The public mind is often deceived by those who manipulate it, and it deceives itself, as well. Bill Moyers examines how deception has influenced some of the major events of our recent past and how self-deception shapes our personal lives and the public mind.
GIRL: Of course I was always taught by my parents that lying was wrong.
BOY: I found out that my father’s lied to me.
WOMAN: It as a lie that I believed about myself to myself inside myself.
MAN: The fellow claimed he had $8 million in sales and he had two. Very simple.
MAN: I lied to vendors. They lied to me. I guess it was a game. We did it to each other.
MAN: Deception in every game. Everybody lies a little. Even I.
BOY: Once I broke a window, and then I was — I kind of think, you know, I lied, but then I decided to tell the truth.
MAN: When I feel that the person is deliberately lying, it hurts.
Dr. PAUL EKMAN: What is the cost, the most fundamental cost of lying? It’s the loss of trust. Nobody has the formula for how you reestablish trust.
Dr. DAN GOLEMAN: Every lie in the public mind needs a willing listener, needs a listener or listeners who want to believe it true.
Prof. LARRV BERMAN, University of California: Fifty-four thousand Americans died, millions of Vietnamese died, really for deception.
DAN GOLEMAN: A belief is simply a self-confirming theory. If you have a belief, what happens is you ignore any evidence that disputes it, and you remember and you exaggerate everything that supports it.
ANNOUNCER: And lift off! Lift off of the 25th Space Shuttle Mission.
ROGER BOISJOLY: There was not one engineer in that room the night before the launch that supported the decision to launch. Not one.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. In this broadcast we’ll look at how deception has influenced some of the major events of our recent past, and how self-deception shapes our personal lives and the public mind. My colleagues and I have been examining the reasons why trusted people in public life lie to us and to themselves, and why America seems to take such deception for granted. Have the lies become so many that the public mind has been saturated and numbed by them? Or have we actually become addicted to deception? We’re still healing as a nation from the lies of Vietnam and Watergate, but Ronald Reagan left office the most popular president in years, even thought most Americans believed he lied about the Iran-contra scandal. Oliver North admitted he lied to Congress, and he became a hero to millions. Something’s going on here. Public lies diminish your power and mine as free men and women to make informed choices. But like a family in denial over a loved one’s addiction, America often refuses to face the painful truth about itself. Why is this so? And can a nation die of too many lies’? At one time or another, most of us have deceived someone else — a friend, colleague or a loved one. Petty deceptions are part of the fabric of everyday life. Now psychologists tell us that lies at home and lies in the Oval Office have some things in common. Their roots run to childhood.
MAGICIAN: Here’s a card with some spots on it. Four spots on this side. Now, on the other side of the card there’s three spots. On this side there’s six. And on this side there’s only one. And only a few of you knew how to do it. I’ll tell everybody how to do this trick. You promise you won’t tell anybody I showed you?
Dr. PAUL EKMAN: Crucial to the definition of lying is did I give you prior notification, did I tell you whether or not I intend to mislead you. A magician, by his costume and manner, notifies you they’re going to trick you. An actor is notifying you, an impostor is not. Notification is crucial.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Psychologist Paul Ekman, author of the books, Telling Lies and Why Kids Lie is one of America’s foremost authorities on deception.
PAUL EKMAN: What technique you use, whether I mislead you by concealing information, or I mislead you by giving you false information, is just a matter of tactics. They’re both lies. If my son, who’s almost 17, were to get into a lot of trouble in school, and the principal were to call him in and said, “You know, if you insult your teacher again you’re out of school.” And he comes home and over dinner, we’re chatting and he says nothing about it, he’s lying to me. I don’t need to ask him every night, “Did you get in trouble in school today?” Most people would say if I had asked him that question and he said no that would be a lie. The fact that he didn’t tell me wouldn’t be a lie. That, I believe, is wrong. He’s misleading me. He knows that in our family, as in most families, you get into a lot of trouble at school you’re supposed to tell your parents about it. They don’t have to ask you every day about it.
BILL MOYERS: So concealing, withholding information, is lying?
PAUL EKMAN: It’s just as much a lie. It’s just a matter or tactics. Now, everybody would prefer to lie by concealing. It’s easier on your memory, and you can always claim you were going to tell the person later, so you’ve got a way out.
BILL MOYERS: Are there any similarities between personal lying and political lying?
PAUL EKMAN: The amazing thing is the comparability. I mean, why people lie for very often the same reasons, if you look at children, you look at adults, you look at politicians. We don’t want to get punished. [to children] What is the worst lie you ever told? Candace?
CANDACE: I have four boys that live down the street. And one — I said I will give you the most calm ride I have ever given anyone in the world in my little wagon. And I started to pull him. And a car was coming, and we leave him in the middle of the street, because the car just slams his brakes. And he’s in the middle. And the mom comes out, and she says, “John, why are you out in the street?” And he says, “Oh, those girls pushed me.” And we said that we didn’t. We didn’t. We just didn’t do that. Which is lying.
PAUL EKMAN: So why didn’t you tell the truth?
CANDACE: Oh, because I would have gotten in serious trouble!
