March 23, 2004

Lying in politics

Why does it matter that George W. Bush lied? Lied about Iraq's "imminent threat"? Lied about the costs of his medicare reform?

Does it somehow matter more that George W. Bush lied than it matters that Clinton lied about "not having sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky"?

(You might think that neither of these lies matter. We'll get to that in a moment. What you can't say with a straight face is that Clinton's lies matter more than George W. Bush's. If they did, don't you wonder why all the self-righteous moralists (think Bob Barr and Henry Hyde) who seemed to believe in the absolute value of "honesty" in a President, haven't been clamoring for time on FOXNews to excoriate George W. Bush?)

When lying in politics seems so ubiquitous and routine, it's a fair question whether any of it actually matters. Clinton is let off the hook for lying to a grand jury. Bush gets a pass because Saddam was a "bad man." Why not just drop this exaggerated outrage about Presidential lies entirely? The outrage is getting tiresome, and the lies aren't stopping.

Those of us who think that all this lying ought to matter can make several arguments. One is the "down this road lies totalitarianism" argument. Under Josef Stalin, the Soviet government lied so thoroughly and completely that it seemed to forget what the truth really was. These lies had to be accepted by the citizens for their own safety, and so the people sometimes lost sight of the truth, too. Soviet society became absurd, comic, and tragic because it was built with fictions upon fictions. Our own society, the argument goes, isn't immune from this fate, and drifts ever closer to doom whenever a President's lies are trivialized (or, as with Bush's lies and even worse, are accepted).

Another argument is that democracy can't survive in an environment where the government is allowed to lie with abandon about the big issues, like war (or entitlement programs for the elderly). The reason is that citizens are deprived of their ability to judge, weigh, and consider the consequences of this or that policy. Of course, some people will criticize this version of democracy, arguing that citizens do not and should not judge, weigh, and consider public policies. Instead, they should merely choose between competing politicians on a regular basis, similar to the way in which a homeowner must choose between the Cuisinart and the Kitchen-Aid when the time comes to buy a food processor. (Yes, I'm thinking here of Judge Posner.) But even on this description of "democracy," it's impossible for the citizens to make a decent decision between politician Tweedle-Dum and politician Tweedle-Dee without a warranty that the advertisements don't misrepresent the essential features of the product. We don't lightly tolerate bald lies in ads for housewares; why should we tolerate bald lies from our Presidents?

Perhaps the weakest argument (or the strongest) is that these lies are insulting. The only thing worse than the insulting belief of these politicians that they can lie to us and get away with it, is the humiliating fact that we are, in fact, letting them get away with it.

For me, it all started with Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra. Now that Oliver North, so central a figure in the history of the Reagan Administration's insulting lies, is pulling an occasional gig as a (fair and balanced) talking head for FOXNews, it shouldn't be surprising that the administration of George W. Bush is following in the fine tradition of Ronald Reagan: lying to the American citizen to dupe him into buying whatever they're selling. Before we fault them for this, we should ask, why shouldn't they lie? We, as citizens, don't seem to mind all that much. "Just give me a remote control, a bag of Cheetos, a beer, and all the televised college basketball that I can handle, and I'll let the President say whatever he wants."

"Just don't send me to Iraq. And don't bother me with the costs of medicine until I'm an old geezer."

Posted by Carey at March 23, 2004 09:36 PM
Comments

Your ending comments kind of call into question that whole "humans most desire a political life" thing you were debating here last week.

And the history of presidential untruths starts WAY before Reagan.

Posted by: TM at March 23, 2004 11:56 PM

"I'm not a crook." --Richard Nixon
Reagan merely started the tradition of getting away with lying, and in any case, it wasn't Reagan himself who was lying, it was Ollie North and others. Carey, weren't you the one who told me that your medical opinion was that Reagan already had Alzheimer's while he was President and therefore was not lying about forgetting about selling arms to Iran.

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