Tap into AllPolitics' archive of TIME articles from the days before the internet.

TIME this week
TIME magazine's latest political coverage.


Lies, Lies, Lies

The current political campaign is erupting in a series of charges and countercharges of dishonesty and deceptions, all of which raise the question, Is anyone around here telling the truth?

By Paul Gray

Time cover

(TIME, October 5, 1992) -- Bill Clinton says George Bush is "just like Pinocchio." A Democratic statement accuses the President of "intentionally lying to win the election." Presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater contends that Clinton's "regard for honesty and veracity is so low that he has no business calling anybody else a liar." Al Gore, Clinton's running mate, describes G.O.P. campaign strategy as a "big-lie technique." Dan Quayle argues that detractors are lying about his position on single motherhood.

Is anyone telling the truth in this campaign? According to a TIME/CNN poll conducted last week, many Americans think not. Sixty-three percent have little or no confidence that government leaders talk straight. Seventy-five percent believe there is less honesty in government than there was a decade ago. Forty percent say George Bush does not usually tell the truth, and 36% say that about Bill Clinton.

These numbers indicate a degree of public skepticism that seems, paradoxically, naive and more than a little excessive in the bargain. True, both major presidential candidates have well-established and largely self-administered credibility problems. "Read my lips" -- Bush's infamous 1988 pledge not to raise taxes -- and "I didn't inhale" -- Clinton's account of his youthful experiment with marijuana -- have become jokes, good for a chuckle or a bored wave of the hand wherever the politically world-weary gather.

It is also true that the candidates persist in being evasive about questionable episodes in their past. In Bush's case, it is what he knew as Ronald Reagan's Vice President about the Iran-contra scandal. His continued claim that he was "out of the loop" or "excluded from key meetings" when this murky, subterranean scheme was being hatched in the upper echelons of the Reagan Administration has been constantly challenged, notably by a 1987 memo dictated to an aide by former Secretary of State George Shultz.

Clinton's albatross -- now that Gennifer Flowers' accusations of adultery have receded into the half-life of media memory -- is his convoluted account of dealings with his Arkansas draft board back in 1969. Clinton has bumped into questions about avoiding induction into the military during the Vietnam War since his early days in Arkansas politics, and his responses amount to a tortuous thicket of incomplete and not entirely compatible explanations.

Ross Perot's return will revive similar concerns about his respect for the truth. Over the years, the Texas billionaire offered different accounts of his attempt to cut short his Naval service. One of Perot's explanations -- that he wanted out because he had been told by his commanding officer to bend or break certain shipboard regulations -- has been flatly denied by the now retired officer.

Little wonder that the campaign has produced a sour disenchantment with politicians, a pervasive sense of moral moonscape where authority ought to reign. Everyone in power lies, the current wisdom runs, and those who are caught lying either don't care or tell more lies in order to clear themselves.

This attitude may be more important than anything any candidate has said to date. Sissela Bok, a philosopher and the author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978), believes public veracity has been going downhill in the years since her book was published. Says she: "I couldn't believe that we would soon see something like Watergate again. But I do think that the Iran-contra and B.C.C.I. scandals were in many ways much more international. They covered much larger territories and involved a great many people." And Bok says the proliferation of such frauds has seriously frayed the social fabric: "Now, there is something strange and peculiar: people take for granted that they can't trust the government."

Such mistrust has erupted in cycles. Jimmy Carter, who won the White House in 1976 with the promise "I'll never lie to the American people," probably met a higher standard of truthfulness in office than any other President since Woodrow Wilson. "After Watergate," says Carter's former press secretary, Jody Powell, "whether or not you were telling the truth seemed to be of considerable importance. But now it almost doesn't seem to get attention paid to it anymore." Part of the reason may be that the kind of goody-goody idealism that motivated Carter's truthfulness also made him a spectacularly ineffectual leader in the world of hardball politics.

The public may now assume lying on the part of its representatives because it expects them to lie. Clinton himself reflected this cynical view recently, when he whimsically entertained reporters with his laws of politics, including this one: "Nearly everyone will lie to you, given the right circumstances."

