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.

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  1. You forgot “truthiness.”

  2. Hello, Matilda Fairbourne! I miss you every day.

  3. You forgot “truthiness.”

    Truth? Truth? You can’t handle the truth! I deride your truth-handling abilities, you non-truth-handler!

  4. I think one of the fundamental problems in the United States is that the rich and powerful ruling elites do not fear the people and so they are able to lie to them. If lies are allowed to go unpunished we can expect the same over and over, but if the liars in power fear for their jobs or their lives, I think we would be able to expect more truth.

  5. Damn you Nick! Damn you all to hell. How dare you tread upon Napoleon of the Stump’s historical image.

  6. All of those who oppose the war against MexiCatholic-Fascists don’t understand the true power that these religious fundys have. The war on Mexico is a just and righteous war to save America from those that would change us! When Polk leaves office you will have only one choice, Rudi Giuliani, for president. Only he will stand up to the MexiCatholic-Fascists!! Anybody who says that this war is false is nothing more than a lefty pacifist!!

  7. Nick,

    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.”

    You missed the Lincoln antics that go along with this one I disagree with Dr. Monroe in that these antics are what kept him from ever being reelected to the Congress, i.e., becoming so unpopular in Illinois as to not even bother running again.

    In his “Spot” resolutions of 1847, he called on Polk for proof of the president’s insistence that the war began when Mexicans shed American blood on American soil “That soil was not ours; and Congress did not annex or attempt to annex it.” Lincoln voted for a resolution that declared the war unnecessary and accused Polk of violating the Constitution in commencing it. He nonetheless voted to supply the American army and he did not support legislation that would have prohibited acquiring territory from Mexico as part of a peace settlement.

  8. Why did Abraham Lincoln hate America?

  9. James,

    “rich and powerful ruling elite”

    who constitutes this exactly? government officials…? and what are you endorsing….more government power?

    I will never understand this logic.

    The “Lets give all these corrupted officials more power but beg and plead them not to use it to benefit themselves” policy just doesnt work man.

  10. From President Polk’s old stomping ground comes the news that the nation’s doyenne of Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, is being displaced by Jim Glassman, who will henceforth be creating reality for real, instead of for profit, or AEI.

    Of course it could just be an advertorial ploy by Tech Central Onion.

  11. The lies politicians tell aren’t even that interesting, it’s those moments when they accidentally say some that is absolutely true without meaning to.

    My favorite was 10 or 15 years ago a prominent Democratic Senator, whose names escapes me, was in a heated discussion on some talk show talking about taxing the rich or regulating something or other. The point was that since people earned their money they were free to do with it what they pleased. In a moment of accidental clarity he retorted that “the government creates the money so it has the authority to regulate what you do with it.”

    This is like the “interstate commerce” clause on steriods…. or the “necessary and proper” clause on acid. Basically anything that is done with government produced money (which is pretty much everything) can be regulated by the government to any standard they see fit. In other words if you use our money (which nobody has any choice but to do) you have forfeited the right to free will.

    It is distgusting and vile but he was actually correct.

  12. Polk lied through omission, a disturbingly common characteristic of many of the “lies and propaganda” campaigns gathered in this volume.

    Astounding. A history of political lies in one volume. How did he choose?

    I mean, talk about a target-rich environment…

  13. “who constitutes this exactly? government officials…? and what are you endorsing….more government power?”

    I actually think that one of the fundamental mistakes that some Libertarians make is this inherited belief from the cold war that government is the only agent of authoritarianism, when I would say that big business and private power probably actually holds the greatest threat to freedom in the next 50 years.

  14. Yeah, well…Polk did it for the children. Just think what California would be like today if it were Mexico: garbage-strewn streets, dead dogs lying around bloated in the sun, wife-beaters, corruption, unemployment and so forth. There’s no doubt that, in spite of the racist treatment the Mexicans got after the annexation of their territory, they got a higher quality life by being annexed.

  15. Well, think that magical unicorns and the return of the mythical Atlantian race actually “holds the greatest threat to freedom” in the next 73 years, 5 months and 8 days.

    Baseless assertions are fun!

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