Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

W&L’s Strong Offers Historical Perspective on Lying in the White House

“Long before Donald Trump arrived in Washington, our nation had presidents who lied. Lying in the White House is so common that there are discernible categories of presidential fabrication.”

The following opinion piece by Bob Strong, William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee, appeared in The Roanoke Times on March 26, 2017, and is reprinted here by permission.

Strong: Liar-in-chief

By Robert A. Strong | Strong is the Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University and is currently completing a book on the presidency of George H.W. Bush

Long before Donald Trump arrived in Washington, our nation had presidents who lied. Lying in the White House is so common that there are discernible categories of presidential fabrication.

First, there is the venerable national security lie; the kind we expect our leaders to tell. Dwight Eisenhower forcefully denied that the U.S. flew spy planes over Soviet territory when he knew we did. The Carter administration publicly stated that there was no planning for a military mission to release the hostages held in Tehran.

Obviously, Americans were disappointed when a U-2 plane was shot down over the Soviet Union and when the hostage rescue mission in Iran failed, but they never faulted the folks who lied to our enemies in support of those operations.

Then there are the personal lies.

Jack Kennedy was asked in the 1960 campaign if he had Addison’s disease. He said no, knowing full well his response was false. Bill Clinton, in his most remembered remark, wagged his finger and denied having sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

These were deeply disappointing public performances, but both Kennedy and Clinton were able to maintain popular support despite their false statements about health and marital indiscretions.

Richard Nixon was different. His denial of knowledge about the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up was not lying about private matters. It was lying about dirty political tricks and illegal efforts to hide them from investigation. Nixon committed impeachable offenses and resigned with a permanently damaged reputation.

Lying by itself may not end a presidency; but committing crimes and lying about them can.

Even before politicians arrive in the White House, running for office can produce problems with the truth. When Ronald Reagan promised to simultaneously cut taxes, raise defense spending and balance the budget, his principal opponent called that Voodoo economics.

The famous comment by George H. W. Bush was probably a slur against practitioners of Voodoo. But we don’t usually call claims like the one Reagan made lying. We call it campaigning. Even so, campaign language can sometimes venture so far from reality that it looks a lot like lying.

Reagan presents another example of presidential predicaments with veracity.

During the Iran-Contra scandal Reagan said that he never approved arms sales to Iran for the purpose of getting Iranian help in freeing hostages held in Lebanon. He said this repeatedly until evidence made it perfectly clear that his administration had done exactly that.

Reagan’s televised apology contained the claim that he still thought he had not traded arms for hostages. If the president was not lying to the American people, he was lying to himself. Self-delusion may be an occupational hazard for politicians.

All of this brings us to Donald Trump, already the most fantastic liar ever to occupy the Oval Office. Trump lies about everything. He talks about terrorist attacks in Sweden that no one in Sweden managed to notice. He blames Obama for the bugging of Trump Tower without any actual evidence that the surveillance took place or that the former president ordered it. He claims a bigger victory in the electoral college than any president since Reagan — a statement so patently false that a ten-year-old could prove its inaccuracy in a matter of minutes.

Trump says that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in 2016 and that all of them were for Hillary Clinton. He says the U.S. crime rate is sky high when a cursory glance at reliable trend lines shows a sustained and substantial long term decline.

Donald Trump practices every known form of presidential fabrication. He exaggerates, he obfuscates, he deludes, he makes things up and he believes things made up by others. Thus far, Trump has paid no substantial price for his troubles with the truth. His lies may actually have pleased his supporters and deflected his critics.

But one issue should give Trump and his associates pause. The president and his administration have provided Nixonian denials of any untoward communications or coordination with the Russians who hacked the election. There has already been one trusted advisor forced into resignation and another forced into recusal by conversations with a Russian diplomat. Additional Russian-related accusations dribble from anonymous sources.

Is this a Watergate in the making?

If Donald Trump knows about campaign conversations with Russians about their activities to disrupt the election and has falsely claimed that those conversations never took place, that might be a lie too far; even for the most accomplished political fabricator in American presidential history.