddaddy felt no compunction about lying in January 1964 about how American soldiers were doing in Vietnam.

In December '63, Bob McNamara, at the end of his first fact finding trip to Vietnam for the new president, held a press conference at Tonsonhut Airport in Saigon. He told an anxious nation that he was "optimistic as to the progress that had been made and can be made during the coming years" in the fight against the VC. Landing at Andrews Air Force Base the next day, McNamara told another press conference, "We have every reason to believe that U.S. military plans in '64 will be successful." Both statements were lies.

A chopper trip to the Oval Office later, the Secretary of Defense told the president the truth, a truth the world didn't learn until seven years later – again from the oft-cited but rarely read Pentagon Papers. In fact, McNamara told the president he returned from Vietnam "laden with gloom." Viet Cong progress had been "great." "My best guess being that the situation has in fact been deteriorating to a far greater extent than we realize. The situation is very disturbing."

Don't tell me that lies are ever little. Think for a minute how history might have changed if these lies had been left untold, and if the secret truth had been publicly stated.

Only a few months later the world learned about the battle of Tonkin Gulf. Only one problem: There was no battle, not a single intruder.

Even the president privately repudiated the existence of this battle. "Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish," the commander in chief was quoted as saying, according to Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A history."

There can be no one who thinks that lie was an inconsequential little lie. The Tonkin Gulf resolution was passed overwhelmingly by Congress because of that lie, and the Tonkin Gulf resolution was the justification for the U.S. war effort in Vietnam for years to come.

Lies were use as justification for war again in 2003, when President Bush told the nation we had no choice but to act: the regime of Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction – weapons we later learned did not exist. Of course the president lied.

And what about the poor government servant who gets lied to himself and thus eventually lies to his president and to his country? That happens too, doesn't it? It sure does.

In fact, it happened to the late Erwin Griswold, when as solicitor general he argued before the Supreme Court that publication of materials from the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times and The Washington Post in June of 1971 would immediately and gravely threaten the national security. Griswold told the justices that he had relied on that assessment from individuals at the State Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Agency.

Eighteen years later, in an unparalleled act of political courage, Griswold wrote in an op-ed piece in the Post that he had "never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication" after he had had a chance to read the papers for himself. "I indeed have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat.

"There is massive overclassification," he continued, "and the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment."

Bradlee is currently Vice President At-Large for The Washington Post, where he served as executive editor from 1968-1991. The above is updated from Bradlee's presentation of The Theodore H. White Lecture at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.