09/18/2006 09:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Detecting and Confronting Political Lies

Frank Rich and I appear to have been thinking in a similar vein this week. His observation: "You'd think that after having been caught concocting the scenario that took the nation to war in Iraq, the White House would mind the facts now. But this administration understands our culture all too well." According to Rich, the President banks on the American people's tolerance for the absence of truth. So, why should even an administration down in the polls try a different tack? They figure: "If you're a White House stuck in a quagmire in an election year, what's the percentage in starting to tell the truth now? It's better to game the system."

The truth about lying is that people do it so long as it works. Often what appears a tolerance for lies stems from not learning to reliably detect and deal with them. It's a science - one too many of us don't adequately study. In his book, Telling Lies, Paul Ekman wrote, "In many deceits the victim overlooks the liar's mistakes (leaks), giving ambiguous behavior the best reading, collusively helping to maintain the lie."

Some Democrats have been gifting their opposition in this way, allowing liars to bamboozle the electorate. Kerry let the swift boat lies pass largely unaddressed as if they'd be detected by any thinking person and look what happened. Unchallenged lies have a way of building upon each other a deceptive, sturdy edifice. Early stone by stone intervention is the best antidote. But first, you have to know how to detect lies. So here are a few of the less benign forms from my study of pathological politics and Ekman's excellent work:

Lies of Shifting Context

Liars have "combinatorial minds." They break down ideas, concepts or words into their basic components, and then recombine them in a variety of useful ways. Sound familiar? (e.g., Cut-and-Run Liberals). Or they shift the context so that a lie looks more like the truth. As Rich pointed out, Dick Cheney does this often.

From September 10 Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: But again, wasn't your judgment overly rosy? "Greeted as liberators." Now we're not...

VICE PRES. CHENEY: You, you gave me a choice, Tim, "Will you be greeted as occupiers or liberators?" and I said, "We'll be greeted as liberators."

Here we see V. P. Cheney assigning fault to Tim Russert for only providing two choices - liberators or occupiers. In that context of limited choice, Cheney implies he had to choose one. So it must have been Russert's fault.

Another shift in context fabrication followed:

MR. RUSSERT: But I said what about a long, costly, bloody battle, and you said it's unlikely to unfold that way.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: And that's true within the context of the battle against the Saddam Hussein regime and his forces. That went very quickly. It was over in a relatively short period of time. What obviously has developed after that, the insurgency, has been long and costly and bloody, no question.

Within the context of the battle against Saddam, Cheney argues he was accurate. He essentially bifurcated the context of war into a battle and an insurgency and made himself right on the former. And, as he expected, was not challenged on the latter. Ingenious really.


Hyperbole is a favorite with the Bush Administration. Condoleezza Rice had us thinking we'd be snuffed out in a mushroom cloud if we didn't go to war. And now, the latest is the President's list, we are in the "decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation." It's only 2006! Usually historians decide these things. And if we are in so significant a struggle already, then why are we doing such a poor job of winning it? We seem, instead, to be in the definitive war against dishonesty in American democracy.

Blame Diffusion

This is current favorite. The Path to 9/11, as most now know, was an effort to dump a substantial amount of the blame on Bill Clinton. If they got their way. some of it has stuck - maybe even enough so that Bush can cart out Osama's name again to scare everyone before the election. After all, the blame for his continued freedom is, we're to believe, shared by many people. George Tenet is now holding the pre-Iraq war intelligence bag and Armitage has taken a conveniently timed fall for nearly everyone involved in the Valerie Plame fiasco.

Concealing versus Falsification Lies

The Bush Administration conceals more often than it falsifies. Concealing involves telling as little as possible. If caught, those who've concealed the truth are seen as less reprehensible than overt liars, even if the outcome is just as harmful. And it works better for people with bad memories about what they said or did earlier. Falsifying involves making things up. It's easier to catch falsifiers. You just go back to what they said or did earlier that doesn't jibe with the present story. That's why Scooter Libby is in trouble and so many around him aren't.

Concealment also has many available excuses, such as a supposed plan to reveal all later, the target's own protection or best interests, ignorance, memory problems and misunderstanding. These last three are why we were treated to the "He's and idiot" trial balloon last month. If he's an idiot, he can't be expected to understand what he's doing or remember what he did.

Dodging the Truth

Donald Rumsfeld has a handy way of dodging the truth. If a question is asked that he doesn't like, he asks himself a different one - often a series. Rice has picked up this habit too. I've yet to hear someone in the press say, "That was an intriguing little interview you just did with yourself, but it didn't address my question."

Another truth-dodge method involves defining a leaked expression before others define it for you. Our bodies emit clues to our lies. The most effective liars know this. So when they sense themselves leaking clues to their deceit, they draw from a repertoire of more acceptable emotional labels, including sadness, concern, perturbation or empathy and say that's what they're feeling. Some like George Bush and Virginia's George Allen, avoid answering tough questions by using emotional diversion - quoting a mother who has lost a child to war telling us to "Get them," or "Stay the course," as if mothers have anything to say about U.S. military strategy. That one is just shameless.

As we approach a very important election, we'd better have our dissembling antennae up and expect a lot more from a largely immune-to-lies or scared-of-their-shadows press that just can't or won't challenge, "Was that a bit of blame diffusion, Dr. Rice?" "Can you answer the question I asked, Secretary Rumsfeld?" "Isn't this just gratuitous emotional diversion, Mr. President?" "You shifted the context there didn't you, Mr. Vice President?" "Your 'compassion' sure looks a lot like anger, Sir," "Leaving grieving mothers out of this Senator, what's your plan?" Then maybe Frank Rich will have much needed company on political liars' tails and they might just have to resort to some semblance of the truth.