The first rule of writing fiction is that people always say the opposite of what they mean. Thus, “I’d love to come to your party” means “Oh, God, another wasted evening.” “I love your tie” means “Where did you get that?” and “The column is nearly finished” means, at least when coming from me, “Column? I have a column due?”
I know you think you don’t do this, but believe me, you do. It’s a part of human nature, part of what Phillip Roth so perfectly called The Human Stain. In 20 years of writing novels I’ve struggled with why people do this, and here’s the answer I always come back to: self-preservation.
Lying is most obvious in politicians, of course. Their whole lives are lies. If you’ve ever known any politicians (and I sure have), then you’ve seen firsthand the dichotomy between the private, uncensored person and the image they’ve invented for public consumption. In public, every word is sanctimonious and self-serving, every question not quite answered, every flash of anger or sarcasm squelched and internalized in their bowels. No wonder so many of them flip out sexually.
Nixon was a great liar, and I mean that in an admiring way. In fiction, he is what we would call an archetype. His lying was so pervasive and so successful that it became automatic. But that, of course, meant he was doomed. He tripped over his lies until they spun out of control and his “loser” side, always beneath the surface, took over for good.
Bill Clinton. Now there was a liar. “I have not had sexual relations with that woman” was maybe the single greatest presidential lie of all time. Oh, how the other politicians must have shivered when they heard that one. Their worst nightmare come true—everyone has discovered their dirty little secret and they have to tell a lie with the whole world watching and make it convincing.
Fortunately for the country, Clinton’s secret was pretty mundane: oral sex with a pathetic, needy intern in his office. It was a situation many of us can identify with in this era of dysfunctional families. A hyper-horny male who lies about his sex life—that’s an archetype we’ve all been affected by in one way or another, and for many, it’s one of our great personal battles.
When caught, we beg forgiveness. And usually get it, thank God.
George W. Bush’s lies were on another level entirely, however. I used to think that bumper sticker that said, “Nobody died when Clinton lied” was kind of childish and partisan. Now, as the situation in Iraq is starting to become clearer, I see its profundity.
Before I start, let me say that I am not bashing the President. I am analyzing his behavior as I would a fictional character’s. True, a year ago I never would have done this because I would have been fired. But now everybody seems to be turning on him, even the neo-cons. Why? Could it have something to do with lying?
Bush’s lying seems to be rooted in hubris, always the most dramatic kind. He was essentially an underachiever, a rich kid who was handed everything. In a Shakespearean play, he would be a deeply flawed prince. His acquisition of power had been so charmed (remember, he didn’t even win the election) that he could only be forgiven if he started to see himself as “chosen.” After all, all the wise religious men of the time were telling him this.
Then the most dramatic thing imaginable occurred. His country was attacked. He hadn’t counted on that. He was forced to lead his people into battle. How on earth was he going to do that?
He and his generals did destroy the Taliban, and it was relatively easy. It was like his father’s war, the one in the Gulf. His new role as Warrior turned out to be a heady one. He suddenly had a new take on things. He had Power. He should do things with it. So he and his court began to plan another war. They would destroy an Evil King, one who had insulted and tried to kill his father. Nobody liked this King, not even his own people. It would be, as his courtiers put it, a “slam dunk.”
Plus, it would be great for the midterm election.
History is full of examples of countries that go to war against other countries based on trumped-up accusations. Sometimes it works. The best excuse, of course, is that the other country is an imminent threat to our security. Iraq wasn’t really that big a threat (others were worse), but with a little judicious lying it could be made to seem that way. Hence the weapons of mass destruction. (Now, there’s a Shakespearean phrase.)
The invasion went great. True, it was pretty much boycotted by the rest of the world, and true, no weapons of mass destruction were found, but the election was won and the approval ratings were high. High enough to justify that moment of gloating, that fatal act of self-congratulation—the arrival in a jet fighter on an aircraft carrier under a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.”
It was that moment, according to the laws of fiction, which doomed George W. Bush.
The lie was written on that banner. The mission wasn’t accomplished. Fighting continued—and got worse. A general misunderstanding of Iraq’s political situation was becoming apparent. World respect was being lost. The nation’s coffers were being depleted. Things were beginning to unravel.
Bush’s response was to dig in his heels and keep lying. Things were going fine, he insisted. His domestic enemies were unmanly cowards. He demonized and censored them. The press was intimidated, and phony news was manufactured. The nation became cranky and polarized. Comparisons to Vietnam were raised, along with the unsettling thought that this might even be worse.
But still he hung in there.
Then out of nowhere came something that turns everything upside down. A literal act of God. A terrible hurricane destroyed part of the country, and along with it, the Bush presidency. With the phrase “Heck of a job, Brownie,” he sealed his fate. It was the lie that broke his back. It was a heck of a job, all right. Like the Wizard of Oz, he had the curtain ripped away, and the people saw with their own eyes what was going on. If he couldn’t protect his own country from the ravages of a storm, how could he successfully fight terrorists? If the hacks and cronies in charge of FEMA were so awful, what must the ones running Iraq must be like? If he appeared so clueless about this situation—a hurricane, pure and simple— then what is going on his mind when it comes to foreign policy and global warming and really complicated things?
Again, if it sounds like I am criticizing the President, I most emphatically am not. I am merely attempting to figure out his particular pattern of telling political lies. What happens now? I have no idea, but I must say I was greatly heartened by Bush’s recent visit to Vietnam. Thirty years ago, it was the epicenter of America’s greatest mistake, a word you could hardly get out of your mouth, it was so loaded with death and conflict and misery. Today, it’s a trading partner.
The second rule of writing fiction is what goes around comes around. The President’s unhappy situation is certainly proving this. The moral—and fiction always has a moral—is simple enough. When you lie, be careful. It will always come back for a moment of reckoning.
Senior editor Robert Plunket is author of My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie.