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.
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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.
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