PAUL EKMAN: Young children can be very harsh critics about lying. They will never see a situation in which lying is acceptable. And yet if you push them a bit, they will grant that there are occasions — and those are occasions where life itself seems to be at stake, where it’s more important to lie than to tell the truth. [to children] What do you think you should do if you were home, all alone, and somebody comes to the door, rings the doorbell and you look through your — one of these little things. Look through the window, and you see a real mean-looking person. Arid he says, “I need to come into your house to use the telephone.” And if you said to them, “I’m sorry, you can’t come in, because my parents are home and asleep. I don’t want you to wake them.” Would that be a lie? [crosstalk]
CHILDREN: Yes. No. It would be a lie, but it would be a lie for safety.
BOY: It’d be a lie, but it’d be a good lie.
GIRL: Safety lie.
OLIVER NORTH, former National Security Council Aide: [Iran-Contra investigation] I want you to know that lying does not come easy to me. I want you to know that it doesn’t come easy to anybody, but I think we all had to weigh in the balance the difference between lives and lies. I had to do that on a number of occasions in both these operations. And it is not an easy thing to do.
PAUL EKMAN: That’s such. a fantastic little vignette. And there are so many Issues densely packed. Philosophers for centuries have argued about, is there ever a condition under which it’s proper, it’s moral to lie. And those who say there is give the example of the man who comes bursting into your house and says, “I’m going to kill your brother. Where is he?” And he’s actually in the next room. Do you say, “He’s not here.”? Do you say, “I don’t know.”? Or do you say, “He’s sitting in the next room, he goes in and kills him? What’s the moral act? That’s what Ollie is citing. Ollie is citing that it’s improper to lie, it doesn’t come easy, it’s distasteful. He’s the object of his own disgust, but if a life is at stake, then it’s proper. Now, I believe that’s — that view is widely shared, and I actually believe in it also. The issue is, were lives at stake? That’s a political judgment. Now, the second issue is who are you lying to? Because what he’s — who he’s lying to are people who are given the responsibility to form that political judgment, the Congress. It’s a special type — it’s not lying to the murderer. Nobody’s going to say you shouldn’t lie to the murderer. He’s lying to Congress, but he’s basically saying — in a rather diplomatic and beautifully done way, in terms of how he presents himself — is that Congress is a murderer. Congress is murdering these contras by withdrawing the aid, and “the only way I can save their lives is to lie to Congress.”
BILL MOYERS: The good lie, the just lie. As citizens we hear it from leaders. As children we heard it from parents. When should we protect each other from the truth? We asked some Americans about deception in family life.
MAN: I wouldn’t lie to my kid. Regardless of what he would ask me, because that sets up, I think, bad precedents. And it sets the kid up, because eventually the kid’s going to grow up and maybe find out that he was being — he or she was being lied to all along. And you — I would stand to lose more later on by lying to my child now. So regardless of what he asks me, I will tell him the truth.
WOMAN: The first thing that I told each one that he or she was my favorite. And they all got together once and discovered that that was a big lie. “What do you mean I’m your favorite? You told” But I’ve also lied as a parent to reassure them. For example, my husband was ill, and my children were very worried about him. And I did consciously pretend to them that I was far more optimistic and far less frightened than r actually was. I wouldn’t do that today.
WOMAN: A lot of things happened to, I think, protect me as a child that were lies, but they were used to protect me against finding out certain things about other family members, or about myself, or whatever. And the problem with that was once I found the truth about what was going on, it really has affected my life. And I think that’s where a lot of family lies come from, is the liars feel like this person can’t take it, they just won’t be able to deal with it.
Dr. DAN GOLEMAN: The fear is that if I speak the truth, a] everyone will hate me, I won’t be loved anymore; and b] the family’s going to dissolve and shatter our reality, our shared reality.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Dr. Dan Goleman is a psychologist and the author of Vital Lies, Simple Truths. [interviewing] What is a vital lie?
DAN GOLEMAN: A vital lie is a story that we concoct to protect ourselves from a painful truth, essentially. And It might be a truth about something embarrassing we’ve done, or something we’re ashamed of. Something that makes us anxious. It might be a story that a family lives by in order to keep a sense of security, a sense that people are safe in the family. It’s a lie we need in order to live.
BILL MOYERS: Need? For what purpose?
DAN GOLEMAN: Need to keep ourselves from being overcome by anxiety, fear, rage, whatever feeling it is that we’re protecting ourselves. Because m that truth lies something that is so disturbing that we’d rather not face it and live a half-truth than face it and feel the pain.
WOMAN: And that for me was the original lie, how I learned to give part of myself away to keep my father comfortable.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Families can confront their vital lies. With the support and compassionate of others we are allowed to speak the truth without rebuke.
WOMAN: Oh, God, it was tough. It was tough to say that I resented my daughter and even hated her for a while. Because of all the pain.
DAN GOLEMAN: In therapy, the courage to finally speak the truth is a struggle to acknowledge reality. A family, an alcoholic family, for instance, doesn’t want to face the painful truth, so it looks away at the key facts and it will inflate things that make the people feel, “Well, we’re really a happy, normal family here.”
BILL MOYERS: Why? What’s at work here?
DAN GOLEMAN: What’s at work is one of the most primitive needs that we all have. And that is the need to feel that we belong to a secure family, that we have a place in the world, that we have a home, that we have people who love us, who will care for us. And that need is so basic that we’ll do everything to protect that sense of belonging.
BILL MOYERS: Including lie.
