What you can learn about a president from how he lies.

Policy made plain.
April 18 2002 2:09 PM

Lying in Style

What you can learn about a president from how he chooses to deceive you.

Honest administrations are all alike, but each dishonest administration is dishonest in its own way.

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Actually, there are no honest administrations. But each presidency does bring its own unique style to the task of deceiving the citizenry. And at least you can derive some truths about a president from the way he chooses to lie to you. Consider the latest three.

The characteristic lying style of George Bush the Elder derived from his core belief that politics and real life are separate realms. This derived in turn from the cherished preppy-snob distinction between life and games. In life one must be decent and honest and must not seem to be trying too hard. But in games—including politics—one must be ruthless, and one must win. One is not really misbehaving because it's only a game. So the memorable dishonesties of Bush I were highly original artifices on novel or obscure topics, such as Massachusetts prison-furlough policy or teachers who won't pledge allegiance to the flag or how many times Bill Clinton raised taxes as governor of Arkansas. The great ones were often technically true and essentially false at the same time, and the complete performance always included wave upon wave of follow-up obfuscation.

Bush the Elder didn't actually do a lot of the heavy lying himself. He had people for that sort of thing. For Bill Clinton, by contrast, a lie was a seduction—and a personal challenge. Clinton's biggest lie—will it ever be topped?—was a daredevil triple back-flip off the high board. It concerned Topic A on everyone's mind, not some issue invented in the campaign laboratory. It gave him no help in the plausibility department. And yet he offered it boldly, fearlessly, with an actual intention to persuade. And many of us were persuaded.

If the truth was too precious to waste on politics for Bush I and a challenge to overcome for Clinton, for our current George Bush it is simply boring and uncool. Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered. If telling the truth was less bother, they'd try that too. The characteristic Bush II form of dishonesty is to construct an alternative reality on some topic and to regard anyone who objects to it as a sniveling dweeb obsessed with "nuance," which the president of this class, I mean of the United States, has more important things to do than worry about.

You can just see Bush rolling his eyes at the fuss—small as it is—over his administration's role in the recent military coup in Venezuela. It is unclear what exactly Bush administration officials said to the coup planners in meetings over the past few months. Conflicting anonymous quotes mean that there is some lying of the conventional sort going on. But a simple "Just don't do it: The United States believes in democracy" was obviously not the message or the coup would not have gone ahead.

One problem with reality of the traditional sort is that the pieces have to fit together. In alternative reality there is no such tedious restraint. We brag about our devotion to spreading democracy, especially in Latin America, but we don't care at all for this pesky left-winger these fools in Venezuela seem to have elected. Oh, him? "He resigned," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer with no basis and no twinkle in his eye. It would be convenient if he had resigned and so: He resigned.

And then two days later the coup fizzled and the elected president was back. I mean, how embarrassing is that? Not very, if you just stick to your story. "The people have sent a clear message … that they want both democracy and reform," Fleischer revealed. He went on to lecture the restored president—whose overthrow we at least tacitly supported—about "governing in a fully democratic manner." And National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice joined in to tell the Venezuelan president not to be so "high-handed." Who could blame the man for thinking, "Only one of us was elected president by majority vote—and it isn't you, George."

Alternative reality can be simple and sleek. That's one thing our Bush du jour likes about it. And simplicity is a genuine virtue in, for example, mobilizing a nation for war. It was quite effective for a while when Bush declared, after Sept. 11, that we were engaged in a Manichaean struggle with a single overarching enemy called terrorism. If anyone had told him it might be more complicated than that, Bush would have smelled nuance and sent the fellow on his way.

But then Reality Classic intrudes. Ariel Sharon says: Hey, I'm fighting an all-out war against terrorism, too. You got a problem with that? And the answer is, yes, we do. But it's hard to say what our problem is without admitting that we're not engaged in a Manichaean struggle with terrorism. American interests and values are more varied and complicated than that.

Another inconvenience of traditional reality is that there can only be one of them at a time. There is no such limit on alternative realities. You can stash them around the house for use as needed, like six-packs in the good old days. So Bush can have one reality where battling terrorism is paramount and another reality where Israel must negotiate and compromise with the sponsors of suicide bombers.

And if he can really juggle all these realities in his head without their bumping up against each other (in a condition known as "irony"), maybe it doesn't even count as dishonest.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.