Can the truth survive in the current marketplace of ideas amid the splintering of old coalitions and the proliferation of hot-button issues? Today's electorate seems an archipelago of special interests -- abortion, gun control, taxes, the environment -- offering no prospect of bridge-building compromises. Thus winning over one group risks alienating the others, a situation that encourages candidates to tell each constituency what it wants to hear and puts a premium on hedging the truth.

In this new geography, the nature of the presidency itself seems embattled. Americans have never cheered the arrival of a proven liar in the White House, but they have also given the Chief Executive generous leeway when it came to telling part, or almost none, of the truth. During the cold war, Presidents were allowed to lie when national security could plausibly be invoked. But now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, this exemption is gone.

Presidents were also allowed to lie when they appealed to cherished national beliefs and mythologies. George Bush's orchestration of the 1991 Gulf War was an inspired and inspiring example of this dispensation. The central truth of Desert Storm was not the peril of freedom-loving Kuwaitis or the delusions of a tin-pot Middle Eastern despot. The Gulf War was fought over oil and the West's continued access to it. As reasons for waging war go, this was rather good: a national interest was threatened, and a military response met the immediate threat. But almost no one wanted to say or hear that young American lives were being put at risk for a commodity. Hence the successful collusion in mythmaking between the leaders and the led.

What the current hubbub over political lying ignores or drowns out is the fact that there are disabling truths, messy realities that positively stymie adequate response unless their particulars are reduced to deceptive simplicities. Every sentient human being knows this from daily experience. What has shattered in the public sphere, as epitomized by the Bush-Clinton campaign, is the once agreed-upon etiquette of lying.

The injunction against bearing false witness, branded in stone and brought down by Moses from the mountaintop, has always provoked ambivalent, conflicting emotions. On the one hand, nearly everyone condemns lying. On the other, nearly everyone does it every day. How many of the Ten Commandments can be broken so easily and with so little risk of detection over the telephone?

Hence the never-ending paradox: some bedrock of honesty is fundamental to society; people cannot live together if no one is able to believe what anyone else is saying. But there also seems to be an honesty threshold, a point beyond which a virtue turns mean and nasty. Constantly hearing the truth, the cold, hard, brutal unsparing truth, from spouses, relatives, friends and colleagues is not a pleasant prospect. "Human kind," as T.S. Eliot wrote, "cannot bear very much reality." Truth telling makes it possible for people to coexist; a little lying makes such society tolerable.

At what point does "a little" become "too much"? The nervous boy who cried "Wolf!" in the admonitory tale told one lie too many and was eaten alive. The irony of this denouement, of course, is that when the boy met his fate, he was, at last, hollering the truth.

This story demonstrates the creation of what is sometimes, and euphemistically, called "a climate of mistrust." (Translation: Everybody's lying.) It also reveals how difficult it is for those in the vicinity of a lie to distinguish it from the truth.

That task would be easy if humans resembled Pinocchio (as Clinton claims Bush does), with their noses growing longer each time they told a lie. People, unfortunately, can fib without suffering physiognomic changes. It would be helpful, then, if there were some hidden manifestation of lying, invisible to most people but clear to psychics or visionaries. The closest that real life has managed to come to this fictional power is the polygraph machine, which has a few serious drawbacks. It can be stumped by accomplished actors or those delusional enough to believe their own statements, and even experts disagree on the machine's level of reliability. And lie detectors, of course, are impractical to haul out on nearly all the occasions -- including first dates, tax audits, political rallies -- when they might prove handy.

Public perceptions to the contrary, it is impossible to prove that more people are lying than did in the past. There is no central clearinghouse of lies, no impartial scorekeeper deciding on the truth or falsity of public statements. Further complicating matters, successful lies, by definition, go undetected. If this truly is a time of unprecedented public lying, then it is also a time of remarkably inept liars, or of liars who don't seem to care if they are caught.

Certainty about lying is suspect because the practice is extraordinarily complex. Discussions of the subject usually begin with the assumption that everyone present agrees on what a lie actually is. A lie happens, a rough definition might assert, when someone does not tell the truth. Unfortunately, the relationship between lying and the truth is nowhere near this simple. A false statement need not be a lie. "The earth is flat," coming from a member of the Flat Earth Society, is not a lie but a statement of belief. Furthermore, a true statement can be a lie. Imagine a dishonest agent telling a client, "The check is in the mail," and then discovering to his horror that his new secretary has actually . . . mailed the check. Even though his client got paid, the agent intended to lie.

