Presidential Lies and Consequences

It's not just Clinton and Nixon -- other presidents have lied while in office. So what kind of trouble did they get into?

| Tue Oct. 6, 1998 2:00 AM EDT

Bill Clinton may be the first to be impeached for it, but he isn't the only president who flat-out lied to the American people while in office. Oddly, the record suggests that when presidents lie about affairs of state -- affairs often involving the loss of life -- they face fewer consequences than presidents fibbing about their sexual adventures. (Though it should be said that Clinton's fibbing may have been done under oath -- a more serious matter.) In the interest of keeping things in context, we present a recent history of presidential lies and their consequences:

Advertise on MotherJones.com

 
President Harry Truman, August 6, 1945
The lie: "The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians."
The truth: Though Hiroshima was the headquarters of a number of military units, it was mostly a civilian city. In fact, Hiroshima was rated a low military priority by the U.S. Army; that's why it hadn't been bombed yet. 140,000 people, almost all civilians, died as a result of the bombing.
The excuse: None. He never changed his story
The consequences: None for President Truman.
 
President John F. Kennedy, April 18, 1961
The lie: "I have previously stated and I repeat now that the United States intends no military intervention in Cuba."
The truth: Not only was the Bay of Pigs invasion organized and funded by the CIA, but Americans flew combat missions as well. One day after Kennedy made the above statement, an American pilot was shot down on a bombing mission over Cuba. Castro recovered the pilot's bodies and kept it -- frozen -- for the next 18 years as proof. (He returned the body when he heard that the pilot's daughter was looking for her father who, she had been told, disappeared on a training flight.) Over 100 Cuban exiles, 14 Americans, and an unreported number of Cubans died in the invasion.
The excuse: None, he never got busted.
The consequences: None (though some folks believe that Cuban exiles played a part in Kennedy's assassination).
 
President Lyndon Johnson, August 5, 1964
The lie: "As President and Commander in Chief it is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply."
The truth: There was no unprovoked Vietnamese attack on a U.S. warship. President Johnson ran with the untrue story to gain support for American involvement in Vietnam.
The excuse: None needed. The press didn't follow up until after Johnson left office.
The consequences: None for President Johnson. The lie resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the president to use "all necessary measures" to defend U.S. forces. Johnson later compared the resolution to "grandma's nightskirt -- it covered everything." 58,214 Americans died in the Vietnam War.
 
President Ronald Reagan, November 13, 1986
The lie: "We did not -- repeat -- did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages -- nor will we."
The truth: Reagan approved the sale of over 2,000 anti-tank weapons to Iran in return for promises to release the American hostages there. Money from the sale of those weapons went to support the Contras' war in Nicaragua. (The White House needed this backdoor method to fund the Contras because Congress had banned military aid to them.)
The excuse: "I'm afraid that I let myself be influenced by other's recollections, not my own."
The consequences: Reagan was a lame-duck president his last two years in office, but no administration official ever served prison time for the scandal. (The only person to serve time as a result of the scandal was Bill Breeden, who stole a "John Poindexter Street" sign in his town and held it for $30 million ransom, the amount of money made from weapons sales to Iran. He spent a few days in jail.) Over 70,000 Nicaraguans died in the war between the Contras and Sandinistas.
 
President Bill Clinton, January 26, 1998
The lie: Speaking after a White House presentation on child care, he told the nation, "I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." (He also, of course, may have told the same lie under oath.)
The truth: Oh, he did it, alright.
The excuse: He didn't have sexual relations with her. She did with him.
The consequences: Remain to be seen.

Concept and research help provided by Howard Zinn. In other words, he thought of it first.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.