Illustration: Steve Brodner. Click here for a larger version of this illustration.
IT TAKES TWO THINGS to make a political lie work: a powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it. The former has always been with us: Kings, corporate executives, politicians, and ideologues from both sides of the aisle have been entirely willing to bend the truth when they felt it necessary or convenient. So why does it seem as if we're living in a time of overwhelmingly brazen deception? What's changed?
Today's marquee fibs almost always evolve the same way: A tree falls in the forest—say, the claim that Saddam Hussein has "weapons of mass destruction," or that Barack Obama has an infernal scheme to parade our nation's senior citizens before death panels. But then a network of media enablers helps it to make a sound—until enough people believe the untruth to make the lie an operative part of our political discourse.
For the past 15 years, I've spent much of my time deeply researching three historic periods—the birth of the modern conservative movement around the Barry Goldwater campaign, the Nixon era, and the Reagan years—that together have shaped the modern political lie. Here's how we got to where we are.
Just Making Stuff Up
WHEN AN EXPLOSION sunk the USS Maine off the coast of Havana on February 15, 1898, the New York Journal claimed two days later, "Maine Destroyed By Spanish: This Proved Absolutely By Discovery of the Torpedo Hole." There was no torpedo hole. The Journal had already claimed that a Spanish armored cruiser, "capable, naval men say, of demolishing the great part of New York in less than two hours," was on its way. "WAR! SURE!" a banner headline announced.
The instigator was a politically ambitious publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Kicked out of Harvard for partying, and eager to make a name for himself outside the shadow of his mining-magnate father, he made his way to New York, where he led the way in a sensationalist new style of newspaper publication—"yellow journalism." In a fearsome rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer, he chose as his vehicle the sort of manly imperialism to which the Washington elites of the day were certainly sympathetic—although far too cautiously for Hearst's taste. "You furnish the pictures," he supposedly telegraphed a reporter, "and I'll furnish the war." The tail wagged the dog. At a time when the only way to communicate rapidly across long distances was via telegraph, it proved easy to make up physical facts.
"You furnish the pictures," Hearst supposedly telegraphed a reporter, "and I'll furnish the war."
More than six decades later, that still seemed to be the case. "Some of our boys are floating around in the water," Lyndon Johnson told congressmen to goad them into passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing war in 1964, after a supposed attack on an American PT boat. "Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish," LBJ observed later, after the deed was done. That resolution inaugurated a decade of official American military activities in Southeast Asia (unofficially, we had been carrying out secret acts of war for years). A full-scale air war began the following February, after the enemy shelled the barracks of 23,000 American "advisers" in a South Vietnamese town called Pleiku. But that was just a pretext. "Pleikus are like streetcars," LBJ's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said—if you miss one, you can always just hop on another. The bombing targets had been in the can for months, even as LBJ was telling voters on the campaign trail, "We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."
It would have been possible all along for some intrepid soul to drop the dime on the whole thing. There were many who knew or suspected the truth, but with a villain as universally feared as communism was during the Cold War years, denying the facts felt like the only patriotic thing to do.
Then everything changed.
WALTER CRONKITE traveled to Saigon after the Tet Offensive in 1968, saw things with his own eyes, and told the truth: The Vietnam War was stuck in a disastrous stalemate, no matter what the government said. That was a watershed. By 1969, none other than former Marine Commandant David M. Shoup endorsed a book on the war called Truth Is the First Casualty. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, the Department of Defense study that plainly revealed that just about everything Americans had been told about Southeast Asia was flat-out untrue. When the Nixon administration ordered the newspapers not to publish the Papers, Supreme Court Justice Hugo* Black thundered back that "for the first time in the 182 years since the founding of the Republic, the federal courts are asked to hold that the First Amendment does not mean what it says." The searing melodrama of the Watergate investigation exposed new Nixon lies every day.
America, it seemed, had had enough. In the mid-'70s, the investigating committees of Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Otis Pike revealed to a riveted public that the CIA had secretly assassinated foreign leaders and the FBI had spied on citizens. Ralph Nader became a celebrity by exposing corporate lies. The mood of the Cold War had been steeped in American exceptionalism: The things America did were noble because they were done by America. Now, it appeared that America just might be susceptible to the same cruel compromises and corruptions as every other empire the world has known. Truth-telling became patriotic—and the more highly placed the liar, the more heroic the whistleblower.
The investigative reporter became a sexy new kind of hero—a shaggy-haired loner, too inquisitive for his own good.
The investigative reporter became a sexy new kind of hero—a shaggy-haired loner, too inquisitive for his own good, played by Warren Beatty and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, swooped in from nowhere to take the White House on the strength of the modest slogan "I'll never lie to you." And during his presidency, one of the grand, founding lies of western civilization itself—that there need be no limits to humans' domination of the Earth—was questioned as never before.
The truth hurt, but the incredible thing was that the citizenry seemed willing to bear the pain. All sorts of American institutions—Congress, municipal governments, even the intelligence community (the daring honesty of CIA Director William Colby about past agency sins was what helped fuel the Church and Pike investigations)—launched searching reconstructions of their normal ways of doing business. Alongside all the disco, the kidnapped heiresses, and the macramé, another keynote of 1970s culture was something quite more mature: a willingness to acknowledge that America might no longer be invincible, and that any realistic assessment of how we could prosper and thrive in the future had to reckon with that hard-won lesson.
Then along came Reagan.
* Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article included the wrong first name for Justice Black.