BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | FEB 8, 2017
“I will love you in the morning.” or “The check is in the mail.” or “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
They were called the three great lies.
It may depend upon where and when you grew up, but lying has always been “wrong,” something you were taught not to do. It was taboo; a step too far, an unsavory and unacceptable element of human behavior. In court it’s a crime. In church, it’s a sin.
A lie, according to Merriam Webster, is to “make an untrue statement with the intent to deceive.”
A scholarly analysis of lying produced at Michigan State University cited this definition: “Simply and broadly lying occurs when a communicator seeks knowingly and intentionally to mislead others….” and another conclusion: “Thus it is not sufficient that something is false for it to be a lie; it is the intent that distinguishes the lie.”
But in politics, as in life today, lying is becoming commonplace.
It has gotten so pervasive, it has spawned a new cottage industry called fact checking. Pinocchio isn’t just a famous fable anymore. The little wooden guy’s long nose is the new yardstick for fibbing.
This past election the truth meter got so battered some were led to wonder whether the fact-checkers needed fact-checking.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” said President-elect Donald Trump last November.
In March before his victory, candidate Trump told this whopper: “You have Japan, where the cars come in by the hundreds of thousands, they pour off the boats… [W]e send them like nothing. We send them nothing, by comparison, nothing.” The United States actually exported $62 billion in goods to Japan last year, including cars.
Candidate Trump also said he saw Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks on New York and claimed Hillary Clinton started the birther movement.
Trump tipped the truth scale so often in his campaign he rewrote the physics of verbal weights and measures. According to the Huffington Post, he lied to the public 71 times in the past year. To the President’s credit however, the Huffington Post, never hampered by the lack of fact, stretched the truth, assessing the mendacity. What a tangled web weave…
But as in most things political and maybe social, President Trump didn’t invent the practice of deceit, he only topped many in public life who have been plumbing the depths of deception and outright lies for a long time.
Hillary Clinton was apparently dishonest about the advice she got from former Secretary of State Colin Powell on private email servers and she apparently lied about what FBI Director James Comey said about her testimony to the FBI. Email disclosures confirmed that she lied about the cause of the Benghazi attacks. Her record of truth-telling has pock marks all over it dating back to her days as First Lady.
Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid claimed the Koch brothers were “one of the main causes” of climate change, and that Mitt Romney “didn’t pay taxes for 10 years,” a lie he repeated on the Floor of the Senate, making it even more egregious. Reid later shoved our face in his mudslinging when confronted with the lie, saying defiantly: “They can call it whatever they want. Romney didn’t win, did he?”
President Obama lied to us, too. “If you like your health care plan you can keep your health care plan,” and “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” and this: “This is the most transparent administration in history,” a declaration so far from the truth even the mainstream media didn’t buy it.
Remember Senator Rand Paul falsely accusing fellow Senator John McCain of surreptitiously meeting with ISIS? Or interim Democratic chairwoman Donna Brazile insisting she did not get questions in advance of CNN debates?
History is replete with great public lies. President Dwight Eisenhower lied to the American people about the U2 spy plane shot down by the Russians. President John Kennedy reassured us: “…the United States intends no military intervention in Cuba.” Lyndon Johnson lied about the reasons for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which legitimized our full-scale intervention in the Vietnam War in 1964.
Or how about President Richard Nixon’s string of lies regarding the cover-up of the Watergate break-in, yet insisting, “I am not a crook”? It was Nixon, I recall, who told David Frost, ‘when the President does (something) that means it is not illegal.” He also explained once, “I was not lying. I said things that later on seemed to be untrue.” Other recent notables have included Senators John Edwards, Bob Packwood and Larry Craig, House members Antony Weiner and Mark Foley, and the little prince of rock and roll, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The dishonesty is yet another reminder that our political system is being corrupted by lower standards of behavior, fungible values and a rather frightening political and ideological arrogance that gives way to an end-justifies-the-means-mentality.
It is important to note that questionable truth telling comes in many forms discussed in more detail later. It has graduated from stretching the truth, distorting it, misrepresenting it or confusing it, to abandoning it entirely, for objectives so politically potent that callous expediency supplants personal character. Hyperbole, exaggeration, selective amnesia, and glittering generalities used to be the bad boys of political rhetoric. Now those sins are for sissies.
We are living in an age in which truth is elusive, and maybe no longer relevant. People can easily isolate themselves from truth, as best as it can be defined. They can choose to accept one set of statistics and ignore another or accept on set of conclusions and ignore others. As snug as a bug in a rug people are not challenged to think outside the dots, or obligated to respect contrary points of view or broaden their intellectual horizons.
And lying? It is getting easier to do, because people believe what they want to believe, or worse believe what they need to believe. As a result, those who lie are getting really good at it. There is little punishment for it. Just more than a century ago, lying could get you at one end of a pistol duel. Today, it is an attaboy pat on the back.
Leaders and policy makers who are growing comfortable with lying to those they serve, are just a step away from lying to themselves and believing it. When that occurs, all hope is lost. No lie.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.