'The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man who, according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.' It is safe to assume that the Oscar Wilde of 'The Decay of Lying' would feel far more at home in the America of William Jefferson Clinton than in that of its most esteemed founding father. For whatever else may be accused of falling into decay these days, public mendacity has surely enjoyed a robust revival. The most memorable quotations from our national leaders are no longer the inspirational homilies of a Roosevelt or a Kennedy - 'You have nothing to fear, but fear itself' or 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country' - but the exposed whoppers of Richard 'I am not a crook' Nixon, George 'Read my lips: no new taxes' Bush, and Bill 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman' Clinton.
LRB 29 July 1999 | PDF Download