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.