DAN GOLEMAN: Including lie. And you see, along with that goes the fear that if we speak the truth the family will be destroyed, it will shatter the group.
WOMAN: And yet I know there are some things that are so painful to face, and I know I couldn’t have recovered without facing them. And one of them was the myth, one of them was the myth about family. I had a myth that I came from a close family, and I didn’t. I had a myth that my daughter and I were close, and we weren’t. I was jetting around, trying to save the world, and where was my daughter? She was wondering where the hell her mother was, was what she was doing. . That was a very painful myth to break, because it was a myth that I’d built up over years and years and years, from my childhood. It was a lie that I learned to tell myself so well, and so deeply imbedded, from babyhood. It’s all I knew. And I really believed it. It wasn’t like a lie. It didn’t feel like a lie, because I believed it, it was part of me. It was a myth so deep. It was a lie that I believed about myself to myself inside myself. Not the kind of lie we tell somebody else. That’s trivial compared to the inner — these ones —
DAN GOLEMAN: Self-deception is motivated by self-protection. The reason that we look away is to protect ourselves from the thing we fear the most.
BILL MOYERS: You talk about blind spots in connection with vital lies. What do you mean by blind spots?
DAN GOLEMAN: It’s anything in your reality, in your immediate reality, your emotional world that you can. t bear to see that you look away from, that you don’t notice and don’t notice that you don’t notice.
BILL MOYERS: Such as your father’s alcoholism, your mother’s stupor?
DAN GOLEMAN: Exactly, or the — yeah, or the beatings you had as a child. You say, “Oh, my parents were very good disciplinarians.” You don’t realize, “I was an abused child.”
BILL MOYERS: So this kind of deception requires collusion?
DAN GOLEMAN: Any time you have a shared lie, a vital lie, in a group it survives because everyone is playing the game. It — you know, a lie needs both someone who speaks it and someone who’s willing to believe it. The listener is part of the he. The same with any collective. You know, the National Security. Council, in the meeting of the top advisors to the President are as susceptible to those forces as an alcoholic family. In some ways even more susceptible. Because if you’re in a privileged decision-making group, a powerful decision-making group, my God, that’s a group you want to belong to, it’s a very special group.
BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that the need to belong to the group is more important than being an individual of integrity?
DAN GOLEMAN: You don’t want to be the one who brings up the unpopular truth. You want to be the one who can do it, who can make it real, who can make our belief be the truth.
BILL MOYERS: You describe very vividly this group think at work in the Bay of Pigs episode, 1962.
DAN GOLEMAN: Most stunning example is the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, because Kennedy and his top security advisors met daily for close to two or three months before to plan the Bay of Pigs invasion. The plan was that a group of Cubans trained by the U.S., by the CIA in Guatemala in fact, would invade Cuba and that their invasion would trigger a popular uprising, and that Castro would be swept out, would be overwhelmed. This plan was discussed by the best and the brightest in the Kennedy years. The top people. They were all there in that room. In that room, people knew things such as the invading force was outnumbered 140 to 1, that a CIA secret survey in Cuba had shown that the Cuban people would not rise up to support the invading force, which was the operative premise of the whole operation. Even though those two facts were known, in all those meetings they were never spoken aloud. Once the plan was put into effect, the force invaded Cuba, they were routed, they were imprisoned, and it was an utter humiliation, embarrassment and fiasco for the Kennedy Administration. The day after the Bay of Pigs, JFK said, “How could I have been so stupid?” And the answer is, “They let him.” They wanted it to be true. They suppressed all their doubts, they censored themselves, they did all the things that would make the operative belief seem like the truth, masquerade as truth.
BILL MOYERS: I hear you saying that nations practice self-deception just as families do.
DAN GOLEMAN: The model is the family. The collective mind has its own blind spots. The collective mind works in a completely parallel way to the individual mind.
BILL MOYERS: The public mind?
DAN GOLEMAN: The public mind. The shared reality that we create in that public mind is as susceptible to self-deception as we are individually. It’s sort of the sum total of the things we won’t look at.
BILL MOYERS: But why won’t we look at them collectively?
DAN GOLEMAN: For the exact same reasons — they’re too anxiety provoking. They’re too painful.
BILL MOYERS: Failure to look at the fearsome truth and the unwillingness to acknowledge the facts have been costly to our country. We’ve paid that cost in human life and mutual trust. Decisive moments in our recent past, unforgettable moments, reveal those pressures that drive people to deny the truth and distort reality.
[voice-over] In 1986 the nation mourned the death of seven astronauts who died aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Most Americans refer to Challenger as a tragic accident.
ROGER BOISJOLY: I can’t characterize it as an accident at all. It’s a disaster, a horrible, terrible disaster, but not an accident. Because we could have stopped it, we had initially stopped it, and then that decision was made to go forward anyway.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Robert Boisjoly was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the company that makes the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. He was convinced that the booster design contained a major flaw. For years the O rings that act as seals between booster segments were eroding in cold weather.
