Abraham Lincoln, regarded as one of America’s greatest Presidents, said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
We ask much of our Presidents. We want people of character who possess a strong will. They must also be charismatic individuals who challenge and inspire. Above all, they must be leaders.
Even great leaders will fail, but we can forgive them if we know that they did their best, that their sense of duty was greater than personal safety, popularity or political expediency.
What we don’t like is deception.
President Richard Nixon is the poster child for deception at the highest levels. He put himself above the law during the Watergate scandal and obstructed justice. Indeed, the cover-up was worse than the crime and the duplicity and obfuscation forever changed the way we view the presidency.
President George W. Bush did not set out to deceive about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but in hindsight we know there was an unhealthy disregard for legitimate questions about the evidence. The confidence with which the Bush Administration pushed the war, combined with the failure to prepare adequately for post-Saddam Iraq, caused many Americans to question his leadership.
Now we have the September 11, 2012 attacks in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Gregory Hicks, Stevens’ deputy in Libya, testified on Capitol Hill last week that they knew immediately that the attack was a coordinated terrorist assault, not a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a YouTube video.
Yet the Administration adopted and perpetuated the video explanation.
We now know, via reporting by ABC News and The Weekly Standard, that the State Department extensively edited the talking points from the CIA to take out any references to the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia.
When “the-video-caused-it” explanation crumbled, the Administration blamed the CIA. When questioned during the Vice Presidential debate, Joe Biden said the Administration attributed Stevens’ death to the video because “that was exactly what we were told by the intelligence community.”
As Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post, “In some cases, the fog of war is initially thick, then it dissipates… (in the Benghazi attacks) the fog was a later addition.”
Was the Administration worried that a resumption of terrorism would damage President Obama’s chances of being re-elected in two months? Gerson suggests it was “an effort to obscure negligence and incompetence, not criminality.”
One of the great mistakes people in power often make is that they become too clever by half; they allow perceptions of their own importance to beguile them into thinking the truth can be managed.
Now Americans must sort out the controversy, and that task is made even harder by the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington that is fanned by talk shows and cable channels.
Deception, obfuscation and ineptitude undermine the institution of government and breed mistrust. The truth in the beginning would have been simpler for all. Americans can handle it, and they deserve it.