In a speech peppered with personal anecdotes about former presidents, former Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee '43 said last night that he thinks lies "tear at the fiber" of democratic government.
Bradlee delivered the third annual Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics at the ARCO Forum at the Kennedy School of Government.
"Lies are so ingrained in our society that they're not important anymore," Bradlee said to a crowd of more than 400, which included President Neil L. Rudenstine and Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.
Most of Bradlee's speech, entitled "The Press and Public Policy in the Age of Manipulation," focused on several examples of falsehoods told by public officials which he said make larger deceptions easier.
"Whatever happened to righteous indignation?" Bradlee asked.
Bradlee described lying as one of the "most primitive forms of all manipulation" and said it stretches far beyond "granting or withholding access to shamelessly altering the truth."
Bradlee used President Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas as an example. Bradlee said despite Bush's assertions that Thomas was the best candidate, the new justice was nominated because he was "Black and a minority."
Bradlee also said that former President Ronald W. Reagan told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he had served as a signal core photographer in World War II and is saving the film he took of Nazi death campus to show to anyone who tries to say that the Holocaust did not occur.
Reagan, according to Bradlee, spent the entirety of World War II in the United States. "If our leaders lie routinely, who should we follow? Or rather, why should we follow?" Bradlee said.
Even smaller fabrications, such as Lyndon B. Johnson's lie about the circumstances surrounding the death of his great-great-grandfather or Jimmy Carter's assertion that he would personally open all mail addressed to him during hid presidential campaign in 1976, add to an atmosphere of acceptance concerning half-truths, Bradlee said.
He also said John F. Kennedy '40, who was a close friend of his, denied having Addison's disease, a disease that is characterized by weakness and brownness of skin.
"Would Kennedy, our first president born in the 20th century, a figure who represented youth and vitality, have been elected if this had been known?" Bradlee asked.
Bradlee said that simple lies can lead to more insidious incidents. "Think of how history would have changed if these secret truths had been stated," Bradlee said.
He said the Tonkin Gulf Crisis was a fabrication that has serious consequences. "The Tonkin Gulf crisis was one of the major reasons the Vietnam War was justified," said Bradlee.
But truth is revealed over time, Bradlee said.
"Truth emerges, and that's how it's supposed to be in a democracy," Bradlee said. "I hope that lies will never not matter.