I’m not talking about the type of presidential lie that falls into its own special category because it deals with matters of international diplomacy, if not national security, such as when Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that the American spy aircraft that the Soviets shot down in 1960 was just a weather plane, until it turned out that pilot Francis Gary Powers had been captured alive. Or when Obama just a week ago said he had no knowledge that we have been tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone for about a dozen years. Or even Bill Clinton’s infamous tall-tale to cover up his own philandering: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
I am also not talking about the type of “lie” that is based on a conspiracy paranoia, such as: “George W. Bush knew there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, but he sent our young men and women into war anyway.” Really? So when Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton – while he was president, no less, before even Bush got anywhere near Washington, all proclaimed that there was no doubt Saddam Hussein had WMDs, were they part of that same conspiracy, too? Nor about another “lie” that Obama told while campaigning – one that has certainly disappointed me, but that I still don’t consider an outright lie: he said during the debates against John McCain that he would make energy independence his top priority when elected. He didn’t. He made it all about health care once he got in – and even that I chalk up to a shift in priorities, not an actual lie.
Nonetheless, if we begin with the premise that lies are innately bad – and they are – we can rank them according to how bad they are, just as we can do with, say, crimes. And Obama has told one of the worst types of lies of all: not a lie to cover up a delicate matter of diplomacy, or marital infidelity, but a lie about proposed sweeping legislation, and one that he did not simply mutter once, but that he repeated, over and over again: “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor, period. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, period.” Not true.
Many high profile Obama supporters, including Clarence Page and Bill Maher, have called this a lie. Maher added that he doesn’t mind that it was a lie if the lie was the only way to pass Obamacare, but that it is a lie nonetheless.
Curiously, Bill O’Reilly takes a contrarian view, that Obama did not actually lie, just that he is so out of touch with details that he didn’t even know that what his statements were false. I can see that theory applying to Ronald Reagan and the arms-for-hostages scheme of the Iran-Contra scandal, and not because Reagan is my all-time favorite president. Rather, because Reagan was famously a hands-off, big-picture kind of guy, who easily could have left those pesky details to his underlings. But Obamacare was the centerpiece of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is what he vowed to accomplish against all odds, with no less passion than Abraham Lincoln had for abolishing slavery. Can you imagine if Lincoln had explained the Emancipation Proclamation by saying: “if you like your slave, you can keep your slave”?
Some of you reading this column right now might say: “How naive are you? Don’t you know that politicians lie all the time?” Yes, I do. Even presidential candidates lie: like Al Gore when he said he invented the Internet. Like John Kerry, when he said he had been to game six of the Mets-Red Sox world series in 1986 at Shea Stadium (he was at a dinner in Massachusetts that evening). Like Hillary Clinton. When she repeatedly told a story of running for cover to avert gunfire in Bosnia, when footage of her trip revealed otherwise. “I misremembered,” was her quintessentially-Clintonian response. As for Mitt Romney – he didn’t acquire the “he never met a lie he didn’t like” tagline by accident.
But those precious few individuals, 43 of them, to date (Grover Cleveland, who served nonconsecutive terms, counts twice), who made it into the hallowed halls of the White House, are a special breed. Not because they were genetically superior to everyone else, but because of the life-changing experience of rising to that exalted level. Generally, they do not tell the types of lies that are sustained, repeated misinformation about proposed policy.
As a staunch defender of presidents in general, I usually forgive them just about everything. And even Obama’s lie is something for which I might forgive him, depending on how he handles himself in the aftermath, but it is not something that I, or anyone else, should simply sweep under the rug as not being a big deal.