White House

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
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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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