You Said What?

A happy history of lies and propaganda


Here's a history test no one should fail: Name a president whose "only reading materials were government documents and Bible scriptures" and whose tenure was linked to an increasingly unpopular war started under morally murky—if not clearly phony—circumstances.

That would be James K. Polk, who pushed for war with Mexico in 1846 after the Mexican army killed American soldiers in disputed territory along the Rio Grande River. As recounted in You Said What? (Harper Paperbacks), Polk "began to prepare his declaration of war, at no time recognizing that…the attack had occurred in disputed land. By not addressing the point, he was able to make the strongest case possible to a skeptical Congress."

Polk lied through omission, a disturbingly common characteristic of many of the "lies and propaganda" campaigns gathered in this volume. One hundred and 20 years later, another president, Lyndon Johnson, took advantage of the fog surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident to ratchet up the American military presence in Vietnam. What's more, Johnson systematically pursued a "policy of minimum candor" when discussing U.S. aims and troop commitments: "He left office branded a liar because he could not tell the whole truth about the war."

Editor Bill Fawcett, whose previous collections include "How to Lose a Battle," proceeds from the useful premise that "the lies told in an era give us some real insights into history." Short but well-researched entries cover topics from legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley's invention of assassination plots by hippies at the 1968 Democratic National Convention to Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke's Pulitzer Prize-winning invention of an eight-year-old heroin junkie to the tobacco industry's varied and insidious attempts to convince the public that cigarettes were harmless.

There's a refreshing libertarian edge to much of the material, especially the ways in which governments baldly manipulate the truth in wartime. "In war," Winston Churchill is quoted, "truth should be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies."

The Food and Drug Administration comes in for well-deserved abuse for putting politics ahead of science, as it did in the case of t-PA, a "clot busting" drug that was kept off the market in the 1980s for no good reason. The perpetrators of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, who monstrously withheld treatment from hundreds of infected black men, are similarly taken to the woodshed.

Even when the topics are as light and superficial as Eric Clapton's "undying but temporary passion for Patti Boyd-Harrison"—he wrote "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight" for her but their marriage didn't last—"You Said What?" performs a public service. We've got more access to more information today than ever before, which can be incredibly liberating—no one has a monopoly on knowledge anymore—but it also demands that each of us be careful about the information we get. By reminding us of past episodes of dissembling, manipulation and even good-natured idiocy, Fawcett edifies even as he entertains.

And Fawcett also reminds us that sometimes liars get their comeuppance. The Whig Party, which had opposed James Polk's "unnecessary war," took the White House in next election and Young Hickory "passed away 103 days after leaving office, the shortest post-presidency on record."

Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of reason. This originally appeared in the Sunday, December 9 edition of The New York Post.