LADIES and gentlemen: Presidents do lie. Anybody who claims differently doesn't know his or her history.
This fact makes the debate about the impeachment of President Clinton so surreal. You'd think from the coverage that presidents never lied. Or, if they did, they never lied in as egregious a way as Clinton.
President Clinton lied about an affair with an intern. Other presidents have lied about things far more serious.
John Kennedy lied about the missile gap, claiming that the Soviets' nuclear arsenal was larger than the United States', when, in fact, it wasn't.
Lyndon Johnson lied about the war in Vietnam, a war that killed more than 58,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese combatants and civilians.
In the 1840s, James Polk lied us into the Mexican War. Determined to obtain California for the United States, thereby extending the country's borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Polk offered to buy the land from Mexico for $15 million. When the Mexicans demurred, Polk decided that if they wouldn't sell us California, he would take it.
In 1846, he ordered a small force under Gen. Zachary Taylor to occupy an area long claimed by Mexico near the Texas border. When the Mexicans attacked, Polk falsely told the American people that the enemy had shed American blood on American soil. Whigs such as Abraham Lincoln howled in Congress to protest the president's deceptiveness.
Polk's machinations were easily matched by Teddy Roosevelt's. Succeeding to the presidency after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt was determined to win the White House in his own name in the 1904 election.
Although the pundits predicted he was a shoo-in, Roosevelt was pessimistic. To ensure victory, he settled on a dramatic plan to begin the building of a transoceanic canal, a dream of American expansionists. In 1903, he offered Colombia millions of dollars for the right to construct a canal through Panama, then a part of Colombia. But the Colombian Senate turned him down.
Furious, Roosevelt connived to begin a revolution in Panama in the hope of winning a quick deal with the new government's leaders. Critics cried foul, but the revolution succeeded, and the digging for the canal began in time for the 1904 election.
Roosevelt adamantly denied having anything to do with the revolution, but many Americans rightly suspected he was behind it. He won in one of the greatest landslides in American history. (Seven years later, Roosevelt seemed to acknowledge his role in the affair. "I took the canal zone and let Congress debate," he boasted in a speech at the University of California, "and while the debate goes on, the canal does also.")
Teddy's cousin, Franklin, was as crafty as TR, probably more so. FDR's great lie came in the course of a radio address in September 1941 after a German attack on the U.S. destroyer, the Greer.
FDR told the American people that the attack had been unprovoked. The facts were otherwise. Since the spring, Roosevelt had been carrying on a secret operation in the Atlantic to help protect British shipping. The Greer, as part of the operation, was stalking a German sub for hours, radioing the British with the U-boat's location.
Presidents generally have not lied about their sex lives, because no one dared ask such questions. But they misled the country repeatedly about other aspects of their private lives, particularly their health.
Chester Arthur lied when he said he did not have Bright's disease; Grover Cleveland, cancer; Woodrow Wilson, two strokes; Coolidge, a heart attack; FDR, hypertension; Eisenhower, a heart attack; and Kennedy, Addison's disease.
In each case, the president resorted to deception so the public wouldn't lose confidence in his ability to finish his term. Some, like Wilson and Eisenhower, might never have been elected. (Unknown to the public, Wilson suffered two strokes in the decade before he ran for president; Ike suffered a heart attack three years before he ran.)
Facing facts, we have to admit that presidents have done an awful lot of lying. So what exactly is President Clinton guilty of that his predecessors weren't? Well, he lied to us on national television about sex, and he might have lied about it under oath in a civil proceeding and before a federal grand jury.
That's what the scandal comes down to.
Each of us must decide whether his offenses, given the context of history, merits impeachment or a lesser rebuke.
I wish Clinton had simply told the truth, as Grover Cleveland did when he was accused of an illicit sexual affair. I think it was outrageous that he cheated on his wife and had sex with a young intern. I want a president who's more like George Washington than Hugh Hefner.
But impeach him for telling lies? No, I don't think so - not so long as he comes clean.
One president who told lies, Richard Nixon, was caught and driven from office. But he was guilty of far more than just telling lies.
Historian Rick Shenkman is the author of "Presidential Ambition: How Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done," scheduled to be published by HarperCollins in January.
Pub Date: 9/27/98