Counting Lies: How Obama Deepens Distrust in the Presidency

From Vietnam and Watergate to Bush’s “935 lies” on Iraq, book calls for new “future of truth.”

National Journal
Ron Fournier
June 22, 2014, 8:43 a.m.

Along with two wars and massive debt, Pres­id­ent Bush left Barack Obama a leg­acy of false state­ments — nearly 1,000 of them on the Ir­aq War alone, ac­cord­ing to Charles Lewis, au­thor of 935 Lies: The Fu­ture of Truth and the De­cline of Amer­ica’s Mor­al In­teg­rity.

After prom­ising the most trans­par­ent and eth­ic­al ad­min­is­tra­tion in his­tory, Obama picked up where Bush left off — fur­ther erod­ing the pub­lic’s faith in the pres­id­ency. In his first term, Obama secretly ex­pan­ded Bush’s an­ti­ter­ror­ism policies and, dur­ing his reelec­tion cam­paign, he as­sured Amer­ic­ans that their ex­ist­ing health in­sur­ance would not be threatened by Obama­care.

“De­cep­tions like these,” Lewis writes, “some by omis­sion, oth­er by com­mis­sion, make a mock­ery of our polit­ic­al dis­course.”

This book should be re­quired read­ing for every pres­id­ent, gov­ernor, law­maker, judge, and journ­al­ist; for every ar­rog­ant and over­achiev­ing polit­ic­al staffer; and for every mar­keter, ad-maker, and product spokes­man us­ing de­cep­tion to sell their goods — from packs of ci­gar­ettes to mem­bers of Con­gress.

Be­cause the book is a warn­ing: Every lie and subtle dis­tor­tion un­der­mines not only your boss but your en­tire in­dustry and coun­try. “My ca­reer in journ­al­ism has co­in­cided with a tra­gic peri­od in Amer­ic­an his­tory — one in which false­hood has in­creas­ingly come to dom­in­ate our pub­lic dis­course, and in which the bed­rock val­ues of hon­esty, trans­par­ency, ac­count­ab­il­ity, and in­teg­rity we once took for gran­ted have been stead­ily eroded,” writes Lewis, who has spent 30 years in journ­al­ism and foun­ded the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­teg­rity.

It is no co­in­cid­ence that, dur­ing this same peri­od, the Amer­ic­an pub­lic has lost faith in vir­tu­ally every so­cial in­sti­tu­tion — par­tic­u­larly polit­ics, gov­ern­ment, and the me­dia.

Lewis says early in the book that he will ex­plore “how and why our na­tion­al com­mit­ment to in­teg­rity has been eroded; how a re­l­at­ive hand­ful of re­port­ers, act­iv­ists, and oth­er truth-seekers have tried to fight back in an in­creas­ingly un­sup­port­ive, vacu­ous me­dia en­vir­on­ment; and what we can do as a na­tion to re­verse this tra­gic trend.”

He starts with the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks and a Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­teg­rity re­port doc­u­ment­ing at least 935 false state­ments about the na­tion­al se­cur­ity threat posed by Ir­aq. “The care­fully or­ches­trated cam­paign of un­truths about Ir­aq’s al­leged threat to U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity from its WM­Ds or links to al-Qaida (also spe­cious) gal­van­ized pub­lic opin­ion and led the na­tion to war un­der de­cidedly false pre­tenses,” he writes.

In ad­di­tion to the me­tic­u­lously doc­u­mented CPI re­port, Lewis re­minds read­ers that the Pentagon quietly re­cruited and coached 75 re­tired mil­it­ary of­ficers to make the case for war un­der the guise of be­ing “in­de­pend­ent” ra­dio and TV con­sult­ants. The me­dia was oth­er­wise com­pli­cit: At least 20 fed­er­al agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Pentagon and Census Bur­eau, pro­duced and dis­trib­uted hun­dreds of TV news seg­ments between 2001 and 2005 without any ac­know­ledg­ment of the gov­ern­ment’s role.

Could the Ir­aq War have been pre­ven­ted? “I be­lieve the an­swer to that grim ques­tion is very pos­sibly yes,” Lewis writes, “and it will haunt me and oth­ers in my pro­fes­sion for years to come.”

He ded­ic­ates a chapter to cor­por­ate Amer­ica’s his­tory of lies and an­oth­er to the me­dia, a pro­fes­sion he says is hem­or­rhaging rev­en­ue, tal­ent, and in­teg­rity. In a chapter titled “Our First Cas­u­alty,” Lewis draws a dir­ect line from the lies that star­ted and ex­ten­ded the Vi­et­nam War to the cov­er-up of the Wa­ter­gate break-in. “The quest for the truth,” Lewis writes, “has be­come more mar­gin­al­ized than ever be­fore in our re­cent his­tory.”

For the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the book should be a les­son in the con­sequences of shad­ing the truth for short-term gain. A video caused the Benghazi at­tack “¦ If you like your doc­tor, you can keep your doc­tor “¦ The web­site works for a vast ma­jor­ity of people “¦ Not even a smidgen of cor­rup­tion oc­curred at the IRS “¦ Oops, we lost Lois Lern­er’s emails “¦ Vet­er­ans don’t wait long for health care “¦ Watch­dog journ­al­ism isn’t a crime “¦ Our ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­tects whis­tleblowers “¦ NSA doesn’t col­lect any type of data hun­dreds of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans — at least not wit­tingly.

Too of­ten, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has peddled bad in­form­a­tion — know­ingly (a lie) and un­know­ingly (in­com­pet­ence and reck­less­ness), be­cause the pres­id­ent and his team have de­term­ined that, in Wash­ing­ton’s tox­ic en­vir­on­ment, the un­mit­ig­ated truth is a vul­ner­ab­il­ity. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Obama’s apo­lo­gists will ac­cuse Lewis and me of “false equi­val­ence.” They will say, cor­rectly, that there is no com­par­is­on between Bush-era de­cep­tions that dragged a coun­try in­to war and the worst of Obama’s dis­tor­tions. They miss the point.

A pres­id­ent doesn’t build trust by be­ing dis­hon­est about less­er events than his pre­de­cessor. Au­then­t­ic lead­ers don’t parse wrong­do­ing; they avoid it and own up to it. Two wrongs don’t make a right on your child’s play­ground; why should it be OK at your White House? The point is to re­mind the na­tion’s lead­ers — heads of every in­sti­tu­tion, in­clud­ing gov­ern­ment and the me­dia — that any breach of trust frays the so­cial fab­ric.

If that doesn’t mat­ter to Obama and his min­ions, they should ask his mul­tiple poll­sters for an hon­est as­sess­ment of the pres­id­ent’s tum­bling cred­ib­il­ity, in­clud­ing the con­nec­tion to his low ap­prov­al rat­ing.

Lewis of­fers a thin sil­ver lin­ing. He says “the fu­ture of truth” lies in us, the people. Tech­no­logy em­powers the in­di­vidu­al like nev­er be­fore, he sug­gests, and the busi­ness of journ­al­ism will evolve. “[The] urge to dis­cov­er and re­port the truth is a deep hu­man in­stinct that even power­ful polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial pres­sures can nev­er ex­tin­guish.” I hope he’s right.

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