BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | FEB 13, 2017
“There are three types of lies—lies, damn lies, and statistics.” — Benjamin Disreaeli, 19th Century British Prime Minister
Lying, which was covered in Part I, is just one form–the worst form–of deviation from truth. Short of Webster’s definition to “make an untrue statement with the intent to deceive,” there are a number of derivations of lies and damn lies.
Differentiating between them is important in politics. Some of our most capable and honorable leaders in America had a hard time constructing a simple sentence without cue cards or a teleprompter. Members of the Bush family come to mind. Their seeming inability to communicate well, in this hyper-critical, media-intensive age, is often interpreted as a lack of intelligence or honesty. At the other end of the speaking spectrum are those public figures whose smooth-sounding, phrase-making, glittering generalities just exude great profundity and trustworthiness. President Bill Clinton comes to mind.
As a result we sometimes treat unfairly those who innocently trip over their tongue and treat too forgivingly those who speak with forked-tongue.
Peddling backward from the least offensive to the most, here are some of the derivations of ‘untruth’ that deserve discerning judgment:
- Hyperbole and exaggeration
- Deception and deceit
- Lies, and
- Damn lies
We often say things in a clumsy way or in a confusing way that leads to miscommunication. A misstatement can be an unintentional mischaracterization of facts or a conclusion drawn on incomplete facts. It can also be just a really bad choice of words.
A misstatement can be something said or written so badly, so lacking in syntax that the message becomes incommunicable. Each listener or reader is left to interpret the truth on his or her own terms. Those who give the listener or reader too much interpretive flexibility are asking for trouble.
We may be in for a lot of that in the next four years.
But misstatements lack evil intent and deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Hyperbole and Exaggeration
Two classic forms of political discourse are hyperbole, a claim blown out of proportion and not necessarily intended to be taken literally, and simple exaggeration. It is hard to forget former Congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann of Minnesota alleging that Obamacare must be repealed “before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens.”
These claims still ring in our ears: “They say I had the biggest crowd in the history of inaugural speeches….” boasted President Donald Trump on ABC News, and “We have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine…I’ve been on it 15 times this year.”
Both forms of political rhetoric have been with us from the beginning. One of the more enduring examples of hyperbole came at the 1896 Democratic convention from the great orator and Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan:
“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country…You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
I was so young and impressionable then.
Deception and Deceit
Deception and deceit come in many forms: Disinformation, subterfuge, sophistry, and evasion are all penultimate to the act of actually lying. They are so tightly sewn into the fabric of our political rhetoric the cloak is never what it seems. People are perpetually deceived and too often willing victims. They don’t listen well or simply don’t want to believe what they hear.
In today’s politics, we deceive and allow ourselves to be deceived; we believe what we want to believe. We are offered up and freely accept lame excuses rather than demand legitimate explanations and we embrace perceptions while rejecting what is real. Practitioners of this corruption of rhetoric and civil discourse, from anonymous morons on the Internet to those responsible for governance, hide behind a misguided belief that the objective is so important it justifies any means, whether the end is making money, narcissism, or political survival.
Seldom has there been a more telling exposure of political deception than this classic description of the political strategy that led up to the passage of Obamacare reported in a 2014 Washington Examiner column by Katie Pavlich. Speaking during a panel discussion, Jonathan Gruber, professor at MIT and an architect of Obamacare said this about the birth of the health care initiative:
“You can’t do it political, you just literally cannot do it. Transparent financing and also transparent spending. I mean, this bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO (Congressional Budget Office) did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes the bill dies. Okay? So it’s written to do that. In terms of risk rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in, you made explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed. Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get for the thing to pass. Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”
The examples of this kind of behavior are too prevalent. It is a plague upon our politics.
Remember President H.W Bush? “Read my lips, no new taxes,” or his son’s insistence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? H.W. Bush may not have been lying when he uttered those famous words, but he was engaged in deception. Biographers have confirmed that he uttered those words not convinced they would not hold true, but fearing that he may have to eat them. He did. Every bite.
To this day, we still do not know the truth of who knew what and when regarding weapons of mass destruction, but we do know a war was begun on a false premise. We know that we were deceived. The question is whether our leaders were deceived as well.
Remember the ‘independent’ Obama campaign ad that featured a man accusing Romney of ‘killing’ his wife because she lost her health insurance in the sale of a company in which Romney was involved? Remember UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s disinformation campaign regarding those behind the brutal killing of four Americans in Benghazi. It is interesting to note that Ambassador Rice quoted often from a doctored CIA report that later ensnared Presidential spokesman Jay Carney in another deception.
Donald Trump deceived the public on releasing his taxes, on his position on the Iraq war, and his characterizations of the Russian attempt to interfere in our electoral process.
One of the most potent forms of deception is a practice best described by a line from the great 1981 Sydney Pollack classic, Absence of Malice, starring Paul Newman and Sally Field. In it, Newman, a private citizen, finds himself the target of a government investigation into organized crime. Sally Field plays a reporter unwittingly manipulated by government prosecutors to help make the case against Newman. But Newman traps them in their own web, using Field’s government bias against her. What Newman did was create scenarios and circumstances in which the case against him was based entirely on information that was “accurate, but not true.”
We often get fed information that is accurate, but not true. Information that is highly selective, incomplete, or easily misinterpreted. As far as they go, they are accurate. But they are manipulated to lead the consumer to conclusions that are not true.
Years ago, Senator David Vitter claimed the Senate Democratic immigration bill would cost $6.3 trillion. He got that number from a Heritage Foundation report, but neglected to say the cost estimate was spread over 50 years. Accurate, but so far out of context, not true.
President Obama often said that the United States had 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves but consumed 20 percent. The percentage of oil reserves is only true if you define oil reserves selectively, according to the Washington Post fact-checker. The Post conclusion: “This is a strange case because the facts are technically correct but are used in service of fuzzy thinking. He (the President) runs the risk of misleading Americans about the extent of US oil resources.”
In other words, accurate but not true.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, for two election cycles, were accused in notorious campaign ads of voting against legislation prohibiting members of Congress from using first-class air travel and private jets. However, what wasn’t said was the language (non-binding at that and reflecting no cost savings to the taxpayers) was a tiny provision in major budget resolutions that were voted up and/or down for entirely unrelated reasons. The description of their votes technically accurate, but as far as outcomes, just not true.
So, back to where we started.
From innocent misstatements to damn lies, we function in a society and in a political process constantly assaulted by the purveyors of misinformation, false perceptions, and a carnival mirror view of ourselves and our environment.
There is something incongruous in it all. According to survey research, most of us know we are being hoodwinked, but according to the ample evidence behind successful negative campaign strategies and the ever-growing marketing and public relations industry built into our politics and governance, we only want more of it. That is both accurate and true.
Part III coming soon: It’s Not Just Politics
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.