Carl M. Cannon: From Washington to FDR to Nixon, presidents have always lied. Here’s what makes George W. Bush different.

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[Carl M. Cannon is White House correspondent for National Journal.]

In 1944, Harry Truman was asked by his friend and Senate colleague Owen Brewster what Franklin Roosevelt was really like. Truman hadn’t gotten to know his running mate very well, but the Democratic vice-presidential nominee had spent enough time around FDR to provide a succinct answer.

“He lies,” Truman replied.

At that point, the most consequential issue the president was untruthful about was his health. Roosevelt was failing rapidly, as his physicians knew, and as those around the White House could not help but notice. With the Allies opening a second front in Europe and island-hopping across the Pacific, the commander in chief was working at most four hours a day, and sometimes as little as one or two. On March 28 that year, Dr. Howard G. Bruenn, Roosevelt’s cardiologist, had given his diagnosis: hypertension, hypertensive heart disease, cardiac failure, and acute bronchitis. The president’s condition, Bruenn later explained to Jan Kenneth Herman, editor of Navy Medicine, was “god-awful.”

The American public, and the world, received a far different image: that of a jaunty, robust president preparing to crush Hitler and the Japanese empire while cruising to an unprecedented fourth term. Truman quickly became complicit in this deception. The Missouri senator—considered then and now a straight shooter—went to lunch at the White House on August 18 and told reporters afterward that Roosevelt “looked fine and ate a bigger lunch than I did.”

But Truman provided a different account in the privacy of his Senate office. “I had no idea he was in such feeble condition,” he confided to his military aide Harry Vaughan, noting that when the president poured cream into his coffee, more went into the saucer than into the cup. Winston Churchill had seen with his own eyes evidence of FDR’s physical decline the year before, in 1943, but raised no objection to the American administration’s deception—Roosevelt was too important to the war effort. That same year, at a conference in Tehran in which the Allies discussed opening new fronts against Nazi Germany, Churchill stressed the need to keep the Allies’ plans secret. To Joseph Stalin, he said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

“Churchill’s line is par for the course in wartime, when you have to keep your secrets to yourself,” Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, told me this summer when we discussed the morality, and the utility, of shading the truth in the White House. “Presidents lie for all kinds of reasons,” he added. “Richard Nixon lied because he was trying to save his presidency, which was imperiled by his misdeeds. Franklin Delano Roosevelt misled the country over things like Lend-Lease in order to advance a policy he thought would save the world, but which he knew would be difficult to sell politically. Honesty doesn’t necessarily make for an effective presidency … What the public has to judge is whether [presidents] are lying for the good of the country—or for their own good.”...

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