Presidential Lies and Deceptions

Bush is the latest in a long line of presidents who have suffered from credibility problems.


The credibility gap is widening again. The latest manifestation comes from former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's new book excoriating George W. Bush for various forms of evasion and for spreading falsehoods about the Iraq war and other issues. But Bush is only the latest in a long line of presidents who have suffered from credibility problems.

McClellan's searing critique of Bush's trustworthiness and judgment reinforces previous comments from other former Bush advisers and "further erodes Bush's standing, erodes public trust in him," says historian Robert Dallek. Yet the pattern of embarrassing presidential deceptions in recent times goes at least as far back as May 1960. That's when Dwight Eisenhower lied about sending the U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union and was caught in his mendacity when the Soviets produced the downed U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers. It was an international humiliation for the White House.

In the 1960s and '70s, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon misled the country over the progress of the Vietnam War, in the process deepening public suspicion of politicians in general. In 1974, Nixon resigned in disgrace after the deceptions of Watergate. In the 1980s, Reagan endured a loss of credibility over the Iran-contra scandal, which, at minimum, contradicted his promise never to negotiate with terrorists. And, of course, in the late 1990s, Bill Clinton lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, leading to his impeachment by the House of Representatives and near removal from office by the Senate.

Now, George W. Bush is accused of misleading the country into supporting the Iraq invasion and of encouraging his press secretary to unwittingly tell lies about who authorized the leak of the name of a CIA operative. "It's destructive to the country and our democratic institutions," says Dallek. "It's sad."

Princeton historian Julian Zelizer says McClellan's criticisms, coupled with the accusations of other former Bush advisers who have turned against their patron, "are extremely damaging to the institution of the presidency." He says the next president will have to live with diminished credibility, which could harm his ability to inspire confidence and govern effectively. "If you want leadership," says Zelizer, "you need trust."