So objective truth is an unreliable standard against which lies can be measured. Most lies, of course, involve a distortion of the truth, but so do many innocent remarks. And the notorious difficulty of getting at the truth works to the liar's advantage; since there are so many different versions of reality floating around, another one, invented, won't do any harm -- and may even be more entertaining to boot.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this logical blind alley. All lies, regardless of their relationship to the truth, have one thing in common. "We must single out," writes Sissela Bok in Lying, "from the countless ways in which we blunder misinformed through life, that which is done with the intention to mislead." Lies may confuse everyone who hears them, as they are meant to, but liars know exactly what they are doing while they are doing it. In Telling Lies, Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology at the University of California medical school in San Francisco, provides a slightly more elaborate definition: "One person intends to mislead another, doing so deliberately, without prior notification of this purpose, and without having been explicitly asked to do so by the target. There are two primary ways to lie: to conceal and to falsify."

Ekman's formula is helpful, within limits. It defines the contexts in which lies are or are not improper. It absolves actors and fiction writers, for example, whose professions involve fabrications but whose audiences are presumably aware of this condition before they go to the theater or open a book. But problems arise with Ekman's notion that lying can be an act of concealment alone. Is not publicizing the possible dangers, say, of silicone breast implants in and of itself a lie? Or does this concealment merely set the stage for the true, dangerous deception, the impression created by the manufacturer in the enforced absence of information that such implants are safe? When a wife asks her husband how his day went, is he obliged to answer, "Great -- I spent the lunch hour in a motel room with my mistress"? If he does not disclose this detail, is he guilty of lying, or is he -- the cheat -- simply sparing his wife's feelings or avoiding a potentially unpleasant scene?

Not everyone agrees on the answers to these and similar questions. Every lie -- save those of self-deception -- involves two or more people in an intricate arabesque of intentions and expectations. What does the person telling a lie hope to achieve? How do the recipients of the lie understand it? What, in short, do all the parties involved think is happening?

St. Augustine identified eight kinds of lies, not all of them equally serious but all sins nonetheless. The number Mark Twain came up with, not too seriously, was 869. In practice, there are probably as many lies as there are liars, but lying can be roughly classified according to motive and context. No hard boundaries exist between these categories, since some lies are told for more than one purpose. But most of them fall within a spectrum of three broad categories.

1. Lies to protect others, or "I love your dress." Most "little white lies" belong here, well-intentioned deceptions designed to grease the gears of society. In this context, people want to be fooled. No one expects, and few would welcome, searing honesty at a dinner party. And the couple who leave early, saying the baby-sitter has a curfew, would not be thanked by the hostess if the truth were told: "Frankly, we're both bored to tears."

On rare occasions, lying to protect others can literally be a matter of life or death. Anne Frank survived as long as she did because those sheltering her and her family lied to the Nazis. The French Resistance during World War II could not have operated without deception. Military and intelligence officials will as a matter of routine lie to protect secret plans or agents at risk.

Few would condemn such protective lies. But problems arise when the alleged noble purpose of a lie loses the clarity, say, of saving innocent lives and gets muddled by other considerations. National security has been a notorious refuge for scoundrels who confuse their interests with their country's and therefore lie to cover up both. Convinced that winning the Vietnam War was essential to U.S. interests, President Lyndon Johnson was exasperated to learn that not all Americans agreed with him. These ignorant, shortsighted people therefore had to be protected from themselves, an end that justified almost any means. The long trail of lies and deceptions that followed is a lamentable matter of record.