ROGER BOISJOLY: Yeah, I was deathly afraid that we were going to experience a catastrophe, and that everybody was just going to brush this whole thing aside and no one would be accountable, because everybody said, “Well, we didn’t know it was that serious.” Well, I erased that condition by writing a very pointed memo and predicting that we were going to have loss of human life or catastrophe if we continued to do nothing about it.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Boisjoly sent the memo to his boss. It was stamped, “Company Private,” and never reached NASA. Six months later Challenger was rolled into place and the seven astronauts made their final preparations for liftoff. There was one more chance to avoid disaster. The day before launch Morton Thiokol engineers learned that weather reports were calling for freezing temperatures overnight.
ROGER BOISJOLY: : We immediately went to the engineering management at Morton Thiokol and spent that afternoon convincing engineering management not to launch under such adverse conditions. And they accepted those arguments and presentations.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Other Morton Thiokol engineers also argued against launch.
ARNIE THOMPSON: And on my recommendation in some of the former meetings were just merely to wait a day.
ALLAN McDONALD: I’d made the direct statement that if anything happened to this launch I sure wouldn’t want to be the person that had to stand in front of a board of inquiry.
JOHN DEAN: There was no doubt in my mind that we weren’t going to launch.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But NASA had other ideas. The space agency was under pressure to launch, pressure created by years of exaggerated expectations. In the 1960’s NASA was responsible for one of the great achievements of human history. But then NASA faced a dilemma: What to do next. Their answer was the shuttle.
[1976 NASA Film]
NARRATOR: The reusable space shuttle vehicles are designed to fly up to 60 missions a year. They will be launched like a rocket and land like an airplane.
ROBERT HOTZ: The shuttle program was almost made up out of the whole cloth. There’s nothing in its original specifications that has come anywhere near reality and performance.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Robert Hotz was editor-in-chief of Aviation Week and Space Technology, and a member of the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger disaster.
ROBERT HOTZ: They had the illusion that the shuttle would be a space airliner, a cargo truck with a regularity and economy that time has proved was a grand illusion.
DAN GOLEMAN: A belief is simply a self-confirming theory. If you have a belief, what happens is you ignore any evidence that disputes it, and you remember and you exaggerate everything that supports it. We do it all the time. In some ways it’s very helpful and in many ways it’s destructive.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The belief had taken on a life of its own. Pressures to fulfill it were evident the night before the launch of Challenger. During a conference call between Morton Thiokol and NASA, Thiokol, acting on the advice of Boisjoly and his colleagues, recommended the launch be postponed because of the cold weather.
JOHN DEAN: When that came over the phone to the gentleman that was asking the questions from the Kennedy Space Center, he just was beside himself. And he made a few terse comments and then asked his man, who essentially was chief engineer at NASA, for his launch decision. And his name was George Hardy. And he responded that he was appalled by Thiokot’s recommendation.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Morton Thiokol had pressures of its own. The company was the only supplier of booster rockets and NASA was its biggest customer. But just one week before the Challenger launch, NASA announced it was looking for a second source, and had invited four companies to bid on the project.
ROGER BOISJOLY: Which was worth in excess of $1 billion. Now, the significance is not only a money significance, but the fact that they were the sole source, they were the only company without competition that were making those motors. And to not accommodate a major customer like NASA may have put that type of situation in jeopardy.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Now in that fateful conference call the NASA managers were telling Morton Thiokol they did not want to delay the launch. The pressure was on the company to reverse its recommendation.
ROGER BOISJOLY: I didn’t have to make a decision, but I felt the pressure. I know our mangers felt the pressure. Because if they hadn’t felt the pressure, why would they have asked the following question, which was: We request a five-minute caucus, which is a five minute meeting amongst ourselves, when they put the telephone conversation on hold essentially.
BILL MOYERS: [yoke-over] Boisjoly later testified what happened during that meeting. Gerald Mason was the senior Thiokol manager present, Robert Lund was the top-ranking Thiokol engineer.
ROGER BOISJOLY: : Mr. Mason said, “We have to make a management decision.” He turned to Bob Lund and asked him to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat. I was never asked or polled, and it was clearly a management decision from that point.
[interviewing] Four top executives in that division basically convened their own meeting in front of us, but without our participation. And it became very obvious that they were seeking some information to put on a piece of paper that would justify the decision to launch.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] With no further input from the engineers, Thiokol managers made a list of reasons in favor of launching and faxed it to NASA.
ROGER BOISJOLY: That was almost immediately accepted by NASA without any probing questions or discussion, because they had received now the answer that they had hoped they would receive from the beginning. And that was a decision to launch.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The third-ranking member of NASA’s launch chain of command participated in the conference call and heard the warnings. Those warnings went no higher.
STAN REINARTZ, NASA: For better or worse, I did not perceive any clear requirement for interaction with Level II.
DAN GOLEMAN: Meanwhile, NASA is trying to convince Congress that it can do about 25 missions a year, it’s under real pressure to establish itself as being able to meet its dates for launch. So what happens to that message, that word of truth? It’s buried, it never goes up the line of command.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] So the countdown to liftoff continued. That night the temperature was below freezing. By the time Challenger lifted off at 11:30 the next morning it was still only 36 degrees.
NEWSCASTER: Pilot Mike Smith, followed by Christa McAuliffe, teacher in space.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The seven astronauts had heard nothing about the possible effects of the cold.
NEWSCASTER: Big smiles today. Confidently getting into the van.
ROGER BOISJOLY: Now, we all thought it was going to blow up on the pad, was going to blow up right when they ignited the motor.
