Supporters of President George W. Bush extol his honesty and personal virtue. Americans like a plainspoken leader, a straight shooter they can trust, we are told. Bill Clinton’s strained relationship to the truth dishonored the presidency and undermined our belief in government, his critics charged. For many, Clinton’s lies justified his impeachment and should have resulted in his removal from office.
Like many politicians, Clinton was adept at manipulating the truth. He certainly lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Whether or not his deceit justified impeachment, it inevitably engendered distrust and greater cynicism about politics. Political advocacy is, in many instances, a case of putting the best possible face on highly disputed questions. But there are limits. The line between putting forward the best argument and outright distortion or lying is notoriously elusive, but it exists. When political decisions place a country on the path to war and put American and other lives at risk, the expectation of truth telling on the part of statesmen should be very high. In leading a democracy into war, leaders have a moral obligation to tell as much of the truth as possible. Perhaps, for reasons of security, a president cannot tell the whole truth, but he must not deliberately deceive those who have a right to know. If the case for war has been manipulated or falsified, a leader should be held accountable.