2. Lies in the interest of the liar, or "The dog ate my homework." Here rest the domains, familiar to everyone, of being on the spot, of feeling guilty, of fearing reprimand, failure or disgrace, and on the other side of the ledger, of wishing to seem more impressive to others than the bald facts will allow. Complicity between liar and auditor rarely occurs in this category; the liar wants to get away with something. If a lie turneth away wrath, or win a job or a date on Saturday night, why not tell it? Because to do so is immoral and wrong, runs the standard, timeworn answer. But this stricture has never cut as much ice with potential liars as moralists would wish. The vast majority of criminal defendants assert their innocence, no matter what the evidence against them. Watergate was a baroque pageant of major players and spear carriers trying to lie themselves out of jeopardy. Greed ranks right up there with guilt as an inducement to lie. The S & L debacle and the Wall Street insider trading scandals of the late 1980s involved exquisitely complex patterns of lies and deceptions. These fiascos harmed thousands of investors and left taxpayers with a staggering bill to pay, but that was not their intent. The purpose of the lies told in these massive scams was to enrich the perpetrators.

Lies in the interest of liars may also extend to those with whom the liars feel closely bound -- the individual to his tribe, sect, community or nation, the employee to his employers, the professional to his peers, the advertiser or lawyer to his client. If collective success or profit is a paramount goal, a lie told to achieve it may seem a tempting alternative.

3. Lies to cause harm, or "Trust me on this one." The role model here is Shakespeare's Iago, insidiously, malevolently and falsely poisoning Othello's mind against his faithful wife Desdemona. These are the lies people fear and resent the most, statements that will not only deceive them but also trick them into foolish or ruinous courses of behavior. Curiously, though, lying to hurt people just for the hell or the fun of it -- the Iago syndrome -- is probably quite rare. Though Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote influentially about Iago's "motiveless malignity," the play itself does not really support this judgment. Iago has a motive, all right: he believes Othello has unfairly passed him over for a promotion, and he wants revenge. Some perceived advantage prompts most lies. If there is no benefit in telling a lie, most people won't bother to make one up.

Lies flourish in social uncertainty, when people no longer understand, or agree on, the rules governing their behavior toward one another. During such periods, skepticism also increases; there will be a perception that more people are lying, whether or not they actually are. That seems to be what is happening now.

The weakening of the major parties and the rise of television have made politics an infinitely more difficult -- and morally tenuous -- endeavor. It is no longer sufficient for candidates to say they are Democrats or Republicans, explain their views on the issues and let the voters decide. Campaigns now consist of offending as few people as possible, so the possibilities for mischief and misunderstandings are endless.

Politicians know they are widely perceived as liars. They also remember what happened to presidential nominee Walter Mondale after he told the 1984 Democratic National Convention that he would, if elected, raise taxes. Voters say they want the truth, and then they get angry when they hear it.

Furthermore, the prolonged recession has created endemic anxieties. If survival seems to hang on getting an edge, cutting a corner, telling a lie, then many otherwise moral people will choose to survive. The economy will, of course, improve; but the hangover from the recession may stick around: the impression that doing business, earning a living, is a con game, with rewards going to the clever and the unscrupulous. Finally, a phenomenon has become so pervasive that it almost goes unnoticed. Everyone seems to have got incredibly nosy. The press is part of this problem, particularly the aggressive new tabloid and infotainment TV shows. But reporters would not yell intrusive questions if they knew their readers or viewers did not care about the answers.

After Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-contra and the Gary Hart indiscretion, it is hard to make a case against the public's right to know. But not impossible. Candor is necessary when it really matters, and little more than a nuisance when it doesn't. At the moment, people are unsure which is which. A lie may be a defensive response to an unwarranted invasion of privacy. The oddity that Oprah and Phil and Geraldo can attract guests willing to confess anything on TV does not oblige everyone else to bare all when asked.

St. Augustine defined all lies as sins because they misused God's gift of speech. In a better world than this one, people would agree and act accordingly. In fact, in a better world lies would not be necessary at all, since the truth would be self-evident and foolish to deny or attempt to refute. The world we have discourages such certainties. Lies will continue to be told, as will the difficulty of recognizing them as such. But some modicum of trust will probably also survive, as it has through notable periods of lying in the past. When the perception of lying grows too acute, some shift, some click in the social consciousness, takes place: Danger ahead. The bad, suspicious mood of this political year is a sign of health, a recognition that the private advantages of lying are being eclipsed by the communal necessity to tell -- or to try to tell -- the truth.

home | news | in-depth | analysis | what's new | community | contents | search

Click here for technical help or to send us feedback.

Copyright © 1997 AllPolitics All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this information is provided to you.