ANNOUNCER: — two, one and liftoff! Liftoff of the 25th Space Shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.
ROGER BOISJOLY: : So when it ignited and cleared the launch tower, I thought we were home free. In fact, r made the statement, “We just dodged a bullet.”
NASA VOICE: Get roll program confirmed. Challenger now heading down range.
ROGER BOISJOLY: About 60 seconds later into the launch my colleague sitting behind me, Bob Emily whispered in my ear that he’d just completed a prayer of thanks to the Lord for a successful launch.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] After the explosion, what had been self-deception turned into something else, a refusal to admit what really happened.
ROGER BOISJOLY: NASA tried very diligently to make it sound like an accident. We were told by Morton Thiokol attorneys to answer all questions put to us, either yes or no, and volunteer nothing. Can you imagine how much information they would have found out if we had done that?
ROBERT HOTZ: NASA doesn’t like to admit it was wrong, and they tried as long and as hard as possible to stick with that erroneous accident. And they were reluctant to admit what really happened. Some NASA people are still reluctant to admit what happened.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] During the hearings some managers from NASA and Morton Thiokol tried to portray the Challenger disaster as too technical for the commission to understand.
ROBERT HOTZ: They invent acronyms for everything. And you really need a code book to understand what they’re talking about. And this again IS a form of deception.
LAWRENCE MULLOY, NASA: That local ambient temperature will be — in a tank condition — it will be below the general ambient, because of the effects of the cryogens in the external tank, and the heat short that exists through the attachments to the SRV and the wind blowing the cold air around the SRV.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] NASA denied that cold weather caused the disaster until Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Richard Feynman performed a simple experiment.
RICHARD FEYNMAN, Physicist: Well, I took this stuff that I got out of your seal, and I put it in ice water. And I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it, it maintains — it doesn’t stretch back, it stays the same dimension. In other words, for a few seconds at least — and more seconds than that — there’s no resilience in this particular material when it’s at a temperature of 32 degrees.
ROGER BOISJOLY: Now everybody in the whole world knew exactly what happened to the space shuttle Challenger. Well, when he did that, he removed from NASA management all the technical-ese that they were trying to, you know, skirt around and confuse the public and the press with. And they were very angry behind the scenes with that man, because he made something very simple that they were trying to make very difficult in the explanations to the press and the public.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] After the hearings Boisjoly and fellow engineer Arnie Thompson were reassigned. In effect, demoted. Boisjoly has since left the company.
DAN GOLEMAN: As in any group with an ideology, the people who told the truth, which undermined that ideology — and here the ideology was that NASA could keep its missions going and the companies that it could continue to supply quality products for that — those who undermined the ideology had broken the contract. “You’re no longer one of us.” People who blow the whistle generally don’t do it because they want revenge or they’re angry personally. It’s because they subscribe to the higher ideals of the group, the loftier mission. The true values, the deep values. And they see that what’s going on, that living the lie is defeating the purpose of the company, the government, whatever it may be. So they speak the truth, but what they’ve done is to violate the canon which says to be part of this group, to be a member of this club, to be a one of our family, you go along.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Challenger disaster cost Roger Boisjoly his job. It cost Morton Thiokol almost nothing. The company is still NASA’s sole source for boosters and received a larger contract to redesign the boosters. It cost the entire nation a measure of confidence and prestige. And it cost seven astronauts their lives.
[on camera] Groups of all kinds, from personal families to the First Family, require their members to choose: Are you on the inside or the outside? Individuals who refuse to lie for the group can risk finding themselves on the outside.
JOHN DEAN, Presidential Counsel: [Senate Watergate Hearings, 1973] Some of these people I’ll be referring to are friends. Some are men I greatly admire and respect. And particularly with reference to the President of the United States —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Sixteen years ago Presidential Counsel John Dean was fired by Richard Nixon for refusing to help cover up the White House crimes known as Watergate.
[interviewing] What did you think when you first heard about the Watergate break-in?
JOHN DEAN: Immediately I flashed back on a meeting back in John Mitchell’s office some six months earlier where Gordon Liddy had presented his plan. I realized obviously it had been approved, it had been blessed and it had gone forward.
BILL MOYERS: You were at that meeting when —
JOHN DEAN: I was at that meeting. Shortly after the meeting I told Bob Haldeman that I had to meet with film. And I went over and told him what had happened in Mitchell’s office. And I’ll never forget his reaction to me. He said, “John, this is something you shouldn’t have anything to do with.” And I didn’t.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think about that?
JOHN DEAN: I was uncomfortable with it. I knew I wasn’t in a position to stop anything. I knew it was going on around me. I said, “This Isn’t my — this isn’t the way I would run the show if I were running the show.” But I also said, “I’m not running the show. I haven’t been elected to anything, I’m a staff man. And if this IS the way it is, fine.”
BILL MOYERS: In August of 1972, Richard Nixon, President Nixon, had a press conference which you watched on television. What did you hear?
JOHN DEAN: Nixon was out here in California, in San Clemente, having a press conference. And was reeling off to the press all the different investigations that were going on. The Congress, the GAO is investigating it, two committees on the Hill, three or four committees on the Hill.
