[Breaker: When Truth Is Relative, So Is Virtue]
“I cannot tell a lie,” the mythical little George Washington
told his father. Parson Weems seems to have invented this edifying
tale, and it summed up the old American assumption that republican
rulers should be virtuous men, with honesty chief among their virtues.
The apotheosis of Abraham Lincoln included the popular myth of “Honest
These myths made a deep impression on generations of Americans. I
know, because they made a deep impression on me. I still vividly remember
reading children’s biographies of Washington and Lincoln in the
second grade in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in a small classroom where the
Ten Commandments were posted on the bulletin board. After reading that
Lincoln had walked miles to pay a few pennies to a customer he had
inadvertently shortchanged, I made a point of admitting my own faults
whenever possible. It always made me feel good.
It was a chief tenet of our patriotism that American presidents should
be virtuous — or, as we were more likely to say, “godly.” That
attitude persisted through the Vietnam War, when one of the chief charges
of the war’s critics was that Presidents Johnson and Nixon were “lying
to the American people.” It seemed a serious charge at the time,
so serious that I could hardly believe it even of Johnson, much as
I disliked him. Could a liar even get into the White House? Surely
our system was designed to weed out ungodly men before they achieved
For the same reason I was reluctant to believe the charges brought
against Nixon during the Watergate scandal. The idea of a mendacious
president was simply unbearable to me. And not only to me: in 1959
the American public was deeply shocked to learn that Dwight Eisenhower
had lied when he denied that a U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet
Union had been on an espionage mission.
Well, as Sam Goldwyn once observed, “We have all passed a lot
of water since then.” I was very naive well into my adult years,
but my trust was in keeping with the decorum of the time, including
its reticence about sex. Even the sophisticated pundit Walter Lippmann,
when he accused Johnson of lying about Vietnam, used the ironic euphemism “credibility
We’ve heard all too much about the “lessons” of
Vietnam and Watergate, but those two debacles did destroy the old decorum.
They both proved that presidents could not only lie, but lie with disastrous
results. We should have known this all along. Some of us did, but many
of us (including me) really didn’t. Even when, throwing off my
family’s loyalty to the Democratic Party in my early twenties,
I came to despise Franklin Roosevelt, I was made uneasy by conservatives
who insisted that he’d lied to get us into World War II. I still
preferred to think of liberalism in general as an honest mistake.
That gets harder and harder with the years. After a while, even honest
mistakes lose their innocence and have to be sustained by ignoring,
and eventually falsifying, the facts. Today I find many of the same
people who roasted Johnson and Nixon for lying defending the lies and
perjuries of Bill Clinton.
Worse yet, liberals — and their neoconservative cousins — have
developed a new tradition of actually praising certain presidential
lies. It has become a dogma of the progressive elements among us that
Franklin Roosevelt, faced with the threat of Hitler, had no choice
but to lie to the public, which was in an “isolationist” mood.
So it was actually virtuous of FDR to deceive, mislead, and withhold
vital information from the American people when they went to the polls.
Roosevelt didn’t just lie on one crucial occasion. He was a
totally devious man, as close students of his life have always known.
His defenders admit that he “misjudged” Stalin, but insist
that he was forced to make a wartime alliance with him. Actually, Roosevelt’s
beneficence to Uncle Joe began in 1933, when he extended diplomatic
recognition to the Soviet Union despite the well-publicized Soviet “agricultural
policy” of starving millions of Ukrainian peasants for resisting
forced collectivization. Roosevelt knew a fellow collectivist when
he saw one, and he recognized a natural ally in the Soviet dictator.
He even defended the Soviet constitution, assuring Americans that
it, like our own Constitution, guaranteed religious freedom. He praised
his own ambassador Joseph Davies’ absurd book, Mission
to Moscow, which justified even the Moscow show trials, and urged Warner Brothers
to make a major motion picture of it. In fact, Roosevelt trusted Stalin
more than he trusted Winston Churchill (not that Churchill warranted
anyone’s trust, either). Official wartime propaganda portrayed
the cunning monster as “Uncle Joe,” our democratic ally
against the Axis dictators.
Yet a recent article in The New Republic distinguished between Roosevelt’s “noble” lie
that drew America into World War II and Lyndon Johnson’s wicked
lies that drew America into Vietnam. Such defenses of FDR have become
standard. They show that sophisticated liberals now have no objection
to lying in anything they regard as a good cause. We’ve come
a long way from Honest Abe.
As a matter of fact, Honest Abe himself has undergone revisionism.
His myth has been undermined not by Confederate sympathizers, but by
one of his chief contemporary worshippers: Garry Wills. In his 1992
book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade
America, Wills argues
that Lincoln’s sternest critics had a point. One contemporary
newspaper accused Lincoln of “misstat[ing] the cause for which
[the Union soldiers] died,” namely, “to uphold [the] Constitution,” not
to free slaves. Wills doesn’t disagree.
The Gettysburg Address did indeed mislead Americans about the meaning
of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; Wills argues
that this “giant (if benign) swindle” was all to the good.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln subtly “corrected” the Constitution.
He “performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand
ever witnessed by the unsuspecting.”
Wills agrees with conservatives like M.E. Bradford and Willmoore Kendall,
who regard the Gettysburg speech as (in his words) a “clever
assault upon the constitutional past,” a “stunning verbal
coup,” even “a new founding of the nation.” Indeed,
he gloats that Lincoln got away with this “swindle,” which
has made possible the centralization of power the Framers of the Constitution
had tried to prevent. Wills acknowledges that Lincoln was “subverting
the Constitution,” but he thinks it deserved to be subverted.
It’s a curious transformation — not only of Honest Abe,
but also of Garry Wills, who, 30 years ago, was writing acidly about
Richard Nixon’s lies. But his praise of Lincoln’s “swindle” has
been warmly received by liberal opinion; it actually won a Pulitzer
Prize for history! Something has changed in the American ethos, and
we shouldn’t marvel that the elites are so forgiving of more
recent presidential swindles.
This column appeared originally in the Bonus Issue 2000 edition of SOBRAN'S:
The Real News of the Month.
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