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Forgivable lies are those meant to keep the nation from harm. Some consider the National Security Agency's lies about the scope of domestic spying to be in this category because they protect us from terrorists, says Uravic, author of "Lying, Cheating Scum. Unforgivable lies fall into the Nixonian "I am not a crook" category, Uravic says. Those are lies meant to cover up crimes, incompetence or protect a president's political future.

President Lyndon Johnson, for example, kept the full cost of spending on the Vietnam War from Congress and the public to preserve his political power, Uravic says. The ultimate test of whether the American public will accept a lie from a president is if the nation determines that the lie serves the national interests.

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That distinction is why Bill Clinton remains popular, and George W. Bush remains reviled for his "lie," says Allan Cooper, a political scientist and historian at Otterbein University in Ohio. In a nationally televised address in , Bush said that invading Iraq was necessary "to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.


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Clinton told the nation that he did "not have sexual relations with that woman. Obama's statement will be judged by the same standard: Did it help the country, or did he say it just to save his bacon? Obama apologized for saying people could keep their insurance if they like it. But some Americans who buy policies on the private market recently received cancellation notices because their plans don't meet Obamacare requirements for more comprehensive care.

Americans may forgive Obama if Obamacare improves their lives, says Christopher J.

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Galdieri, who teaches a course on the U. Will George W. Bush's reputation ever recover from the accusation that he led the nation into war under false pretenses? It's hard to say from history. Several presidents were accused of deceiving the American public to sell military action, says David Contosta, a history professor at Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania.

President James Polk lied to Congress in -- claiming Mexico had invaded the United States -- because he was determined to take the Southwest from Mexico. That lie led to the Mexican-American War, Contosta says. That lie led to the Spanish-American war. One popular president got caught telling a lie about a failed military action but his popularity remains intact. Some presidents were so deceitful that they even lied to their friends. Franklin Roosevelt was such a president. But even his allies couldn't bank on honesty.


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  • Roosevelt told three different men that he wanted them to be his next vice president during the Democratic national convention in Then he picked a fourth man, Harry Truman, for the office, says David Barrett, a political science professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. The lost art of the quotable speech. Roosevelt's deceitfulness hasn't stopped historians from widely picking him as one of nation's three greatest presidents, along with Lincoln and Washington.

    Perhaps they and ordinary Americans forgive presidents who lie because there's something in human nature that believes a leader needs to be cunning. Sure, we tell our children about Washington cutting down the cherry tree. But then we close the children's book and turn on the TV to admire the lethal duplicity of a leader like the mafia patriarch Vito Corleone in the classic film "The Godfather.

    We want our presidents to have a little gangster in them. It's the presidential paradox that scholars Thomas Cronin and Michael Genovese talked about in their recent book, "The Paradoxes of the American Presidency. The most sublime execution of presidential deception comes when a president discovers that he doesn't have to lie to deceive. Why lie when a simple misimpression will do, says James Hoopes, an ethics in business professor at Babson College in Massachusetts.

    The Science of Deception

    These presidents learn from Machiavelli, who said that the Prince must be a "fox and lion" -- a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify enemies who would trap him, Hoopes says. President Andrew Jackson foxily campaigned on a lie insisting that he was for a "judicious tariff" which to Southern ears in the presidential election meant a low tariff. After Jackson was elected, though, Congress passed a high tariff that prompted outraged Southern leaders to talk about nullification and secession, Hoopes says.

    If you still think you want a leader who is always honest, consider the fate of one recent president. He also ordered a secret paramilitary mission to seize gunpowder stores in Bermuda that failed only because another secret rebel mission had gotten there first but nobody bothered to tell Washington. Throughout the war, Washington wrote reports inflating his troop strength that were designed to fall into the hands of traitors within his own ranks or agents hiding among the British.

    George Washington Was a Master of Deception - The Atlantic

    During the brutal winter of —78 at Valley Forge, with his troops starving, freezing, and dwindling in number , Washington penned fake documents that referred to phantom infantry and cavalry regiments to convince British General Sir William Howe that the rebels were too strong to attack. It worked. Had Howe known the truth and pressed his advantage, the Continental Army might not have survived the winter.

    The deception was convincing, and it helped win the war. Washington wrote later that victory depended on fooling even his own troops. Meanwhile, in Paris, Benjamin Franklin secured pivotal French support for the war through a combination of diplomacy and duplicity. Wearing homespun clothes and a coonskin cap, Franklin carefully cultivated his image as a virtuous and simple countryman seeking independence from the domineering British—a ploy that capitalized on French views of the British and made him wildly popular in French social circles.

    At the same time, Franklin waged a covert propaganda campaign from his Paris basement, where he set up a printing press and wrote articles designed to sway opinion across Europe. A printer by trade, Franklin even imported European paper and type to make his documents look more authentic.

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    In , for example, he wrote a fake letter from a German prince to the commander of mercenary troops fighting with the British in America in which he complains he is being cheated from money owed to him and tells the commander to let wounded soldiers die so the British will pay more. In , Franklin created a forgery of a Boston newspaper that included fake local news and even fake advertisements.

    The story was picked up and used by Whig opponents of the war in Britain. The first is that deception almost always unravels. Washington never expected his deceits to last long. They were used to buy time—holding enemies at bay for days, weeks, maybe months. Franklin operated on a longer timetable to influence opinion and secure alliances during the war, but he never assumed his lies would remain intact.