Pres. RICHARD NIXON: [1972 news conference] The FBI is conducting a full field investigation. The Department of Justice, of course, is in charge. In addition to that, within our own staff under my direction, Counsel to the President Mr. Dean has conducted a complete investigation and I can say categorically that his investigation indicates that no one in the White House staff, no one —
JOHN DEAN: I was the counsel, and that was the first time I ever heard of my report.
BILL MOYERS: He just told the press you had done a report. You hadn’t
JOHN DEAN: Made it up out of whole cloth.
BILL MOYERS: When was the moment you turned around? When you said, ”I’m not going to go along with this?
JOHN DEAN: I made it very clear that despite anything else they thought I had done for them, there was one thing I was not willing to do, and that was to lie. And they started with this whole thing over this Dean Report that I was absolutely unwilling to do that.
BILL MOYERS: When you sat there telling the truth about the men you worked for, including the President, you had to know that this would bring the White House down. How did you feel about that?
JOHN DEAN: No one wants to be the whistle blower. We grow up not wanting that particular role in life.
BILL MOYERS: Didn’t the White House — including the President — inspire a lot of unflattering stories about you? One of the Alsop brothers called you a “bottom-dwelling slug.”
JOHN DEAN: Bottom-dwelling slug, right.
BILL MOYERS: Daniel Shorr put on CBS a report, anonymous report, that you were afraid of going to jail for fear of being homosexually raped.
JOHN DEAN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: They called you a squealer.
JOHN DEAN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And these were people you’d worked with. This was your president.
JOHN DEAN: Well, I’m sure some of them to this day feel that way. That they — I’m sure a lot of them say, “Dean should have probably kept his mouth shut and never testified.”
SAM DASH, Chief Counsel, Senate Watergate Committee: I believe the biggest mistake that Richard Nixon ever made was firing John Dean. John Dean was a loyalist. If he had not fired John Dean and he had kept him on — and I’m using the words of the White House — on the reservation — that was the term, you were either on the reservation or you were off the reservation — if he had kept him on the reservation and stroked him — which is another term they used — John Dean would have never broken. He would had stayed behind Nixon all the way, and we would never have really found the true story. It was by firing him and scaring him — because this was the most frightened young man I’ve ever met, who was now fired and away and so scared of what might happen to him, that the rest of his strategy was to protect himself.
DAN GOLEMAN: There are two points at which people are most likely to tell the truth after they’ve been part of some complicitous lie. One is as it’s about to unravel and they’re going to be found out anyway. And then the stakes switch, because then the group they want to join is the outsiders, not the insiders. And the second is the moment at which an insider is about to become an outsider. Remember when Dwight Eisenhower made his wonderful speech about the dangers of the military industrial complex? My God, he’d been an intimate member for 15 years, but he never mentioned it until he was leaving the presidency.
BILL MOYERS: It was his farewell speech.’
DAN GOLEMAN: And there he was able to speak.
BILL MOYERS: What does that say?
DAN GOLEMAN: It says that the force, the pressure to go along, to shut up, not to notice and not to bring it up is incredibly strong even and perhaps especially at the highest levels.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] As Watergate unraveled, the rest of the President’s men kept allegiance with their chief. Nixon’s staunchest foot soldier was the man who conceived the Watergate break-in, Gordon Liddy.
SAM DASH: We would call Liddy in executive session. A senator was sitting next to me, and I called Liddy to come forward. He doesn’t sit, he stands. He salutes us and says, “I only have to give you my name, rank and serial number. I consider myself captured by the enemy.”
BILL MOYERS: He saw it as warfare. You were the enemy.
SAM DASH: It could be funny, but it really wasn’t, because what it really illustrated was that these people saw themselves as not only super patriots, but anybody who disagreed with them or questioned them were their enemies.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In the White House, Nixon fostered the warlike mentality of us vs. them. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” From the Oval Office he plotted how to destroy his enemies.
Sen. DANIEL INOUYE, Senate Watergate Committee: “This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our administration. Stated a bit more bluntly, how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
PAUL EKMAN: Richard Nixon failed to recognize that we have a distinction between what is permissible in dealing with an international adversary and with dealing with a domestic rival. It is permissible, when national interest is at stake, to lie to your international adversary. It is not permissible to lie to your domestic rival for your own political fortune. It wasn’t that it was lying was the problem, it was who it was lying to and why.
BILL MOYERS: What is the truth about lying when it comes to this sort of thing?
JOHN DEAN: What is the truth about lying? There’s no doubt that presidents do lie. I don’t think that they always mean to lie, but they are politically expedient animals, and they do it.
BILL MOYERS: We’ve been talking for 15 years about the lessons of Watergate, but just recently we had a president who took his policy off the books went covert with it, went underground. White House aides — Oliver North admitted that he lied to the Congress, to the press, to the public. George Bush, the present president, was the Republican National Chairman at the time of Watergate and defended Richard Nixon right up until the end. I mean, what did we learn from Watergate?
SAM DASH: As we’ve learned in the whole line of history of freedom, you never win the battle once. It’s been said by every historian, every leader. The lesson is eternal vigilance. It’s just like roaches. You know, you can spray, but, god damn it the roaches will still come out unless you keep spraying. And it’s true in corruption in government, it’s true in lying by government, it’s true in betrayal of trust.
BILL MOYERS: After the Watergate break-in, did anybody in the White House consider telling the truth?
