Presidential Fitness and Presidential Lies: The Historical Record and a Proposal for Reform

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Is an ethical presidency--one that can be defined as lawful and honest in its public dealings--possible in the twenty-first century? Thomas Jefferson would have had his doubts: "Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [power]," he wrote, "a rottenness begins in his conduct."

In the last century, numerous commentators on politics in general and on America's presidents in particular saw ethics and government as incompatible. George Orwell, for example, did not think that politicians and political parties were capable of truth telling. "Political language," he declared in 1946, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1974) said that in Soviet Russia, "the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State."

There are, of course, vast differences between the moral transgressions of an Adolf Hitler or a Josef Stalin declaring the sanctity of their crusades to justify their killing machines and the moral obtuseness or ethical lapses observed in American politics and displayed by American presidents. Yet several aspects of presidential conduct--past, present, and future--raise ethical issues that merit serious examination. While nothing like the evil afflicting Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia captured American politics in the twentieth century, the history of the American presidency over the last hundred years has been less than a model of moral purity--either by the individuals holding the office or by their administrations. Misleading the public, in particular, has been an all too common feature of the post-Civil War presidency. Presidents have misled the public through both omission and commission--through concealment and secrecy as well as lies and deceptions. This essay examines three types of such conduct: lying to the public about personal health problems; lying about public policies, especially in the areas of foreign relations and national security; and hiding wrongdoing within the executive branch.

Perhaps ironically, presidents are mindful of the public's insistence on believing that the nation's principal office holder, as the representative of its highest values, is a person of unquestionable morals. Yet presidents, and candidates, have repeatedly risked their ability both to win the White House and to govern by taking, sanctioning, or turning a blind eye to questionable actions. Why?

The answer, I believe, is that these ambitious politicians crossed ethical lines in the conviction that doing so was necessary to ensure their own victories, whether in gaining the Oval Office, remaining there through reelection, or implementing policies that they considered essential both to the national well-being and to their own reputations as effective or even great presidents.

America's "moral flabbiness," William James (1920) said, is an inevitable product of the country's obsession with "the bitch-goddess success." Given how driven someone must be to run for and then win the presidency, small wonder that such individuals play fast and loose with ethical standards that they fear might inhibit their freedom first to get to the White House and then to achieve big things. Moreover, however much sitting presidents deny a preoccupation with their historical standing, they are intensely concerned with their reputations. They are especially aware of the small number of presidents who have had the public appeal to win more than one term--only 7 out of 18 in the twentieth century--and how many of their predecessors faded into obscurity or have been ranked as undistinguished occupants of the Oval Office.

American involvement in international politics and the rise of the national security state in the 1940s made the need to protect America from foreign dangers an additional reason for presidents to see ethical abuses as acceptable. In 1948, General Omar Bradley described the world as having "achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. …