So Just How Skilled at Lying Do We Americans Want Our President to Be? Some Thoughts from the Front Lines of Falsehood.

On the one hand, scientific proof is growing that George W. Bush is a very intelligent man. The argument centers on knowledge that has become so widespread that it’s something of a worldwide joke: the president is so good at, so at home with, so nonchalant about . . . lying. And, on the other … well, let’s reflect for a moment on the issue of leaders and lying.

Salon.com’s Tom Grieve gave us an example of wherefores of recent presidential lies earlier this month as he revisited Bush pronouncements in the past five years on how he feels about Osama bin Laden. Bush has said, variously:

Sept. 17, 2001: George W. Bush is asked if he wants Osama bin Laden dead. “I want justice,” he says. “There’s an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’”

March 13, 2002: At a press conference, Bush says that he doesn’t know if bin Laden is dead or alive. “You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him. . . . And I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don’t know where he is. I — I’ll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him.”

Oct. 13, 2004: “Gosh, I just don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden. It’s kind of one of those exaggerations.”

Jan. 31, 2006: “Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder — and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously.”

May 25, 2006: “I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner — you know, ‘Wanted dead or alive,’ that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted, and so I learned from that.”

July 4, 2006: The New York Times reports that the CIA last year disbanded a secret unit assigned to track down bin Laden and his top lieutenants in an effort to focus on “regional trends rather than on specific organizations or individuals.”

July 7, 2006: At a press conference in Chicago, Bush calls the Times report “just an incorrect story.” “I mean, we got a — we’re — we got a lot of assets looking for Osama bin Laden. So whatever you want to read in that story, it’s just not true, period.” Asked if he’s still on the hunt for bin Laden, the president says: “Absolutely. No ands, ifs or buts. And in my judgment, it’s just a matter of time, unless we stop looking. And we’re not going to stop looking so long as I’m the president.” Bush said he had announced regret over the “dead or alive” comment only because “my wife got on me for talking that way.”

But let’s be fair about this. President Bill Clinton wasn’t called Slick Willie because of his hair gel. In her Feb. 5, 2006, cover story on lying in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, science writer Robin Henig recalled watching a videotape of Clinton at a presidential news conference in early 1998. These were the early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. You probably remember the scene as well as I do, when the Prez shook his finger at the collective us and said, “I want you to listen to me. I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

With Henig as she viewed the tape was Dr. Paul Ekman, retired from the psych faculty at UCSan Francisco, creator of the Facial Action Coding System and author of the book, Telling Lies. Among the clues Ekman counsels us to look for in watching for the lie are (1) demeanor that is different from a person’s usual demeanor (2) “distancing language,” like referring to others more in the third person, and (3) “verbal hedges,” useful in buying time to figure out how to phrase the lie.

It’s all there in Mr. Clinton’s denial, Ekman told Henig. “I want you to listen to me.” Verbal hedge (like the shark in the cartoon, standing in the courtroom looking up at the judge and saying “Define ‘frenzy.’”). “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Distancing language. And there was, noted Ekman, an almost imperceptible softening of the president’s voice at the end of the “that woman” sentence. Demeanor departure. Ekman leaves the impression that a trained human lie-detector can only conclude that “That man did something nefarious with that woman.” In fact, said Ekman, the moment the press conference ended, he started getting calls from people he has trained, saying, “The President is lying!”

And yet the experts that Henig interviewed seem to be pretty unanimous that you wouldn’t want a president who couldn’t lie. Ekman is one of those. He ticks off three qualities needed to tell a lie: (1) the ability to think and plan moves ahead of time—that is, to think strategically. (2) to observe others therapeutically—to put yourself in their shoes. (3) to act like a grown-up—to manage your emotions.

Two Scottish primatologists have devised the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis. It contends that the bigger the neocortex, the better a creature is at deception. And the better the deception, the more social the species. The more social the species, the greater the intelligence. Which may be why, as Henig reports, researchers at the U of Southern California found that pathological liars have more white matters in their prefrontal cortexes that nonliars. Another researcher, Sean Spence at the U. of Sheffield, notes, “White matter is pivotal to the connectivity and cognitive function of the human brain.”

So are we verging on “what a liar you are” becoming not only a compliment but also a reason why a person might make a good president?

I very much like the perspective that Jeremy Campbell’s gray matter offered on all this in his book, The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood:

“The irony… is that lying cannot hope to succeed in its aim unless truth is the normal practice of a society. In the nineteenth century there was a sense that democracy, more than other forms of government, needed truthfulness if it was to increase and flourish, that mendacity in a politician was more to be deplored than another category of offense. The converse of that view is that in a system which draws much of its strength from candor, lies are all the more effective, all the more insidious. For that reason, so this argument goes, they will never be removed from our type of democratic community. But if lying becomes the norm, on the thesis that it softens the “cruelty” of life, it defeats its own purpose. Truth might then become more powerful than untruth, as in George Orwell’s bureaucratic nightmare, 1984, where a person who dared to speak the truth was so dangerous to the state as to be in urgent need of liquidation.”

I think this may be what I want in a president: a person immensely skilled at telling a whopper but who never does so without agonizing over the damage the telling nearly always does to the fabric of our shared social character.

I’m 99.9% convinced that Mr. Bush doesn’t meet my qualifications, and Mr. Clinton may not have either. Of course, we’ll probably never know. Mr. Clinton was a much more skilled liar than Mr. Bush has proven to be.

_________
Tom Grieve’s item is here: “Dead or alive, more or less”

Robin Henig’s article is here: “Looking for the Lie” [You will need to register with The New York Times, but it’s free.]

Jeremy Campbell’s book can be ordered here: The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood

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