JOHN DEAN: I don’t think it was ever considered. And to this day I don’t know that we know everything that went on in that White House. I’ve often been struck by the fact that the parameters of our knowledge of Watergate really were my Senate Watergate testimony. And I know how little I knew.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Watergate crowd will tell you that the first lie was a small one, the second was bigger, the third was giant.
PAUL EKMAN: I do think that on a personal level lying is a slippery slope. By that I mean that we tend to lie more often once we get started. That’s especially so for a particular type of lie. Once you — the first time you tell a lie to the IRS, you think about it, you consider it, you consider the pros and cons. But once you’ve engaged in that lie the next time you won’t consider it at all. The first time you lie about what happened on a fishing trip — someone asks, “Hey, did you catch any fish?” You think about whether you’re going to tell a good story and look or whether you’re going to admit, be embarrassed, and, you know, you got skunked. Once you’ve told the lie, the next time you get asked that question you don’t even think about it. You’re not even aware that you’re lying. You just run that one through. So that we tend to lie without consideration the more we lie. And the more we tend to do it.
BILL MOYERS: Personally. What about politically?
PAUL EKMAN: Now, on the political level. It’s the type of lie, it’s how long the lie endures, how large the fabric that has to be created to support it. It gets dangerous when it endures over a long period of time. And it gets dangerous when many different other aspects of the information process need to be distorted to support that lie. The Vietnam War, elaborate, immoral, deception that involves an enormous part of our society. Where the military itself becomes victims of their own deceit, and not ever really — who can really know what’s going on? Stretching out over such a period of time that the electorate when they were exercising their choices couldn’t get accurate information. Very dangerous.
Prof. LARRY BERMAN, University of California: Fifty-four thousand Americans died, millions of Vietnamese died, really for a deception. And the deception was that this President of the United States never let the American people know the true nature of the conflict, what it would cost to achieve our political goals, and I believe a president at the minimum has an obligation in a democracy like ours, if you’re going to commit troops overseas, to let the American public know what the costs are.
BILL MOYERS: Few events in our national history have so shattered our collective Jives as the Vietnam War: Military and civilians, conservatives and liberals, President and public, virtually everyone felt the double sting of betrayal and distrust. I served Lyndon Johnson when he came to power. I know he believed the vital lie he had inherited, that the security of South Vietnam was critical to [he security of the United States. He also shared the particular delusion that victory might be cheap. In 1963 John F. Kennedy had said the spearhead of aggression in Vietnam had been blunted. The Pentagon had announced the corner had been turned, and the State Department had reported excellent results. When LBJ a year later discovered none of this was true, he made the basic mistake, one born of his devious and secretive ways, and of his own belief in his powers of persuasion. Not knowing exactly what he would do in Vietnam, he kept shifting his goals while signal1ing that he might do anything. Hawks believed he would escalate the war, doves thought he would limit it. Saigon thought he would stay and fight, Hanoi that he really wanted out. He fooled everyone for a while, because he had fooled himself. It was war and it wasn’t. He wanted it both ways. Like other presidents, Lyndon Johnson believed his deception was just. It was for an overriding good. His passion was to preserve his vision of the Great Society.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.
LARRY BERMAN Johnson clearly above all else wanted to change the face of the American society. And the fact is that any action that would have led the American people, or the public mind, to perceive that we were about to go to war in Vietnam or that he was pulling the plug on Vietnam would have destroyed the Great Society. And when we say it destroyed the Great Society, we mean only that this one window of 1965 and 66, really the greatest reforming Congress perhaps in history, where more laws were passed to better and improve the condition of people in this country, Johnson did not want to lose that opportunity. And so two great streams converged in July of 1965, the Great Society, which Johnson loved, and which he saw as his ticket not only to history, but perhaps to Mt. Rushmore. And then the war in Vietnam. And so he consciously chose to deceive the American public on what it would take to achieve our goals in Vietnam. Johnson was very clever about the Americanization of the war. He allowed leaks to come from the White House, the Defense Department, which led Americans to believe that he was considering mobilizing the reserves, moving to a war setting, perhaps moving to a war economy, taking some major actions which would raise Vietnam to the specter of, quote, “a war.” And so the headlines of the New York Times, The Washington Post were very foreboding in July, as the President consulted with his advisors. But it turned out to be a smoke screen.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: After this past week of deliberations, I have concluded that it is not essential to order reserve units into service now.
LARRY BERMAN Everyone says, “Wow, we’re lucky he’s not doing that. He’s not mobilizing the reserves, he’s not sending the 150-200,000 troops to Vietnam. He’s only sending 50,000 over. And he’s being a man of restraint, a man of peace, a man of compassion.” But the most important part of that decision is what he didn’t announce. Secretary of Defense McNamara, upon whose plan all of this was based, had recommended that, “Mr. President, if you do this, if you Americanize the war, my recommendation is to go to the American public and let them know the seriousness of this.” Johnson, being concerned with the politics of the decision, rejected that advice. Why? Because Johnson recognized that if the public mind recognized that we were mobilizing reserves, this would look much serious than Johnson wanted the public mind to perceive it, because he wanted the public to focus on the Great Society. .
