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The Fascinating Story of How Shameless Right-Wing Lies Came to Rule Our Politics

From Nixon's plumbers to James O'Keefe's video smears: How political lying became normal.
 
 
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The following article first appeared in  Mother Jones. For more great content from Mother Jones, sign up for their  free email updates here.

It takes two things to make a political lie work: a powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it. The former has always been with us: Kings, corporate executives, politicians, and ideologues from both sides of the aisle have been entirely willing to bend the truth when they felt it necessary or convenient. So why does it seem as if we're living in a time of overwhelmingly brazen deception? What's changed?

 

Today's marquee fibs almost always evolve the same way: A tree falls in the forest -- say, the claim that Saddam Hussein has "weapons of mass destruction," or that Barack Obama has an infernal scheme to parade our nation's senior citizens before death panels. But then a network of media enablers helps it to make a sound -- until enough people believe the untruth to make the lie an operative part of our political discourse.

For the past 15 years, I've spent much of my time deeply researching three historic periods -- the birth of the modern conservative movement around the Barry Goldwater campaign, the Nixon era, and the Reagan years -- that together have shaped the modern political lie. Here's how we got to where we are.

PROLOGUE: Just Making Stuff Up

When an explosion sunk the USS Maine off the coast of Havana on February 15, 1898, the New York Journal claimed two days later, "Maine Destroyed By Spanish: This Proved Absolutely By Discovery of the Torpedo Hole." There was no torpedo hole. The Journal had already claimed that a Spanish armored cruiser, "capable, naval men say, of demolishing the great part of New York in less than two hours," was on its way. "WAR! SURE!" a banner headline announced.

The instigator was a politically ambitious publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Kicked out of Harvard for partying, and eager to make a name for himself outside the shadow of his mining-magnate father, he made his way to New York, where he led the way in a sensationalist new style of newspaper publication -- "yellow journalism." In a fearsome rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer, he chose as his vehicle the sort of manly imperialism to which the Washington elites of the day were certainly sympathetic -- although far too cautiously for Hearst's taste. "You furnish the pictures," he supposedly telegraphed a reporter, "and I'll furnish the war." The tail wagged the dog. At a time when the only way to communicate rapidly across long distances was via telegraph, it proved easy to make up physical facts.

More than six decades later, that still seemed to be the case. "Some of our boys are floating around in the water," Lyndon Johnson told congressmen to goad them into passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing war in 1964, after a supposed attack on an American PT boat. "Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish," LBJ observed later, after the deed was done. That resolution inaugurated a decade of official American military activities in Southeast Asia (unofficially, we had been carrying out secret acts of war for years). A full-scale air war began the following February, after the enemy shelled the barracks of 23,000 American "advisers"  in a South Vietnamese town called Pleiku. But that was just a pretext. "Pleikus are like streetcars," LBJ's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said -- if you miss one, you can always just hop on another. The bombing targets had been in the can for months, even as LBJ was telling voters on the campaign trail, "We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."

 
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