Is Racking Up “Frequent Liar Miles”
January 18, 2003
By Dennis Hans
Johnson is remembered for lying about Vietnam, Richard Nixon
for lying about Watergate, Bill Clinton for lying about adultery.
George W. Bush is known as a “straight shooter.”
What’s wrong with that picture? Bush has, after all, racked
up more “frequent liar miles” than any other politician in
Not familiar with “frequent liar miles”? I coined the expression
to pay tribute to the staying power of Bush’s lies. After
all, a lie is of no use to the teller if it is promptly branded
a lie and the teller a liar. Not only does he not benefit
from the lie, his now-tarnished image makes it more difficult
to get anyone to believe subsequent lies.
Call it the Saddam Syndrome: A guy gets caught in a few lies
and before you know it nothing he says is taken at face value.
All the good will is gone, as if Saddam never shook hands
with Donald Rumsfeld or made common cause with Ronald Reagan
against evil Iran. These days, reporters shout “Show me the
weapons!” and pundits deride him as Mr. Cheat and Retreat.
Our news media — without the imprimatur of a formal U.N. resolution
— have even erected a “no lie” zone over Iraq and shoot down
Hussein’s howlers before they can infect international audiences.
In stunning contrast, Bush’s lies are broadcast as truth.
They originate at the White House and are transmitted to network
amplification centers in New York and Washington, at which
point the lie leaves the president’s control. He then must
rely on men named Brokaw, Jennings, Rather and Lehrer to treat
the presidential lie with respect and deliver it to every
nook and cranny in America via “the people’s airwaves.” The
longer and farther the lie flies, the more “frequent liar
miles” the president accumulates.
The strategy of “lie and rely” entails considerable risks.
What if the media Bush is relying on to disseminate his lies
chooses instead to shoot them down? A president is doomed
if his every pronouncement is greeted with groans and guffaws.
That’s why it’s wise to lie only when the truth won’t suffice
AND the stakes are high — to win an election, to avoid the
taint of scandal-plagued cronies, to sell a war the public
is disinclined to buy.
Throughout Campaign 2000, candidate Bush test-piloted “lie
and rely.” He lied to a Dallas Morning News reporter to keep
hidden a drunk-driving conviction. He lied repeatedly to the
national media about his own and Al Gore’s economic plans.
Did so in speeches and again in the debates.
The lies traveled far and wide. Amazingly, they remained
airborne even after repeated puncturing by New York Times
columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. From that
experience, Bush learned an invaluable lesson: So long as
the airwaves remain loyal, “lie and rely” can override isolated,
As president, a confident Bush lied after the Enron scandal
erupted about how long and how well he knew the man he now
referred to as “Mr. Lay” — though it was “Kenny Boy” back
in the day. A quick study, Bush showed he had mastered what
I call the “fact-based lie”(speaking words that are technically
true, knowing full well they paint a false or misleading picture)
when he said he had known of Lay in 1994 as someone who supported
Ann Richards, his opponent for the Texas governorship. Lay
and his wife did indeed give money to Richards’ campaign —
and three times as much to Bush’s.
Fact-based lies, long the domain of weasels, are particularly
risky for a president who presents himself as the antithesis
of weaseldom. If caught, he can’t reply, “Technically speaking,
I didn’t lie.” The ridicule would be relentless. That Bush
would resort to fact-based lying suggests unlimited confidence
— both in himself and the giants of journalism, who he is
counting on to play or be dumb.
Bush and his foreign-policy team have told a string of traditional
and fact-based lies about Iraq’s links to al Qaeda and 9-11,
as well as the magnitude and imminence of the threat Saddam
poses to the United States. Those lies have helped the president
gain far greater support from the public and Congress for
his aggressive stance than he would have garnered with a plain-spoken,
Again, we find that “lie and rely” has easily overcome sporadic,
ink-based attacks. In October, for example, Washington Post
reporter Dana Millbank detailed several jaw-dropping lies
about Iraq and other matters, which he described euphemistically
as presidential “flights of fancy.” But the airwaves held
firm, and Millbank himself got back on the team when he guested
January 12 on CNN’s Late Edition (click here for the transcript:
http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0301/12/le.00.html) to discuss
The Right Man, a book about Bush by his former speech writer,
A controversial passage was displayed on the screen and read
aloud by host Wolf Blitzer (who missed the irony that the
controversy revolved around those parts of the passage that
appear to be true, rather than the one assertion that is patently
“George W. Bush is a very unusual person — a good man who
is not a weak man. He has many faults. He is impatient and
quick to anger, sometimes glib, even dogmatic, often uncurious
and, as a result, ill-informed, more conventional in his thinking
than a leader probably should be. But outweighing the faults
are his virtues: decency, honesty, rectitude, courage and
Yep, Frum wrote “honesty.” Millbank, who knew better, didn’t
bat an eye or squeak a peep. Nor did the presumably clueless
When journalists are this deferential and reverential, there’s
no limit to the frequent liar miles Bush can accumulate.
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose work has appeared
in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada)
and online at TomPaine.com, Slate and The Black World Today
(tbwt.com), among other outlets. He has taught courses in
mass communications and American foreign policy at the University
of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.