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When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences

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When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences [Hardcover]

Eric Alterman
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 23, 2004 Penguin Lives Series
Lying has become pervasive in American life—but what happens when the falsehoods are perpetrated by the Oval Office? As the lies told by our government become more and more intricate, they begin to weave a tapestry of deception that creates problems far larger than those lied about in the first place.

Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie is a compelling historical examination of four specific post-World War II presidential lies whose consequences were greater than could ever have been predicted. FDR told the American people that peace was secure in Europe, setting the stage for McCarthyism and the cold war. John F. Kennedy’s unyielding stance during the Cuban missile crisis masked his secret deal with the Soviet Union. Misrepresented aggression at the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese gave LBJ the power to start a war. Finally, Ronald Reagan’s Central American wars ended in the ignominy of the Iran-contra scandal.

In light of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, which Alterman examines in the book’s conclusion, When Presidents Lie is a warning—one more relevant today than ever before—that the only way to prevent these lies is America’s collective demand for truth.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Mendacity has increasingly become a journalistic touchstone for analyzing America's international relations. Alterman, best known as a columnist for the Nation and author of What Liberal Media?, presents his case for what he calls four key lies U.S. presidents told world citizens during the 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt lied, he says, about the nature of the Yalta accords, creating the matrix for a half-century of anti-Soviet paranoia. John F. Kennedy lied about the compromise that settled the Cuban missile crisis, and kept the Cold War alive by humiliating the U.S.S.R. Lyndon Johnson lied about the second Tonkin Gulf incident, and moved the U.S. down a slippery slope that destroyed his hopes of creating a Great Society. Ronald Reagan lied about his policies in Central America, creating a secret and illegal foreign policy that resulted in "the murder of tens of thousands of innocents." Alterman interprets this pattern as a consequence of mistaken American beliefs: belief in providence watching over the U.S., belief in American moral superiority abroad and belief, unfulfilled, in unyielding commitment to democracy at home—all of these things are easy to stump on, but impossible, Alterman argues, to demonstrate. These "delusions" in turn create an unrealistic picture of the world, one immune to education regarding reality. All of this, predictably enough, leads to George W. Bush, whose administration is dismissed as a "post-truth presidency." The American-centered perspective of Alterman's case studies overlooks the many times when the U.S. was outmaneuvered (or deceived) by other players to a point where truth became obscured by means other than executive mendacity. Alterman also allows little room for mistakes or plain incompetence on the part of the administrations in question. But his conceit is otherwise carefully and compellingly executed, and sets the stage for debate.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

In 1964, as Congress prepared to vote on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the use of force in Vietnam, Senator William Fulbright said that he simply did not "normally assume" that "a President lies to you." That was a mistake, according to Alterman's compendious history of Presidential lying. Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, refers to the Bush Administration as a "post-truth Presidency," but in general he is hardest on Democrats. He writes of Roosevelt's "deliberate mendacity" at Yalta and Kennedy's "nasty double game" during the Cuban missile crisis—tactics that, respectively, he claims, started and deepened the Cold War. Alterman argues that such behavior, whatever its justification, invariably exacts a price—L.B.J.'s lies about the Tonkin incident consumed his Presidency—and that the greatest dangers come when an Administration starts to believe its own lies.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

Product details

  • Series: Penguin Lives Series
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (September 23, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670032093
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670032099
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.5 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #565,815 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The buck stops here, but not the truth... January 21, 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Since the Watergate scandal, the assumption among the American press and people that the president always tells the truth has been destroyed. The first Bush's promise of "No New Taxes" and Clinton's wrangling over the Lewinski affair have only served to reinforce the image of presidents lying over various matters in order to win re-elections and settle political scores with other politicians. This book, so aptly titled, ignores these three well-known cases of presidential lying, and instead focuses on four specific cases where a president lied regarding an area of government where the president really does not need to lie; foreign policy. All four cases are unique in that in each one, the president knowingly told what he knew was wrong, even when there many who would have supported the truth, and in doing so, committed the US to go down a road more costly in terms of money, prestige, blood, and respect. The four cases are FDR's public comments on the Yalta agreement, JFK's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, LBJ's play on the Tonkin Gulf incidents, and Reagan's handling of the various proxy wars in Central America. In all these cases, all part of the Cold War, the president in charge chose a course of action knowing that it was the wrong course, but trusted their own ability to juggle and evade the consequences in the future. All were wrong, and either their administration, or the following one, paid the consequences.

The book presents its cases in chronological order, and is quite good at showing how one case eventually helped spawn the other, thus providing great transitions. The book is also written quite objectively, and takes into accounts sources both public and private, from both sides of the Cold War.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars September 18, 2015
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Must read for every American to learn what unethical acts American President's do while in office.
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4.0 out of 5 stars " A must Read " September 19, 2015
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American Politics is fascinating, refreshing to read a book of this quality.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars October 7, 2015
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great read
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Riviting tale of the lies and deceit of those you may have voted for. Things are as they seem and the truth is best served by telling it.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars December 25, 2016
By wspnosa
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A good read.........THNX
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A valuable resource as well as an eye-opener July 2, 2016
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I read this book when it came out in 2004 and have referred to it many times since. We need this clarity now more than ever.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Case Studi s. December 7, 2016
By Marco
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Excellent case studies.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding and Depressing
This is an excellently written book that is concise and devastatingly accurate in describing how degenerate the American political system is. Read more
Published on May 17, 2015 by H. Campbell
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read
So three democratic POTUSes are responsible for our current political catastrophe. Whudda thunk it...

FDR, JFK and LBJ. Read more
Published on October 6, 2013 by Xanadu
4.0 out of 5 stars Some Great Case Studies of Political Science
I highly recommend this book for its studies of several recent (post WWII) situations in which circumstances caused the US executive power to lie or to let itself be deluded. Mr. Read more
Published on May 28, 2012 by Seoigheach
3.0 out of 5 stars Solid overview of modern presidential lying, but poorly conceived...
First, the highlights:

For people fairly acquainted with each of the four highlighted episodes, there is not a lot new here in terms of facts, but the analysis of... Read more
Published on October 31, 2008 by S. J. Snyder
3.0 out of 5 stars Band-aids for the Republic
While I appreciate Alterman's accounts of the various costs of the official lying, I'm a little mystified at his conclusions about such lying. Read more
Published on March 4, 2007 by Publius
4.0 out of 5 stars Cold War Paranoia all around!
Altho, the prevarications of earlier presidents are not included, this book weaves a fastenating tale of how one lie begets another, leaving a trail of falsehoods paving the past. Read more
Published on February 18, 2007 by John V. Vaisvil
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