The history of politics is so replete with lying, obfuscation, evasion, and cover-up that a timeless joke asks “How do you know when a politician is lying?” The answer, naturally, is: “His lips are moving.”
Today we could add “her” before “lips,” of course, and apparently extend the definition of “politician” to include anyone above a certain pay grade, especially in Washington, D.C.: the President, his press secretary, the Attorney General, higher-ups in the Internal Revenue Service, and the former Secretary of State recently turned “pantsuit aficionado” and “hair icon.”
But having done so, we notice that the problem seems most prevalent in the Executive Branch, and mostly during second term presidencies. Unfortunately, this is neither new nor limited to any one party.
In 1974, in his second term, Republican Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency under threat of impeachment in part because of his lying and attempted cover-up concerning the Watergate break-in. In his own second term, Republican Ronald Reagan discovered “bitter bile” in his throat when his claim that “we did not trade arms for hostages” began unraveling in the 1980’s. (Technically, the claim was true: the United States sold arms to Iran in partial exchange for the release of Iranian hostages.)
In his second term in the 1990’s Democrat Bill Clinton famously lied under oath in front of a judge in his deposition in the Paula Jones case and to the entire nation when he claimed on national television that he did not have “sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” (Again, technically, the latter statement was true if you accept Bill Clinton’s definition of “sexual relations.”)
But “everybody lies about sex,” we were told, and “when Clinton lied, nobody died,” when Republican George W. Bush’s claim that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction turned out largely to be incorrect. Although Saddam’s regime had obviously had enough chemical weapons to gas the Kurds in 1988 and the remnants of his weapons program remained when the Bush coalition invaded Iraq, no mass stockpiles were discovered and the evidence of a nuclear weapons program was scant. (The invasion of Iraq took place in W’s first term, but the faultiness of his administration’s justification for the invasion was arguably the result of faulty intelligence, not prevarication, so maybe that’s the exception to the rule.)
Now here we are again with a second-term administration that happens to be Democratic and that appears not to be able to get its story straight, whether that story concerns Benghazi (“just an over-reaction to a YouTube video”); changing its story on Benghazi (“the single adjustment … made to those talking points by either [the White House or the State Department] … were changing the word ‘consulate’ to ‘diplomatic facility,’ because ‘consulate’ was inaccurate”); naming a Fox news reporter a co-conspirator in a criminal investigation (“that is not something that I’ve ever been involved in, heard of or would think would be a wise policy”); singling out conservative and “Tea party” groups for special IRS scrutiny (see Andrew Stiles, “Five IRS Scandal Myths,” National Review Online, June 10, 2013); or the NSA monitoring and storing everyone’s phone and Internet browsing records (Sen. Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” National Intelligence Director James Clapper: “No, sir.”) In every single one of these cases the administration’s story appears not only to be untrue but also to be knowingly untrue.
So what is it about the Presidency, and particularly second-terms Presidents, that leads occupants of the White House and those who report to them to abuse their power and to lie to the nation this way?
Is it that the kind of person who seeks the power of the Oval Office is dishonest to begin with and starts lying as President when he (so far) takes the Constitutionally-prescribed oath of office to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect t and defend that Constitution of the United States”? Or is it yet another manifestation of the truth of Lord Acton’s observation that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely?
If the former, then perhaps government of the people, by the people, and for the people will truly perish from this earth – if it has not already. But if the latter, then perhaps we have just discovered a good argument for limiting U. S. Presidents to a single term in office.