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The Apotheosis of the Lie

(Reprinted from SOBRANS, Bonus Issue 2000, pages 1–2)

“I cannot tell a lie,” the mythical little George Washington told his father. Parson Weems seems to have invented this edifying tale, and it summed up the old American assumption that republican rulers should be virtuous men, with honesty chief among their virtues. The apotheosis of Abraham Lincoln included the popular myth of “Honest Abe.”

These myths made a deep impression on generations of Americans. I know, because they made a deep impression on me. I still vividly remember reading children’s biographies of Washington and Lincoln in the second grade in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in a small classroom where the Ten Commandments were also posted on the bulletin board. After reading that Lincoln had walked miles to pay a few pennies to a customer he had (inadvertently) shortchanged, I made a point of admitting my own faults whenever possible. It always made me feel good.

It was a chief tenet of our patriotism that American presidents should be virtuous — or, as we were more likely to say, “godly.” That attitude persisted through the Vietnam War, when one of the chief charges of the war’s critics was that Presidents Johnson and Nixon were “lying to the American people.” It seemed a serious charge at the time, so serious that I could hardly believe it even of Johnson, much as I disliked him. Could a liar even get into the White House? Surely our system was designed to weed out ungodly men before they achieved power! For the same reason I was reluctant to believe the charges brought against Nixon during the Watergate scandal. The idea of a mendacious president was simply unbearable to me. And not only to me: in 1959 the American public was deeply shocked to learn that Dwight Eisenhower had lied when he denied that a U-2 pilot shot down over Russia had been on an espionage mission.

Well, as Sam Goldwyn once observed, “We have all passed a lot of water since then.” I was very naive well into my adult years, but my trust was in keeping with the decorum of the time, including its reticence about sex. Even the sophisticated pundit Walter Lippmann, when he accused Johnson of lying about Vietnam, used the ironic euphemism “credibility gap.”

We’ve heard all too much about the “lessons” of Vietnam and Watergate, but those two debacles did destroy the old decorum. They both proved that presidents could not only lie, but lie with disastrous results. We should have known this all along. Some of us did, but many of us (including me) really didn’t. Even when, throwing off my family’s loyalty to the Democratic Party in my early twenties, I came to despise Franklin Roosevelt, I was made uneasy by conservatives who insisted that he’d lied to get us into World War II. I still preferred to think of liberalism in general as an honest mistake.

That gets harder and harder with the years. After a while, even honest mistakes lose their innocence and have to be sustained by ignoring and, eventually, falsifying the facts. Today I find many of the same people who roasted Johnson and Nixon for lying defending the lies and perjuries of Bill Clinton.

[Breaker quote: After a 
while, even honest mistakes lose their innocence.]

Worse yet, liberals — and their neoconservative cousins — have developed a new tradition of actually praising certain presidential lies. It has become a dogma of the progressive elements among us that Franklin Roosevelt, faced with the threat of Hitler, had no choice but to lie to the public, which was in an “isolationist” mood. So it was actually virtuous of FDR to deceive, mislead, and withhold vital information from the American people when they went to the polls. So much for democracy and the well-informed citizenry.

Roosevelt didn’t just lie on one crucial occasion. He was a totally devious man, as close students of his life have always known. His defenders admit that he “misjudged” Stalin, but insist that he was forced to make a wartime alliance with him. Actually, Roosevelt’s beneficence to Uncle Joe began in 1933, when he extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union despite the well-publicized Soviet “agricultural policy” of starving millions of Ukrainian peasants for resisting forced collectivization. Roosevelt knew a fellow collectivist when he saw one, and he recognized a natural ally in the Soviet dictator. He even defended the Soviet constitution, assuring Americans that it, like our own Constitution, guaranteed religious freedom. He praised his own ambassador Joseph Davies’s absurd book, Mission to Moscow, which justified even the Moscow show trials, and urged Warner Brothers to make a major motion picture of it. In fact, Roosevelt trusted Stalin more than he trusted Winston Churchill (not that Churchill warranted anyone’s trust either). Official wartime propaganda portrayed the cunning monster as “Uncle Joe,” our democratic ally against the Axis dictators.

Yet a recent article in The New Republic distinguished between Roosevelt’s “noble” lie that drew America into World War II and Lyndon Johnson’s wicked lies that drew America into Vietnam. Such defenses of FDR have become standard. They show that sophisticated liberals now have no objection to lying in anything they regard as a good cause. We’ve come a long way from Honest Abe.

As a matter of fact, Honest Abe himself has undergone revisionism. His myth has been undermined not by Confederate sympathizers, but by one of his chief contemporary worshippers: Garry Wills. In his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Wills argues that Lincoln’s sternest critics have had a point. One contemporary newspaper accused Lincoln of “misstat[ing] the cause for which [the Union soldiers] died,” namely, “to uphold [the] Constitution,” not to free slaves. Wills doesn’t disagree.

The Gettysburg Address did indeed mislead Americans about the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; except that Wills argues that this “giant (if benign) swindle” was all to the good. At Gettysburg, Lincoln subtly “corrected” the Constitution. He “performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked.”

Wills agrees with conservatives like M.E. Bradford and Willmoore Kendall who regard the Gettysburg speech as (in his words) a “clever assault upon the constitutional past,” a “stunning verbal coup,” even “a new founding of the nation.” Indeed he gloats that Lincoln got away with this “swindle,” which has made possible the centralization of power the Framers of the Constitution had tried to prevent. Wills acknowledges that Lincoln was “subverting the Constitution,” but he thinks it deserved to be subverted.

It’s a curious transformation — not only of Honest Abe, but also of Garry Wills, who, thirty years ago, was writing acidly about Richard Nixon’s lies. But his praise of Lincoln’s “swindle” has been warmly received by liberal opinion; it actually won a Pulitzer Prize for history! Something has changed in the American ethos, and we shouldn’t marvel that the elites are so forgiving of more recent presidential swindles.
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