Oh, Those Presidential 'White' Lies!

Henry Adams, I believe it was, observed in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century that the succession of presidents from Washington to Grant had pretty well disproved the theory of evolution. Lesser and more recent wits have chronicled the decline in veracity among presidents, from Washington, who could not tell a lie, to Clinton who could not tell the truth, to “W,” who cannot tell the difference. Or to put it another way, Washington could not tell a lie and Washington has been making up for that defect ever since.

But that may be giving too much credit to Washington the man. He may have been an honest and honorable man, but he must have stretched the truth a bit when conditions required, or he never would have gotten as far as he did, either in the army or in politics. Take that cherry tree caper, for example. If little George got caught red-handed, with axe in hand and the tree lying on the ground, I’m sure he had at least a semi-plausible explanation to offer the father of the father of our country.

“Verily, father, I cannot tell a lie. Yea, I did chop down yon cherry tree. But I made my decision carefully, based on reliable intelligence reports that yon tree harbored nests of hornets, with stingers armed with poisons of mass destruction (PMD). The peace and the security of the plantation were at stake.” And his father, being an 18th Century rustic and lacking the worldly-wise sophistication of 21st Century Americans, no doubt believed him.

In other words, George Washington may have told “white lies,” such as our leaders tell us to this very day, though nearly always for our own good. I have yet, however, to see a good definition of a “white lie” and what exactly separates lies that are white from those that are black or blue or other colors and hues. Perhaps the mother of one of our presidents came as close as anyone to explaining it. When Jimmy Carter, who promised he would never lie to us, began to emerge as a serious presidential candidate, reporters began descending upon Plains, Georgia, exploring the candidate’s background. One in particular questioned the ex-governor’s mother as to whether or not he had ever lied, even as a child.

Well, no, “Miss Lillian” assured him, surely Jimmy didn’t lie, except, of course, for “white” lies. “Jimmy told white lies all the time.” But when pressed as to what a “white lie” was, she seemed to lose interest in the subject. Suddenly she asked the reporter if he remembered that when she had greeted him a short while earlier she had said, “It’s good to see you.” Yes, the reporter said, he recalled that.

“That was a while lie,” she explained.

But what about Miss Lillian’s famous son? Did Jimmy Carter keep his campaign promise that he would never lie to us? Incredible as it may seem, I think Carter had a rather good record in truth telling. He said a number of things some of us may have regarded as foolish and/or naïve. And he may have embellished the truth a bit from time to time. But offhand, I can’t think of any outright lie he told. Perhaps that’s why he served only one term.

At least Carter showed a greater respect for the truth than a good many of his predecessors. Take Harry Truman, for example. On August 9, 1945, Mr. Truman made the following incredible remark: “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.”

The world should still note the description of “Hiroshima, a military base.” Did it somehow escape Mr. Truman’s attention that there was a city there, too? And it is especially ironic, considering Truman’s later reputation for “candor,” that he could tell the world he had dropped the atomic bomb in the middle of a heavily populated city “to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.”

But there was a Japanese army base in Hiroshima, so perhaps Harry was only stretching the truth a few miles. Maybe it was just another of those “white” lies.

Now we have George Bush, in the third year of non-discovery of those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, telling us that he started a war there to lay “the foundation for peace.” You don’t suppose our president is lying to us, do you? Or is he just stretching the truth a bit far? Well, maybe it’s not a joke, after all.

Maybe this George really can’t tell the difference.

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.