“Smoke and mirrors” are tricks used to obscure the truth, usually through distraction, misdirection, or partial truths.
Smoke and mirrors can also be used to draw people’s attention away from unpleasant facts.
The phrase was first used in the modern, political sense by the journalist Jimmy Breslin in a description of the Watergate scandal. Breslin wrote:
All political power is primarily an illusion… Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors...
His phrase was eventually shortened to smoke and mirrors.
Outside of politics, the term “smoke and mirrors” is usually associated with magicians. Mediocre magicians, in particular, are supposed to need plenty of smoke and mirrors to distract their audiences and keep them from noticing the conjuring tricks taking place on stage.
But a few centuries back, “smoke” was also generally associated with tricky speech used to confuse listeners:
The word smoke has long denoted a clouding or obscuring medium or influence. For example, in Thesaurus linguae Romanae & Britannicae (Thesaurus of the Roman Tongue and the British – London, 1578), the English theologian and bishop of Winchester Thomas Cooper (circa 1517-1594) wrote:
Verborum & argutiarum fuliginem ob oculos audientium iácere.
To speake obscurely: to cast a darke smoke or mist before their eyes.
In our time, “smoke and mirrors” still suggests a kind of mind game and an attempt to cloud the public’s judgement. Take an article published back in 1998 in the Buffalo News, titled “Clinton’s Plans Are Smoke and Mirrors.” The author painted then-president Bill Clinton as a deception expert:
Only President Clinton would try to sell the American people the idea that more is less, bigger is smaller and taxpayers should shore up the economies of other nations so they can buy stuff from us.
A few decades later, the Greensboro News and Record wrote that Hillary Clinton was the victim of a tricky smoke and mirrors attack. The piece, titled “Clinton ‘scandals’ are mostly smoke and mirrors,” argued that “where there’s smoke, there is only a smokescreen created by decades of scandal-mongering on the part of the Republican Party, which has been lobbing smoke grenades and cranking the fog machine nonstop for 30 years.”
And in 2012, the Washington Post complained that then-president Barack Obama was an endless smoke-and-mirrors show. In an overview of the Obama presidency titled “For Obama, smoke and mirrors yet again,” the Post grumbled, “three years later, we are back to smoke and mirrors.”
And then sometimes, it really is all about smoke. In 2015, members of the White House press corps were buzzing with the idea that President Obama had taken up cigarettes again.
Marketwatch ran a piece titled “Smoke and mirrors: White House denies Obama had a pack of cigarettes.” The article reported that Obama had been pictured standing on a balcony along with the Italian prime minister, holding what looked to be a pack of cigarettes. The White House denied that the president was smoking.