BILL MOYERS: But soon we would be spending more for Vietnam than for the entire welfare program. The president didn’t want to raise taxes for fear of giving conservatives an excuse to wreck his domestic reforms and liberals his policies in Vietnam. Speeches about limiting the war were followed by new rounds of escalation. I’m still not sure all these years later that Lyndon Johnson was ever clear in his own mind exactly where it would end. But given two options he always chose the one that if it failed, eventually brought more escalation. This made it hard to keep hiding the cost of the war in the closets of the Pentagon budget. It overheated the economy, and it led LBJ, like Nixon after him, to turn on his own people. Critics of the war were at first nervous nellies who wouldn’t support their own fighting men. Soon their opposition was “Un-American, inspired by the Kremlin.” This, too, was self-deception. To undermine his critics, hold the great American middle, and shore up his own sagging morale, Lyndon Johnson fell deeper and deeper into wishful thinking.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I believe there’s a light at the end of what has been a long and lonely tunnel.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But the tunnel grew longer and the light dimmer. Sustaining public opinion became LBJ’s consuming passion, optimism his blind spot. So in the relentless search for evidence of progress, the President’s men put the brightest gloss on the most dubious statistics.
WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Our field commanders report that enemy deaths and combat are averaging more than 1,000 men a week. And to this number, of course, must be added the number captured. And the number captured in the last four weeks has been very high indeed. Something on the order of 2,100. That’s almost a third of the total number of enemy captured during 1965.
PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: This body count figure which we have reported is, in my opinion, very, very conservative. Probably represents, I would say, 50 percent.
DAN GOLEMAN: Anny intelligence was systematically underestimating the strength of the Viet Cong and systematically inflating the figures of enemy dead to tell the Ambassador, who would in tum tell Washington. Because that’s what Washington wanted to believe.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Even at the end after the tangled web untangled, when the last comer was turned to reveal a dead end, even at the end the lie remained to Lyndon Johnson vital.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: But let it never be forgotten, peace will come also because America sent her sons to help secure it.
PAUL EKMAN: If you yourself had deceived yourself — which is, of course, the very worst price to ever pay — you yourself no longer have the information, and you don’t even know that you’re engaging in deception.
BILL MOYERS: How do we do that? How do we deceive ourselves?
PAUL EKMAN: Well, usually that occurs out of those very needs to maintain certain images about ourself in the world we live in.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The war cost LBJ the office he so long had coveted.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It cost a generation their idealism.
PROTESTORS: Hell, no, we won’t go!
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It cost the lives of millions of Vietnamese. And it cost the lives of over 50,000 Americans. What have we learned from the lies of our collective history? As our generation heals from the wounds of past deceptions, what can we teach our children about truth? .
PAUL EKMAN: It’s very hard for the young child to understand the issue of trust. That is, that if you lie you lose someone’s trust. And then it’s very hard to reestablish it. Nobody knows how to reestablish trust. Sometimes you can never reestablish it. You can’t live as a family if you can’t trust each other. Husband with wife, parents with kids. It’s easy to deal with even the young children about fairness. It’s not fair to lie. What if everybody lied?
BILL MOYERS: But you know, people who tell the truth in public, whistleblowers, usually get into trouble. How do we make the world safe for truth telling?
PAUL EKMAN: Why are they getting in trouble by telling the truth? What’s the motive? We’d like people to be truthful. Why don’t we like people to blow the whistle? It’s because we’re afraid. We’re afraid we’re going to get in trouble. That’s what they’re doing, they’re exposing us. We expect, just like many families expect, no matter what goes on, keep it within the family. No matter what goes on at the job, keep it within the job. Doctors are loyal to each other. They don’t point the finger at the doctor who’s the incompetent. There’s a loyalty within the peer group. It’s the conflict between a loyalty to higher authority and a loyalty to your peers. Now, there are some arenas of life where you want people who are watchers, who are going to inform. You just have to protect them. It’s a lonely role. It’s going to be a lonely role.
MAN: [voice-over] The truth about lies is that each of us carries within us something we dare not say that needs to be spoken. And we need to find the courage to speak it openly.
WOMAN: The pain helped me grow. And the hope that I have today that I didn’t have at the beginning of recovery, the hope showed me that I could feel joy and not just sadness.
BILL MOYERS: Nations, like families, can die of too many lies. The founders of our republic knew this and gave us the First Amendment so America would be safe for second opinions that challenge official lies. Because all of us are capable of deceiving ourselves, each of us needs a personal First Amendment operating within. It would protect the quiet, fragile voice that occasionally rises uninvited to say, “That’s just not so. That’s not the truth.” Thoreau tells the story of a traveler on horseback who comes to the edge of a marsh. He asks a local youngster if the marsh has a hard bottom and is told that it does.
But as the traveler sets out he begins to sink. “I thought you said this marsh had a hard bottom,” the traveler says to the boy. “It has,’ replies the youngster, “but you’ve not got halfway to it.” Beneath the distortion and deception of life in America today there is hard reality. Our earth is threatened with pollution, nuclear weapons have been accumulating worldwide at a cost of $1 million a minute. And the United States is sliding into an inferior status in the global economy. Yet our public mind is filled with images of an America where the vending machines are always full, the wounded always recover and the bills never come due. We seem to prefer the comfortable lie to the uncomfortable truth. And we punish those who point out reality while rewarding those who provide us with the comfort of illusion. Reality is fearsome, but as we’ve learned in this series, experience tells us more fearsome yet is evading it. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 15, 2015.