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The Politics of Lying

One of my favorite authors, David Wise, published a book in 1973 called The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power. At the time, of course, Watergate was rapidly unfolding, and the first President since Andrew Johnson was about to be impeached for, well, lying.  I know it seems quaint today, when actually telling the truth about anything is seen as more politically damaging, but back then, people were still offended about being lied to, for which reason liars at least had some fear of getting caught.

Despite the many crimes Nixon committed, the real reason he was forced from office was that he had looked one too many Senators in the eye, for years, and simply, boldly, lied to them.  In other words, they still treated public lies the same way we all treat private ones; as the the stinging betrayal they are, and Wise’s title was assuredly much more shocking than it ever would be today, when a Villager like Richard Cohen proudly takes to the admittedly degraded op/ed page of the Washington Post and praises Mitt Romney for his felicity with falsehoods.

Thus, in a matter of a few decades, lying has gone from unforgivable transgression, to necessary evil, to laudable attribute.  What happened?  Well, besides the proliferation of execrable pundits like Richard Cohen, that is?  I’m reminded of something my mother used to say, “He’d lie when the truth would sound better,” and I think that nails it.  A well-crafted lie almost always sounds better than the messy, often uncomfortable truth.  And in our amnesiac media environment where something called “Politifact” calls a true statement “The Lie of The Year” while blatant fiction is solemnly deemed “Half True,” nobody cares about the lyrics when they’re so busy listening to the sweet, sweet, music.

Republicans scoffed at Jimmy Carter’s promise to Americans that he would “never lie to you,” and defiantly took the opposite approach ever after.  Reagan’s two terms were an orgy of lying, from his earliest budget promises to the depths of Iran/Contra, and with the latter he was able to successfully re-brand lying from sinister manipulation into sunny, patriotic fable.   He practiced “truthiness” long before it even had a name; and from a Republican standpoint, this stellar achievement is the gift that keeps on giving; that’s surely one reason his name is plastered on everything from airports to water fountains from sea to shining sea.

Over time, though, lying became a little too popular, and worse, bipartisan, eagerly abetted by a credulous and compromised media.  When George H.W. Bush gratefully cheered the demise of “The Vietnam Syndrome,” he wasn’t talking about the suddenly renewed efficacy of war, he was talking about the premeditated murder of unpleasant truth that had made war (temporarily) unpopular.  From then on, liars were in the driver’s seat, and the truth could be safely tossed under the bus.

The reason Clinton escaped impeachment, ironically, was because thanks to Republicans’ tireless efforts, people had come to expect a certain amount of lying from politicians, and nobody believed Republicans who pretended to be upset about something they did every time they opened their mouths.  More importantly, most Americans could see that Clinton’s lies were lies of a personal nature, and Fox News was still too new to be able to convince enough people otherwise.

That distinction, and any stigma attached to lying generally, went out the window in the new century; from beginning to ignominious end, the Bushies lied when the truth would have sounded better, about everything, including whether or not they were actually elected.  There was now a whole media apparatus dedicated to the supremacy of lies over truth, and the Bushies ate it up, with relish.

In retrospect, it was probably naive to assume that Obama would ever attempt a break from The Politics of Lying, but a little surprising that he also went after its accoutrements, “government deception, secrecy, and power” like a duck on a Junebug.   Now he faces a famously lying opponent utterly committed to all those things, and he’s reduced to talking about dogs.

Not unlike, well, Nixon.

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