Paul Greenberg

Let's just say there are times when the truth has to be, uh, softened. Consider the quick response offered by the head of this country's National Security Agency when he was asked by a senator whether his agency was collecting data about millions of Americans' phone calls. "No, sir ... not wittingly," said James Clapper, though his agency was doing just that -- as he had to acknowledge soon afterward. His explanation and apologia: Under the pressure of the moment, rather than risk revealing a then secret program, he resorted to answering the question in the "least untruthful manner" he could. More word games.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive! Practicing to deceive could sum up a great portion of any intelligence service's function. Or even any diplomat's. A long-ago cynic/realist once defined a diplomat as "an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country."

The same job description might apply at home to White House press secretaries. The best of them -- one thinks of the late Tony Snow -- managed to be candid and still serve their president's and their country's interests. The worst of them, the Zieglers and Carneys, get stuck with presidents who are hard to defend. Or with national policies that are as necessary as they are legally dubious.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.